Working Class
Grim Reality of ‘Make in India’

(Even as the Modi Government woos MNCs to ‘Make in India’, promising them ‘low cost manufacture’ and further weakening labour law implementation, several recent struggles and reports from across India highlight the grim conditions in which workers in fact ‘Make in India’ currently, in Indian and MNC factories and shops. We bring you some glimpses from these struggles.)

SEZ Women Workers Strip-Searched to Check for Menstruation

45 women workers of Asma Rubber Products Private Limited in Kochi's Special Economic Zone in Kerala were strip-searched by women supervisors to check which of them was menstruating, after a used sanitary napkin was found in a bathroom.

Following an uproar, the company claimed the women ‘voluntarily’ agreed to be searched. But the question is – why did the company make an issue over the sanitary napkin anyway?

The incident only highlights the highly arbitrary and authoritarian conditions under which workers, especially women workers, labour in India’s factories. The conditions are of course even worse in Special Economic Zones where the labour laws are not even nominally invoked.

Women from all over the country showed their outrage by posting fresh and used sanitary pads to the company, which has closed down temporarily.

The Shop That Won’t Let Women Sit

6 female employees from Kalyan Silks, Thrissur were transferred to other branches in Kerala without stating any reason, after they asserted their right to sit during work hours.

The women employees are paid between Rs 5000-7500 for working from 9.30 am to 8 pm. From this salary, the employer makes cuts in the form of fine for every meal break or toilet break that they take. In this way, they deduct almost Rs 1500 from the monthly wage of each employee. In addition to this, money is deducted in the form of PF and welfare fund. The employees are not given any receipt for all of these deductions. And the women are not allowed to sit down during work hours.

Some of the women employees united and called a press meet in Thrissur Press Club, declaring their decision to protest against these unjust acts and atrocities. The AMTU (Assamghaditha Meghala Thozhilaali Union) organised a ‘Sitting Strike’ (Irikkal Samaram) in two phases, front of Kalyan Silks at Thrissur.

Crushing Workers Underfoot – Literally

Early in the new year, even mainstream media showed the shocking visuals of the Korean manager of the NVH India Auto Parts Ltd at Sriperumbudur, standing over a prone worker, holding him between his feet. The factory is the Indian subsidiary of a Korean auto parts manufacturing company that supplies to Hyundai. There were also other visuals of workers being dragged on the floor and manhandled. The workers had been on strike to protest the arbitrary suspension of 15 workers. To quote one account of this struggle, other issues leading to the strike “include the lack of adequate toilet facilities. Apparently, there are only 6 toilets in a factory where more than 700 workers are employed of which only 4 are in usable condition. In a juvenile twist, the workers have to seek and secure the permission of the management officials each time they need to use the toilet. If this rule is violated in cases of emergency, warning letters are issued to workers alleging that they were found missing from their work spot. Another issue is the lack of a regular and sufficient supply of drinking water in the factory. The workers were also miffed at being under the glare of surveillance cameras all the time during their work hours. A very important issue that was a sore point was the management’s use of trainees and contract labour to perform production work of a regular nature. The workers were also upset at the attitude of the Korean management and the way they treat them. They allege that there are instances of physical abuse where the management officials hit and slap workers and spit on their faces. Over and above all this, the permanent workers in the factory were peeved at the failure of the management to grant recognition to the union they had joined in 2013 and negotiate with the union.”

All these issues are far from unique. Maruti workers had raised much the same issues in the Delhi NCR region. These conditions are common in factories all over India.

Women Workers Denied Right to Use Cell Phones

A recent study of textile factories in Tamil Nadu, ‘Flawed Fabrics: The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry’ exposes a range of exploitative labour practices including child labour and bonded labour.

The mills are part of the supply chains for major European and US clothing brands. The migrant women workers are allowed only to stay in hostels, described by a woman worker as a ‘semi-prison.’ Women (most of whom are adults between 18-22 years of age) are not allowed to keep cell phones, and are only allowed to call parents from the hostel phone, in the presence of wardens. Supervisors at work scold women for speaking to co-workers, especially male co-workers, and hostel wardens likewise maintain close surveillance to ensure that women do not leave the hostel premises, unless accompanied by a warden.

These conditions are justified by the factory managements with much the same arguments used by University and college administrations to justify discriminatory rules for women: saying that the restrictions are in keeping with “our State Tamil Nadu culture and the expectation of girl parents” regarding “safety and security” of the women workers.

While the restrictions are blamed by the employers on ‘culture’, the fact is that they have an immensely practical value of deterring unionization. As one of the workers herself put it, “We have no outside contact so how could we ever join a trade union?” By preventing women workers from interacting with other male workers or activists from outside, and discouraging socialization even among women workers on the factory floor, the women workers are very effectively prevented from even visualizing the possibility of unionizing.

