One day in February this year, Ammu, a 25-year-old textile worker, was found hanged in the most suspicious circumstances.
Her death was declared to be a suicide. This garment worker, at the ‘Triangle Apparels’ factory, Bangalore, was the mother of two children. Her death has orphaned them.
‘Triangle Apparels’ employs 1,500 workers, mostly women. On the issue of Ammu’s death, many co-workers vouch for the fact that it was harassment by supervisors, pressurising Ammu for more production, that resulted in the tragic incident. On the day of her death, Ammu was harassed and abused with filthy language. She was violently pushed and things were thrown at her. All this forced Ammu to seek an exit pass, but the production manager in charge further insulted her.
This is not one stray incident. Innocent girls and women are constantly being subjected to harassment resulting in death. Women garment workers are increasingly becoming victims for the super-profits of the bosses. Ammu’s incident shows how ordinary workers are disposable tools in the hands of the capitalist class and its autocratic methods of exploitation.
‘Triangular Apparels’ is part of the Gokuldas corporation which employs around 40,000 workers. It produces garments under brand names such as Mexx, Puma and O’Neil which are exported to foreign countries. In pursuit of super dollar-profits, the garment factory owners are exploiting and pressurizing the young women working in these factories to achieve ever higher production targets.
According to one report, there are 28,000 garment factories in India and 70% of these are export-oriented. In Bangalore alone, there are 3,800 factories employing 775,000 workers. The ownership of these factories lies in very few hands.
Although in 1994, the central government brought in the Minimum Wage Act, until now it has not been implemented in small workplaces. Most of the garment factories are small-scale. The factory acts are not applied in them and the owners ignore the all the regulations. Rampant bribery helps these leeches to super-exploit the workers.
In all the garment units, labour is highly exploited, wages are low, hours of work are long and there is no job security. Social security benefits are non-existent. The garment sector recruits women aged between 14 to 30 years. The minimum wage requirements are flouted and working hours are at least 10-12 hours a day. On top of this, there is forced overtime! If it is refused, unjust dismissal awaits.
The social conditions which force women to be of a shy nature, economically push them to take jobs in these garment factories. But once they are in, they have to face all kinds of sexual harassment. Indirect and direct sexual advances, insults, vulgar verbal abuse are all common in these sweatshops. Garment workers are exploited to the maximum. They work for 20 to 30 years without any week-long holidays and on 12-14 hour shifts. Even with all this work they are not in a position to pay for their children’s education and buy the essential items for their day-to-day life. This gross injustice has to be challenged by the workers’ movement.
Basic facilities such as toilets, ventilation and even drinking water are luxuries in these factories. There are restrictions for using the toilets. Women are not allowed to sit to do their work. Lunch breaks are a mere 30 minutes and are supervised. They are also expected to work overtime at short notice. The supervisors body-search the women garmentworkers as they leave – another humiliating practice along with all the other harassment they endure. Many women in these factories have also been forced into prostitution.
The thuggish supervisors and production managing staff are paid huge sums to maintain the super-profits for the bosses. Among the workers on the upper rungs of the ladder, tailors get a maximum of 140 rupees ($3) per day. Taking an average of 10 hours a day worked, an hour’s wage would not even fetch a kilo of vegetables. The plight of low-paid helpers and trainees is absolutely pathetic.
There are no measures taken to maintain industrial safety. Machines have faulty and obsolete technology which results in accidents. Many garment workers have damaged or lost their fingers in such conditions. As there is no proper ventilation, dust from the textile waste gets into the lungs of the workers. Many suffer from throat cancer due to these unhealthy working conditions. Anaemia, sleeplessness, miscarriages, leg and back pain are widespread among women garment workers.
Government statistics point to the fact that female employment is mostly in small-scale garment units and maximum exploitation, psychological stress and sexual abuse are on the rise in these workplaces. The moment the women even think about an organisation to defend their rights, the threat of dismissal looms large over their heads. They will be black-listed and it would be impossible for them to get a job in any other factory. Physical abuse has even been reported over attempts being made to organise. These threats intimidate women to shy away from unionisation – a boon to the bosses.
Today neo-liberalism and globalisation have helped the rich to massively increase their assets. This system of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has seen them using the police to protect themselves and their private property. They have used stooges within our own class to intimidate us. The working class must raise its voice against all these injustices.
Trade unions and organised workers must support the garment workers and unionise them. The economic situation of the country is pushing peasants as well as workers to commit suicide. There has not been a victory for any workers’ struggle in the last two and a half decades. All these factors are an obstacle to the workers’ struggles. The ‘left’ parties, unions and workers must realise this. In the coming future, private industry will be on the increase, which will increase the employment of women in these exploitation centres.
The trade unions have to build a strong movement against the lack of workers’ rights, price rises, and harassment at the workplace including sexual harassment.
A new life
A powerful movement comprised of all sectors of the working class must demand:
- Equal pay for equal work in the garment industry. A decent minimum wage for all. At least four weeks’ holiday a year and no Sunday working. Saturdays at double pay.
- All workers’ rights to be respected such as medical allowances, time off for sickness, and the right to leave work after 8 hours of labour. No to sexual harassment and bullying of any kind!
- Freedom to organise into trade unions and to strike. No victimisation.
There must not be another Ammu to grieve over. The trade unions and the movement have a responsibility to ensure an exploitation-free, harassment-free life for all workers, not least the women.
The free market, globalisation, liberalisation, new economic policies and any kind of capitalist policies do not work to overcome these problems. Women entering into the labour force give policy-makers, businessmen, capitalists the chance to make more profits. Women are used as cheap labour with a low level of wages and no job security.
That is why we, the socialists, urge the linking of the struggles of women with the class struggle and building a powerful working class, socialist alternative.
This international approach will not only emancipate women and other exploited sections of the population. It will also lead to the overthrow of the rotten system based on profit that means a hell on earth for working people. It will lead to the establishment of a new, democratic, harmonious and socialist way of organising society.
Nirmala Krishna, New Socialist Alternative (CWI India), Bangalore