Around 50 workers and activists of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union and Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, an independent union for workers in the garment industry, were arrested following a demonstration outside the EPZ-Special Economic Zone gate in Tambaram on the morning of Friday, September 2nd.
Expressing solidarity with the demands made for the General Strike and also urging the government to implement the G.O.59, a minimum wage notification which provides a wage increase of Rs.3000, garment workers from Tambaram, Chrompet, Guindy and Thirukazhikundram assembled at the gate to distribute pamphlets and educate workers about the new minimum wage.
The minimum wage notification came in December 2014 after a prolonged struggle by the union. It raises the wages for tailors/operators from Rs. 2137 to Rs. 5511 per month for skilled workers and from Rs.1903 to Rs. 5128 for unskilled workers. This basic wage, along with DA and other existing allowances, could bring the wages up to Rs. 7000-Rs. 8000 per month. Soon after the G.O. was issued, more than 300 employers filed petitions in Madras High Court seeking the quashing of the G.O., claiming that the wages were too high. This has been the modus operandi of the garment industry for decades now to keep the wages low. While the law requires minimum wages to be revised once every five years, in the case of the garment industry, wage revisions have taken much longer, mainly due to frivolous legal action by employers which delays the implementation of the notifications.
GAFWU impleaded in the case, and, after a year-long legal battle, on 15th July 2016, the court ruled that the notification (G.O. 59) must be implemented and that arrears from 2014 must be paid to all workers.
Elizabeth, a, ironer with more than 15 years of experience, works in a big export factory and earns just Rs. 4500 per month. “The government must enforce the minimum wage notification. Our wages have stagnated while the cost of living keeps increasing. Many of us are single parents and sole wage earners,” she said. Elizabeth is also the General Secretary of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union.
Mohan Rao, a skilled worker, said that despite 10 years of service in the same factory, he is earning only Rs. 9500. “I have spoken to every manager in my company, but no one is willing to talk about increasing my wage. I joined the union because I feel this is the only way to get a fair wage. I am struggling to educate my two daughters,” he said.
Vice President of GAFWU, Dilli, who works as an operator inside the MEPZ-SEZ, said that many of the companies, including hers, were not committing to implementation of the order or payment of arrears. “In our factory, they put up a notice about the new wage and the arrears, but the management holds meetings with workers and does not give us a definite answer. They are deliberately engaging in misinformation and creating confusion,” she said.
Two days before the General Strike, the workers also met the Labour Secretary and the Labour Minister, Dr. Nilofer Kafeel, and submitted their demands to set up a monitoring committee to ensure that the court’s order is implemented. Many of the companies have not given arrears and those who have implemented the notification have made deductions on some pretext or the other, in effect negating the wage increase.
Sujata Mody, Presdient of GAFWU, said that they wished to use the day of the General Strike to educate workers about their rights, but fearing this, the managements of some of the garment factories declared a holiday. Madras Export Processing Zone (MEPZ), now an SEZ, houses several large and medium sized apparel manufacturing factories which export to big brands in the US and Europe. Thousands of workers are bussed in from villages as far as 50kms away. “We planned to hold a peaceful protest, distribute pamphlets and talk to workers about the minimum wage notification. Many of the workers are not aware, they do not have time to hold meetings or educate themselves because they travel several hours to and from work,” she said.
As the workers distributed pamphlets, they were gradually pushed to a corner of the entrance to the SEZ and were not allowed to unfurl their banners, following which they marched to the gate and blocked it for 15 minutes. The workers were then taken into a police van and detained until about 5:45pm. Calling the general strike a huge success, leaders of GAFWU and Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam say that they are undeterred and will take the campaign forward.