The kind of humiliating punishments meted out to women in the mills for using a cell phone could compete any day with those handed out by khap panchayats to women and Dalits who transgress gender and caste codes. One woman worker, caught using a cell phone, attempted suicide after she was abused, hit in front of other workers, fined Rs 500 and “forced to clean the wall where the workers spit out.” Are such practices anything but gender and caste atrocities? While khap diktats merit media attention, similar diktats strictly enforced in factories supplying to global corporations pass largely unnoticed.

This report also reminds us that resisting moral policing and patriarchal diktats on women’s freedom is not an urgent issue for young urban women alone, it is as much of an issue for young women workers from rural Dalit households.

A detailed summary of the findings of the Flawed Fabrics report follows.

Flawed Fabrics

The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry

(Report issued in October 2014 by SOMO - Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and ICN - India Committee of the Netherlands.)

This report highlights serious labour rights and human rights violations faced by girls and young women employed in the Tamil Nadu spinning industry in South India, which is a major hub in the global knit- wear sector, supplying some of the big name clothing brands – including C&A, HanesBrands, Mothercare and Primark. In fact, Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, with a workforce of more than 400,000 workers. Sixty per cent of the total labour force consists of girls and young women.

Through a mixture of desk research and interviews on the ground with workers employed at five Tamil Nadu spinning mills, this report concludes that several core labour rights are being violated. Girls and young women are being lured from their home villages by false promises and are working under appalling conditions amounting to forced labour.

The report portrays the situation in the spinning units of five textile and garment enterprises in Tamil Nadu. The mills are part of the supply chains of European and US clothing brands and retailers, as units of vertically integrated Indian companies that engage in the production of ready-made garments.

As producers of export quality yarn and fabrics, the mills are also part of the supply chains of many other European or US brands and retailers that source from garment manufacturers in countries such as China and Bangladesh.

As in previous publications, this report focuses on forms of forced and bonded labour and labour migration within India. Chapters 3 and 4 focus specifically on the exploitative labour practices that women workers have to endure, many of them Dalits and migrants.

Forced and Bonded Labour

This research found girls and young women to be working at the five mills in conditions amounting to forced labour. Recruiters convince parents in impoverished rural areas to send their daughters to the spinning mills with promises of a well-paid job, comfortable accommodation, three nutritious meals a day and opportunities for training and schooling, as well as a lump sum payment at the end of three years. However, when the girls arrive at the mills, it turns out that the reality of their new working life is not so attractive.

Child labour

Child labour is a reality in the mills. Among the workers interviewed for this research, 60 per cent were below the age of 18 when they joined the mill. The youngest workers were 15 years old at time of joining.

Limited Freedom of Movement

All the interviewed workers live in hostels that are located on the factory grounds. Staying in the factory hostel is mandatory for workers who come from other districts or villages. Rooms are shared with up to 35 people and facilities are very basic. Toilets and bathrooms are shared by 35 to 45 workers.

Freedom of movement is very much restricted at all five investigated mills. Workers are not allowed to leave the hostel on their own. There is hardly any outside contact, which for some workers makes the stay in the hostel very hard as they miss their family and friends. Workers may only contact their parents through the hostel phone. Mobile phones are not allowed and after-work activities are limited. Under the pretext of cultural traditions, girls and women are effectively locked up.

Long hours of work and demanding working environment

Working conditions are harsh. At four of the investigated mills, employees must work for 60 hours a week or more, all year round. Overtime cannot be refused. Night shifts are equally obligatory. Super- visors are relentlessly pressing workers into a fast pace of work. Humiliating disciplinary measures are applied. Workers are only allowed short breaks. Physical conditions at the mills are unpleasant with high humidity, lack of fresh air and cotton dust flowing around. Protective equipment and health and safety training are inadequate in many cases. And to add insult to injury, workers at all five mills are notentitled to paid sick leave.

The long hours of work and the hostile, insecure and unhealthy environment, are all taking a severe toll on the workers, whose physical and mental health is negatively affected. One 14-year-old girl working at one of the mills in question reportedly committed suicide in March 2014 while another young woman aged 17 also reportedly threatened suicide in 2013 because of the hardships she had to endure at work (see Box).

Moral Policing

One woman worker said, “I do not like the hostel; there is no entertainment and no outside contact and is very far from the town. It is like a semi-prison”.

In addition, workers said that their parents insist that they stay in the hostel. In rural Tamil Nadu, it is generally felt that it is not safe for young unmarried women to stay on their own, in a place where there are no parents, relatives or community members to keep an eye on them. As one of the workers at Premier put it: “We are girls; we must follow some values in society”.

