You touch their PF, and it strikes a nerve

Bengaluru garment workers against PF Dissecting how the protest spread so fast so furiouslyPTI
news Labour Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 20:03

When the garment workers’ protests in Bengaluru continued for the second day on Tuesday, the amorphousness of the outburst and the unexpected violence took everyone by surprise.

Buses were damaged and some burned, police stations ransacked, stones pelted in multiple locations across the city. In order to control the violence, police resorted to lathicharge and even fired 100 tear gas shells. Over 100 people have been arrested amid allegations of police excesses on innocent people.

What happened

Although both the city and the police were taken aback by the intensity of the protests on Monday and later the vandalism that occurred on Tuesday, there were prior indications of anxiety among workers.

An employee with the human resources department of one of the largest garment firms in Bengaluru says employees were very worried that they would lose their PF on account of the new rules announced in February, of which they knew little. Workers who spoke to The News Minute on the day of the protests confirmed this.

Monday blues: Why thousands of garment factory workers blocked a major Bengaluru road

Anita (name changed on request) said that the immediate trigger for the protests was an item that appeared in a Kannada daily three or four days ago, which made workers in the Jockey units in Bommanahalli somewhat restive, and evoked a desire to do something.

On Monday, workers decided to stage a protest and went around to other factories in the area, asking workers to join them. Within a couple of hours, thousands of workers had made their way to the flyover near Bommanahalli signal, and stayed there for several hours although the original intention was to head to the nearest EPF offices. Police resorted to lathicharge to disperse the crowds.

Watch video of workers talking about why they protested on Monday:

 

The causes for the next day’s protests, were multi-faceted. There was some anger over the lathicharge against the women workers who were perceived to have done nothing to deserve it. Many male workers in the Peenya-Jalahalli areas had heard of the protests and they too became aware that their PF was at risk as well.

A journalist who covered the protest in that area said that many men from other non-garment factories joined the protesting women in the morning, both out of their own newfound awareness, as well as in support of their fellow workers. A huge mass of people had gathered in the Jalahalli area, but there were too few police personnel present.

Soon after noon, the journalist said that cops in the Jalahalli area began to get messages on the wireless about the Hebbagodi police station being ransacked. Angered by this, the police began to target protesters, who in turn vented their anger at the police by being unruly and engaging in vandalism.

Indications of anxiety

In some ways, any discussion on garment factory workers is incomplete without an understanding of how important the Provident Fund is to them.

As one woman told The News Minute, “We don’t work for salaries, we work for our PF for 8-10 years.”

The HR departments regularly receive queries on withdrawing of the PF. Also, someone or the other is always in the process of quitting work in an industry that has a high attrition rate. In her office, Anita says, on an average 30 people quit every month, of which around 10 percent quit specifically because they want their PF. Under the rules, a worker who is unemployed for two months can withdraw his or her PF.

Since February, when people became aware of the new rules, this number has visibly increased, although she says she cannot say by how much. “More than the usual number of people quit after February because they felt that they would lose their hard-earned PF,” Anita said.

She said that lower ranking HR staff in the firm she works for, had not officially informed the workers about the new rules. “They were waiting for confirmation from the PF commissioner’s office, and they got that on April 15, I think. However, workers feel strongly about their PF so the higher-ups were figuring out a strategy to tell them. But on Monday, the protests happened.”

Why the intensity?

Narendar Pani, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru says that the feminization of labour cannot be ignored. “In the past, attempts to unionise these workers have proved futile because the attrition rate is very high. Most workers are women who are looking to earn their wedding expenses and generally don’t return to work. These workers who have always been quiet on other wage issues, suddenly protested for this. The moment you touch their PF, you strike a nerve,” he said.

The president of the Garment Labour Union Rukmini VP said that the PF issue affected the women at a very fundamental level. “Currently, the garment industry is one of the lowest paying sectors. Most of these factories are situated on the outskirts and people from rural areas come here for work. Helpers get the minimum wages. Imagine PF being cut from that and being given 25-30 years later!” 

CITU Karnataka Meenakshi Sundaram said: “Most women don’t go back to work after they are married. So now they have to wait for such a long time to avail the employer’s contribution to PF,” he said.

The high attrition rate in the industry is partly natural and partly engineered, allege trade union activists. “Those who work for more than 5 years are people who have taken breaks in between, either to get their PF amount to spend on some personal commitments or because they were driven away by the employer so that the company can avoid paying the gratuity amount,” Rukmini alleged.

Why Karnataka?

Asked why the flare up occurred only in Karnataka, Meenakshi alleged that the garment factories in Bengaluru were infamous for defaulting on PF obligations.

“There are also cases where garment companies do not deposit the PF on time. They also resort to various methods like change of name, employee roles, ownership etc., to avoid paying PF. There have been many cases against these garment factories who don’t pay PF,” says Meenakshi.

Pani however, has a different take on this. He said that his research showed that the garment export industry met international labour standards as clients were particular about not violating workers’ rights.

“The problem is essentially one of conditions that exist outside the workplace,” Pani said. Workers in these units come from a 250-km radius around Bengaluru. “They have no connection with the city, they live in poor conditions and see that expensive infrastructure is being built at their cost. And then you take away their PF.”

“Not allowing them to take the money they are entitled to when they need it, is an attack on the democratic right of the workers to get their PF money once they cease employment,” said Meenakshi adding that the government is eyeing the large amount of money stashed as PF to invest in equities and make money.

 

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