Low wages and the garment sector: What can the Karnataka govt do for employees?

Employees say that it is impossible to make a living from the wages that they are paid for their work.
Low wages and the garment sector: What can the Karnataka govt do for employees?
Low wages and the garment sector: What can the Karnataka govt do for employees?
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The garment sector in Karnataka is plagued by several issues and the concern which has been dominating of late is regarding low wages.

The textile industry is one of the oldest and most labour-intensive industries in Karnataka, operating out of both the unorganised sector (ex: handlooms, handicrafts and sericulture) and the organised sector (wholesale and retail stores) and employing both skilled and unskilled labour. And this mix of the formal and the informal is a double-edged sword.

“As per the State of Karnataka’s official documents, there are about 3.5 lakh garment workers,” Saroja K, the General Secretary of Garment Labour Union says. “But in reality, there are about 6 lakh workers and may be a little more than that."

But while the industry seems to be large on an overall basis, it is mostly comprised of small units which are beyond the reach of labour reforms and standards set therein. Therefore, work conditions are often dismal and reports of worker abuse are plenty.

“The sector creates a lot of employment but no one cares… neither the factory, brand owners and nor the government. Everyone only sees the benefits that the sector brings,” Saroja adds, in the context of the large scale employment provided by the sector and the export revenue.

“As of today, the wages add up to to 8000-8500 rupees per month. Can anyone live in Bengaluru with 8500 rupees?” she asks. “60% of such wages go into house rent. How can a family manage all the other expenses - food, education, children's marriage?”

Raju BC, a Union activist says, “As per Asia Floor Wage recommendations based on cost of living, the minimum wage in Bengaluru should be 23,000 rupees.”

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance is an international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists who are working together to demand that garment workers be paid a living wage.

“We get paid depending on how many pieces we work on,” Muthu and Shamu, two garment factory workers say. “For us bachelors 9,000 rupees per month is good. But you should talk to ladies with families.”

Speaking to the women who work in the sector, it's clear that they're left feeling helpless with the low pay.

“The salary is not enough but what can we do?” Radha, a garment worker asks.

“I have been working here for 10 years,” a woman worker says, hurriedly rushing off to her second job as an assistant at a clinic.

Speaking of the last time the minimum wages for the garment sector was revised, Saroja says,“It was in 2014 - it brought a hike of about 1500 rupees per month. And there have been no revisions since then. Many workers are pushed to take up other odd jobs." 

She goes on to add, “Legally, minimum wages are to be revised every 3-5 years but this doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of time for a committee to be set up and the discussions and meetings drag on further - beyond 5 years.” 

“As of now a committee has been formed and the unions are demanding 18,000 rupees based on the reports of the15th conference of the International Labour Organisation and our own calculations. We have submitted various memorandums on this to the Chief Minister, the labour ministry the labour secretary, noting how difficult it is to live on low wages” Saroja says.

The reason the burden of setting wages falls on the State government is the fact that labour unions aren’t recognised by the garment factories. And while such unions exist on the official documentation of garment factories, in reality the relations between unions and the management is often hostile. This hostility can become very discouraging to workers and go on to reduce the power of collective bargaining - the very reason unions were formed in the first place.

“Many times, the clothing associations and the factory management submit their own counter proposals to the government saying that they cannot bear the burden of higher wages,” Saroja says. And now, a tripartite meeting is to be held with unions and workers on one side, the factory owners on the other and the government.

The other issue is about the pressure the workers face to meet the pre-set per-day production targets. Speaking about this, Saroja says, “When I was a garment worker, I remember the number of times I used to bring back my full tiffin box because I couldn’t afford to take time off for lunch.”

From the outside, the sector looks good, Saroja notes.

“It provides a lot of employment, especially to women - 90% of the workers are women. People see them dressed neatly in their saris going into work every morning and they think the garment sector is a good employer - and at times, it is. But there are a lot of problems also. We met Deve Gowda on May 29th and have submitted our memorandum. He said he will discuss the same with the CM," Saroja says, hopefully.

Apart from specifics like wage revisions and better health standards, the sector, much like the farming sector, needs a revamp where efforts need to move from the ground up. One such attempt was made in Mewat. With a revolutionary view to bring about labour standards to informal work, a project was undertaken in Mewat wherein all the stakeholders were brought together. Gap Inc. was working with exporters and local home-based embroidery workers while the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) acted as the de-facto monitor, and Society for the Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), an NGO that links them all, anchored and ran the project on a daily basis.

In a paper titled ‘Relational Contracting at the Bottom of Global Garment Value Chains: Lessons from Mewat’, published in 2017 by The Indian Journal of Labor Economics, the author Meenu Tewari speaks of how to the Mewat project’s progress brought about lessons in building contracting networks even in the most informal segments at the base of global production networks.

The linkages between exporters and embroidery workers built over social sector institutions which had provided personal finance and group savings over the years helped build “a well of trust that the actors (public, civic, private) could repeatedly turn to as conflicts and challenges demanded modifications and adjustments in operating practices.”

Surprisingly, the experiment is also a case where the involvement of the State supported the free market rather than stifled it.

In conclusion, Meenu notes “the Mewat case sheds light on how intermediation by the State - and even its material involvement early on during the 15 years of organising the communities socially - was of critical importance to providing a platform of legitimacy on which other private and collective actors could come together and collaborate… Diffusing good labour standards requires institutional continuity. The State can be the actor that can bring continuity by holding open the space for new organisational partnerships to emerge even as private supply chains and markets shift. This is especially important in countries and contexts where 90 per cent of the total employment is in the informal sector, outside the reach of both labour laws as well as the monitoring protocols and codes of conduct of buyers and private companies.”

In effect, the Mewat project provided a unique example where the ideal link between the State, the private sector, the workforce and civic activists was established and conscious, continued efforts brought about a reform. It may be a noteworthy lesson for the newly elected ruling party in Karnataka.

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