Cell phones are not allowed. There is a phone on the campus, which can be used to make phone calls to parents or to receive phone calls from parents. If workers want to make a phone call, the warden will check the number they are dialling. The workers may only contact their parents if their number has been given to the warden. Phone calls are always made in the presence of the hostel warden.

“The warden will check the girl workers; where they are going, which shift they are doing.

Responding to a draft version of this report Sulochana wrote: “because of our State Tamil Nadu culture and the expectation of girl parents, they have been provided accommodation in the hostel of the management. Only for safety and security, the parents and girls decided to stay in the hostel & come for work.

A Jeyavishnu worker mentioned the practical constraints: “we have no outside contact so how could we ever join a trade union?”

One worker at Sulochana thought that being a woman made it impossible to join a trade union: “I am a female worker then how can I become a member of trade union?” The assumption that trade unions are not there for women workers was also expressed by two Jeyavishnu workers: “I don’t think that the workers are having much freedom of joining the trade union because all the workers here are girls”. Another Jeyavishnu worker also referred to the gender issue: “The factory knows that the women workers do not have that much courage to join a trade union.”

One of the tasks of the supervisors is to ensure that workers abide by the factory’s rules and regulations. According to the interviewed workers the most important rules that workers need to abide by include: being on time for shifts; no talking during working hours; no use of cell phones (either on the work floor or in the hostel).

Among the things they are scolded for include talking to co-workers (all mills), and talking to male workers (Premier, Super, Sulochana).

No Contracts

This report shows that workers rarely sign a contract when taking up employment. Workers do not know what they are signing up to, if they get to sign anything at all. Workers do not get payslips. Without contracts or payslips, they lack real information about the wages and benefits they are entitled to.

In four out of the five researched mills, workers get paid in cash, without signing for receipt, and without any supporting documentation or explanation about hours worked or overtime rates. There is no minimum wage for spinning mill workers. Research showed that average monthly salaries ranged from € 20 to € 52 at the five mills. Many of the interviewed workers send most of their money home to support their families and to pay for siblings to go to school.

Lump Sum Payments

The research findings suggest that employers are deliberately tricking young, uninformed workers into arduous mill jobs with false promises of lump sums at the end of their contract. This is tempting to many families who are faced with the prospect of paying a large dowry when their daughters are married. At several mills, workers were told that this lump sum is made up of the contributions made to the Provident Fund (PF). In this report, SOMO and ICN point out the huge danger that workers will not get the lump sum promised to them, since they do not have the PF registration number. In addition, there are indications that employers fail to transfer the required contributions to the Provident Fund. This amounts to outright wage theft, which is obviously a serious breach of law.

Right of Association

The right to associate and to bargain collectively are crucial in guaranteeing protection and respect for workers. The notion of freedom of association is, however, a dead letter for the women workers who were interviewed for this research. It is clear that many of the workers are not well informed about their legal rights under Indian or international law.

Trade unions in India face a number of restrictions and obstacles at the stages of formation and registration, as well as in terms of day-to-day activities. Anti-union prejudice is widely prevalent. Employers enjoy a dominant position with no or little countervailing power. Criminalisation, threats against labour activists or striking workers, violence against union members, as well as against NGOs, is common practice.

Lack of Transparency

SOMO and ICN found an alarming lack of transparency when researching this report. The market parties, both producers in Tamil Nadu and buyers from all over the world, are not forthcoming with even basic information. There is no such thing as supply chain transparency. On the contrary, there is an alarming lack of openness.

Buyers hardly provide any information about where they are sourcing from. Precise information about supplier relations is limited and very hard to come by, which makes it difficult to hold companies to account for violations along their supply chain.


Worker at Best Corporation Attempts Suicide

On 12 October 2013, Tamil newspapers Theekkathir and Dina Thanti reported that a 17-yearold girl had tried to commit suicide because of the hardships shie had to endure at her former workplace at Best Corporation. The girl was employed at Best Corporation's spinning mill at Pollachi Road in Dharapuram, the unit investigated for this research.

Sandhiya worked at Best Corporation for 18 months. A few days before her suicide attempt, she was verbally and physically assaulted by company managers. She was scolded and hit in front of the other workers because she had used a cell phone inside the spinning mill. She was also charged a INR 500 penalty and was forced to clean the wall where the workers spit out.

After the incident, Sandhiya tried to commit suicide inside the mill. She was rescued by her co-workers who managed to inform Sandhiya's mother. The teenger's mother came to the mill to take her daughter home but the management refused to let her go.

Sandhiya's mother then informed local politicians and trade union officials, a special team among them CITU representatives, went to the mill to release Sandhiya.

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