It is over a month since the Garment Workers of Bangalore took to the roads in defence of our provident funds. For a sector of workers, toiling at minimum wage with no job security, PF was the only source of savings that they could fall back on during the lean years. Outraged at a Government that intended to lock this hard earned wage, they rose in revolt, brought a city to stand still and in doing so, forced the government to revert an anti worker policy. Every workers, especially the skilled formal white collar workers, have benefitted immensely from this courageous actions of the Garment workers. Yet the Workers themselves have suffered incalculable costs. Many were injured when police resorted to extreme violence to disburse the assembled workers. Over 300 people, have been charged with numerous offences by the Bangalore police, even though the protests were by and large peaceful. The workers have had to shell out heavily to obtain bails. Even after repeated statements, the government has yet to withdraw the cases that have been filed mere as an attempt to intimidate the workers. These workers need our solidarity and support. here is an article about the protests and the aftermath, written by Clifton D Rosario, a civil rights activists and advocate representing some of the workers. This article has been published in other online sites. We are happy to reproduce it here
An early May Day this year around
This year, May Day came early to Bengaluru and the nearby towns of Maddur, Ramanagara, Nelamangala and Srirangapatna, and was celebrated with inspiring militancy over two days, 18th and 19th April, almost 3.5 lakh garment industry workers, almost entirely women, struck work, blocked roads demanding the Central Government to roll back its decision on restrictions of PF withdrawals. Slogans of “Modi ge dikkara” (Modi, Down! Down!) reverberated through the air as these women, ignoring the scorching heat, took up the challenge thrown by the Modi government hell-bent on weakening all labour law protections of the workers.
The women garment workers in all garment units in Bengaluru struck work for two full days and took the streets blocking the main roads leading out of Bengaluru. Similarly the garment workers in all nearby towns too struck work and blocked the main highways and protested demanding the withdrawal of the PF amendments. The cities came to a standstill. The police and the administration were clueless about the protests until it erupted, and were even more clueless on how to deal with it, given that the protestors were almost young courageous and militant garment women workers. Thereafter the police resorted to mindless violence against the women brutally lathi charging them, and firing teargas and even rounds of police firing. Hundreds of women have been grievously injured and everyone is witness to the manhandling of these women by the almost entirely male police contingents. Yet these workers emerged victorious and brought the Modi government to its knees forcing the withdrawal of the PF amendments, atleast for the present.
What is to be noted here is the violent conduct and brutality exhibited by the police both throughout the protests, and in the following weeks. While there is no clear explanation from the police using such brutal force, one lame justification given is the pelting of stones and burning of buses. Nothing could be further from the truth. In realty, this reaction from the State Government, acted out by the police, is the intolerance of all bourgeois parties to worker militancy. What else explains the hordes of lathi-wielding policemen tearing down with such violent intent and brutality on the workers. Women protestors were thrashed by male policemen resulting in serious injuries to the workers. Thereafter, the police have filed several criminal cases implicating “thousands of persons” and arbitrarily arresting workers from their factories itself over the next few days. Interestingly the State Government, administration and the police have come out publicly stating that the violence was the handiwork of outsiders, not garment workers. However, there is also an element of truth in saying that the garment workers fought pitched battles with the police. Importantly more than 280 persons, predominantly garment workers have been arrested from 19th onwards on the basis of scores of criminal cases registered for serious offences including attempt to murder, arson, unlawful assembly, etc. After much difficulty the workers have secured bail while some workers are still in jail, unable to get bail or to get the surety required to be released on bail. The State Government has publicly stated that these cases will be withdrawn, but it remains to be seen whether this promise is lived up to.
The garment industry in Karnataka, is concentrated in Bengaluru and nearby towns, and consists of between 1500 – 2000 units employing an estimated 5.5 lakhs workers, 90% of whom are women, and also predominantly migrant labour from rural areas besides the urban poor. In Tamil Nadu the Governments have introduced the Mangalsutra scheme in Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, Salem Namakkal, etc. where workers are brought from rural areas provided shelter and allowed only to go to the factory and after some years they are parted with a Mangalsutra to facilitate their marriage. Wage and other conditions are much worse. A similar livelihood scheme of the Central Government facilitates the forced migration of young girls from the states of Orissa, Jharkhand, etc. to the garment factories in Bengaluru, where they are kept in near captivity in so-called hostels, crammed into small rooms and only taken from to the factories and back.
These garment workers slog, day in and day out, producing the leading brands of clothing in the world. H&M, Pierre Cardin, Allen Solly, GAP, JC Penny, ZARA, Blackberry, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, Benetton, and so on as also Indian brands such as Arvind Mills, etc. The conditions under which these workers work are inhuman, exploitative and oppressive and can only be called modern day slavery.
The norm of 8-hour work day is made a mockery of in the context of garment workers, whose average working day is 17 hours including work, OT, and travel time. The working conditions are a nightmare without access to proper drinking water and toilets. Once in the factory the workers are denied any communication with the outside world as they are prohibited from carrying mobile phones into the workplace and the landlines being non-functional. The working day of these workers is punctuated with regular incidents of physical, mental and sexual harassment. The production targets forced them are accompanied by prohibition of any interaction with co-workers, public beratings on the shop-floor, threats of deductions, denial of toilet breaks, and even timing of toilet breaks! Physical assaults and sexual harassment by the supervisory staff, who are predominantly male, is extremely common. So much so that the suicides of garment workers are frequent due to the harassment and dismal lives they are forced to lead. Wages paid to these workers are about Rs. 7,000/-, regulated by the statutory minimum wages fixed by the State Government, and there is not a single instance of wages being fixed by collective bargaining in any garment unit. Added to all of this is the industry’s absolute embargo on any form of collectivization and unionsation, which, even if attempted, is met with immediate retrenchment in the case of individual workers, and the threat of shutting down units in extreme cases.
