Exploiting women in Bangalore's garments units

Exploiting women in Bangalore's garments units

Under the leadership of CITU, the workers are now pressing for their unpaid salaries, severance dues and other benefits, through dharnas and demonstrations at the offices of the labour commissioner, the chief minister, and the labour minister.
While IT and ITES have come to symbolise Bangalore’s globalised status in the reforms era, much less attention has been paid to the RMG  sector.

Yet, the phenomenal growth of garments exports factories, particularly after the withdrawal of quotas at the termination of the Multi Fibre Agreement in 2005, has been no less a part of the city’s integration into the global economy. A large number of global apparel firms have outsourced their production to Asian locales to take advantage of low wages and low production costs. India is now the fourth leading exporter in Ready Made Garments. Karnataka’s share is approximately 15 per cent of all Indian garments exports. The industry here is centred mainly in Bangalore, with more than 1,000 units, and close to 4,00,000 workers, predominantly women, work in these units.

While the RMG industry is frequently lauded for providing employment to a female workforce, wages remain low and largely unregulated in this sector. The Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, and the Institute of Developing Economies, Tokyo, in a jointly conducted survey of two hundred women RMG workers in the Mysore Road area in Bangalore, found that as much as 28 per cent of workers received a salary which is below the minimum statutory wage, (Rs 2,300). Within this category, about 10 per cent were getting much below the minimum wage, that is, their wages were going even below Rs 2,000 per month. During the recent economic recession, as orders from foreign buyers have plummeted and payments delayed, the industry has seen some closures and significant loss of jobs. Broadly speaking, the RMG sector exhibits the typical characteristics of informal and unregulated employment practices. Insecurity of work, harsh production targets, verbal abuse, lack of maternity and other leave, have been widely noted features in this sector.

The typical profile of the RMG worker is that of a young, recently migrated woman, lacking secondary level school education. Seventy per cent of the women we surveyed stated that the job in the garments sector has made a positive difference in their lives in terms of access to at least two square meals a day, thus indicating their relatively sharper experience of deprivation before they came to the garments sector. In the lives of some of the married women whose husbands were also earning a regular income, a garments job meant that they were able to pay their children’s school fees. Given this edge of vulnerability, most of the women workers were not in a position to complain about low wages. Their greatest bitterness centred around harsh production targets, overtime work without payment, monitored by male supervisors trained to extract work through severe verbal, sometimes physical, abuse. All of this explains the high levels of attrition in the industry, as workers leave jobs, unable to cope with the harshly implemented stiff production targets, often remain without jobs, or join the large army of domestic servants.

Interestingly, although most RMG factories must in principle fall under the Factories Act and the Industrial Disputes Act, the industry as a whole has been able to prevent unionisation and collective bargaining. NGOs such as CIVIDEP, as well as trade unions such as GATWU and MUNNADE, have involved workers in negotiations with governments and employers, while recently the CITU has sought to introduce more assertive, confrontationist, street based forms of protest. While all such interventions are central in supporting this vulnerable workforce, the obstacles to collective action in this sector remain formidable. Given that unionisation is not easily tolerated by employers, a predominantly female, first generation and semi-rural workforce remains out of tune with traditional union-like activities. For many women workers, subject to domestic abuse, alcoholic husbands, and lacking a traditional community support system in an unknown city, taking a monthly salary home is of greater urgency than pressing for workers’ rights.

But both economics and politics appear to be pitted against this workforce. Low wages and informal work underlie the competitive, low production costs in this sector, making it attractive for global retailers. Therefore, the sharply exploitative character of labour practices here is part of the economic logic of the global supply chain in garments production. Political parties and governmental agencies have consistently ignored the claims of this workforce, suggesting that the state would essentially pursue a market based, globally oriented model of industrial growth, without much heed to the fact that globalisation itself creates deep pockets of deprivation.