Labour Laws, Protests, Trade Union

Upsurge of garment workers of Bengaluru forces Retreat By Modi Govt. – Aparna

On the 18th of April 2016, thousands upon thousands of garment workers, mostly women, of Bengaluru poured out of their factories protesting changes in rules for withdrawal of money from their EPF accounts. The first day they forced the Central Govt. on the backfoot. However the next day over a lakh of them brought Bengaluru’s roads to a standstill and by evening the Central Govt. had totally withdrawn its Budget proposals. The workers too returned to work.
Why did these workers suddenly erupt? Is there any message in these sort of sudden eruptions which do take place in unorganized sectors? Is this protest similar to the strike by the women tea workers of Munnar and to what extent? So many questions have been thrown up by these women garment workers and it will be enriching to look for the answers.
The facts of the issue provoking this outburst are clear. In the Budget 2016 the Finance Minister announced two attacks on the EPF deposits of workers. The Central Govt. is repeatedly displaying its desperation to get at this huge deposit of money lying out of its reach. One proposal of the Budget was that the PF withdrawals at the time of retirement would be taxed. This provoked such all around condemnation that BMS also rushed into the scene and the Finance Minister announced its withdrawal almost immediately. The second part of the proposal was that workers would be allowed to withdraw only their share of PF deposits before retirement (or 58 years) and would not be allowed to withdraw the share deposited by the employer. This proposal was to come into effect from the 1st of April but due to all around condemnation by central trade unions, the date was postponed to 1st May 2016. In subsequent supplications the Central Labour Minister has stated that this policy was changed because figures revealed that almost 80% of PF deposits were withdrawn by workers before retirement i.e. workers were using the PF account as a saving deposit, ‘leaving nothing for pension’ and the Govt. ‘wanted to ensure’ a pension cover. He also claimed that he had the support of the central trade unions on this issue. It is another matter that almost all central trade unions except BMS had condemned the change in rules and some had also called for a protest day on 26th April 2016.
On the 18th of April 2016 a report on this issue was published in a Kannada daily. The garment workers of Bengaluru read this report and as most official statements seem keen to point out, were ‘misled’ to believe that they could not withdraw their deposits at all before 58 years of age. However it will be clear that knowledge that the attack was partial may not have pacified them in the least. The news report was photocopied and distributed amongst the women garment workers, probably by workers themselves. It agitated them so much in Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd. (garment factory situated off Hosur Road) that the women workers came out and began protesting, followed by workers of other factories in this area where garment manufacturing units are densely packed. Mohan Exports and Jockey are also mentioned. A second unit of Shahi Exports situated at Bommanhalli a little away also came out in protest. Reports put the number at over 1.2 lakh protestors, maximally women garment workers.
Govt. retreated the same evening. The Central Labour Minister postponed the change in rule to three months later and also assured that the change would not apply where the worker had been unemployed for two months or where there was a marriage or a death in the family etc. (All these exceptions can be correlated to the burning issues within the garment workers of Bengaluru). The Bengaluru police may have prevented any assessment of whether this would have satisfied the workers. News reports say that the workers were going to duty the next morning when in Peenya industrial area, which is the other big centre of garment factories, workers were attacked by police and security guards, pulled by their hair and 20 or so detained by the police. Whatever role this played, police presence in the areas was massive and the workers responded by gathering in lakhs and blocking the roads. Then started the usual quota of stoning of buses, attacking of buildings with the reports of the city ‘descending into violence’ which is the time tested way to malign workers’ struggles and attack them.
The Central Govt. retreated totally on the issue. The same night a clarification was issued withdrawing the initial notification of change in rules of PF withdrawals. Needless to add the garment workers of Bengaluru, as far as is known, went back to work next day. In a few days the Govt. moved on to finger the PF deposits in another way; by decreasing the interest paid to workers to 8.7% when it was already 8.8%, the deposits were earning interest at the rate of 8.95% and the central unions were demanding an interest rate of 9%.
