Women garment workers organize against inhumane conditions in India

    Despite laws favoring employers and industrial growth over human rights, women garment workers are building strong support systems to improve conditions.
    Women with the Bangalore-based Garment Labor Union (GLU)
    Women with the Bangalore-based Garment Labor Union (GLU)

    Rajasthan, northwestern India’s largest state, is popular for its palaces, desert and folk arts, but notorious for child marriages and the poor social status of women. In June 2014, its government amended several laws — including the Factories Act of 1948, Contract Labor Act of 1970 and Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 — to restrict worker unionization, while relaxing employer obligations after they lay workers off. The Indian government might also modify these laws, as the political party governing Rajasthan and India prefers deregulating companies and favoring employers and industrial growth over human rights. These modified laws adversely impact garment workers, most of whom work in inhumane conditions.

    “Married at 15 and a mother a year later, I have toiled in exploitative garment factories for two decades, as I need money but lack skills,” said a 38-year old woman from Ramanagaram district, near Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, a state in southwestern India. She is among Bangalore’s 400,000 garment workers, who manufacture many domestic and international brands that are sold locally and exported. Women comprise over 80 percent of Indian apparel workers concentrated in Bangalore, Tirupur in southern India, and Gurgaon in northern India.

    Garment workers sew nearly 150 pieces an hour, and make up for any shortfall in daily targets without overtime pay, even if pregnant or unwell. If they don’t meet their quotas, they face deductions from their wages and, sometimes, lose their jobs. Wages are currently around 252 rupees, or $4.00 per a day. A few employers do not make their mandatory payments to the provident fund, or social security, for their employees, which amounts to 12 percent of their monthly salaries. Furthermore, male supervisors abuse women workers, verbally, sexually and physically.

    Typically between 18-25 years old, Karnataka’s women garment workers are minimally skilled and belong to socioeconomically disadvantaged families in villages and small towns, who share overcrowded accommodation in Bangalore. They stitch while standing or sitting upright for around nine hours a day with poor lighting and ventilation, and minimal breaks for using the bathroom and meals; they often suffer from backaches, respiratory ailments and itching.

    When garment factories close without prior notice due to financial mismanagement and labor irregularities, workers lose the wages owed to them.

    “When I sustained an electric shock in November 2004, while working at Bangalore’s Texport Creations, compensation from my employer, was meager,” said Nagaratna, a seasoned garment worker. “Additionally, the company altered facts before the chief inspector of factories and escaped a penalty.” Bombay Rayons — another supplier, which manufactures GAP, Tesco and H&M — was questioned for violating labor and gender rights for locking up women workers who had asked for increased wages and better working conditions in December 2008. It never apologized to its employees or compensated them for the wrongful actions.

    Young women working in a garment factory (Dollar City / Pushpa Achanta)
    Young women working in a garment factory (Dollar City / Pushpa Achanta)

    Non-governmental organizations like the Bangalore-based Cividep, however, have successfully backed garment workers in their fight against supervisor harassment. Fair Wear Foundation in the Netherlands and Fair Labor Association in the United States, with local representatives, also pressure clothing chains and customers globally to insist that suppliers adopt employee-friendly practices. Their monitoring of the working environment and labor rules in textile production factories has found some brands violating labor regulations.

    Launched in 2000 to educate garment, electronics and plantation workers about human, gender and labor rights and social entitlements, Cividep teaches them how to exercise their freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, and how to take advantage of government programs. With Indian and international partners, Cividep runs educational, research, campaigning and advocacy activities to promote corporate accountability. It also demands that companies address human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt practices and the violation of workers’ rights.

    Cividep studies the working and living environment of workers and convenes multi-stakeholder forums to improve employment conditions. It demands that multinational corporations follow the International Labor Organization’s Core Conventions, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Its reports have helped civil society and workers’ organizations advocating for their rights.

    In 2012, Cividep published a research study, entitled “Taking Care of Business,” on the presence and effectiveness of childcare facilities in Bangalore’s garment factories.

    “We discovered that only a few of the factories had satisfactory childcare facilities,” explained Gopinath Parakuni, the general secretary of Cividep. “For instance, Gokaldas Images, a large manufacturer in Bangalore running nearly 15 factories had childcare options in only two to three of them benefiting around 30 children.”

