India: The challenging life of labourers with rays of hope

Around 45 million workers are employed in the garment and textile industry in India. Majority among them are women, who spend around eight hours a day, six days a week inside one of the garment factories, constantly breaking their necks and backs over a sewing machine.

But their hardships don’t end with this tedious and monotonous job since they are more than willing to sweat it out to earn their daily bread and butter. What make their lives miserable are the verbal and physical abuse, injustice and lack of facilities at the factories they are employed in. However, leading associations such Apparel Export Promotion Council of India (AEPC) are working towards bringing about a positive change in the situation of garment workers in the country.

India: The challenging life of labourers with rays of hope

Talking about one such initiative, Ashok Rajani, Chairman, AEPC told FashionUnited: “In 2012-13, AEPC initiated a comprehensive capacity building programme for the garment units aimed at improving management systems and practices for positive impact on workplace relationships, productivity, attrition and workers’ health and safety.”

Workers’ woes continue but shoots of positive changes make headways

On the other hand, despite the continuous efforts of organisations such as Garment and Textile Worker's Union (GATWU) in Bangalore, daily routine of the garment workers hasn’t changed much over the years...says Jayaram KR, ex-Vice President and now advisor to GATWU.

A 2015 study ‘Production of Torture’, conducted by PUCL-Karnataka, ALF, IISc, Manthan law, NLSIU and Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade, draws the profile of a woman, who takes up a garment factory worker’s job in India. It says, women aged between 18 and 45, who wished to but could not afford to continue their studies after school, married before they were 18, already mothers to one or two children, joined a garment factory in Bangalore/Mysore/Maddur areas soon after marriage to make both ends meet. She is usually the main earner in the family, and though she would like to take up a more respectful job, lack of education and family support binds her to the factory.

At the factory level, production targets stress her since the production manager or supervisor often targets her if she fails to meet the deadline, with verbal and physical abuse. Also physical and mental stress leads to poor health. To bridge the gap of gender inequality among garment factories and to prevent sexual harassment against women, AEPC, recently partnered with a brand forum for ‘Gender Equality Programme’ aimed at improving gender equality at the workplace. The association has also partnered with ILO for promoting good practices in the apparel sector aimed at improving workplace condition, health & safety and workers’ productivity.

“UK Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon launched the second phase of the ‘Gender Equality in the Workplace’ programme at the offices of Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC) in Gurugram on August 10th, 2017. The programme, which is funded by the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and is in partnership with leading British brands and Indian manufacturers is aimed at improving garment workers’ awareness of their rights, and the procedures for reporting and resolving grievances,” Rajani exclaims.

India: The challenging life of labourers with rays of hope

A typical day in the life of a garment factory worker

The ‘Production of Torture’ study describes the typical day in the life of a female garment factory worker. It states that her day starts at 4 AM as she has to complete the household chores like cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and getting children ready, before she is ready to leave for her hectic day ahead. Since she has to travel quite a long distance to reach the factory at 9.30 AM, she has to catch a bus at 7.30 AM, followed by a private tempo, and then almost run for the last few yards so that she is not late for the gate checking. Once she is in through the gate checking process, she enters the batch-room, where a day’s task is assigned to her.

On days when she is late, the report adds, she has to stand at the security for an hour or so, till HR manager permits her to enter and start work and on days like these, she has to make up for the lost time by missing her lunch time or sitting after work hours to finish her that day’s target.

Again at 5.30 PM, she hurries out of the factory once again to start her long journey back home, which includes shopping for vegetables/household items. By the time, she reaches home around 8-9 PM, her duty as a mother, daughter-in-law, wife begins….and she gets engrossed in preparing dinner, finishing leftover jobs, preparations for the next day. Finally she gets to hit the bed at about 11-12 PM.

India: The challenging life of labourers with rays of hope

However, according to Rajani, many international brands have come forward to partner in this process towards improving management practices aimed at better work place relationship and working conditions. “AEPC’s recent association with UK government for the launch of second phase of gender equality at workplace programme is an example of the importance which we accord to the issue of better workplace relationship,” he states.

Struggles and positive efforts - two sides of the garment factory life

With constant struggle and appeals for meetings with the minimum wage board, GATWU was finally able to revise and increase the minimum wage to Rs 1,556 per month in the year 2014. For the last five years, Jayaram KR says, in the state of Karnataka, almost all garments workers are covered by social security schemes like ESI and PF. However, certain issues like mental and physical harassment remain constant in the factories.

Jayaram KR tells FashionUnited that at the moment GATWU is focusing on state level advocacy for revision of the minimum wages and certain other issues. “Major issues that GATWU is constantly dealing with is the torture at the factory to produce a certain unachievable target for each worker and disrespectful attitude towards workers. GATWU is discussing this issue with the international brands sourcing from India,” he states.

Rajani asserts that the export units need to maintain transparency on the working conditions, wages, grievances redressal mechanism and need to constitute working welfare committee and trainings on workers’ rights and responsibilities.

Jayaram KR adds that while some companies cooperate with the workers issues, this cooperation is limited to one off incidents. Since GATWU is a part of several international union networks such as International League for Brands Responsibility, TAI-Asia and Ver.di, Jayaram KR says, they have been extremely supportive to GATWU in reaching out to the brands and negotiate with them. The network also helps in building pressure on brands to comply with the laws.

India: The challenging life of labourers with rays of hope

“The garment industry is a very labour intensive industry and hence welfare of workers is an important issue. Also the garment export units are subject to frequent audits by buyers on various social aspects especially on the working conditions and worker’s grievances. Recognizing the importance of worker welfare, both for better productivity and reputational issues, the industry has been positive to change,” Rajani concludes.

Picture courtesy:AEPC India, GATWU Bangalore


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