Indian garment workers in Karnataka demand increase in minimum wage!

Hundreds of GATWU members demonstrating outside the Labour Department offices in Bengalaru, Karnataka last week

HUNDREDS of Karnataka textile workers gathered last week at Karmikara Bhavana – in the Mysore area of SW India – to protest against low-wage discrimination.

The Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) staged the 12th September protest to oppose the apathetic attitude of the government and the factory owners.

The protest, held in front of the Labour Department office at Dairy Circle, highlighted the inordinate delay in the fixing of minimum wages in the garment industry. It also pointed to the discrimination towards garment workers by the minimum wages committee, which had recommended extremely low wages.

The Karnataka garment industry employs thousands of workers, and 85 per cent of them are female. These workers manufacture textiles for international brands and export them, earning substantial foreign exchange for the country.

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.

The female labour force, who are under the care of the government, receive only minimum wages. Hence the minimum wages fixed by the government are very important for these labourers.

And although minimum wages have to be revised every three to five years, they have in fact remained stagnant even after six years.

Due to the indifference of government and the lobbying of factory owners, garment workers even today earn only Rs 7,000-8,000 per month. The female workers who use their income to meet household needs are unable to do so, and are driven to skip at least one meal per day.

For 73 out of the 82 scheduled employment categories in Karnataka, the government had fixed a scientifically-calculated minimum wage of Rs 11,557. In February 2018, the government had issued an order, establishing the same wages for garment workers.

However, the government retracted its order within a month, in March 2018, at the bidding of the factory owners and bureaucrats.

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.

A case was filed in the Karnataka High Court, which in March 2019 ordered to fix minimum wages within six months. But even after the mandated time, the government had still not fixed these wages.

The workers demand that this must be done immediately, just the way government fixed wages for the 73 other industries.

The garment factory owners have explicitly refused the unions’ wage demands and are ‘offering’ a mere nine per cent increase on current wages.

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 NL, General Secretary, GATWU.

‘They say they would increase a mere nine per cent of the current wages.

‘In that event, workers’ wages would amount to only Rs 350 per day, rather than (the) Rs 478 that they had demanded initially (which would take monthly wages to Rs 11,557). Condemnably, even government representatives on the minimum wages committee have sided with the owners.’

Currently, in Karnataka, all workers except garment workers earn a monthly income of Rs 11,557.

In 2019, when the central government amended the PF Act, the garment workers who were directly affected by this took to the streets in protest and were successful in scrapping it. Minimum wages are a question of livelihood for them and there is widespread anxiety in this regard.

At the protest, GATWU’s K R Jayaram said the protest was symbolic, but if the government failed to meet their demand, they would intensify protests.

The All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) Y Shanmugam and GATWU president R Prathibha accused the government of gender discrimination, and said that since 85 per cent of the textile workers are women, the government claimed that lower wages would not affect their families.

Srirangapattina’s Gokuldas Enterprises’ workers Nagamma and Padma also said if the government failed to listen to their pleas, they would intensify their protests and block the Mysuru-Bengaluru road indefinitely.

They also threatened protests in the near future. INTUC’s Shyamanna Reddy, ALF’s Vinay Srinivas, AICCTU’s Appanna and KGWU’s Sebastian Devraj addressed the protesters. The organisations in solidarity with GATWU are AITUC, CITU, INTUC, AIUTUC, and AICCTU.

  • Around five people employed as manual scavengers die every month, the Supreme Court said, criticising the government for not providing protective gear such as gas masks and oxygen cylinders to such workers.

‘Nowhere in the world are people sent to gas chambers to die,’ the court said during a hearing of the Centre’s (central government’s) plea for a recall of its controversial judgment of last year in connection with the law protecting Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

It has been alleged by Scheduled Caste groups that the order – banning immediate arrest for complaints under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act – dilutes the law, leaving them vulnerable.

The court said the onus of protecting the people was on the Centre (government), and it also applied to something like manual scavenging too, in which those belonging to Scheduled Castes work.

‘These are most inhuman cases. This is happening every day in the country,’ said Justice Arun Mishra, who was heading the three-judge bench hearing the case.

‘Seventy years have gone by (since Independence), but Untouchability is still there in the country. You have to take care of them (manual scavengers). Everyone is equal in this country and there can be no discrimination on basis of caste,’ said the bench.

Appearing for the government, Attorney General KK Venugopal – the government’s most senior law officer – tried to dodge central government responsibility claiming people die not only during manual scavenging but also passing over potholes that cause road accidents.

‘There is not a single case where a magistrate has taken action on his own in case of death during manual scavenging,’ he said.

The law of torts, meaning fixing responsibility in civil cases, is not implemented in the country, Venugopal added.

In its petition, the Centre had argued that the top court’s March 2018 order diluted a stringent provision of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and had ‘seriously affected’ the morale of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and their confidence in the government’s ability to protect them.

The court maintains that the change in the law was necessary to protect the innocent, but it is being often misused and public servants were being stopped from doing their duty.

The top court has reserved judgement on the review petition.