    Between 2011 and 2013, Cividep participated in the Garment Sector Roundtable, which regularly initiated dialogue between representatives of major brands, manufacturers, government, trade unions, NGOs and independent researchers on contentious issues. Consequently, a program was started to help women become supervisors and an investigative study on labor shortage in the garment industry was launched. Since then, women are slowly entering supervisory roles. Cividep sensitizes factory managers and supervisors about women’s issues. It also advises factories in starting functional anti-harassment committees and operating complaint hotlines that workers can call anonymously.

    In 2002, Cividep began organizing garment workers to improve their working conditions through education drives by former garment workers. The community-based organization Munnade, meaning “march forward” in Kannada, emerged in 2004 from Cividep’s initiatives, where garment workers lived.

    “Munnade, being an informal entity focusing primarily on women’s issues outside the factory, could not handle workplace challenges,” said Gopinath. “Hence, workers formed the Garment and Textile Workers Union in 2006 with male leaders.” With men dominating the active women in the union, some of the women formed the Garment Labor Union, or GLU, in Bangalore in 2012.

    “Sexual harassment by a male Garment and Textile Workers Union leader, forced us to leave and create the GLU,” explained Rukmini, GLU president and a feisty former garment worker in her 30s. “Incidentally, the GLU is among the few labor unions founded by, and having only, women as members. It’s also unaffiliated to any political party or trade union federation.”

    Veteran garment worker (Dollar City / Pushpa Achanta)
    Veteran garment worker (Dollar City / Pushpa Achanta)

    The GLU, which has grown slowly since its founding two years ago, now has around 2,000 members. It organizes garment workers, protects their rights and tries bettering worker-management relationships through dialogue. By building the strength of the workers, it bolsters their dignity and security and helps them claim their entitlements.

    “We meet workers individually and collectively, distribute pamphlets and enact street plays outside textile factories and near workers’ homes about the GLU, basic labor laws and policies, reporting and addressing gender harassment,” Rukmini said. “When we try informing women about ourselves, politically affiliated men threaten us. Even sympathetic employers, fearing disruptions, prevent unionization, sometimes by harassing and firing workers.”

    The GLU collaborates with other trade unions, civil society organizations and campaigns to improve the workplaces, wages and social security of garment workers — and helps them take advantage of Employee State Insurance, which entitles workers and their families to subsidized healthcare at government hospitals. The GLU also influences labor policies and practices to favor workers, provides legal advice and facilitates litigation as necessary. It even assists workers in resolving domestic disputes, and offers childcare, scholarships and career training for workers’ children.

    “Women garment workers fear discussing their occupational problems even outside their workplace,” said Yashodha, GLU’s vice president and a former garment worker. “Additionally, their families and employers discourage them from joining unions. Also, unionization involves meeting and participating in advocacy and other activities regularly — something that many women garment workers find tough, due to their tiring jobs and household responsibilities.”

    GLU members pay 10 rupees to register and 60 rupees for their annual membership. Their executive committee has 19 members and they meet monthly to discuss workers’ issues, union activities and finances. Poverty among the workers constrains the union’s activities. But the GLU has successfully used self-help groups — which consist of 15-20 women who collectively save small amounts of money every month, from which anyone in the group can borrow when required to attract garment workers. These groups help women workers unionize and discuss workplace and domestic issues. Twenty such groups involving 395 garment workers currently exist, and the union activists support the leaders of the self-help groups with their bank transactions and account maintenance.

    Labor lawyers regularly assist workers with fighting illegitimate layoffs, wage recovery, failure to contribute to social security, the refusal of vacation and maternity benefits, and sexual and other harassment incidents. GLU tracks cases to ensure workers get justice from the legal administration, labor department and labor courts, and works with elected representatives to improve working conditions. It advocates raising minimum wages to 500 rupees per day, which the industry is opposing. Union activists who are trained in basic mental health and psychological counseling also assist women workers with psychological problems and, when necessary, refer them to health professionals and institutions.

    “Presently, we are enlightening women garment workers about India’s significant Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act of 2013,” said Rukmini. “And we’ll keep encouraging women workers to approach GLU for resolving household or workplace problems.”

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