The essence of employment of these workers is theft of their time, labour power, wages, their collective power and the stripping of their dignity. Their absolute dependence on PF savings every five years, though was the major trigger point as their future is at stake. Viewed in this context, the protests of 18th and 19th April could be seen as the proverbial last straw.
Still, several questions though have been articulated in the media and, perhaps, have been raised in many minds. Why suddenly on 18th April? Why only garment workers? Was it really leaderless and spontaneous? Who is the “unseen hand” behind the protests? Why in and around only Bengaluru? As one student commented, Bengaluru is the last place one would expect this! Several central trade unions, at wits end trying to understand these developments, have also voiced these questions. There is also an element of disbelief especially since the protests were almost entirely of women workers. In fact some bureaucrats and police officials were perplexed and sought to know “How can women behave this way?”
None of this takes away from the militant protests of these courageous women. Fact remains that these militant courageous women, struck work and took to the streets and secured a victory for the workers in this country. These protests are an outpouring of the rage building up inside the garment workers who are working for pittance in inhuman and oppressive conditions. PF operates as the sole safety valve in the lives of these workers. In general the managements of garment industry ensures that workers do not complete 5 years of work so as to rob them of their right to gratuity. Having worked for pathetic wages of Rs. 7,072/- per month called as minimum wages, the PF amount is the sole saving that they have, which operates as a safety valve when they are forced out of employment. As they search for another job, the PF amount of Rs. 40,000 – Rs. 50,000/- helps them survive and even invest on lease amounts for their rental houses, marriages, etc. When this only real saving came under threat, the women retaliated. With a vengeance that has shook the establishment.
Unions working amongst the garment workers say that a news-report appearing in a Kannada daily “Vijaya Karnataka” warning them that they would have to apply before end-April to get their PF amount else they will only get only half their PF amount and the rest only after retirement. The startled and anguished workers began calling the union leaders and demanded that immediate protest be organized on this issue. Even as the Unions were deliberating when to organize the protest, the workers impatient at this daylight robbery by the Modi government decided to take matters into their hands and stormed the streets. These workers sought to secure their savings for their future, which determined by their oppressive conditions, is only viewed in 5-year cycles. The exploitative work, lack of job and wage security, harassment of every form, is taking its toll. Patience is wearing thin amongst the workers.
On 24th July 2002, there was garment workers revolt, yet again on the question of PF. Then the immediate provocation was the refusal by the local PF office to hand over PF withdrawal forms to some workers who had lost their jobs. In the face of massive job losses the provident fund deposit was their last fallback. Workers became restless. Fearing the loss of their savings, more than 10,000 young garment worker women blocked the main roads and began a militant protest. There was no leader, no organization, and many unknown “leaders” and orators emerged on the spot and delivered speeches. On that day too, the same questions were raised, as are being raised today! On that day too, hundreds of women were brutally lathicharged by the police. On that day too there was burning of buses and injuries to the police. On that day too the same questions were posed and there was a lookout for some ‘unseen hand’ behind the incident. There were no unseen hands that could be identified then, and there are no unseen hands at play now. This is the spontaneous upsurge of totally unorganized women workers, who have never enjoyed the fruits of any of the labour welfare legislations, and who never even dared to exercise their legitimate right of forming a trade union to fight the onslaught from the employers. The militancy displayed by this neglected, lower stratum of the working class – never protected by any of the labour laws in spite of the presence of a number of legislations, law enforcing machinery, etc. – is remarkable and inspiring. The root cause for the heroic struggles of these garment workers is the government’s policies of liberalization and globalization.
As the Modi-led NDA government, dictated by the Sangh Parivar, continues its brutal attack on Indian working class, by implementing its neoliberal policies in favour of corporate house of domestic and foreign and dismantling the labour law protection that the working class secured for itself through its glorious struggles invoking slogans like “Make in India”, which is nothing but its agenda of reducing workers to slaves, the Congress Government in Karnataka being no different too doles out land, water, electricity, and all infrastructure as freebies to the corporates and bowing to their diktats is facilitating and intensifying the exploitation of workers. The brutal lathi charge on the protesting garment workers further exposes this common agenda. The bankruptcy of Congress government, which stood in favour of big capital instead of using against the BJP, stands exposed yet again.
In such a time the protesting garment workers have thrown a challenge to them. Their courage and militancy offers much hope. The workers’ survival instinct has really led them to display such an unprecedented militancy. It remains to be seen whether this would translate into a struggle for better working conditions, end to physical, mental and sexual harassment, and better wages. A study by the Garment and Textile Workers Union reveals that the direct shop-floor labour cost for an H&M skirt with a marked price (MRP) of $24.99 was just 1%; for Walmart T-shirt for children priced at $4.44 was only 2.5%; for an Old Navy (Gap) denim short priced at Yen 2490 was 2.9%, thus concluding that across the supply chain, the garment industry makes more than enough profits to double wages without significantly affecting profits. The capitalist accumulation on the loot of workers’ labour power is as stark as it can get.
This is the challenge before the garment workers and the unions.