April 18th, 19th protests by the Garment workers in Bangalore (majority of whom are women) took the country by surprise. Not known for having strong unions it was remarkable to see close to lakhs of women workers, working in atrocious working conditions, come out on the road and protest government’s proposal that constrained PF withdrawal. The protests which lasted for 2 days were so militant that government was forced to withdraw the scheme . However as expected, aftermath of this protests has been arbitrary detention of workers. Although close to 90 percent of garment workers are women, out of 256 workers who were arrested, only 3 were women.
As part of a fact finding team which comprised of members of Inquilab Mazdoor Kendra (Faridabad), Student activist from Delhi University and women political activist from Uttarakhand, Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to various members affiliated to GATWU (Garment and Textile Workers Union) to get a better understanding of their efforts at unionising garment workers and their engagement with workers prior to the April protests. The team also spoke to the women workers who were arrested and are out on bail now.
Material basis for the April uprising
Most of the Garment factories are located in Mysore road, Bomanahalli, Peenya and Thumpur road. The biggest company located in Bangalore area, which is also the biggest garment exporter in India, is Sashi Exports. It employs nearly 80,000 workers spread in over 45 units in Bangalore alone. The Gokuldas exports employs around 50,000 workers. 5 years back Gokuldas exports employed around 25,000 workers. This shows the scale of their expansion. These units are densely populated. In Sashi exports for example, one unit employs almost 4500 workers. These export companies export to some of the biggest names in international garment industries. Majority of these export companies produce for GAP. Textport industries (another big player in this area) even supplies to Walmart.
The minimum wage for workers in this sector is Rs 287 per day with ESI and PF coverage. Although working day is supposed to be eight hours long, almost all the workers work at least half an hour and more due to the strict rules regarding the number of pieces they are supposed to finish. Women workers suffer two-fold due to this extra working hours. On one hand, there is intense work pressure in the factory as they are required to finish a minimum number of pieces everyday. Those who find it difficult to keep up are abused and humiliated in a variety of ways (some units employ a kind of announcement system where worker who is not finishing her quota has her name announced). On the other hand they have to go home and finish household chores, which if not done in time makes family unhappy. In this scenario, the main motivation for majority of the workers is to somehow work for few years , get the EPF corpus and either retire or change factory after a few months. Thus EPF is the single biggest reason garment workers work in such an oppressive environment .
History of GATWU
From 1979 to 2002, Pratibha and Jayram were working as tailors in the industry and decided to work full time in union organizing. As workers would not join due to fear of reprisal from the management, they started a self help group (SHG) as a platform to engage with workers outside the factory gates. They used to hold meetings every month. It turned into a functioning women’s organization (GMMK – Garment Mahila Mazdoor Kendra) in 2004 but was still not thought of as a union . This organization started filing various cases in labour department on behalf of women workers. Most of these cases were against sexual harassment which was and continues to remain rampant in the garment sector.
In 2005 GMMK was involved in a case against FFI, which is one of the high end manufacturers to Dutch Giants Gstar. FFI had 24 hour production unit and a highly skilled work force. But the workers had to do raw dyeing of jeans by hands using an acidic dye which caused injuries to workers. In FFI factories, Management also used to beat up workers who could not finish their assigned tasks. GMMK started organizing workers from FFI and took this issue to ILO. This case was even discussed in European Parliament.
In 2006 GATWU was registered as a union. Their initial demand was minimum wage of Rs 200 per day from then existing wage of Rs 94/day. They relied on the Shantappa committee report for the minimum wage calculation. GATWU is still engaged in minimum wage negotiation and trying to force the government to increase Minimum Wage for unskilled labour to Rs. 10,000. Jayram pointed out how general managers in these factories earn salaries between 2 to 3 lakhs per month and production managers whose only job is to intimidate workers into completing their quota is around Rs 75,000 per month. Another example where GATWU had success in negotiations was in 2012. when the 3000 workers who were laid off due to closure of Puneet textiles, Textport syndicate and Textport industries got settlements due to GATWU’s intervention.
GATWU exists in 10 units in Sashi Exports as well as in many other factories. Due to significant number of workers in the union, they are able to bring management to negotiating table on any issues the workers face. According to Raju and Jayaram, few years back, management in any of these factories refused to recognise GATWU. Now they directly talk to the union representatives. This space for negotiation , according to Jayram, is a major step forward for them.
GATWU’s attempt at mobilization prior to the April protests
GATWU started a campaign to inform workers about the upcoming change in PF policy. Their idea was to distribute pamphlets, then a signature campaign of up to 1 lakh signatures and send the list of all signatories to PMO by May 1st, showing how workers overwhelmingly opposed these changes. However a local newspaper in Bangalore published 2 reports in April about change in the PF rules and warned them that they should withdraw their PF immediately before the amendment came into existence on May 1st. This made workers very agitated. April 16th was Saturday and so workers came back to factories on April 18th Monday in an agitated state which is when strike began. GATWU’s signature campaign was still going on when the strike took place. On April 18th, the strike started in Medur (Mysore Road) and in unit 14 in Bomanahalli. Workers came out in large numbers and blocked the roads. There was no violent incident on that day. Strike had not spread to Peenya then but workers did do a sit-in protest in Peenya factories. Police brutality took place on April 19th. It was most in Bomanahalli and Peenya where coincidentally the MLAs are from BJP. Even at present crime branch has been petrolling factories in these areas.
