“Sometimes it feels like #MeToo was only for those women who know lots of people on Facebook. That it is only for those women, who have the influence to make men scared of consequences. Maybe I am wrong. But our lives have not changed. Men in our lives are not scared of consequences. We had also conducted a #MeToo meeting in Bengaluru last year, thinking it would change something. But we don’t have any stories of change to tell,” says 35-year-old Radha*, a garment worker at a factory in Karnataka’s Maddur.
Over a year ago, Radha, an employee of Shahi Exports, a garment factory in Maddur, gathered the courage to approach the Internal Committee (IC) at the factory she works in. Radha accused the supervisor of sexually harassing her for months.
“My supervisor used to demand sexual favours from me. When I kept saying no repeatedly, he would make me stand in the corner of the room in front of everyone. He would verbally harass me. He would use such words in front of the whole floor of women and shout loudly to humiliate me. This was not the end of it. He also tried to force himself on me. That’s when I decided to complain,” Radha said.
Radha then confided in her colleagues and also discussed with them the consequences of approaching the IC and filing an official complaint. Radha’s colleagues dissuaded her and told her that the supervisors would harass her even more if they found out about the complaint. She then approached members of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union, who supported her in her decision to file a complaint with the IC.
This was the beginning of the long months of harassment that she has suffered from her superiors, she says. In November last year, a 52-member IC was convened. Radha alleges that the IC did not even take her testimony into account and only heard the supervisor’s version.
“I did not even know when the IC conducted this investigation. I was never called for any testimony. One day, the manager told me that the IC found my supervisor innocent of all accusation I had made. They called me a liar. After the union members intervened, another IC was formed and they too called me a liar,” Radha says.
Why garment workers are scared to speak up
Around 85% of the workforce in garment factories are women. The women are always employed at lower levels, whilst managerial jobs are given to men. This makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment on a regular basis.
Radha, who is struggling to find another job, still works at the same factory. She alleges that her she has been working under a new supervisor, who makes her stand in the corner of a room and does not allow her to work. “They give me my salary but they don’t allow me to work. They make me stand in the corner of the room. This is very humiliating. My supervisors tell other women, ‘This is what happens when you lie and speak against the management’. They are making an example out of me,” Radha says.
In addition to the humiliation she suffers, Radha says that the supervisor also threatens the workers with physical violence. “When one of the women go on bathroom breaks and take more than five minutes to come out, the supervisor yells at them and abuses them verbally. He has also scared me many times by saying he will beat me up with his boots and also threatens to physical the workers if they question him,” she adds.
Just like Radha, Vasundara*, a 28-year-old garment factory worker in Bengaluru’s Bommanahalli, says that she quit her previous job in Peenya due to repeated sexual harassment by her floor manager.
Vasundara, who was employed in Allure Fashions at Peenya for three years, alleges that she had been at the receiving end of lewd comments from her floor manager for over eight months before she decided to file a complaint with the IC. “The IC had representation from the garment workers too but these were men and women who were scared to speak against the management. The IC concluded that I was lying and then the humiliation from my superiors was even worse. My supervisor would find excuses to verbally abuse me in front of everyone. Every abuse would begin with calling me a liar and end with comparing me to a sex worker,” she said.
Speaking to TNM, Pratibha, President of Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade, says that the instances of garment workers reporting sexual harassment at their factories is very low.
“There are only a handful of instances where women have spoken up and complained to ICs. These women work for garment factories which export to brands like H&M, Zara, Vans and other big brands. These big companies have made it mandatory for factories to have ICs but it is a rarity that these ICs function properly,” Pratibha says.
Pratibha says that the fear of backlash and the continuous harassment faced by the women who have spoken up have made these workers fearful of speaking about sexual harassment. “More often than not, these women are victims of domestic violence too. When they face this at work, and are made to feel that more harassment will come their way if they speak up, they will naturally tend to remain silent,” she adds.
No knowledge of ICs
In Radha and Vasundara’s cases, the women were a part of trade unions and were aware that their factories have ICs. However, most of the workers in garment factories are not unionised, and are hence unaware of the existence of the committee.
Pooja, a member of KOOGU, an association for garment workers and victims of domestic violence, says that only 2% of the women working in garment factories are part of the union.
“The managements at factories do not tell the women about ICs and that they can file complaints. Most of the women do not even know that they have the right to demand a work environment that is free from harassment. They are conditioned to believe that this is how life should be. They don’t know what an IC is and they are scared to join unions because garment workers, who are a part of unions face harassment on a daily basis,” Pooja says.
Pooja says that since outsiders are not allowed inside the factories, it becomes doubly difficult to create awareness programmes. “The factories do not take the initiative. Last year, we had spoken to many women who are not part of the union and they don’t even know the procedure to file a complaint. They don’t know who the IC members are. When they approach the HR person, they are told that the matter will be investigated. Then they are harassed for approaching the HR. They work in an environment of fear,” she says.
The mental toll it takes on garment workers
After the apathy she suffered at the hands of her employers, Vasundara says that she had though of ending her life on multiple occasions. Vasundara, who has two children aged 4 and 7 years, says her meagre salary of Rs 9,000 per month supports a family of four. Vasundara’s husband is a daily wage worker and more often than not is unemployed. “When my husband has no work, he stays at home. If I had ended my life, then my children would not survive too. That is the only thing that stops me. I know I am not the only one to feel this way either,” she says.
In 2011, a 20-year-old garment worker named Aarti took her life in Bengaluru. The sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of her supervisor in the factory she worked had driven her to take the drastic step, police had said. “There are so many women I know who think about killing themselves. I have thought about it too but I have too many responsibilities. That is the only thing that stops me. We have all heard about the woman who killed herself because of the way her supervisor treated her. We all know what she had gone through. We still face it,” says Preeti* a 31-year-old garment worker from Bengaluru.
Speaking to TNM, Lekha, a member of Alternative Law Forum, says that although the members of the unions have access to counsellors, those who are not unionised are unable to obtain help for their mental health.
“Since they are not unionised, it becomes difficult to get help for these women. Generally, members of unions approach their colleagues who they think may need help and ask them to speak to the counsellor sponsored by the union. More often than not, they are scared to do so. The #MeToo movement brought about awareness about sexual harassment to the forefront. It made people finally acknowledge that women face sexual harassment on a daily basis. But if we are talking about whether the ICs are functioning properly and whether the workplace is safer for garment workers, then it’s a no. This is because the conditions are still the same,” she says.