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    Posted on 27 November 2012
    CURRENT AFFAIRS  
    KARNATAKA

    Workers take out the dirty linen of the garment industry

    A ‘people’s tribunal’ became a platform for workers in the garments sector to express their litany of woes, hoping that someone would listen and help change things. Imran Khan reports

    Garment workers who toil day and night for international brands such as Nike, Adidas and Gap have testified before the panel on how these corporations maintain a regime of abuse, wherein they are forced to suffer gender discrimination, denial of payments and even sexual harassment.

    Photo: Rudra Rakshit Sharan

    A national human rights tribunal on “living wages for garment workers”, held in Bengaluru on 23-24 November, has brought out the dark and often abusive working conditions of garment workers across the country. Garment workers who toil day and night for international brands such as Nike, Adidas and Gap have testified before the panel on how these corporations maintain a regime of abuse, wherein they are forced to suffer gender discrimination, denial of payments and even sexual harassment. After two days of hearing more than 250 garment workers from across the country, the jury found the corporations guilty of “wage theft” and of not making “living wage a fundamental right” of garment workers in India.


    According to the note on ‘Indian Textiles and Clothing Exports’ by the Union textiles ministry, dated 26 March 2012, the Indian textiles industry is pegged at US$55 billion at current prices, only 64 percent of which serves the domestic demand. The industry accounts for 14 percent of industrial production or 4 percent of GDP, employs 35 million people, and accounts for nearly 12 percent of the country’s total exports basket.

    The nature of the industry, however, is such that none of the big brands own any factories in India. Mostly, they source the garments from local manufacturers across the country, leading to a global supply chain. Despite the news that the industry is thriving, and its profit margins soaring globally, the workers in the ‘sweat shops’ are paid very low wages, and they cannot afford even to buy what they produce.

    It is in this context that the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA, a network of 71 organisations from 17 countries across Asia, Europe and North America) was officially formed in 2006 to fight for a common “Asia floor wage”. The tribunal held in Bengaluru was part of these efforts.

    According to AFWA, the purpose of the tribunal was to make available to the jury different perspectives about the garment industry from diverse stakeholders, including workers, experts on garment industries, and representatives of major international textile brands and the labour department. Workers from Bengaluru, Chennai and Tirupur attended the tribunal.

    Though several major brands had been invited to be part of the tribunal, except H&M, the rest gave it a cold shoulder. “Many of the issues were raised in the tribunal by workers of factories supplying to Gap. One would assume that Gap would be there to listen. However, they did not come, even though we had told them that many workers from their supplier factories would be testifying,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee of the AFWA. The same was the case with representatives from factory owners, suppliers and the labour departments of Haryana and Tamil Nadu. “Not only did they not attend, they were even hostile to the whole event,” adds Anannya.

    The jury, including Gianni Tognioni, secretary-general, Permanent People’s Tribunal, Italy, and economist Utsa Patnaik, found that the issue of a “living wage” is grossly neglected by the corporations. In Karnataka, the average minimum daily wage is around Rs 172, and thus a worker can earn around Rs 4,500 in a month. Most workers come from rural areas, and at the tribunal many complained that house rent takes up most of their income, leaving little for food, education and healthcare. Ashok, a worker from Gurgaon, Haryana, said he has to walk 3 km to reach the factory because like most of his co-workers, he cannot afford to take a bus.

    Sakamma, a worker from Bengaluru, said she has to moonlight as a domestic help to earn some additional income. Workers at the tribunal highlighted that wages are fixed without taking into account the ever-rising costs of food, education and healthcare. In their verdict, the jury stressed that minimum wages must be periodically monitored, taking into account the rapid changes in the cost of living and the impact of the market. AFWA demands a minimum living wage of Rs 12,096 per month for workers in the garments industry.

    Many women highlighted the issue of sexual harassment at workplaces. Several women from Bengaluru, where women constitute 90 percent of the workforce, testified of verbal abuse, including humiliating words directed at them. In fact, sexual harassment is so rampant that workers seem to have accepted it as normal practice in order to retain their job. “When I joined the garment industry, I was sexually harassed, but I thought that just like you go to school and get scolded or beaten, you join a garment factory and you get harassed,” said Yashoda, a union leader from Bengaluru.

    Another issue workers raised at the tribunal was of companies setting unachievable targets for the workers. Most women from Bengaluru shared how they reduce their consumption of water so that they do not have to go to the toilet and thereby save time. Sakamma said she takes only a 10-minute lunch break, although a 30-minute lunch break is allowed, since she is always chasing unachievable targets. “Your target is set in such a way that even if you work from 9 in the morning till 11 at night, i.e., 14 hours a day, without a break, it will not be achieved. While working, you get abused by supervisors. The company treats us like a slave,” said Akshay Kumar, a worker from Gurgaon, Haryana.

    The tribunal brought out stories of exploitation from across the country. In Tirupur, there is almost a bonded labour type of practice in place called “Sumangali”. Labour contractors lure young girls from villages promising good salaries and better working conditions. They are asked to work on a contract for three years and promised free food, accommodation and a lump sum amount after the completion of three years. Parents usually agree to send their daughters thinking that the money saved could be used for their marriage. In reality, however, the girls are made to work in factories for 12 hours a day, and almost always, seven days a week. They are kept in hostels with 14-foot-high walls, from where it is impossible to escape, and are paid only Rs 1,000 a month. Parents are allowed to visit them only once in three months, and for every day of leave, a girl has to work for at least two days. There is rampant sexual harassment within the confines of these hostels and factories.

    Most of the workers who testified at the tribunal said that the managements have been able to get away with such illegalities because of the lack of unionisation and the complicity of the labour department. A common assumption among the workers was that the government has been less willing to work towards a solution than some of the leading brands. “The moment the workers apply for registering a union, the labour department informs the management and the harassment starts,” said V Prakash, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court.

    Speaking of the brands’ responsibility, the verdict says: “Brands have to accept their complicity in the violation of the basic rights of workers, the myth of surprise inspections by their representatives, the need for skill training to stabilise the workforce, and their own role in the setting of impossibly high production targets. Moreover, they must confront the myth that their profitability and competitiveness will be negatively affected by wage increase. Rather than empty gestures of good will, this jury demands more credibility and transparency on the part of employers by participating in a genuine dialogue with parity among all stakeholders.”

    The two-day tribunal has succeeded in bringing the plight of workers in the garment industry out in the open. It has also made public the failure of the labour departments, the brands and the manufacturers in improving the condition of workers. However, the verdict of the jury has failed to address the issue of lack of dignity for the workers or of the gendered nature of relationships in the industry. What remains to be seen is how the unions and the workers use the verdict and the process of the tribunal to improve their lives. The indignity and suffering of the lakhs of workers, and the structured nature of the oppression they face, is a serious problem for everyone to take note of.

    Imran Khan is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
    imran@tehelka.com


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    Posted on 27 November 2012
 

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