The garment workers’ protests in Bangalore exposed the underbelly of India’s Silicon Valley, where the millionaire class of the software industry live cheek by jowl with—and in absolute ignorance of—the other half who live and work in almost slave like conditions.
About 800,000 of these invisible workers (about 80% of whom are women) are in the garment industry, slaving away in obnoxious conditions, invisible to the government and ignored when they raise their issues. Facing multiple forms of oppression and abuse, from wages to constant harassment, incessant haranguing and sexual abuse, the Government of India barring them from accessing their own savings was the last straw.
On February 10, 2016 the Central Government amended the rules regarding the Provident Fund (PF). The word spread among the workers though the factory management, media and union leaders which led to some panic and discussion among them. On Saturday, April 16, 2016, a few Kannada dailies ran articles on the new PF rules. This alerted the workers to their approaching implementation from May 1, 2016 and added to the panic.
Karnataka has about 800,000 workers in its booming readymade garment sector, of which 600,000 are employed in Bangalore and the neighbouring districts of Nelamangala, Ramanagara, and Mandya. Over 200,000 workers participated in this protest.
Approximately 80% of the protestors were women (about the same proportion of shop floor workers) and they also faced the majority of the police violence. The police seemed to be unsettled by the fact that so many women were protesting. They even physically and verbally abused women peacefully sitting and eating lunch in the vicinity of the protest.
The media and the management bemoaned the loss of huge profits due to the two-day closure. If the closing of factories could mean so much loss, their working would also mean huge profits. If only the workers were paid their fair share of these huge losses/profits, then this strike would not be necessary. The loss of property and discomfort and dislocation of commuters could have been avoided.
The minimum maximum wage
The large majority of workers in Bangalore—be they garment workers, pourkarmikas, contract workers, maintenance staff in most institutions, hotels or cinemas—get paid the minimum wage, which is about Rs. 7000 a month (about US$100). For most blue-collared workers in India the general rule is ‘minimum is maximum’ when it comes to wages.
The average garment worker with three years of experience gets a salary of Rs. 7000 for one month, which consists of 26 working days. This means she gets to take home about Rs 5600 after ESI (Employees’ State Insurance) and PF deductions.
The PF story: the use and abuse
The Provident fund has two components- 12% of the salary of the worker, which is matched by an equal amount from the employers. This gives it the name ‘double PF’. Under the un-amended rules, the total amount could be withdrawn in times of need (the worker has to resign from the position and apply after two months from that date).
After 10 years of service the worker becomes eligible for pension, and a major portion of the of employers’ contribution to the PF gets earmarked for the pension fund. This is then available to the workers at retirement and the worker cannot withdraw this amount while in employment. The concept of pension or a pensioner’s life is a distant unreal dream for garment workers. One cannot attempt to secure old age, when you cannot survive your pre-pension days—or as the proverb says ‘starve to save for the coffin’.
A worker with 15 years of service would have on average shifted 3 to 5 times—either due to harassment at work, need for leave, or money. The number of workers eligible for pension in the garment sector can be counted in the tens or hundreds, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands that are employed.
The amended rules would have restricted the funds accessible to the worker to only the worker’s contribution of PF. The rest of the savings- which includes the factory share/ management contribution will be accessible only on retirement. In the garment sector about 90% of workers ‘resign’ to get this amount as lump-sum to cover any large expenses, due to necessity induced by their otherwise low salaries.
A spark to the tinder
The Bommanahalli-Hosur road is one of the many hubs of the garment industry in Bangalore with over 200 factories which employ over 1.5 lakh workers. On the Monday morning, April 18, 2016 workers of Shahi, Jockey and K. Mohan, which have a number of units in this area, are reported to have triggered off the protest of workers against the central government announcement. Starting at the factory gates at 9:00 AM and moving to the main road by 10:30 AM, workers from nearly all factories along the route joined the protest. Around 10 -20 thousand workers came together as the word spread and there were blockades in the adjoining areas including Hulimavu, Banerghatta road (30 factories protested), Singasandra (near electronic city), Kodichikannahali and Hosur road.
Though day one of the strike was largely around Hosur and Banarghatta road, by Monday evening workers in all other areas where on high alert, wanting to join the massive outpouring on the streets. On Tuesday, it is reported that that workers in factories in Yeshwanthpur and Nelamangala areas, which have over 50 garment factories, joined the strike. The protest soon gathered momentum with about 35,000 – 40,000 workers blockading the road at five points along the route from Yeshvanthpur to Nelamangala- RMC yard metro station, Gorguntaplaya signal, SRS bus stop, Jalahalli cross, 8th mile Yeshvatnthpura and Adakamaranahalli (close to Nelamangala).
The protest has had a major positive impact not only for the garment workers who participated but also for the lakhs of workers and pensioners across the nation- the change in policy got rolled back. Unfortunately, workers and their representatives have generally been unable to elicit the same response form the government through petitions.
To quote Yashodha, an ex-garment worker and a leader in GLU: “Public property that was destroyed and public inconvenience is something I am truly sorry about, I wish it was not, but the protest was certainly required as the injustice faced by workers in this industry is unaccounted for. If we had a secure salary of at least Rs. 15,000 and assured secure work… then none of us would like to join a strike or block traffic to get ourselves heard… the issue is low salary, insecure job and high harassment both in terms of work targets and sexual harassment of workers. This kind of a turnout was totally unexpected, it is the dream of every worker to be able to be heard and seen as a person of some consequence. As the change in policy effected all factory workers, the strike seems to have gained momentum in numbers and participation.”
Support for the protest has come from several fronts including a group of women employed as maintenance staff in a college who were grateful for the impact as they too would have been affected by the amended rules and have benefitted immensely from the initiative taken by the garment sector workers. Even conductors have expressed their appreciation for the protest.
Though commuters were affected and there was loss of public property, this seems to have been the only way for these lakhs of workers, who are also citizens of this city and nation, to hold on to the little that they have in order to survive.