THIS year, May Day came early to Bengaluru and the nearby towns of Maddur, Ramanagara, Nelamangala and Srirangapatna, and was celebrated with inspiring militancy over two days, 18th and 19th April. Some 3.5 lakh garment industry workers, almost entirely women, struck work, blocked roads demanding the Central Government to roll back its decision on restrictions of PF withdrawals. Slogans of “Modi ge dikkara” (Modi, Down! Down!) reverberated through the air as these women, ignoring the scorching heat, took up the challenge thrown by the Modi government hell-bent on weakening all labour law protections of the workers.
The women garment workers in all garment units in Bengaluru struck work for two full days and took the streets blocking the main roads leading out of Bengaluru. Similarly the garment workers in all nearby towns too struck work and blocked the main highways and protested demanding the withdrawal of the PF amendments. The cities came to a standstill. The police and the administration were clueless about the protests until it erupted, and were even more clueless on how to deal with it, given that the protestors were almost all young, courageous and militant garment women workers.
On the second day, the police resorted to mindless violence against the women, brutally lathi charging them, and firing teargas and even rounds of police firing. Hundreds of women have been grievously injured and everyone is witness to the manhandling of these women by the almost entirely male police contingents. Yet these workers emerged victorious and brought the Modi government to its knees, forcing the withdrawal of the PF amendments, at least for the present.
Towards the end of the protest on the second day there were several instances of arson and violence with several buses being set on fire. This was sought to justify the indiscriminate lathi charge, firing of tear gas and even firing resulting in grievous injuries to the protesting women. Some police too were injured in the process. The protesting garment workers are unanimous in decrying these acts of vandalism and view this merely a conspiracy to discredit their valiant struggle. In fact the State Government, administration and the police have come out publicly stating that the violence was the handiwork of outsiders, not garment workers. Out of the 116 odd persons arrested only 3 are said to be garment worker women, while the others are outsiders.
The garment industry in Karnataka, is concentrated in Bengaluru and nearby towns, and consists of between 1500-2000 units employing an estimated 5.5 lakhs workers, 90% of whom are women, and also predominantly migrant labour from rural areas besides the urban poor. In Tamil Nadu the Governments have introduced the Sumangali/Mangalsutra scheme (the scheme was officially withdrawn after an international scandal, but in practice it remains unchanged) in Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, Salem Namakkal, etc. Under this scheme, young women workers are brought from rural areas, kept confined in hostels and under surveillance in the factory, where they leave after 2-3 years with a ‘lump sum payment’ that is effectively a dowry. Wages and other work conditions are extremely exploitative (See ‘Grim Reality of ‘Make in India’, Liberation, February 2015).
A similar livelihood scheme of the Central Government facilitates the forced migration of young girls from the states of Orissa, Jharkhand, etc. to the garment factories in Bengaluru, where they are kept in near captivity in so-called hostels, crammed into small rooms and only taken from to the factories and back.
These garment workers slog, day in and day out, producing the leading brands of clothing in the world. H&M, Pierre Cardin, Allen Solly, GAP, JC Penny, ZARA, Blackberry, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, Benetton, and so on as also Indian brands such as Arvind Mills, etc. The conditions under which these workers work are inhuman, exploitative and oppressive and can only be called modern-day slavery.
The norm of the 8-hour work day is made a mockery of in the context of garment workers, whose average working day is 17 hours including work, OT, and travel time. The working conditions are a nightmare without access to proper drinking water and toilets. Once in the factory the workers are denied any communication with the outside world as they are prohibited from carrying mobile phones into the workplace and the landlines being non-functional. The working day of these workers is punctuated with regular incidents of physical, mental and sexual harassment. The production targets forced on them are accompanied by prohibition of any interaction with co-workers, public beratings on the shop-floor, threats of deductions, denial of toilet breaks, and even timing of toilet breaks! Physical assaults and sexual harassment by the (predominantly male) supervisory staff, is extremely common. So much so that the suicides of garment workers are frequent due to the harassment and dismal lives they are forced to lead. Wages paid to these workers are about Rs. 7,000/-, regulated by the statutory minimum wages fixed by the State Government, and there is not a single instance of wages being fixed by collective bargaining in any garment unit. Added to all of this is the industry’s absolute embargo on any form of collectivization and unionisation, which, even if attempted, is met with immediate retrenchment in the case of individual workers, and the threat of shutting down units in extreme cases.
The essence of employment of these workers is theft of their time, labour power, wages, their collective power and the stripping of their dignity.
Their absolute dependence on PF savings every five years, especially when they lose their jobs, was the major trigger point; attempts to prevent this, the proverbial last straw.
