A Decade's Wait for a Stitch in Time

Published: 27th April 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th April 2015 12:35 AM   |  A+A-

ndia’s textile industry is the second largest provider of employment after agriculture, employing over 45 million people with 80 per cent of them being women. These women are instrumental in contributing to 11 per cent of the country’s export, according to the Ministry of Textiles. Garment factories in Tirupur, a major textile hub of India, and Chennai, together contribute to 35 per cent of the garment exports in the country and the labour force, predominantly women, are undoubtedly the backbone of this industry. Hence, their well-being and sustenance is essential for the growth of this industry. But the conditions surrounding their work and pay beg for attention.

The battle for minimum wages

DECADE’.jpgMost of the workers travel for long hours from distant villages in Chengalpattu and Thirukalukundram in Tamil Nadu, to reach their factories in major industrial parks and predominantly hail from agricultural backgrounds. The fact that most women are first generation tailors, who are either the sole breadwinners of the family or single mothers, makes work a dire necessity irrespective of the working conditions.

de1.JPGThere are several large garment factories in three SEZs (Special Economic Zones) of Chennai — the Madras Export Processing Zone (MEPZ), Tambaram, Mahindra World City, Maraimalai Nagar, and SIPCOT Apparel Park, Irungattukottai. Ambattur and Guindy in Chennai also house several factories. While there are many issues plaguing the industry, the revision of minimum wages is what needs immediate redressal. According to the Minimum Wages Act 1948, workers are entitled to a hike in wages every five years. But the workers haven’t seen a revision in wages for over a decade, thanks to the stay orders brought by various managements across Tamil Nadu every time the Government announced a revision.

dec.JPG“Employers have managed to obtain stay orders each and every time there was a hike. A government order revising wages for the industry was notified in 1994, after which it was stayed. The next notification (preliminary) came in 2003, was confirmed in 2004 and implemented only in 2012,” says Meghana Sukumar, Organising Secretary, Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU).

The legal battle of the workers continues, as, in December 2013, a preliminary notification to revise the wages of those in the tailoring industry was brought by the Government yet again and confirmed in October 2014, but as many as 300 garment manufacturers across Tamil Nadu brought a stay against this hike in the Madras High Court in Chennai and the Madurai bench of the court.

According to the December 3, 2014 Gazette notification, the minimum wages for a cutter should be `5,789 per month (previously `2,306) and `5,639 (previously `2,215) for a machine operator/tailor, excluding the dearness allowance which is revised in April every year. “If you look at other States and cities, Tamil Nadu’s workers are paid one of the lowest. In Gurgaon, the wages are `250-300 a day, our neighbouring state Karnataka pays `200 and Tamil Nadu still pays `140 a day,” says Sukumar.

Employers’ justification

Advocate S Ravindran who represents around 25 companies from Tirupur and Perundurai, Erode, says the managements will suffer huge losses if the wage hike is implemented. “The hike comes nearly after a decade, and it is so steep that the export orders received by the management will take a huge hit. In any industry, the main expenditure is that of labour, and such high fluctuation will lead to loss of orders. There will be a flight of export orders to other countries,” he says. He also claims that leading industry captains were not part of the advisory committee that recommended the wages.

Tamil Nadu Labour Commissioner P Amudha, however, affirmed that the notification is a tripartite process and due legal process was indeed followed before the notification. “The Government, the garment workers and the industry, all of them were party to the process before the notification was confirmed,” she asserts.

Vijay Pai, owner of Chennai-based garment unit SM Apparel, says companies should be given enough time to implement it. “You just can’t wake up one day and implement such a steep hike. Taking into account the high levels of inflation, we need at least three to four years to implement this hike, in phases,” he says, adding that an across-the-board hike for the tailoring industry is unfair.

“A skilled operator and a helper, both are entitled to `7,000 plus salary. That’s unfair. In my company they earn between `5,500 and `6,500 per month now,” he says. The last revision of wages took place in 2004. Though the employers say it is best if wages are revised in a periodical manner, it is they who repeatedly bring stay orders on GOs, rendering implementation of the periodically revised wages impossible.

Advocate P Selvi, who has filed an implead petition on behalf of GAFWU to make the union a party to the case, says the employers’ case is baseless. “The workers are demanding a basic wage that is imperative for their survival, and not for luxury. The increase in wages is the only thing that will prevent them from being pushed into poverty. It is, thus, their right under Article 21,” she says.

Demand for `10,000

After the Government hiked the minimum wages for those in the tailoring industry in Karnataka on May day last year, unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) had said that owing to the cost of living, minimum wages should at least be `10,000, and this was based on a scientific calculation, as this was the money required towards procuring 2,800 calories of food, bare minimum clothing and other miscellaneous expenses.  “We are rooting for `10,000 minimum wages but that dream can be materialised only when the workers win this battle first,” Sukumar says, adding that had the managements not stalled the hike and acted in time, it wouldn’t have seemed an indiscriminate rise, as they are claiming it to be.

