Most media narratives about the two-day garment factory employee protests in Bengaluru on April 18th and 19th merely explained that workers were agitated over new provident fund norms passed by the central government on February 10. However, garment worker's union claims that the PF rule was merely a trigger.
Addressing the media on Saturday, the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) members claimed that the protests were more because of the pent up anger against the continuous harassment of women at workplace.
A member of GATWU, Rathna, who has worked for 23 years at garment factories in Bengaluru said that harassment takes place even before a worker can step into the factory.
"If we are late by 5 minutes, they make us stand outside the gate," says forty-two-year-old Rathna, who has worked at 2 factories in her 23 years of service in the industry.
She adds that sexual harassment of new employees, especially young girls often goes unnoticed even by the victim.
"I almost resigned the company in 2002 because my supervisor was acting in an inappropriate manner. But the owner sacked the supervisor and asked me to stay because I was an employee with 9 years of experience. That was when I felt that there was a need for a union for garment factory workers,"says Rathna.
"We are made to work until we meet unreasonable targets set by the factory supervisors. They verbally harass us and force us to do overtime, but the pay never increases," says Rathna adding that employees are not allowed to leave their seat for more than 2 minutes even when they have to use the toilet.
Jayaram, legal advisor to the GATWU, said that supervisors often lock the gates until the workers meet the targets set for the day.
GATWU, which has members from garment factories in Mysuru, Srirangapatna and Bengaluru had come up with a report "Wage and Work Intensity in Garment Sector: Study of Bangalore and Karnataka" in 2015.
â€‹"These are factories that export foreign brands and the workers don't even get 2% of the amount that the final product is sold for as their daily pay,"says Pratibha R, president of GATWU.
Prathibha said, "Close to thirty years since the industry came to existence in Karnataka, the first major hike in pay was in 2013 when it was hiked from Rs 120 per day to Rs 250 per day, that too after an elaborate struggle. The high court ruled that the pay should be revised every 4 years."
"Now the workers are due for a hike in 2017 and the the union plans to send a letter to the central government saying that the pay should be revised to Rs 15,000 from Rs 7,027 that the workers are getting now," says Prathibha.
However, Shahi Exports Private Limited company, one of the biggest garment companies with over 75,000 employees had written a letter in February 2015, a copy of which is available with The News Minute, asking the central government to decrease the monthly salary.
Asked why the union could not have take these steps before the issue blew out of proportion, Prathibha said "We had planned a signature campaign against the provident funds issue towards the end of April. However, before that could materialise the anger had already blown out of proportion."
"Currently we are focusing on creating awareness among workers on how they can tackle harassment and other issues. We are trying our best to get cases filed by police on the garment factory workers withdrawn," she said.