Watching the viewers: Chennai garment workers react to “Dollar City”

Excerpts from a Review by Com. Sujatha, President of Garment and Fashion Workers Union – NTUI

“Dollar City”, P R Amudhan’s 77-minute documentary, is a story woven through the alleyways of Tirupur, the hub of Tamil Nadu’s garment industry. Through the stories of people whose lives depend on the garment factories, it raises questions about a development model based on industrial production for the global market, but which has little concern for the lives of those who do the producing. The film was screened at the South India Training College Hall in Chingleput on July 24th, for garment workers, union activists and members who came to celebrate the High Court Order that upheld a Government Order hiking minimum wages for garment workers.

Photo courtesy Maruppakam

Photo courtesy Maruppakam

The documentary revealed the enormous power wielded by the garment industry, the abominable conditions in which factory workers live and work in Tirupur, the gross indifference of owners, the continuing silence on the pollution of the Noyal River, the urban squalor and poverty in Tirupur town. And, while doing all this, the film raises questions about the silence of people to systemic violence and oppression. The screening was organized by Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU), which is an independent trade union, led by women workers. GAFWU waged a long battle to hike in minimum wages in the export garment industry in the Chennai area (See http://tnlabour.in/?p=3885,http://tnlabour.in/?p=2523).

A recurring theme in the movie is the silent acquiescence of the oppressed, their acceptance of the dominant ideology of development and profit, not by force or inducement, but “for reasons of their own”. None of the garment workers interviewed in the film spoke of their difficulties. Ironically, even those who worked on Sundays after an uncompromising 12-hour shift felt obligated to the employer. Yet, the film pulls off the invisible gag on the mute unquestioning social order that underpins the garment industry.

GaFWU activists from Chennai reacted to the film unequivocally, saying that the Tirupur workers appeared to be much worse off than them.  In Chennai they were able to resist twelve hour shifts. One of the workers in the audience said he resigned from his job as he was asked to work on Sundays. Another worker spoke of the need to educate Tirupur’s workers about their rights, as they had no security and no social life as they even worked on Sundays.

The film provides context for GAFWU’s minimum wage struggle.  Kesavan, a garment factory worker in Madras Export Processing Zone, said, “We were able to get the government to revise the wages upward, by persistent petitioning, campaigning and agitation in the Chennai region. But, we were up against 560 factory owners who contested the wage rise and most of whom are from Tirupur. Since 1978, the garment industry has repeatedly used its power, money and even misused constitutional privileges to keep workers at poverty level wages, forcing them to work overtime and 10-12 hour shifts, often without the statutory weekly day off.”

Dollar City vindicates the protracted struggle of Chennai’s garment workers for a fair wage. The garment union activists watching the film could see the power and resources of those they are up against.  The TEA by its admission has had access to all the Prime Ministers, it receives awards for entrepreneurship and trade, is able to bargain for tax subsidies and influence labour law reform in favour of its members. On the other hand workers appear fragmented, trade unions only visible at the ritual May Day meetings and red flags symbolize grueling poverty and pain, not struggle and power.

Tirupur exporters used the ‘natural justice’ argument in and out of court to stall implementation of social welfare legislation with impunity.
Garment factory worker Kesavan says that employers claim to ‘natural justice’ is hypocritical as they are the ones to bend laws in their favour, use political influence to change policies and resort to trade union bashing. ‘No one can believe that the industry did not know about the wage revision. Workers may not know as it is not published in popular media. However, are employers as ignorant as workers? Apparel manufacturers have consistently the Public Interest litigation route – the writ petition – to preserve their individual and collective right to business and profit and prevent workers from getting even a minimum wage. Is this natural justice?”

After the film, Chokkammal, a GaFWU leader spoke of the battles on the shop-floor, day to day struggle for dignity. Rani an ironing worker repeatedly raised her fear that the minimum wage would not be implemented. Nithya, at a factory workers from an interior village in Thirukalikundram said, we find it impossible to deal with ‘torturous harassment, not being allowed to use toilets, fear of the stoppage of transport to and from work, and not knowing where to take our complaints. Mary spoke of her long illness and how systematically the company denied her claim the medical leave benefit. In the GaFWU meeting workers were speaking about wages, social security, their rights at work, infringement of their dignity by supervisors, in stark contrast to the muted voices from Tirupur.

As the film-maker despairs at the silent majority in Tiruppur, the narrative draws us back to the small acts of resistance. The film takes you to other sites in Tirupur – striking power-loom workers, the boy-worker who refused to return to a violent job, the handloom workers who struggle to keep their livelihood against all odds…these other voices resonate in my mind and confirm that varied struggles are challenging the profit model of the Tirupur and also their cultural hegemony over ideas of economic development, poverty and profit.

The full review can be accessed at http://marupakkammadurai.blogspot.in/

 

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in Art & Literature Review, Factory Workers, Garment Industry, Women Workers, Workers Struggles, Working Class Vision and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.