What is common between moderately-priced apparel available at Walmart stores across the US and merchandise in expensive standalone Gap clothing stores? India. Or more specifically the ‘Made in India’ label.
Today, international clothing brands the world over use cheap labour that’s abundantly available in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and India to bulk produce their designs.
In her study, ‘Globalisation and Employment: Survey of Ready Made Garment Workers in Bangalore’ (2006), Dr Supriya Roy Chowdhury, Professor at Institute for Social and Economic Change, has noted that globalised production structures seek to take advantage of low wages in developing countries. In the case of the readymade garments (RMG) sector, in particular, the industry appears to be characterised by a continuous search for new locations, underpinned by low production costs.
A significant portion of the apparel business is handled by the 1,000 plus manufacturing units in Bangalore, where close to 4,00,000 workers, predominantly women, are involved in the manufacturing process, right from fabric grading and cutting to stitching, finishing and packaging. Leading labels such as Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer, Gap, H&M, Matalan, Mothercare and George employ Karnataka’s largest unorganised workforce.
But while there are advantages galore for the manufacturers, what about the women workers who toil away in these units? Do they get fair wages, maternity leave, crèche facilities, housing, medical benefits, overtime pay and job security — the benefits that they should be entitled to under the law?
Another study by Roy Chowdhury, ‘Women, Work and Activism in Ready-Made Garments Industry’, that came out last year, provides some answers to these questions. It reveals that 28 per cent of the workers receive a salary that is below the statutory minimum wage of Rs 2,300. Within this category, 10 per cent receive wages lower than Rs 2,000 a month. And while 72 per cent earn above the minimum wage, the maximum salary is only Rs 4,000 — only 6.5 per cent of those surveyed were in this category.
“But things are not what they used to be,” says K Subramanian, Marketing Manager, European Division, Gogo International Company, which is owned by the Goenkas.
Govindamma (40) was a tailor for four years at VCC, a manufacturing unit of Gokaldas Exports in Bangalore. She worked from 9 am to 5.30 pm, with a lunch break in between. Though she left her job after marriage, Govindamma lists the benefits VCC’s women employees are given, “During pregnancy, the factory gives three months’ leave to workers, provides for their treatment and also gives an additional Rs 10,000. A month’s salary is given as bonus each year; workers are also given 14 days leave besides sick leave and Sundays; and Provident Fund (PF) provided.” The VCC factory also has a doctor’s room where women can rest if they are feeling unwell and a day-care centre for young mothers.
Gangamma (39), who works at VCC as a tailor, says: “If I can put in 10 years of work, I will get a pension after I turn 50. If I leave after five years, I will get about Rs 60,000 as PF. It’s money enough to open a small grocery shop of my own, if I want. Now, I earn about Rs 150 a day.” Gangamma’s colleague, Sobha (20) worked for a month in VCC as a helper and got about Rs 2,500. “I didn’t like being away the whole day, so I quit,” she says adding that “one has to be 18 years old or they do not take you in.”
Many women consider it good fortune to get the opportunity to work with a garment manufacturer. Says Narsamma (43), a domestic worker whose friends work in such units, “I have spent the last 12 years of my life as a domestic help. For my several hours of hard work that I put in every day, I do not get any monetary benefits from my owners other than my salary. I feel it’s better to be a garment worker than a maid. At least one can take loans.”
According to Subramanian, things are better now because compliance laws have become more stringent. “Our buyers make it a point to ask about sexual harassment rules, day care centres, and so on. There are globally expected salary slabs fixed by compliance rules. Buyers actually interact with workers and check whether what the company says is true. Otherwise the company is blacklisted.”
But Subramanian also adds that many small-scale industries do not follow compliance rules. “Most companies know this and do not outsource orders to such units. Concerns like ours seldom fail an audit.”
Roy Chowdhary however believes that these audits are stage-managed. “Only loyal workers are handpicked and the rest are instructed to say nothing. Audits in Bangalore are unsuccessful. There are two faces to this industry: On the one hand it helps semi-rural women earn a livelihood and takes care of their two square meals a day, on the other hand it exploits labour and gives them minimum wages.”
“The big manufacturers ensure good practices and better treatment of workers not because of compliance laws but because it’s a tradition with them. They make huge profits and can afford to give a better deal to workers. However, the garment workforce in Bangalore is very varied. There are also small and very small holdings, which are dingy workplaces with hardly any facilities for the worker,” she adds.
To ensure workers’ interests, she suggests that The Factories Act and the Industrial Disputes Act should allow for collective bargaining as well as provide security of employment and regular revision of wages. “However, for a number of reasons, employers in the RMG industry have been able to prevent unionisation/collective bargaining. They have committees instead, like the Cleanliness Committee and others, but no Wage Committee. In the eyes of the workers, social audit has made no difference,” she says.
Every year, Karnataka exports readymade garments worth Rs 45 billion (2004-05). The state owes a lot of its prosperity to the women who power this booming sector. While there are some measures to safeguard their interests, there is a lot to be desired when it comes to ensuring fulfilment of basic rights, like a minimum wage and proper working conditions.