The news that 13 workers were killed in a fire at a factory manufacturing leather jackets on the outskirts of New Delhi less than two weeks ago, once again brought the world’s attention to the appalling working conditions endured by millions of garment workers on the Indian subcontinent.
But in Bangalore, India, garment workers are beginning to take a stand.
In probably the most striking example of this growing self-advocacy, on 18 April 2016, the southern Indian city of Bangalore ground to a halt. Amongst a population of 9.5 million people, thousands of women working in the city’s garment sector blocked the arterial roads in spontaneous protest.
Over 1200 factories, where 90 per cent of the 500,000 workers are women, function on the outskirts of the city. For decades, the women in these factories have worked in exploitative conditions, earning a minimum monthly wage as low as 4000 rupees (about US$60).
But in a city full of migrant IT workers, their plight was largely ignored – until, that is, news about an amendment in government rules concerning provident fund plans (which would have made a large part of the funds unavailable to the workers until they turned 58) brought them out onto the streets.
In a city with relentless traffic congestion, the protests did not go unnoticed. Not only did the government roll back the proposed changes, the strike also brought the stories of these women into the mainstream.
“Garment workers depend heavily on the provident fund. The average age of a garment worker is 35 and these women plan their lives around withdrawing money from their provident fund for buying a small piece of land as an investment, paying for a wedding in the family or dealing with an emergency. Waiting for this money for several decades seemed very unfair to them,” says GM Ratna, a former garment worker, now leader of Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade (Garment Women Workers March Ahead), a welfare organisation focused on the rights of female garment workers.
The two-day protest was historic. For the first time, the women who form the backbone of India’s multi-billion dollar textile, garment and apparel industry came together in large numbers to bargain for their collective rights. It was not organised or planned by any of the unions but was a spontaneous response to an article about the new provident fund rules that appeared in a local newspaper.
"The attrition rates in the garment industry are very high," says a member of a non-governmental organisation working closely with garment workers, who asked not to be named. "These women move from one factory to another, and quite often do so for a small raise or to liquidate their provident fund to meet some emergency."
The NGO worker also told Equal Times that more often than not, the families of these garment workers rely exclusively on the income earned by these women. The men either have no jobs, or they have unstable, precarious jobs. Many also suffer from alcohol problems.
Sakamma, who has worked in the garment sector for over two decades, tells Equal Times that her husband’s alcohol abuse forced her into this line of work. “I had two children to bring up. I didn’t know a thing about making clothes. All I knew was there was this opportunity to make some money,” she says.
But making money was far from easy for Sakamma. Her job at the garment factory was one of intense pressure and stress. “If you’re late by ten minutes, they will send you back. You don’t drink enough water, because the production targets are so high, you don’t want to waste time in the toilet,” she says.
Most of the women we spoke to for this story, including Sakamma, work for factories that make clothes for brands like H&M, JC Penny, Tommy Hilfiger and Inditex (Zara).
Not a healthy occupation
A study of occupational health and safety in the garment industry by Cividep, a Bangalore-based non-profit focused on worker’s rights and corporate accountability, concluded that the city’s garment workers often suffer from “respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, ergonomic issues like back pain, mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, and reproductive health issues, such as white discharge, irregular periods and excessive bleeding.”
Occupational health problems are common amongst workers in the garment industry in other parts of the world as well. A ten-year study in Fiji found that workers in that country suffered from occupational fatigue syndrome, body pains, bladder and kidney problems, stress and depression.
Sakamma was diagnosed with a heart problem, a few years ago, when she was in her forties. “I asked the doctor why this had happened to me. She told me it could have been because of stress and tension,” she said.
“Jobs at garment factories across Asia are full of pressure and stress,” says Apoorva Kaiwar, the South Asia regional secretary for IndustriALL, a global union representing workers across several sectors. “In many developing countries, people often take up whatever jobs that are available. It is not as if they choose this kind of work.”
Another garment worker, Mahadevamma, 40, says that the production targets in garment factories are also very arbitrary.
“There’s no limit to the number of garments they expect me to finish. One day it could be twenty an hour, another day it could be fifty. If I am slow, I get yelled at. If I complain, the supervisor says ‘you can go home if you don’t want to work’”.
Gowramma, 44, has worked in garment factories for fifteen years. “Supervisors and managers don’t hesitate to call you a ‘monkey’ or ‘donkey’, and they are all men. There is a room for unwell or exhausted women to rest, but with such high production targets - today 50 [pieces], tomorrow 100 - how can we dare take a break? And because the supervisors are all men, you can’t be open with them. If you have your period, for instance… or other problems.”
According to Rukmini, president of the women-led Garment Labour Union (GLU), the union has had to negotiate with some factories to provide even the most basic facilities like drinking water and ceiling fans, a necessity in a city where temperatures reach as much as 37C (98.6F).
Several years ago, Rukmini was harassed by her employers for attempting to organise workers and inform them of their rights. “When harassment and torture didn’t work, they tried to bribe me with a supervisory position. I refused to give in,” she says.
After a few years of working with another union which was led by men, Rukmini started GLU, where all key positions are held by women; women who sold their jewellery to rent a place for the union office. “Garment workers are predominantly women. The sector needed a union where women’s voices could be truly heard, so we made the sacrifices necessary,” she says.
When Equal Times visited Rukmini at the GLU office - a small, dusty room on the outskirts of the city – a depressed young garment worker was being counselled by the union leaders.
“I don’t feel like living,” the woman was saying in the presence of a room full of colleagues from the same factory.
Later, Rukmini told Equal Times: “Women in the garment sector are often treated badly by men, even in their personal lives. Many young women get used, preyed upon…because they’re not well-educated and don’t have proper support systems.”
Childcare and harassment
GLU has also recently started a small crèche for members of their union. Since women constitute the majority of workers, crèches are not uncommon in garment factories but they usually come with severe limitations.
“A factory that employs 2000 women, for instance, will only have places for 50 children. The crèche will not have trained staff and cleaners often double-up as caretakers. Children will not have separate toilet facilities, sometimes the space will not be well ventilated or clean,” says Rukmini.
Crèches continue to be neglected despite the death of an infant in 2011, at the factory crèche of Texport Creations, a garment manufacturing unit in Bangalore that at the time produced exclusively for the US clothing company Gap.
While working almost non-stop to meet production targets and caring for their families, the women in the garment sector also have to fight off sexual harassment from their male colleagues.
According to a report released by Sisters for Change, a UK-based NGO fighting against gender-based violence, and Munnade, a local community-based women’s group, “one-in-seven women in garment factories in Bangalore has been forced either to commit a sexual act or to have sexual intercourse.”
Sexual harassment in the garment industry is rampant across Asia as well as in other regions. As a report by Better Work on sexual abuse in Jordan’s garment industry puts it, in addition to gender inequality, “intense industry pressure to meet production targets...can lead to abusive disciplinary practices on the factory floor.”
Contemporary production systems are making millions of workers in the garment industry vulnerable to systemic abuse and there is a pervasive sense of injustice.
“When production moves to your country and you hear of these big brands that you’re producing for, the expectation and the reality don’t match,” says IndustriALL’s Kaiwar. “Most garment workers know that they are producing for rich European markets, so it is hard for them to understand why there are being paid so little and working in such poor conditions.”