The interest of the Central the EPF deposits has been unwavering. Informal information from highly placed internal sources place the toal deposits at around 8.5 lakh crore rupees. The EPFO Accounts accessible do not give any indication of the total sum of the deposits. However, the following information could be found in the Survey of Statistical Abstracts (2014-2015) released by the EPFO, GOI. In Appendix A3 are the Revenue Statements . They show that the total contributions collected (including PF collections, the Pension Funds- both employer/employee contributions and Govt. share- and the Insurance Fund) were 113910.89 crore rupees for 2014-2015, 94,762.09 crore rupees for 2013-14 and 77,000.94 crore rupees for 2012-13. The expenses for the same years (on payments made for PF, Pension and Insurance) were 48,015.32 crore rupees, 43,519.88 crore rupees and 35,118 crore rupees respectively. It does indicate the enormous sums of money remaining as deposits at the end of each year.
Events in 2001
This sequence is essentially similar to an outburst of women garment workers of Bengaluru in 2001 again on the issue of PF. This occurred in Peenya industrial area. J.B. Exports closed two units and 1400 women workers went to withdraw their PF deposits. Some PF officials told them that they could not withdraw their money until 45 years of age. Workers of Apex Garments in the same area poured out and there was a ‘wildcat strike’ of 10,000 garment women workers in the area. In a piece that well may have been describing the events of 2016, Dr. Janaki Nair (Institute of Social and Economic Studies Bengaluru, now Prof. in JNU) wrote ‘Nothing can surpass the mystery of a protest which has no leader, particularly when the protestors are women’. The brief day long action was peaceful for two hours and then there was violence. Media reported the workers as a ‘rampaging mob’ though the initial two hours were totally peaceful, the violence ‘providing scope for speculation on “vested interests” who mysteriously manipulated the workers.’ On this speculation, Dr. Nair comments, ‘Once more the workers have been deprived of the capacity to act on their own…..’.
Not only do the descriptions of the action almost seem to describe 2016 events, so also do the descriptions of the status of the women workers. Their status was of non permanent casual workers no matter how many years they had worked, their payments were a combination of piece work and daily wages i.e. a team (usually of about 50 workers including tailors, helpers) would have to finish 165-220 garments in one day irrespective of the hours it took. Supervisors and master cutters were male and usually only tailors sat while other categories of workers either stood the whole time or sat in high straight backed chairs. At that time mainly unmarried women were employed. Workers were however given PF and ESI facilities.
Today it is estimated that about 5 lakh women are employed in the ready made garment industry in Bengaluru. A study by Gulbarga University scholars M. Surat Kumari and Bassanna estimates that 33 lakh families depend on this industry here. They estimate that there are 19 clusters of such units in the city, with 33,371 units having 10 or more sewing machines. 7% have more than 100 machines, 15% have between 40 to 100 machines and 78% have less than 40 machines. In 1990 there were a total of 1200 garment making units in this city according to this study.
From various descriptions it is clear that the working conditions of the workers are as they were in 2001. Factories run hostels for the unmarried women workers and these are devoid of the most basic facilities. There are separate hostels for north Indian women workers but are in the same state. The local workers are mainly rural migrants from around the city or from the drought prone districts of North Karnataka and have usually dropped out of studies in their early teens. Workers are predominantly women and their units close down suddenly at will and again reopen at will. There is no continuity in service, no concept of accumulated service giving seniority and/or benefits and of course no gratuity. The Gulbarga University study noted a 68% turnover in this industry and stated that ‘labour’ is the main problem. What is also widely documented is the fact that the workers all being women and the supervisory staff inevitably male, cases of sexual harassment at workplace are widespread and are not normally redressed. There were two cases of suicides due to sexual harassment in 2007- of Ammu in Feb. 2007 and Renu in Oct. 2007.
