Labour Issues

Class outburst

Print edition : May 13, 2016

During a police lathi charge against garment workers in Bengaluru on April 19. Photo: PTI

Bandaru Dattatreya, the Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Women garment workers protest in Peenya in Bengaluru on April 19. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Protests by garment workers over attempts to curb Provident Fund withdrawals bring to light the underside of working-class life in Bengaluru.

THE popular impression that Bengaluru is the nation’s IT (information technology) capital was rudely shaken on April 18 when thousands of garment workers took to the streets, reminding one and all that this city is equally a clothing capital. For two days, an angry workforce, predominantly female, resorted to an unprecedented wildcat strike that blocked the city’s main arteries in protest against the ill-conceived moves of the policy mandarins in New Delhi to restrict withdrawals from their Provident Fund (PF) accounts. More than five lakh workers are employed in the garment units that are concentrated in pockets across the city, just as many as the high-profile and better-paid IT workers in the city. The strike by the garment workers, whose lives are characterised by poor pay and extreme insecurity of tenure, tellingly exposed the underside of Bengaluru’s working-class life.

The protests started on the morning of April 18 in Bommanahalli on the outskirts of the city. The agitating workers blocked Hosur Road, a key artery that not only serves the city but connects it to Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. Soon, workers in other key hotspots of garment manufacturing in the city—Mysuru Road, Yeshwantpur, Jalahalli and the Peenya industrial area—joined in. Much of the media coverage in the English language press on the first day focussed on the travails that commuters, especially IT professionals, faced because of the “unruly” protests by thousands of garment workers. There were no serious reports of violence on April 18, apart from the local Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) office near Bommanahalli being pelted with stones.

The spontaneous protests, depicted as “leaderless” because of the completely un-unionised character of the large workforce, escalated dramatically the following day. In hindsight, this is possibly explained by the fact that if the workers were “leaderless”, so was the political establishment. Neither the State government led by Siddaramaiah, nor the Union government, especially the Finance and Labour Ministries, made any effort to assuage the worried workers who were convinced that they would lose the precious little savings they had in their PF accounts.

On April 19, the protests snowballed and angry worker groups, possibly infiltrated by miscreants and lumpen elements, attacked the Hebbagodi police station. Two persons were injured in the police firing but there were no fatalities. Buses were torched as garment workers from many clusters in the city, which is normally blind to their presence, erupted in a synchronised burst of anger. The hapless police force, clueless about the depth and scale of the wrath, was clearly outnumbered on the streets. Resorting to the only method it knows in such situations, the government issued prohibitory orders across rural and urban Bengaluru. More than 116 arrests were made, and workers later protested against the excessive use of force, especially the use of male police personnel to cane female workers. Three days after the protests, a palpable sense of fear pervades the working-class community, many of whom asked Frontline to not reveal their identities.

What explains the significant participation of men in the agitation by a workforce that is estimated variously at between 80 and 90 per cent women? “This is really a silly question that can only be raised by someone who does not understand how, why and in what conditions women work in the garment industry,” said R. Benjamin, 30, a garment worker in the city for the last 12 years. Benjamin, whose mother was also a garment worker, said: “A woman worker is also someone’s sister, wife or daughter; her work is a critical part of the family’s livelihood, even if, for cultural or social reasons, she may not be the primary breadwinner. Those who expect men, who fear a grave loss of their hard-earned family savings, to stay away from the protests as if it does not concern them are far removed from the reality of working class life in this city.”

He also pointed out that the availability of the PF facility was traditionally one of the key reasons why workers, especially women, entered the garment industry. “Since the tenure is totally insecure, the working conditions are onerous and sexual harassment is widespread, women are often forced to quit one unit and move on to another at a later time,” said Benjamin.

