Women in Karnataka's garment sector stuck in cycle of poor working conditions, protests against 'anti-worker' reforms

In India's garment sector, which is estimated to be the second-largest employer in the country, the state of Karnataka plays an especially important role.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Bengaluru: In India's garment sector, which is estimated to be the second-largest employer in the country after agriculture, Karnataka plays an especially important role. It is responsible for 20 percent of the national garment production and 8 percent of all Indian garment exports. Home to roughly 1,200 garment factories, employing 5,00,000 workers (80 percent of whom are women), its workforce for a long time was mainly migrant women from neighbouring villages and tribal areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

However, over the last few years, a new recruiting trend has emerged. Large numbers of women workers in their late teens and early twenties are being brought to the garment factories from northern and eastern states like Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Madhya Pradesh under government-sponsored schemes like Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana or Skill India.

For women at these workplaces, the struggle is real, even for local women who have the advantages of language and mobility. So migrant women from the north and east of the country are doubly vulnerable to exploitation in an industry that is plagued with low or delayed salaries as well as physical and mental harassment at work. With barely 3 percent of the workforce unionised, thanks to strict rules in the companies against joining unions, bringing companies to task for violating labour laws remains an uphill task.

And thanks to the high attrition rates in the industry, women are more likely to quit their jobs and move to another company rather than take on the management. The fragmented workforce also means politicos give these women a wide berth, despite there being regular strikes and protests. Senior activist and state general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association Gowramma says, “Elections don’t affect labourers much. Sometimes, the owner of a factory or his son are contesting, and they ask the employees to vote for them, promising better treatment, wages and other things if they win. But the state of the industry shows that most promises remain unfulfilled.”

The past term has been a mixed bag for these workers. In 2016, the Union government’s special package of Rs 6,000 crore for the textile and apparel industry – which was publicised as leading to an increase of $30 billion in exports as well as the creation of one crore jobs over the next three years – introduced “flexible labour norms to increase productivity”. Workers' unions across India condemned the changes in labour norms as “anti-worker”. One of the changes makes Provident Fund optional for employees earning less than Rs 15,000 a month, which comprises the majority of workers in Bengaluru’s garment hub. This led to one of the largest organic protests witnessed in the industry in recent times.

Karnataka is responsible for 20 percent of the national garment production and 8 percent of all Indian garment exports. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Karnataka is responsible for 20 percent of the national garment production and 8 percent of all Indian garment exports. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Over one lakh workers, overwhelmingly women, had staged a massive protest in the city, clogging up arterial roads and bringing the nation’s attention to their plight. The specific trigger was the Union government’s decision to block workers from withdrawing a portion of the Employee Provident Fund until they turn 58. That decision has since been undone in response to the protests.

This year, for the first time in 40 years, the state government has allocated money for the industry in its budget. Presented by Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy for 2019-20 fiscal, the budget allotted funds for housing, skill development, and accident compensation for the labourers — Rs 50 crore for a rent-based housing scheme, Rs 10 crore for childcare centres and accident compensation, and Rs 37.5 crore for skill development and apprentice training for 25,000 SC/ST women workers. These measures have filled the industry’s workforce with some hope.

A workforce pushed to the brink

Recently, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry came up with a “Worker Housing Scheme for Textiles and Garment Workers”. The document explained the need for such a scheme by citing some of the most pressing problems the industry is facing — the number of women workers in the garment industry is the highest in India compared to any other sector, and migration of workers has brought along its own set of problems. It added that many were forced, under different circumstances, to return to their hometowns despite wanting to continue working, and this had resulted in heavy monthly attrition of 8 to 10 percent, which in turn had burdened the industry and country with extra costs.

Mother of two, Latha M (39), says, “I worked in a garment factory in Uttarahalli, Bengaluru, for three years. I had to walk for 15 minutes and then take a bus. Transportation expenses cut into my meagre salary of Rs 4,800 a month. I was paid Rs 120 for overtime and Rs 100 if I had 100 percent attendance. So I pushed myself and didn’t miss work, no matter what. My wages were never raised even after putting in so much work; only workload mounted, so much that it finally took a toll on my health, and I had to take a week’s leave. When I resumed work, I was sacked. Those really were the worst days of my life...”

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Lakshmi Bavge, an activist who has been fighting for labourers’ and women’s rights, says, “One of the biggest problems workers in the informal sector face is gender-based violence. Women are harassed and abused verbally, physically, and mentally, and taken for granted. Also, wages are less and not paid on time. On June 19, 2018, Rukmini, president of the Garment Labour Union (GLU) along with workers in Bengaluru had protested for a week, demanding an increase in the minimum wages from Rs 8,500 to Rs 18,000 per month. GLU had also met then CM Siddaramaiah, but the government claimed it couldn’t pay such a ‘high amount’.”