The close parallels between the 2001 outburst and the current upsurge bring out one fact clearly. The PF deposits of these workers are both precious and important to them. In general PF savings empower women workers; they have their own money, it gives them social prestige and importance in the family, it gives them a sense of confidence of being able to intervene when they choose- in short, it empowers them. In this concrete case there is evidence galore that the PF deposits are all important as a sort of security to these garment workers in Bengaluru. Firstly employment is not secure, so it helps them tide over periods when they have no jobs. More importantly it is money which is withdrawn for marriage (especially by young workers and also by mothers), for sudden illnesses at home, for a lump sum needed during education of children, etc. There are documentations of these workers saying that they have left jobs for a few months in order to withdraw money for their children’s fees. Any perceived threat to their right to withdraw this money immediately brings them into struggle to defend this right. They put up with low wages, terrible working conditions, insecurity of employment but react to any attack on their ability to access the PF money though they tolerate the existing conditions. The Central Govt. contemptuously calls this treating the deposit ‘like a saving account’ but has no shame that Labour laws are not being enforced, statutory rights and minimum wages are not the lot of workers in most parts of the country and workers are forced to see these deposits as a lifeline for the critical points in their family lives.
The garment units here produce for C&A, H&M, Tommy Hilfinger, Inditex etc. For instance Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd is a long term supplier of C&A and also produces for Arvind Ltd. It has 75,000 employees in 48 manufacturing setups in Delhi, Gurgaon, Bangalore, Mysore, Hyderabad, Tirupur, Salem etc. It started in 1974 in Delhi and Bengaluru operations commenced on 1st July 1988. In fact Bengaluru is a hub for IT, is a centre for Jems and Jewellery and since the last four decades, of the readymade garment industry.
Women comprise over 80% of garment workers in India and the units are concentrated in Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Tirupur apart from other centres. While women are 80% of the workforce in Bengaluru, reports are that they are 90% in Salem and Tirupur while the workforce is evenly divided in Gurgaon. Garment is also a large sector in Delhi itself.
As is well known, the entire garment sector of India is export driven and oriented. The purchasers are MNCs who get the labour done in Asian countries and then get their labels attached to the products. In this way they exploit the terrible unemployment in these countries to keep their labour costs dirt cheap and this is the secret of their superprofits. There is competition among these Asian countries to lower their costs of production further and further by paying their workers less and less.
There is some trade union organization among these garment workers in Bengaluru, but it is very small; for instance the state Secretary of CITU gave a figure of 300 members. If there is membership in any of the other major central trade unions, it has not been expressed in any form. In 2002 an NGO Cividep began organizing these workers with the help of Oxfam and in 2004 Munnade (march forward) was formed as an organization in the places of residence of these workers. In 2006 Cividep formed the Garment and Textile Workers Union. It has around 8000 members. In 2012 some section broke off from this and formed Garment Labour Union (GLU) with an all women leadership. It was formed apparently because the earlier union’s leadership was all male and sexual harassment by some leader of that union forced separation. This union has a membership of around 2000. The GLU is also represented on the Karnataka State Minimum Wage Advisory Board. The low level of unionization is also ascribed to the fact that if managements get to identify any unionization they immediately dismiss the leaders.
Peenya is an older industrial centre and in post colonial phase, trade union movement took root here. Subsequently industries closed down and now it is a hub of garment export units. In the mid 1980s there was a strike in this area in support of the jailed leaders of Mysore Wire. Two years earlier women workers of BPL launched a movement for the right to form union. One worker died in an incident of bus burning then.
Why the outbursts?
The struggle of the Bengaluru women garment workers forced the Central Govt. to back off from this particular attack on PF. The struggle of the Munnar workers was somewhat different. They consciously withdrew from the trade unions functioning among them because they distrusted the leadership, organized themselves and went for a planned struggle on their concrete demands. They also reached a settlement with the Govt.
