by Com. CMeghna Sukumar (Labour Organizer at Garment And Fashion Workers Union;GAFWU)
The ready-made apparel industry in southern state of Tamil Nadu employs millions of workers, especially women. As per the State Government’s Textile and Handloom Department Policy Note 2012, there were 4000 garment and hosiery units in the State which employs close to 5 lakh workers. However, considering the many small contract and sub contract units, this figure is likely to be more. The industry has been routinely recognised as one of the fastest growing segments and potential earner of foreign exchange as factories produce readymade apparel for leading brands in Europe and United States.
Tamil Nadu has two major hubs where the ready- made apparels are manufactured – Tiripur and Chennai. Chennai has three major Special Economic Zones i.e Madras Export Processing Zone in Tambaram, Apparel Park in Mahindra World City in Maraimalai nagar and SIPCOT in Irungattukottai. Apart from this many factories in other industrial areas like Guindy and Ambattur. Almost 80% of garment workers in Chennai are women workers and today workers on an average earn about Rs.4000 to Rs.6000 per month. Often these are young women from agricultural families. As first generation industrial workers, they are viewed by the industry as a highly productive, yet dispensable and low cost workforce. Most of these young women travel 50kms from their villages by company provided vans and buses to work in large factories without any knowledge of their rights. Most do not know how to read a wage slip, let alone understand a legally mandated minimum wage. For women workers who live in the city, sky rocketing rents and increasing costs of living means living in a cycle of constant debt.
The Garment and Fashion Workers Union (3317/CNI) is an independent trade union of garment workers in Chennai. Since our inception in 2009, we have been campaigning for higher wages for workers in the industry, who continue to be amongst the lowest paid in the country. Karnataka and Gurgaon in fact have higher wages. In 2010, we found that the major reasons for this have been the suppression of minimum wages by the garment manufacturers through frivolous legal actions which have stalled the process of periodic wage revisions as per law.
The Minimum Wages Act was enacted in 1948 with the stated purpose of ensuring the protection of workers from bonded labour. The Act requires that each State in the country revise wages for every industry at least once every five years through a tripartite mechanism. There is also a Supreme Court mandated guideline to be followed in fixing the minimum wage. Food requirements, clothing, rent and housing, fuel, childrens education, medical expenses, etc have to be taken in consideration. However, in the case of the garment industry, the minimum wages have been revised in 1994 thereafter in 2004 and finally in December last year. Garment factory owners have been filing petitions in the High Court each time the government issues a notification and obtained interim injunctions. Till 2010, the government too did not push to defend its notification in court.
In August 2010, Garment and Fashion Workers Union impleaded in the pending cases and after a prolonged legal process, the interim injunction was lifted in 2012. Since the government no longer had any legal hurdles to revise the wages, our union, through various petitions, campaigns and dharnas pushed for revision of wages. GO 92 dated 12 December 2013 revised the wages as Rs 5511 per month for skilled workers and Rs5128 for unskilled workers per month. This was a hike of Rs.3000 from the previous wage. (As per the 2004 notification, 10 years earlier, basic wages were Rs.2137 and Rs.1903 for skilled and unskilled category respectively).
In October 2014, GO59 was passed by the Government confirming the above wage and published in the TN Gazette in December 2014. Immediately more than 200 factory owners from Chennai, Coimbatore and Tiripur have filed petitions seeking to quash the GO. The factory owners claim that the wages are too high and that it will make the business unsustainable. They have also alleged that the government has failed to follow the due process in revision of wages. This is completely untrue as two months time was given from the time the preliminary notification was published in February 2014 till the notification was confirmed in October of the same year. During this time, no employer raised any objection. Instead they choose to file these petitions after the notification is confirmed, making it clear that the intention is to stall the implementation of the wage. This has been the modus operandi of the employers in stalling the minimum wages over the last two decades.
Once again GAFWU has impleaded in the case just before the Court closed for vacations and the case is likely to come up for hearing in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, on ground, GAFWU continues to campaign at the factory gate in an effort to unite workers and resist this attack on the minimum wage.