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Fighting For Rights Of India's Women Garment Workers

The industrial enclave of Narol is a beehive of activity and a major source of employment for low-skilled female workers. Yet finding a job is one thing, surviving it is another.

The reality behind it all is not so bright.
The reality behind it all is not so bright.
Goutam Kumar Mahanty*

NAROL — Situated on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in the northwestern state of Gujarat, Narol is a very large industrial hub that manufactures readymade garments, especially jeans, shirts, pants and T-shirts for sale both in India and abroad. For the multinational companies operating there, it is money-making machine. And yet, very little of that cash-flow makes its way into the hands of impoverished workers, most of them women, and many of them migrants.

Narol attracts workers not just from the city and its rural hinterland, but from across India, especially from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. And just like their counterparts in Bangalore, as revealed in the study conducted by ICN in collaboration with the Garment Labour Union, workers in Narol earn meager 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 programs launched in the 1990s by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, many major western clothing chains shifted their production to developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India primarily because of lower labor costs. During this period, Narol emerged as a major garments hub in India along with centers like Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Bangalore.

The workers are given impossible targets each day

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 labor costs down. Data show that in the past five years, the number of women employees has increased by 15% in the textile industry, and in Gujarat, the rate is double. Around 35 million are employed in the Indian textile industry of which nearly 20 million are women (Confederation of Indian Textile Industry, 2016).

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

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. Still, they constantly fall behind the targets, giving management an excuse to penalize 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 a tight deadline, everybody is forced to work overtime without any incentives or wages, coerced by threat of termination for refusal.

Suffocating conditions

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

Every factory in Narol has a boiler that is critical for the functioning of the machines. The boiler consists of a furnace in which coal or wood is burned to produce steam, which then powers all the machines.

"We are not allowed to leave the premises unescorted," says Sushilaben, an Adivasi worker employed in a boiler. "Visits from family are not encouraged and there have been numerous unregistered complaints of sexual harassment in the confines of these units."

Sushilaben's life is completely restricted to the factory's premises — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She lives in a make-shift home right outside the boiler. "We are grateful to god for gifting us nights, otherwise how else could we get our much-needed rest," she says.

Her powerful words convey the kind of hard work she does day and night, carrying up to 40 kg of heavy coal or wood dust at a time to fill the boiler that runs all the machines. She has no safety training or equipment. These workers are forced to work at the boiler unit even during the intense Ahmedabad summers.

"I spent 12 years of my life working and living in this factory. And yet I'm still not on the payroll of this factory. Nor am I identified as a worker," says Kamilaben, also an Adivasi. She started work at the daily wage rate of 180 rupees — about $2.70. A dozen years later, she earns 270 rupees ($4) a day. 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 because 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, close to the chimney of the boiler where we work," says Kamilaben.

Her testimony speaks volumes about the kind of physical risk and health hazards these workers and their children face in these factories. In these congested and closed spaces, women are also vulnerable to 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," says Vanaben, who works as a helper in a garment stitching unit. Instead they're judged on "their looks and to what extent they don't speak up against the exploitation," she adds.

This is the grim state of affairs of women workers employed in Narol's garment industry. Multinationals flaunt the fruits of their labor in the world of glitz and glamour. But the women themselves are largely invisible, as is their hard work and contribution to the economy and society as a whole. While the industry reaps higher and higher profits, the workers, with the cheap labor they provide, disproportionately bearing the long-term costs in terms of their health, security, well-being and basic human dignity.

*Goutam Kumar Mahanty works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit initiative that provides services, support and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers.

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