On 12 March this year, a 36-year-old garment worker at Texport Apparels LLP, Peenya 4th stage, was assaulted at her workplace by the general manager and a few others. More than 200 of her colleagues had then protested against the assaulters. They’d also alleged that the Rajagopalnagar police had refused to register a case. Only after the Karnataka Garment Workers' Union (KOOGU) had stepped in that the cops had filed a case against the general manager, Shashi Kumar Shetty.

A garment worker who was part of the protest says, “We have been complaining about the harassment and putting letters in the complaint boxes inside the factory. Letters pile up, sometimes as many as 200; no one bothers to check them or respond, and they disappear after a few days.”

“My friends and I were beaten up with helmets; we were scared we would lose our jobs, but we protested until action was taken. We are going through hell,” says another. Nagalakshmi Bai, the chairperson of the Karnataka State Women’s Commission, visited the factory and spoke to the women, later suspending the assaulters for three months and initiating an inquiry. However, MV Sagar, general manager (Human Resources), Texport Apparels LLP, says, “It wasn’t an issue of harassment, just a work-related problem. The woman was refusing to take instructions from her manager.”

When you work in hell…

KOOGU member Poornima says, “Problems women are facing in the garments and informal sectors are endless. These sectors are made up of 80 to 85 percent women labourers, and the rest are men, most of whom are supervisors or managers. That’s where it starts — working under men who don’t understand women. There are countless incidents of sexual harassment, and most don’t even come to light. The mental and physical abuse and stress are too much for any woman to tolerate for long. I have also seen and heard of men clicking pictures of women employees at the workplace."

For women at these workplaces, the struggle is real, even for local women who have the advantages of language and mobility. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

For women at these workplaces, the struggle is real, even for local women who have the advantages of language and mobility. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

"There isn’t any Internal Complaint Committee in place; where there is one, its members scare women into keeping quiet by threatening to fire them. In many factories, there is no toilet or clean drinking water facilities. For workers here, there are no sick leaves, government holidays or compensatory offs. It’s high time all these issues are solved by putting good management in place, giving proper training to the managers, and holding seminars and workshops on women’s rights. A minimum wage scheme should be followed; big brands like H&M and GAP say they pay a minimum wage of Rs 18,000, but they don’t.”

Broken by illiteracy, lured by easy money. Why, then, have so many women taken up work in the garment and textile industry, and why do so many continue to stay put in the face of extreme torture? Gowramma explains, “This is the easiest job for the uneducated, and it also has on-the-job training. So it’s a popular choice for someone going through financial troubles and having many mouths to feed — women who are poor, women who have alcoholic husbands and face other domestic issues, and even widows and teenagers who have old parents to care for.”

She adds that not only are the women workers treated like doormats, they are also molested on a regular basis. “There's even prostitution in this industry. Young and pretty girls who join are pimped out to buyers; threatened with job loss, they do as they are asked. Also, most factories don’t have canteens, and workers are forced to eat by the roadside. Many employers don’t allow women to go to washrooms either to avoid ‘wasting time’,” says Gowramma. “Rowdies and others who work for the local MLAs even attack union members and social workers who help such women and labourers.”

A reality check

President of the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU) Prathibha R says, “So far, no party has done anything for garment workers. During a 2015 joint survey by the Centre for Workers’ Management and GATWU, the Union found that the wages paid to the workers were extremely low. In 2018, the Congress government had promised a wage hike — from Rs 7,700 to Rs 12,000. A draft notification was brought out last February but was cancelled later.

“Besides low wages, transportation expenses is another serious problem. The government must give us bus services. We have conducted many awareness campaigns among the workers, especially to ensure their demands reach political parties and local netas. It remains to be seen when all this bears fruit.”

A member of GATWU says, “Representatives of GATWU and other unions had met the CM in January 2019 to present their demands — housing, transportation facilities, and scholarships for the workers’ children. The Budget has covered only one. We’d told the CM that the workers who stayed in rural areas were spending 10 to 15 percent of their wages on transportation, demanding that the state bear 45 percent of that cost. But the government has been silent on it as well as scholarships.”

Social activists along with GLU, GATWU, KOOGU, and Bangalore District Garment Workers’ Union are, nonetheless, keeping the fight alive, actively engaging to improve awareness levels, addressing problems, protesting, and raising their voice for the exploited workforce.

The author is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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