The struggle of the garment workers cannot be seen in the same way though here too the workers are predominantly women. They are mostly not organized in the formal sense of being unionized. This struggle brought different types of responses from those who participate in the trade union movement and also from sympathetic intellectuals. Some applaud the movement especially because it was the decision of the workers when they felt the need for it (‘workers acting for themselves by themselves’.). They actually feel the workers are right in not forming organization because these are restrictive, curb initiative, are bureaucratic etc., all of which may be unfortunately true to differing extents of many formations. The workers being women, there is also mention of the reality that most leadership is male and some possibly patriarchal in dealings. This also is obvious that even in sectors where women are predominant or even a remarkable number, this composition is not reflected in the leadership of organizations and movements, no doubt because that is simpler than addressing the question. But none of this detracts from the reality that this is a section of workers which needs to express its organized strength not only for the long term goals of the working class but also to fight the terrible conditions of employment. There is no job security, their low wages are deemed necessary in order to keep Indian made garments ‘competitive’ in the export world, their working conditions are inhuman. Being women workers, there are other issues. They are not allowed to sit throughout the working hours, they are issued a fixed number of passes for using the toilets in most units, they are subject to sexual harassment – they desperately need unionization. This is especially prevented by using the route of immediate dismissal of ‘troublemakers’ in local attempts. But it is only the organized strength of the working class acting with a vision of the future of the class, that can take up struggles as part of an overall perspective, rather than just as a reaction to any proverbial ‘last straw’ in the saga of continuing severe exploitation.
Many in the trade union world point out that struggles of this sort are a common feature in unorganized sector workers, with a sudden militant flare up like a flash in a pan and then nothing. It is an accurate observation. This is a low capital, labour intensive sector, with the huge number of workers being remarkable for being maximally unskilled. Being low capital intensive i.e. low constant capital, the profit margins are small despite high variable capital and hence high surplus value generated in the sector, because in accordance with the general law of profit in capitalism, profits are proportional to capital invested.
As mentioned, the Garment industry in India primarily aims at export and may be for a very small upper section of India’s market. The owners of these units, even the larger units, mostly supply to big MNCs and the competition is at world level and is severe. In order to ensure their profit margins the owners inevitably squeeze the workers. Labour laws are given a complete miss- in Bengaluru EPF and ESI seems to be widely implemented but in other cities even these are not implemented. The labour law implementation machinery just does not move and when workers struggle for implementation, owners have many methods to deal with them. Workers are not on records, the system of wage is complex as it is mostly piece rate though as in Bengaluru, a fixed number of pieces have to be made for a given day and the targets are inevitably too high. Apart from that closure is easy for owners so they simply move machines and close down units and transfer work to other areas where sustenance of organization becomes difficult. Govts. and Labour machinery stand with the owners. Thirdly, work is designed towards shipment dates and is intense in periods and much less in others when workers are simply turned out of establishments. So workers also go all out to earn in the period when work is intense, preparing for the dry period ahead. In this sector it is usual for sections to fight with the owners for higher piece rate at the time when the orders are high and such localized struggles do take place. But overall the work conditions are abysmal, the wages have no link with stipulated minimum wages, permanency may be only in very large establishments and here too only a small section of workers would be of this status. A lot of the work like thread cutting, small embroidery, stitching on ’chumkis’ and ‘sitaras’ is done by the informal sector- in working class colonies at unbelievably low rates by housewives. In turn these housewives often work under a contractor who supplies the work and collects the pieces. No doubt the workers working in the factories remain dissatisfied and angry with their situation. It is not uncommon in Delhi to see large number of these workers pour out of these units on some immediate issue like better rates or against some insult by managers or for timely payments. Even these are short fights, either quickly reaching a truce if the owner needs the workers urgently, or workers bringing some ‘leader’ who settles some final payment while the skilled workers immediately find jobs elsewhere. It is in this background that the outbursts- spewing out of the latent anger over a proverbial ‘last straw’- can be understood.