The PF does not even come close to being a “social security” benefit. There is nothing social about it in the sense that there is no contribution by the state, nor is it a benefit in any sense of the term because it is generated by the workers’ own employment. Yet, most workers are attracted to it because “for the worker, it is life-saving”, Benjamin said. Women’s work is characterised by not only the uncertainty of the workplace but by family circumstances, marriage, child-bearing and rearing, and illnesses in the family, which force women to opt out of the workplace, temporarily or even permanently, he added. Workers bank on the PF because it offers a safe avenue for savings that come in handy during difficult times. “The government’s stipulation that workers must wait until they turn 58 [the retirement age] smacks not only of arrogance but ignorance of the actual conditions in which women work,” Benjamin said.

Bandaru Dattatreya, the Union Minister for Labour and Employment, fiddled as Bengaluru seethed with rage. On the first day, he announced that the new rules notified by the government on February 10, which barred “premature” withdrawals from PF accounts, would be kept in abeyance for three months. The notification allowed workers to only withdraw their contribution and interest thereon, but stipulated that the employers’ contribution and the accumulated interest would be available only after employees turned 58. This belated reaction from the Ministry was clearly inadequate, as events of the following day demonstrated. On April 19, after the protests escalated on a massive scale, Dattatreya announced a “complete rollback” of the February 10 notification.

The contrasting responses of the policy czars in the Finance and Labour Ministries could not be more striking: while Finance Minister Arun Jaitley responded with alacrity to the widespread negative response to the budgetary proposals restricting and taxing PF withdrawals, Dattatreya let the regulations, issued before the recent Union Budget, remain, with tragic consequences as seen in Bengaluru recently. The contrast is striking because it reveals an immediate willingness to “adjust” policy to the demands and pressures of the better-paid middle class sections of the workforce, while continuing with a mindset that cares little for a far more numerous, and vulnerable, section of the workforce.

The nature of employment in the garment industry, as is the case with insecure and low-paid employment in many other industries, is such that the average working-life span hardly ever extends to the age of 58. Benjamin said the “tight” work schedules, aggravated by the “speeding up” of work norms and output targets in factories that cater to the export market, result in high rates of absenteeism and turnover of workers in garment units. The division of labour is such that workers, operating in “sections”, have to perform the highly repetitive task of preparing or stitching a particular piece of the garment all day long, which results in fatigue, stress and illnesses. The average monthly wage of a garment worker, calculated on a daily basis for 26 days with Sundays being excluded, is less than Rs.7,000. “Wages are so low that workers keep migrating from one factory to another for a fractional increase in pay,” said Benjamin.

Benjamin, who no longer works in the larger factories, said he left because of the “extreme” nature of speeded-up work. “The half-hour lunch break for most women is usually inadequate; it is barely enough for workers to fetch their lunch boxes from the gate, and there are no tea breaks in most factories.”

Madina Taj, treasurer of the Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade (Women Garment Workers Association), said workers were reluctant to drink water because even the toilet breaks were monitored. Madina Taj points out that output targets were “unrealistically high”. A worker in a denim unit has to finish 80-90 pairs of trousers in a day, even though realistically all he or she can do is 60. Moreover, they are penalised even if productivity is affected because of malfunctioning machines on the shop floor, Madina Taj said.

On how the protests spread so fast, suddenly and wide, Benjamin offered an explanation: “The rich and the educated have email and social media to communicate. Garment workers too have their networks. There is WhatsApp, but there are also social and community networks that bind us, which can be far more effective. We might switch factories but these ties can last lifelong.”

The scale of protests surprised even the few unions that are focussed more on industry-wide issues rather than factory-specific workers’ issues. The utter panic that gripped the workforce is echoed by K.R. Jayaram, executive committee member and legal adviser of the Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), one of the few umbrella organisations that take up the cause of garment workers. Jayaram said workers had planned a protest on April 20, but things got out of hand because there was widespread “panic” among them about the amended PF rules.

Several workers Frontline spoke to said that the issue had been simmering ever since February when the Labour Ministry issued the now-rescinded notification. Benjamin said workers who had been visiting the local EPFO office had been told about the sudden and drastic change in the rules. “Those returning empty-handed after repeated visits spoke about the vague response from officials at the office, and this angered workers even more,” he said. During the intervening period of more than two months, there were no attempts by anyone to understand the worries of the workers.

“All that was needed was a spark, and that is what happened on April 18,” Benjamin said.

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