A fight for minimum wages: K'taka garment workers rekindle 18-month protest

Hundreds of garment workers turned up at the office of the Department of Labour on Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru, seeking a revision of minimum wages.
A fight for minimum wages: K'taka garment workers rekindle 18-month protest
A fight for minimum wages: K'taka garment workers rekindle 18-month protest
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Padma's daily routine involves checking and packaging T-shirts and trousers that are exported from India to places as far as Germany and China. "We divide the clothes by country and then check it for tears while packaging," says Padma, who works at a garment factory in Srirangapatna.

But on Thursday, she set aside her daily work to travel by bus to Bengaluru to participate in a protest organised by other garment workers like her. "The bus to get to Bengaluru costs Rs 200 and I will lose my wages for the day for applying for a leave from work but I had no choice but to be here and make my voice heard," she says, defiantly. 

Padma is among hundreds of garment workers, most of whom are women, who turned up at the office of the Department of Labour on Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru, seeking a revision of minimum wages for garment workers. The protest was organised by the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and workers from Bengaluru and its neighbouring areas like Srirangapatna, KR Pete and Maddur took part in it. 

Padma, a garment worker from Srirangapatna

Bengaluru has over 1,200 garment factories and employs around 4.5 lakh workers, most of whom have migrated from rural areas around Bengaluru. More recently, migrant workers from eastern and central India have also turned up to work in the garment factories in the city. The clothes manufactured in these factories and in the ones across the state are exported internationally. 

The garment workers stitch, package garments of major brands, including H&M, Jockey and Raymond, but none of the companies have come forward to resolve the issue over the workers' minimum wages, according to Umesh NL, General Secretary, GATWU. 

"73 out of 76 categories of unskilled workers in Karnataka receive monthly wages of Rs 11,500 but in Bengaluru, garment workers are paid only around Rs, 7500 (unskilled workers) to Rs 8,500 (skilled workers)," explains Umesh. 

The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, mandates that wages should be revised by state governments every three to five years but workers in the garment industry of Karnataka argue that their wages have not been revised for over six years now and were revised only four times in the past 44 years. 

In February 2018, the Karnataka government issued a notification recommending that all unskilled workers be paid Rs 11,587 per month as minimum wages and Rs 14,000 for skilled workers. This represented a 35-40% hike from the current wages of around Rs 8,500.

The workers argue that the notification was rolled back due to pressure from lobbyists favouring garment manufacturing companies. RTI documents revealed that around the time the notification was issued, a representation was made by three companies – Shahi Exporters, Gokuldas Exporters and Himmath Singhka Seide Limited.

In a letter addressed to the Secretary, Department of Labour, a representative of Himmath Singhka Seide Limited wrote –  "We are adversely affected by the abnormal increase in the minimum wages to an extent of 50% increase in wage bill in the case of highly skilled workers and 18% in the case of semi-skilled workers. Minimum wages in Karnataka was comparable with neighbouring states before the proposed increase. Hence, there was no need for the hike in minimum wages for this industry".  

The letter further stated that the textile industry was experiencing a 'slowdown' and also suggested that the company may relocate its business to one of Karnataka's neighbouring states "which offer better business viability.” Himmath Singhka Seide Limited operates facilities in Doddaballapura and Hassan in Karnataka. 

"Three companies wrote to the Department of Labour asking for the wages to be kept to a minimum, citing losses and lack of growth in the sector. These three are big companies and following their request, the notification to revise the minimum wages was withdrawn," a source in the Department of Labour confirmed to TNM.

The situation came to a head in July 2019 when a protest broke out at the Himmat Singh Garment Factory in Hassan. The protesters complained that their salaries were not paid and that their supervisors at the factory physically assaulted them over minor issues. The protest was quelled after the police fired gunshots in the air and used tear gas to disperse the crowd. .

Today, almost 18 months later, the workers are still fighting for the promised increase in their minimum wages. "The wages are below the minimum wages prescribed in several other sectors and it is being done because big companies are saying that they are suffering losses. Most garment workers in Bengaluru arrive here from nearby rural areas in the hope of earning money," says Umesh. 

Workers like Padma depend on the minimum wages she is paid for her work. "We are thinking twice before we buy ration for the house. We are asking not just for an increase in our wages but we should also be paid the revised wages for the last 18 months," says Padma. 

The workers challenged the withdrawal of the notification issued by the state government in the Karnataka High Court and on March 29, the High Court passed an order in favour of workers employed in private industries including textiles, dyeing, printing and garments.

The court upheld the earlier state government’s notification to increase the minimum wages of the workers and also ordered employers to pay the minimum wages owed to workers along with an interest of  6% per annum retrospectively from the day the revised wages were to be paid. The court also gave the companies six months to implement the order and this period ends on September 29. The court heard an appeal against the order and reserved its judgement. 

Weeks after the High Court order was issued in March, garment workers held a march in Bengaluru on Labour Day (May 1) seeking the revision of minimum wages, one they believe is long overdue. 

To resolve the issue of minimum wages of garment workers, a tripartite committee comprising labour department officials, textile manufacturers, and garment workers was constituted. This includes companies like Shahi Exporters, and Himmat Singh Seide Limited, who petitioned the state government stating that the increase in minimum wages are untenable. It also includes other major exporters like Raymond Limited, Gokuldas Exports, and members of the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India and Karnataka Textile Mills Association. The garment workers are represented by GATWU. 

A source in the Department of Labour told TNM that a recommendation was made to increase the minimum wages of garment workers by 9-10% however it is yet to be made official. This amounts to an increase in wages by Rs 350, something that the protesting garment workers say is simply not enough. "We will be demanding the increase of wages up to Rs 11,500, as specified in the 2018 notification" says Umesh.

The protesting garment workers sent a memorandum addressed to the Chief Minister on Thursday seeking the full promised increase of wages up to Rs. 11,500 per month including retrospective payment for the last 18 months. 

Ravikumar, an Assistant Labour Commissioner, in the Department of Labour met the protesting garment workers and accepted the memorandum on behalf of the Department of Labour. "We will send the memorandum to the Chief Minister. There is a tripartite committee discussing this issue and we have taken the recommendations made by the workers. The government may accept or make changes to it,” he said.

Garment workers like Padma are not new to protests. Over the last few years, they have sat outside the same Labour Department office protesting Provident Fund (PF) rules, sexual harassment and sometimes for their salaries to be paid to them. Every few weeks, there are strikes organised in Peenya and Bommanahalli areas in the city where garment factories are located. Most of these strikes are related to the payment of minimum wages. "We are not new to this. This is a fight we will continue until we are paid the promised minimum amount," Padma says.

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