Thursday, May 23, 2024
India News

Warped deal: the victimisation of women in the garment industry

Devi Gopika’s work day starts at Budhur, a village in Chengalpattu district, at 4.30 a.m. — to fix breakfast and make and pack lunch for her daughters and herself, before she boards the factory bus to PGL Exports, a garments manufacturer. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., she is on her feet, working on the assembly line producing high-end clothes that will be sold at a premium brand store in Europe or North America, at a price that is bound to be several times more than her hourly wage.

Ms. Devi is among the 5 lakh-odd women in Tamil Nadu employed in one of the upmarket “fast fashion” industries that churns out a wide range of garments. From socks and shorts to jackets and jumpsuits, an array of apparel is supplied to the who’s who of the readymade fashion industry in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Japan: Gap, Nordstrom, Polo, H&M, Uniqlo, J Crew, Victoria’s Secret, Indian Terrain, to name a few.

Protest for wage hike

Last month, nearly 40 women members of the Garment and Fashion Workers’ Union (GAFWU) protested in front of the Labour Commissioner’s office in Chennai. They demanded an increase in the minimum wage, mandated to be raised every five years, but pending for nine years. Experts say the process that turns raw materials into finished garment is underpinned by a well-oiled system of exploitation. Lawyer D. Geetha, who represents GAFWU, explains, “There exist arbitrary wage gaps that even goes up to ₹4,000 between the different ‘grades’ of workers, to create an artificial hierarchy between the hosiery workers, who are seen as belonging to a lower grade, and their tailor or cutter counterparts, perceived as more skilled.”

There are many other ways in which women workers in the sector are exploited. For example, workers who have put in, say, five years or more or those needing a short break are casually fired so they can be re-hired for a lower salary with fewer benefits. “Everything is about making us feel dispensable and less-skilled, whereas we know through the rigorous quality checking mechanisms in place that none of what we do is ‘low skilled’. In fact, garment factory work requires a lot more concentration and being detail-oriented,” says D. Shanthi, who works as a checking inspector, and despite being at the top of the pay ladder, takes home less than the promised ₹10,000 because of the transport and refreshment allowances deducted from her salary. GAFWU has been regularly flagging this “egregious issue” of wages remaining stagnant since 2014.

“Furthermore, suppliers sometimes cook the books to make a profit. We used to list a crèche for childcare that never existed but helped to fudge accounts,” Ms. Shanthi says.

Bearing the double burden

The State’s most vulnerable group — women from caste-oppressed communities who have historically been denied access to education and opportunities for mobility — have been left high and dry. Feminist and South Asian history scholar Tithi Bhattacharya talks about the “social reproduction of labour”, which is the process of putting workers in the workforce. Ms. Bhattacharya says it is women who typically bear the “double burden” of being a significant or even sole breadwinner at times, and also running the household. This household work that feminist economists have come to call “unpaid care work that is invisibilised”, on the pretext of being low-skilled, in turn impacts women as labourers in the workforce, where they find themselves stuck in low-wage, low-skilled jobs.

The matter went to court

The last time the State revised the minimum wage for garment workers was in 2014. By then, it was already five years late. But this increase was never implemented because more than 500 manufacturers took the matter to the Madras High Court, claiming that it would be impossible to pay the new wages, and they would lose business to more competitive rivals in neighbouring States or even neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and increasingly, Pakistan.

Garment workers earn between ₹9,875 ($119) every month for the lowest category and ₹10,514 ($127) for the highest category. With the implementation of the new minimum wage, the monthly pay will range between ₹15,211 ($183) for the lowest category and ₹16,379 ($197) for the highest. “This is still not a liveable wage. But it is a start,” explains GAFWU president and veteran labour organiser Sujata Mody.

In 2016, the High Court ruled in favour of workers and upheld the wage notification. The court ordered the manufacturers to pay the revised wages immediately, along with inflation-linked allowances and back wages from December 2014. However, the new wages were yet again not implemented because manufacturers moved the Supreme Court, protesting that they could not afford the demand.

In November 2023, the petition was heard by the Supreme Court, where the State government’s inaction was reprimanded, and a mandate issued to revise the wages of the garment industry workers. Once more, the court directed the State to take corrective measures, but the industry turned a deaf ear. The wages have been stagnating. “Inflation has gone through the roof, yet our wages remain unchanged. The government listens to the employers, but rarely to us. It is we, the women workers, who continue to get exploited,” says V. Dhanalakshmi, a worker and union member.

