Monday, April 30, 2018

Sweated Labour

“If you know how to stitch cloth then you will easily find work in a garment factory, but surviving here is not easy, as they squeeze you like they squeeze the clothes” Lakkuben, a garment worker. 

In their constant drive to increase profits,  big multinational clothing chains have in recent years set up production houses in Narol, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. It is a very large industrial hub that manufactures readymade garments, especially jeans, readymade shirt, pants, and T-shirts, sold widely in domestic markets as well as abroad. It attracts workers not just from the city and its rural hinterland, but from across India, especially from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. Just like their counterparts in Bangalore workers here too earn meagre salaries and work in precarious conditions, with little respite to the chronic poverty that their families face back home.  As a result of the structural adjustment programmes initiated by World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1990s, many major western clothing chains shifted their production to developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India primarily because of lower labour cost. During this period, Narol emerged as a major garments hub in India along with centres like Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Bangalore.

The shift from mainly male workers to an increasing proportion of lower paid female workers in the garment workforce has been one of the major ways in which industrialists have been able to keep their labour costs down. Data show that in the past five years, the number of women employees has increased by 15% in the textile industry and the rate is double in Gujarat. 

The workers are given impossible targets each day, of stitching about 400-500 pieces, which is estimated to be three-to-four times what is humanly possible. As a result, they work at a frantic pace, often forgoing meal breaks or using the toilet. Yet, they constantly fall behind the target, which gives the management an excuse to penalise or fire them. Overtime work in the industry tends to be compulsory both for regular and contract workers; if there is a large order with tight deadline, everybody is forced to work overtime without any incentives or wages, coerced by threat of termination for refusal.

“I spent 12 years of my life working and living inside this factory, still I am not in the payroll of this factory nor am I identified as a worker” says Kamilaben, an Adivasi. She started work at the wage rate of Rs 180. Now she gets Rs 270 as daily wage. During the last 12 years, her wage has increased by only Rs 90. She and her husband do the same work but her husband is paid more. “Our shift keeps changing every week and night shifts are scary as we feel extremely unsafe in the factory. We have to take our kids along while we go for work and we keep them in a cradle made of cloth" Her testimony speaks volumes about the kind of physical risk and health hazards these workers and their children face in these factories.

“We are not allowed to leave the premises unescorted, visits from family are not encouraged and there have been numerous unregistered complaints of sexual harassment in the confines of these units” says Sushilaben, an adivasi worker. Sushilaben ’s life is completely restricted to the factory’s premises 24/7.  “We are grateful to god for gifting us nights, otherwise how else could we have taken the much-needed rest” she says.

Most women who work in these congested and closed spaces of these stitching units, face not only health hazards but also a constant threat of sexual harassment and exploitation, all in the name of protecting their sole source of livelihood.

“The factory owners prefer to hire younger women and a woman is never assessed based on her work. Her retention depends on her looks and to what extent she doesn’t speak up against the exploitation” says Vanaben, who works as a helper in a garment stitching unit.

In their constant drive to increase profits,  big multinational clothing chains have in recent years set up production houses in Narol. As a result of increased competition, garment unit owners have been imposing even more exploitative conditions on their workers.

While the clothes these women stitch are flaunted by big multinational in their world of glitz and glamour, the grim state of affairs of women workers employed in Narol’s garment industry, whose hard work and contribution to the economy and society at large,  is invisible and under-valued. In the process of  providing cheap labour to the garment industry, these women workers are bearing disproportionately long-term costs in terms of their health, security, well-being and basic human dignity, while the industry reaps higher and higher profits.

Two workers were burnt to death in yet another factory fire in the national capital — this time at a jeans manufacturing unit at Gandhi Nagar in Shahdara district of north-east Delhi. This is the sixth such incident — of workers dying after a factory caught fire — since the beginning of this year, and the fourth in the last month alone. A total of 28 workers have reportedly died in factory fires in 2018 so far.
On 20 January, 17 workers were charred to death at an unauthorised firecracker unit in Bawana Industrial Area. These workers included at least seven women too, including one who was pregnant.
On 10 February, one worker died after a fire broke out at a garment manufacturing unit in Karol Bagh.
On 7 April, two workers died in a blaze at a footwear manufacturing unit at an industrial area in Bhorgarh, Narela, in north-west Delhi.
On 9 April, four workers — including two minors — died after a fire broke out at an illegally  running shoe manufacturing unit in Sultanpuri of north-west Delhi.
On 17 April, two workers died in a fire at a crockery factory in Nawada. 
Many of the factories that comprise Delhi’s unregulated small industries sector operate in unauthorised areas, usually residential areas of the lower middle class and slum areas — which are not part of the officially designated industrial areas. Typically, because these factories are operating illegally, there are no fire safety measures, no labour laws are followed and the working conditions are deplorable. Another common practice in such units is that the factory gate is locked from the outside even as the workers sleep inside — as was the case in both the Sultanpuri unit and the Nawada unit. At the time of the Sultanpuri fire, 40 workers were sleeping inside the factory.
Workers in such factories are paid a paltry wage — much below the minimum wage — while working overtime. In Delhi, the official minimum wage for an eight-hour work day is Rs 13,350 per month for unskilled workers, Rs 14,698 for semi-skilled workers and Rs 16,182 per for skilled workers, according to a notification in March 2017. In the Bawana factory, workers were reportedly up to Rs 200 per day for a 10-hour shift. In the Sultanpuri shoe manufacturing unit, workers were being paid on a piece-rate of Rs 30 per pair of shoes, while working 10-12 hours per day.
So why are these incidents continuing to happen? 
“It is the same old story. It is because of the callous attitude of the government that such tragic incidents continue. Inspection and implementation are weak. Officials are corrupt and often ignore violations,” said Anurag Saxena, general secretary of the Delhi unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), speaking to Newsclick.“These illegal units tend to operate on extremely small premises. It is not even possible to install the fire safety measures as required by the law. Saxena said there were just 11 labour inspectors to take care of more than 20 lakh workers in Delhi. He said one solution was to shut down the illegally running units.
 the challenge in front of the Trade Unions is to organise workers in the unorganised sector and take up these issues more aggressively. 

No comments: