The working conditions for women at garment factories in Bengaluru
By Amnesty International India
1 May 2018 4:58 pm
The path to becoming a developed nation, as the phrase is generally understood (meaning a nation of mostly middle class income earners living in a liberal democracy) has historically been as follows.
Agricultural workers of low productivity shift to light industry, meaning manufacturing of garments, assembly of objects and so on, then shift to heavy industry, meaning the manufacture of machinery and automobiles and capital goods, which requires more skills and more infrastructure and then finally to advanced manufacturing and technology.
India has a large number of people in the primary set, meaning agricultural workers seeking to shift to light industry. The disproportionate amount of focus on a small segment of Indians who work in the final set, technology and advanced manufacturing, means that the issues that concern the first set are not usually those that worry us as a nation.
For example, few of us are opposed to the idea of more manufacturing being done in India, but not much thought is given to the conditions under which it is already happening. The focus is on liberalising labour law in favour of the manufacturer and the right of the worker is seen as an impediment if not a nuisance. One aspect of this is wages and termination, but there is another aspect and that is the conditions and safety under which work happens.
A 2015 study conducted by the NGOs Sisters for Change and Munnade found evidence of widespread sexual harassment and other violence at garment factories in Bengaluru, and a disturbing lack of accountability. 60% of 148 surveyed workers reported facing verbal, physical or sexual violence at their workplaces, and 1 in 7 seven garment workers reported being raped or forced to commit a sexual act. Over 60% of women workers said they were prevented from reporting cases, and only about 4% of reported cases of violence led to action by the factory or the police.
Around 5 lakh individuals, of whom 80% are women, work in Bengaluru’s garment industries. The conditions under which they work are not those which individuals in white collar work take for granted. For example, internal complaints committees that are mandated by law to address sexual harassment in many of the manufacturing units are defunct or non-existent.
A few months ago, members of the Garment Labour Union described the conditions they worked under and it is instructive to listen to their voices.
“There are a lot of migrant women from Jharkhand, Orissa, UP and other north Indian states. Most of them are between 16 and 23. These women don’t speak the local language and are subjected to abusive language. They are touched, held and spoken to in sexual language.”
Yashoda said: “The men who are in charge of these women exploit them by asking them to “cooperate”. For example, “if you cooperate, we will give you less production and raise your salary” or “I will give you overtime pay.” They ask for phone numbers too.
Saroja said: “90% of the workers are women but all the supervisors are men. The women fear sharing their experiences with others for fear of being victimised again by the community. If factories follow the guidelines against sexual harassment and Internal Complaints Committees are functional and complaints reported properly, the problem can be solved.”
The women said that the government was not doing what it needed to on this issue. One reason is that there is insufficient pressure on the state to act. This can change through action by us. Labour Day’s origins are in the idea that the working day could not be more than eight hours long and that workers were entitled to humane conditions. It is unconscionable that in 2018 we tolerate, in our greatest cities, large numbers of women workers who are exploited and subjected to these conditions.