Non-stop work

Besides the issue of wages, there are numerous other problems plaguing the garment workers.

Manjula (name changed), 48, hails from Chengalpattu and works as an operator in a garment unit in MEPZ, Tambaram. As her husband works as a construction worker with a daily wage ranging from `200-`300 and has only three to four days of employment a week, she is left to provide for her children.

“It’s all about meeting the production targets, around 2,000 pieces a month. Our working hours are technically eight but no one takes the travel time into account which is four to six hours a day. We are supposed to have a tea break and lunch break of half-an-hour, which we are not entirely given. We’re only given 10 minutes to finish lunch,” she says.

Evading employee benefits

Manjula is also one of the few who resisted an offer to resign and rejoin work for higher pay. “I have 13-14 years of experience, I am entitled to a provident fund, gratuity and other benefits. Every time we ask for a hike, the management asks us to quit and start afresh with the  promise of better pay. I know this is one of their tricks to evade payment of the benefits,” she says.

Once the workers complete five years of work, they are entitled to gratuity of 15 days of wages multiplied by the number of years of service. “Once the basic wages become higher, gratuity becomes higher. Retrenching older workers as they near retirement or asking them to rejoin to avoid paying gratuity is a common trick adopted by the managements,” says Sukumar.

According to the Industrial Disputes Act, the management has to obtain the Government’s permission to lay off a worker and give a notice of minimum three months. But in reality there are many instances when workers are dismissed ad hoc and face consequences when unions try to intervene. It starts with mild forms of victimisation like transferring them to other branches of the unit which are farther away from home, claims Sukumar.

Transport Issues

Owing to long distances, company buses are the only way for these women to get to the workplace safely. “There have been instances when the companies have stopped the buses from plying without notice. The workers have had to congregate from different villages through word of mouth and land up at the workplace on their own,” says Sukumar, pointing out another difficulty these women face.

Sexual Harassment

Jyothi (name changed) is just 24 years old but has 10 years of experience in the garment industry. She has seen it all, from unfavourable working conditions, low wages to sexual harassment. “I started working when I was 14. Having worked with garment units in Mahindra World City and Chengalpattu, she has encountered diverse problems characteristic of this industry.

She worked as a checker in a garment unit in Mahindra World City three years ago where an encounter with a supervisor there rendered her jobless for more than a year. “He had already harassed another colleague at the company, which led her to attempt suicide. I had sent back a piece, which he had cleared, for a recheck and that put me in trouble. He pushed me about violently and stamped my feet. He used unpleasant language with me,” she says. Jyothi  and her colleague who faced similar harassment managed to get a settlement of `50,000 after a prolonged legal battle but switched jobs after the experience.

Veena (name changed), 31, a store assistant at a Chennai based-garment unit, is a single mother of two. She has often faced covert and overt offers of sexual intercourse from her male counterparts at work. “My husband left early when my children were young. The higher-ups are always looking for a ‘chance’ and pretend to empathise with me as there is no ‘man’ in the house,” she says.

Most workers concur that internal committees formed after the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 came into effect are only on paper, and most employers and their HR managers ask the workers to ‘adjust’, rather than take their complaint seriously.

Workers overstretched

Esther (name changed), 42, who has worked in the garment sector for two decades now, has been with MEPZ for the most part, first as an operator and later as an ‘ironer’. “In one hour, only 50 pieces can be finished. For every 10 operators, there are not even three helpers. Quality and production thus get jeopardised but we are at the receiving end of the supervisor’s comments,” she says.

Ergonomic seating is something unheard of in most factories where workers are made to use stools as seats. Without adequate backrest, they suffer from temporary or permanent damage to their muscles.Jaya (name changed), 42, has been working as a checker in a garment unit for five years. “We have to stand throughout the day. The lights are too bright and our eyes turn sore as they directly hit our faces,” she says.

“They are seated under asbestos roofing that adds to the heat. There aren’t enough fans or proper ventilation,” points out Veena.

Facade for the buyers

Increased international consumer activism in recent years, after the collapse of factories in Bangladesh, has made international brands from US and Europe aware of the inhuman conditions that the people making their trademark products work in. Buyers, therefore, visit factories for periodic inspections. But workers say they are only shown a rosy picture. “We are not allowed to talk to these inspectors. Even if we do, what’s the use? We will bear the brunt, once they leave, for speaking the truth. HR managers who don’t even come close to us otherwise are suddenly seen patting our shoulders asking if we have any problems. It’s all a farce,” says Jyothi who now works at a factory in Chengalpattu.

Sukumar adds that because of the recent furore in developing countries, which brought sweatshops under the scanner, buyers rope in independent consultants to check on the workers’ conditions, but to no avail. “Now that everything is out in the open, brands don’t want blood on their hands. So they have these factory checks outsourced, so it’s pointless,” she says.

While there are so many pressing issues that women garment workers seek relief from, minimum wages is the priority.

— suraksha@newindian


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