Madina and Rathnamma both were garment workers. Madina has worked as tailor for 10 years and Rathnamma worked in garment sector for over 20 years. Both are now full-timers with GATWU. Madina shad worked in Bombay Royal fashion for 6 years and in a smaller factory for 4 years prior to that. She joined GMMK in 2006. At that point GMMK used to publish a magazine called Suji-Dhara (needle and thread) in which her photo was published. She was heavily intimidated by the management but this was also the first time she confronted the manager regarding the basic rights of workers to organize themselves. This tension between her and management continued and in in November, she was suspended along with few other workers for unionizing activities. They were re-instated in January 2007 but she along with other re-instated workers were isolated from rest of the staff. Other workers were given strict warnings to not talk to them. There was also wage differentiation between workers in the union and un-organized workers in the factory. Madina said how workers who were with GATWU were not given dearness allowance(DA). According to Raju DA in general is a big issue in garment industries. Gokuldas exports used to only give half DA, and after GATWU’s intervention, 6 months worth of arrears were given to 30,000 workers recently. Madina said how things have changed quite a lot since her picture was first published in Magazine. GATWU has close to 9000 members now and workers openly say they are in union.
Rathnamma spoke about her experience in organizing workers in areas around Bangalore where there are Garment factories. In one of the villages , where she originally comes from, she along with Raju (organizing secretary of GATWU) tried to distribute pamphlets outside a factory gate. The pamphlet talked about rights and need of garment workers to unionise. She spoke about how the management called local goons who surrounded and intimidated Rathnamma and Raju and told them that they did not want any union in their village . Rathnamma tried to argue with them that she was born and raised in the same village (many of the goons were in fact her relatives!) , however they were asked to leave immediately. The management even warned workers to not accept any pamphlets from them. However when they were on their way back from the village, they got a call from some of the workers who had seen the pamphlets and asked them to come back, as the workers were interested in unionising. GATWU now has a presence in this factory.
Of 256 workers who were jailed on April 19th, only 3 were women. None of them belonged to GATWU or any other union when they were arrested. Vimala works in Gokuldas exports and Mamta works in Shahi exports. Gangama works at Texport syndicate. Gangama and Mamta were arrested for 11 days and Vimala for four days.
According to Vimala, workers were discussing the PF issue for months leading up to the strike. The discussions had become especially more frequent since the April 10th article in a Bangalore daily. She did not participate in any strike on 18th and even on 19th she along with other workers in her factory worked till 1 pm. The management asked them to take rest of the day off after 1 PM . When they went out, in spite of management advising them to go home and not take part in protest, they joined other workers. Vimala in fact went home first but couldnt stay there and decided to come back and join other workers. She said that they were doing a peaceful protest till around 2.30 when some people wearing masks came and started to throw stones. It should be noted that according to newspaper reports members of political party Jaya Karnataka were involved in the agitation. According to Vimala , the masked men incited the crowd and told them that they also had to get the nearby Kennametal company, and ask their workers to come out and join protests. Vimala and another lady worker did go with the masked men. The manager of that factory was beaten up by the masked men and workers even came out to join the protest. They sat with the textile workers for a while as a sign of solidarity and then went back. According to Vimala, the main protagonists of the violence that she witnessed have been left out.
Mamta who has 12 years of work experience recounted her experience on the day of the strike. She and other protesting workers were staging a march to Jalahalli cross road where PF office is located. When they were passing by a company called Dynametic (affiliated to ISRO), they saw that even though it was declared a holiday, workers were inside and working. So they opened the factory gate and went inside. Dynametic management informed police which came and tried to lathi charge. At this point Mamta argued with the police regarding why they are beating the workers who are only fighting for their just rights. At that point even dynametic workers joined them and they staged a protest march to Jalahalli cross. When violence in Peenya broke out , Mamta was lured by a female cop who said that she could help her(Mamta) cross road to safety and instead, escorted her to a police van. She was not part of the stone throwing or any other violent act. Inside the cell the cop with whom she had argued in dynametic factory compound saw her and beat her up. She was beaten (along with other arrested male workers) multiple times by various cops in different shifts. IB officers also told her that the garment workers had no rights and should be thankful to government for giving them enough to eat. Mamta has now joined GATWU along with Vimala.
Gangama is the most senior of the three women She has 25 years of work experience in garment sector and earns only Rs7500 per month. She was in the factory on 19th till 1 pm when Management closed the unit and asked them to go home. When they came out, other protesting workers asked them to join the protest. They were all blocking the road and police asked them to clear it. However workers refused to clear saying they wanted to know why PF was going to become single(the term used by workers to indicate that PF contribution by employers is not available to workers). This is when police lathi charged them without any prior warning. According to Gangama and Mamta, even CRPF was involved. Gangama and her co-workers were lathi charged by police.
She was arrested next day from her home. Initially the police came and tried to arrest her son saying that he was part of the protest. When her son proved that he was not even in the town that day , they arrested her instead. They also showed her a picture of her among the protesters . In the cell they intimidated unsuccessfully to reveal names of other protesters who were in the picture. She was intimidated and abused mentally for 11 days. All three have joined GATWU now. Although they are out on bail, the case is still proceeding .