The understanding of workers of this sector about what would constitute their demand also varies not only from city to city but also over different periods of time. In the Garment sector in Okhla (Delhi) for instance, which is not women dominated now at least among skilled sections, though they were also present in good numbers earlier, there was a phase when garment workers were crazy for ‘piece rate’ work, making as many as possible in the course of 24 hours and continuing into the next day with minimum of rest. Many simply lived on the premises. They were usually highly skilled tailors or cutters, made as much money as possible in a few months and then went home, to resume work at some other place whenever they returned. It was a period when this sector had no dearth of orders. Later, with illnesses, due to propaganda and with the shrinkage of export orders, there was some spread of understanding that a wage rate and fixed hours of work was fairer on the worker. But owners also come up with newer variations of exploitative conditions and many unions simply exist on the basis of ensuring timely payments or dues to these workers and taking a cut from the same without setting up any sort of organized formation. There is experience in this Okhla area of trade union organization of these workers at a sectorial level and with certain sections of the workers more active in it but which gradually petered out after some phase of intense activity. There was earlier (in 1980s) a union in a single large establishment with only women (migrant and literate) workers even at highly skilled level, but it was unstable. The establishment gradually closed down. In Phase 1 (garment export units almost monopolize this phase) of this Industrial area, in February 2013, during the two day all India strike called by almost all central unions, propaganda was done even among these workers as in other all India strikes. Workers of two of the large units interacted with our union’s local leaders. These units did not participate in any way on the first day. However, on the second day of the strike, they invited the union leaders to build the rally from near their gate. The workers of these two large units came out, moved the general rally purposefully towards other garment units and stoned some of them wherein those workers too emptied out though often this is not the reaction. All these workers remained in the rally, dominated completely the 10,000 strong rally which was beyond the control of the local police for most of the time, stoned so many export units and dispersed once the rally started moving out of this phase. Having vented their pent up anger, the next day the area went back to routine work, and no owner of the area even lodged an FIR.
There is large discrepancy in wages even within a team in this sector. Despite the higher rates for the highly skilled section of workers, in each team there are several semiskilled and a large number of unskilled workers who work at low wages.
There is also some experience of an allied sector, the weaving industry, in Panipat Haryana in 2003. Here the workers in the pitloom sector, weaving small items for export, lived and worked in slave like conditions. A large sectoral struggle resulted in a tripartite agreement which freed the workers from bondage to immediate owners which was a big relief. The struggle of the power loom workers had some temporary effect in promises of labour law implementation but the state crackdown in favour of the owners resulted in a deluge of criminal cases and as organization did not sustain, the gains were also withdrawn.
The challenge before the revolutionary trade union movement is to develop close links with these workers by being among them and learning how to integrate them with the unionized sections of workers. There have to be forms of organization in accordance with the needs of these workers especially where these workers are predominantly women. The organization would have to be sectoral in any area where such units are situated, must be able to engage the attention of the largest number of workers. Movements would need to be aimed primarily at the labour law implementing machinery or the Govt. The issues must be formulated in close connection with the workers, who are well aware of the constraints of their sector. All said and done this is a sector employing lakhs of workers, is a vivid example of the exploitation of cheap labour of Asian countries by MNCs, the conditions of the workers of the workers are directly linked to Govts. conniving with owners and total non implementation of labour laws except where owners find it more useful to give ESI and PF facilities.
An additional issue to always consider is that this sector is completely export oriented and for instance, collapsed during the world economic crisis of 2007 simply because export orders started drying up. However there is a massive need for clothes right here in India with the rider that the market will be very small even for cheap clothes as people have no ability to buy. It is actually Govts. who should subsidize cheap ordinary clothes for citizens, there should be state supply of adequate number of uniforms for all students, different sections of workers etc. so that this industry can be viable. Such issues are also linked with that of the textile industry and the need to make adequately wearable textile available at low rates in the market or even to resource it through fair price shops.