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This is the concluding article in a three-part series of articles on garment women workers during the pandemic. The other two articles were based on a case-study ‘Laid off during the pandemic: A case study of the closure of a garment factory, produced by the Alternative Law Forum (ALF). You can find them here and here. Dr. Swathi Shivanand is a research consultant at ALF).

Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic. If you’d like to share your article, email us at pragya@feminisminindia.com. 


Posted by R. Prathibha, translated by Swathi Shivanand

(As told to Swathi Shivanand in Kannada)

Note: The Garment and Textile Workers’ Union was formed in 2005 and registered as a trade union in 2006. As a Karnataka-based union, it has been at the forefront of garment workers’ struggle for livable wages and holding apparel brands accountable for labour violations in the state. The union led the struggle of workers at the Euro Clothing Company-2 (ECC-2) in Srirangapatna against the illegal layoff announced by Gokaldas Exports in June 2020, both on ground and in international forums. Although the primary demand of opening the factory was not met, the union’s intervention led to workers receiving a higher compensation package—at least two to four times more than what the company offered when it announced the lay-off. 

To understand just how remarkable this achievement of getting higher compensation packages is, we need to see this in the context of the structural exploitation and the incredible challenges unions face in organising workers and sustaining protests in the industry. In this article, GATWU’s president R. Prathibha offers us this broad context both within South Asia and in Karnataka, a major hub for export-oriented garment factories.

R. Prathibha On The Garment Industry

There are three kinds of spaces where apparel production takes place in India: export-oriented factories, domestic licensee factories (where companies like Aditya Birla and Page Industries are granted license to manufacture international brands) and local factories. The first two kinds of factories are where some amount of union intervention is possible.

In garment factories—be it in India, Sri Lanka or Cambodia—most higher management personnel are men, including supervisors and floor managers while workers are largely women. This enables a patriarchal control over women workers within the space of the factory as well.

This is because international apparel brands are associated in some form—either as primary buyers or their brand name is associated with the factory—and so they care about the adverse publicity they get when labour violations are publicised. This hostile publicity can impact their sales. That is the only reason they care. If they did care about workers, they would ensure workers in their supplier factories provide workers with livable wages. 

Also read: Migrant Women Workers On The Road: Largely Invisible And Already Forgotten

In local factories, it is almost impossible to intervene because factory owners have a tight control over the workforce. They don’t pay them minimum wages or have social security mechanisms such as provident fund (PF) and ESI. GATWU has primarily been working at the industry-level and with export-oriented and domestic licensee factories.

We have been working at the industry-level to get the state to increase the statutory minimum wages for workers and for implementation of labour laws. While we have been successful industry-wise, we have failed at the individual factory level. Workers simply don’t want to come forward to make the demand even for wages as mandated by law, especially in individual local factories. This reluctance to protest or negotiate with factory managements for better wages or facilities stems from the social location of the garment worker as well as systemic practices that keep workers insecure.

Understanding Workers’ Reluctance

A typical garment worker has low education, is about 20 to 25 years old and comes from a poor economic background. If the worker is from a rural area, she is typically from a landless or marginal land holding family. This profile has not changed in the last 20 years that we have been working. The only slight change we have seen is an increase in the age of the typical garment worker to about 30-40 years because the industry is facing a scarcity of labour.

In Bangalore, a garment worker does not travel too far from her home. Rather, she chooses to work in a garment factory because there is one close to her home. Her family also exerts control over her movements and don’t want her to travel long distances to work. This restricts her work possibilities considerably to certain localities. Given that she doesn’t view her work in the garment industry as a career, or as anything more than a means of earning income, her interest in unionising activities is low.

There is also great resistance from factory managements to unionising activities. Instances of workers being targeted for wanting to organise are fairly common. Moreover, the shop floor of a factory mirrors the larger patriarchal arrangement in societies in the global South where men exert power over women. In garment factories—be it in India, Sri Lanka or Cambodia—most higher management personnel are men, including supervisors and floor managers while workers are largely women. This enables a patriarchal control over women workers within the space of the factory as well.

All these factors hinder the union’s efforts. One such hurdle is in raising awareness about labour laws and worker rights. Although we bring up the distinctions between different kinds of law, workers still do not know that there are different kinds of law—labour law, civil law, criminal law etc. Their most common experience with the courts is with property-related disputes where the cases drag on for 10-15 years. So, for them a court case automatically means a long-drawn out dispute. We try to explain to all of them that this is not like property disputes. But when labour violations take place and we suggest going to the court for redressal, they oppose it. 

There is also great resistance from factory managements to unionising activities. Instances of workers being targeted for wanting to organise are fairly common. Moreover, the shop floor of a factory mirrors the larger patriarchal arrangement in societies in the global South where men exert power over women.

But, as the dispute at the Euro Clothing Company-2 (ECC-2) factory in Srirangapatna shows, there is an emerging distinction between workers in rural and urban areas. The reason that unionisation can take place more strongly in rural areas is because they don’t have many other opportunities. Workers here feel like they will fight and somehow keep the factory open. But this is also possible only when there is a union to mobilise and conduct the struggle, as with ECC-2 factory.

In Bangalore though, employment opportunities are more easily available for a garment worker (atleast before the pandemic began). Workers simply resign and find work in a nearby factory. Whatever we do, it is harder for us to retain workers in Bangalore when it comes to holding a factory accountable for labour law violations.

Systemic Practices of Garment Factories

In the garment industry, factory managements always want to shut down operations wherever it doesn’t work out for them. The industry is a labour-oriented industry, i.e. you need to have as many workers as you have machines. When a factory is started, it has to be registered under the Factories Act, 1948 and it doesn’t become easy to just shut shop and leave.

Also read: Losing Work In The Pandemic: Why Women Workers In Karnataka Protested…

So what factories do is, coerce workers to resign. They start rumours through supervisors that the factory will shut down. Workers don’t know. Even though we have been organising through the union for the last 20 years, we haven’t been able to educate about these strategies of the management to all workers. Workers get afraid when rumours of closure begin. They think that if they don’t resign, they will lose whatever is due to them (PF, Bonus, salary, earned leave, gratuity). So they all begin to resign one by one. Within 3-4 months, they can get the whole factory emptied. It becomes easy then for the management to close the factory. 

The other threat factory management holds over the workers is that of transferring from one unit to another. Now, most garment workers come to a factory because it is close to their home and is easy to access. When this threat of a transfer is made, workers are reluctant to travel far from homes and give in their resignations.  

This is the reason you will not see any declaration of official closure. If factories want to close, they have to provide notice to the concerned labour department under relevant sections of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. They have to provide for closure compensation, notice payment and other statutory dues; workers’ objections to closure are also heard by the labour department before it gives the permission to close the factory. To bypass all these lawful measures, factory management exert great pressure on workers to resign immediately.

The mobilisation at the ECC-2 factory was a remarkable one because workers resisted these patriarchal pressures and the coercive tactics of the factory management. Through sustained efforts of worker-leaders from the factory, they were able to win for themselves a better compensation deal for all the years they slogged for profits of Gokaldas Exports and H&M (apparel brand being manufactured at ECC-2 factory).

This is the concluding article in a three-part series of articles on garment women workers during the pandemic. The other two articles were based on a case-study ‘Laid off during the pandemic: A case study of the closure of a garment factory, produced by the Alternative Law Forum (ALF). You can find them here and here. Dr. Swathi Shivanand is a research consultant at ALF).


Swathi is a research consultant at ALF. She has a doctorate in Modern History from JNU and her interests are in areas of urban, region, labour and gender. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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