Penn Thozhilalar Sangam (PTS) organized a seminar titled “Grievance Redressal Mechanisms: Access, Barriers and Challenges facing Garment Factory Workers in Greater Chennai” on 20th January. The seminar is part of a PTS project sponsored by Interational Labpur Organization (ILO) to document grievances among garment workers and establish/improve redressal mechanisms.
One of the goals of the meeting was to form a Legal Support Group for garment workers. The main issues facing garment workers include denial of minimum wage via deductions, illegal terminations, and intense harassment of workers who have engaged in protests or joined a union. These struggles have become embroiled in drawn out court cases necessitating such a legal support group to help garment workers face the legal battles.
Many lawyers spoke in the meeting, bringing out shortcomings in the legal system in addressing workers’ problems. In one of the speeches of the conference, Advocate D Geetha pointed out that the legal route cannot be relied upon as the primary remedy for workers’ woes. Workers can only make gains through protest. Some lawyers agreed to provide support to workers of Celebrity Fashion who were recently suspended and are facing a domestic enquiry.
The issue of minimum wage for garment workers has been a subject of ongoing legal battles. The minimum wage was increased via a Government Order (GO) in 2014. Companies did not pay the increased wage, and they got around by deducting money for company transport which had previously been free. In her introductory address, Sujata Mody said that GAFWU has filed numerous complaints against this practice, but the labour department has not been receptive to these complaints. According to the labour department, unions could not file a 9A complaint against this practice, as this was not deemed a change in working conditions. The next minimum wage revision is due from 2019, and till today after three years of the last revision there is no effective implementation of minimum wage. In this context, GAFWU had placed a demand that a monitoring committee be constituted to ensure that minimum wage be enforced, and that it function as a one-stop place for grievance redressal. But the Madras High Court ruled it was unnecessary, and left the task of monitoring the implementation of the revised minimum wage to the ‘government and the workers Union‘. In this meeting, it was agreed upon to press further on this demand.
Advocate Selvi shared her experiences from the legal struggle leading to the 2014 GO on minimum wage. The hike in minimum wage happened after a gap of 15 years, whereas as per the Minimum wage law, the wage has to be revised after every 5 years. This delay happened because every time a new minimum wage was announced, companies managed to get a ‘stay’ on the order. She pointed out how the courts had readily obliged with ordering ‘Stay’ on implementation of minimum wage rules comparing it to the recent spate of stay orders against workers’ strike. In order to win legal battles, one has to resort to legal maneuvers, like bench-fixing, she said.
Workers from Celebrity Fashion gave testimonies emphasizing various issues they faced. A recurring theme in their testimonies was the intense harassment they faced when they join unions. They pointed out how joining the union had helped them fight for their rights. They became aware of their ESI-PF entitlements, minimum wage etc. In one case, when a worker fell sick she was denied both payment during leave, and ESI. Through the intervention of Dilli, a GAFWU member, the company later gave her leave and money for her medical expenses. Workers also talked about high production targets, leading to accidents. One of the workers shared her experience about she was not provided any support when she got injured while using the snap button machine. 14 workers of Celebrity fashion were suspended when they protested outside the factory, and they currently face an internal enquiry. All the workers attending the seminar were part of this group (otherwise for a garment worker it is impossible to take time off to attend an event like this!) These workers are part of GAFWU. The workers expressed fear that the enquiry will not be fair at all. Lawyers present agreed to be a part of a support group that would assist the workers in facing the internal enquiry.
In a powerful and nuanced speech, advocate D Geetha pointed out inadequacies in the legal system in addressing worker issues. Even if a worker loses her job, she cannot go to court against her employer; she can only initiate conciliation proceedings. She said that we must demand workers’ right to go to court — possibly labour court or an Industrial Dispute Court. She next pointed out shortcomings in the process of domestic inquiry, such as the one facing the suspended workers of Celebrity fashion. She said that workers cannot take in their lawyer during this enquiry, and workers statements in the enquiry can be used against them in court later. Workers typically do not have any training in facing such processes. The company also withholds information from workers — for example it would give them a chargesheet without a copy of the complaint so the worker does not know what the basic complaint is. At this point Comrade Elisabeth Rani of Celebrity fashion asked what she could do if the company’s charges against her were false. Advocate Geetha said that workers cannot have much hopes from an internal enquiry as it is completely controlled by the management. The workers should expect to be terminated, and they have a long legal fight ahead of them.
Another point Advocate Geetha raised was that in case workers facing termination, earlier unions provided for the subsistence of workers, but today running a union is such a struggle that this is not an option. Legal cases involving wrongful termination have taken as long as fifteen years. In the mean time, if the worker takes up another job, that is held against the worker by the employer in court. She concluded that legal means should not be viewed as the primary remedy for workers issues. Workers can only make gains through protest. In the past, workers have lost their jobs for striking, and unfortunately this has created a fear in workers’ minds that has lingered on.
In another session, Advocate Poonkuzhali talked about legal remedies for sexual harassment in the workplace. In case of harassment are required to file their complaint within a 90-day time period. In order to obtain results, the Advocate said, the complainant must systematically follow up on various steps in the procedure. These steps seem especially difficult given the reality of garment workers’ lives. PTS worker Comrade Sumathy said that in most cases of harassment women workers are afraid to speak up, as they may face blame at home and may be asked to leave their job.
Some of the other suggestions put forward in the meeting were: (1) a media strategy to draw attention to the issues of garment workers, and (2) to take the issue with global brands manufacturing in Greater Chennai region and create pressure on them to take responsibility for the poor factory conditions and violations.