Still, several questions though have been articulated in the media and, perhaps, have been raised in many minds. Why suddenly on 18th April? Why only garment workers? Was it really leaderless and spontaneous? What is the “unseen hand” behind the protests? Why only in and around Bengaluru? Bureaucrats and police officials were especially perplexed, asking How can women behave this way?”
One student commented, Bengaluru is the last place one would expect this! But for all that, such protests are not new to Bangalore. On 24 July 2001, there was an almost identical upsurge of women garment workers – on an almost identical issue of PF - in the Peenya Industrial Area (see ‘Peenya Workers’ Revolt,’ Liberation, September 2001). Then the immediate provocation was the refusal by the local PF office to hand over PF withdrawal forms to some workers who had lost their jobs. In the face of massive job losses the provident fund deposit was their last fallback. Workers became restless. Fearing the loss of their savings, more than 10,000 young garment worker women blocked the main roads and began a militant protest. There was no leader, no organization, and many unknown “leaders” and orators emerged on the spot and delivered speeches. On that day too, the same questions were raised, as are being raised today! On that day too, hundreds of women were brutally lathicharged by the police. On that day too there was burning of buses and injuries to the police. On that day too, the same questions were posed and there was a lookout for some ‘unseen hand’ behind the incident. There were no unseen hands that could be identified then, and there are no unseen hands at play now. This is the spontaneous upsurge of totally unorganized women workers, who have never enjoyed the fruits of any of the labour welfare legislations, and who never even dared to exercise their legitimate right of forming a trade union to fight the onslaught from the employers. The militancy displayed by this neglected, lower stratum of the working class – never protected by any of the labour laws in spite of the presence of a number of legislations, law enforcing machinery, etc. – is remarkable and inspiring. The root cause for the heroic struggles of these garment workers is the government’s policies of liberalization and globalization.
These protests are an outpouring of the rage building up inside the garment workers who are working for pittance in inhuman and oppressive conditions. PF operates as the sole safety valve in the lives of these workers. In general the managements of garment industry ensures that workers do not complete 5 years of work so as to rob them of their right to gratuity. Having worked for pathetic wages of Rs. 7,072/- per month called as minimum wages, the PF amount is the sole savings that they have, which operates as a safety valve when they are forced out of employment. As they search for another job, the PF amount of Rs. 40,000 – Rs. 50,000/- helps them survive and even invest on lease amounts for their rental houses, marriages, etc. When this only real saving came under threat, the women retaliated with a vengeance that has shook the establishment. The protests – articulated as a demand for the right to withdraw PF – are also a revolt against the extreme insecurity of their work lives, which denies them regular employment.
Unions working amongst the garment workers say that a news-report appearing in a Kannada daily “Vijaya Karnataka” warning them that they would have to apply before end-April to get their PF amount else they will only get only half their PF amount and the rest only after retirement. The startled and anguished workers began calling the union leaders and demanded that immediate protest be organized on this issue. Even as the Unions were deliberating when to organize the protest, the workers impatient at this daylight robbery by the Modi government decided to take matters into their hands and stormed the streets.
These workers sought to secure their savings for their future, which determined by their oppressive conditions, is only viewed in 5-year cycles. The exploitative work, lack of job and wage security, harassment of every form, is taking its toll. Patience is wearing thin amongst the workers.
As the Modi-led NDA government, dictated by the Sangh Parivar, continues its brutal attack on Indian working class, by implementing its neoliberal policies in favour of corporate house of domestic and foreign and dismantling the labour law protection that the working class secured for itself through its glorious struggles invoking slogans like “Make in India”, which is nothing but its agenda of reducing workers to slaves, the Congress Government in Karnataka being no different too doles out land, water, electricity, and all infrastructure as freebies to the corporates and bowing to their diktats is facilitating and intensifying the exploitation of workers. The brutal lathi charge on the protesting garment workers further exposes this common agenda. The bankruptcy of Congress government, which stood in favour of big capital instead of backing the workers against the Central Government of the BJP, stands exposed yet again.
The workers’ survival instinct has really led them to display such an unprecedented militancy. It remains to be seen whether this would translate into a struggle for better working conditions, end to physical, mental and sexual harassment, and better wages. A study by the Garment and Textile Workers Union reveals that the direct shop-floor labour cost for an H&M skirt with a marked price (MRP) of $24.99 was just 1%; for Walmart T-shirt for children priced at $4.44 was only 2.5%; for an Old Navy (Gap) denim short priced at Yen 2490 was 2.9%, thus concluding that across the supply chain, the garment industry makes more than enough profits to double wages without significantly affecting profits. The capitalist accumulation on the loot of workers’ labour power is as stark as it can get.
The challenge before the garment workers and the unions is to take the struggle forward for better working conditions. In such a time the courage and militancy of the protesting garment workers offers much hope.