“There is also this tricky nexus between the government and the industry, and job classification in the sector arbitrarily as ‘hosiery’ and ‘tailoring’ when all work is quite skilled. This translates to a significant yet inexplicable wage gap,” says Ms. Geetha, the advocate.

Last month, when the case was brought back to the Supreme Court, through a special application by GAFWU, the court was appalled to note that the revised wage notification had not yet been issued by the State, union members claim.

Women workers constitute about 60% of the nearly 18 lakh tailoring workers in Tamil Nadu. The textile and clothing industry was traditionally unionised, largely male-dominated, and wages settled through collective bargaining. However, the restructured factory set-up brought in sweatshop conditions, say experts.

In Tamil Nadu, the decline in agricultural work freed women for factories, though the government, employers, multinationals, and union leaders — mostly men — failed to regard women as independent earners, supporting their families.

‘Patriarchal and exploitative’

“The garment industry, in particular the export garment sector, epitomises gender and caste discrimination. Wages are suppressed when any industry is feminised, and we see that yet again with the garment sector. Schemes like ‘Sumangali Thittam’, instituted by employers and supported by the State, are not just patriarchal but also deeply exploitative, and were an attempt to legitimise bonded labour,” explains Ms. Mody.

In recent years, the free transport that factories offered to women has been cut in retaliation for the workers demanding their rightful and much overdue wage hike. Women now see a deduction in their salaries. Restroom breaks are regimented especially when targets are fixed unreasonably high. “After the COVID-19 pandemic, many factories saw a huge spike in demand, and the burden once again fell on these women workers who take it up cheerfully, with fewer breaks and longer work hours, and with overtime pay not guaranteed,” says GAFWU general secretary Palani Bharathi.

Sanchita Banerjee Saxena, a human rights advocate who has been researching garment workers’ rights and issues in Bangladesh and transnationally in South Asia, spoke of the predicament of suppliers. “When wages are not increased incrementally over time to keep up with the cost of living, workers are bound to eventually protest to get their rightful dues. Suppliers don’t make a huge profit to begin with, as they are constantly cutting cost to be competitive. As a result, meeting a sudden jump in wages for hundreds or thousands of workers is also a financial ordeal for them,” she says.

“We also need to move from the idea of a minimum wage to a living wage. Minimum wage does not take into account the rising cost and inflation. Multinational global brands hold the ultimate power in this sector — they make suppliers cut cost, and that cut is borne ultimately by this highly feminised workforce. These companies need to do better, and that can only happen through introducing legislation that governments can use to hold them accountable,” Ms. Saxena says. “Further, European countries have introduced more comprehensive due diligence legislation and hopefully this trend will continue in the U.S. and other countries.”

‘Prioritise living wages’

V. R. Jaganathan, general secretary of the Indian National Textile Workers Federation (INTWF), said in a release: “Minimum wages in India are low and poorly implemented; this has a negative influence on [women] workers and their ability to lead a decent life. We must prioritise living wages and ensure their effective implementation in all States.”

Tirupur Exporters’ Association president K.M. Subramanian said the companies are ready to cooperate with the workforce. “There is a huge labour shortage and we are struggling to meet our targets with the current workforce. We are ready to cooperate with workers for the sake of retention and growth. As soon as the updated wage notification is issued, we are ready to pay the higher salaries.”

At the spontaneous protest held last month, Labour Commissioner Atul Anand assured workers that the revised wages would be determined in accordance with the draft notification of 2023, before the next hearing at the Supreme Court.

“We see in the Global South an increased ‘feminisation of responsibility’ that puts the burden of running the household as well as providing the family with the substantial and, sometimes, main financial stability on the women,” says Kalpana Karunakaran, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.

It is a couple of hours after her shift has ended. Devi Gopika is back home and preparing a hot dinner for her family of five. As fresh fish sizzles on the ‘tava’ in her modest kitchen and a ‘thideer’ (instant) sambar bubbles on the side, her oldest daughter is poring over her college work and an informal meeting of a few women union members is under way in her living room. “Thanks to GAFWU, women like me have a resource to learn about our rights and do something about it. Otherwise, I would feel quite hopeless. And it makes me more determined to ensure my children are educated,” she says. A picture of Dr. Ambedkar hangs on the wall next to her tailoring machine in a corner of the living room. In addition to all the tailoring work at the factory, she takes on orders for sari blouses to make ends meet.

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