“Some marks...,” says S. Elizabeth Rani, referring to the label on the shirts she irons all day. Asked if she meant Marks & Spencer, she nods, “That’s the one.”
Even as several customers spend a considerable amount on clothes of international brands made by people like her, she gets a pittance. “With barely Rs. 3,000 in hand, I need to pay my rent, buy food, spend on commute, and save enough to send back home,” says the Tirunelveli native, who came to Chennai 10 years ago in search of a job.
“Nothing has changed since then,” says the 37-year-old, an employee at one of the export garment manufacturing units in MEPZ, Tambaram. Elizabeth does not mind the demanding eight-hour shifts or six-day weeks, but what she finds unacceptable is the wages, which have not been revised in a long time.
Export manufacturing units in and around Chennai engage several thousand workers, largely women, for different jobs such as stitching, buttoning, ironing, checking and packaging. A rigid work shift — a lunch break of 20 minutes and a 10-minute tea break — with even a day’s leave translating to a wage cut, seems the norm across units.
Jhansi Rani is all of 21 and has spent the last seven years working with a unit in Mahindra City to support her large family. “I have to check 50 shirts in an hour. If I don’t meet the target, or clear a faulty piece, my daily wage is cut,” she says.
After 25 years in the industry, S. Santhanam (59) is disillusioned. “I realise I have been exploited so much,” says the tailor, who works with a unit in Ambattur. “Since I started for a wage of Rs. 120 per month way back in 1986, even a small addition seemed like a lot, like they [employers] were giving us more. I didn’t realise they were paying us far less than our rightfully share,” he says.
Every penny becomes crucial for women like R. Sumathi, who single-handedly support their families. “My children are in our native place, with their grand parents. I live alone here and send them money for school fees and other expenses,” she says. Even a poriyal (vegetable) for lunch is luxury. “I make sambar or kozhambu once in two, three days and eat it with rice.”
The demand for their rights has been a long journey.
In December 2004, the Labour Department issued a notification ordering an annual revision of minimum wages for workers in the tailoring industry, also indicating the manner in which dearness allowance is to be calculated.
However, a section of garment manufacturers obtained an interim stay on the order from the Madras High Court. “Now that the stay has been vacated, the government must take steps to revise wages,” says Meghna Sukumar of city-based Garment and Fashion Workers Union.
The department must intervene, as the workers are not well organised.
Unions are rather new here, say experts. S. Nagashaila, advocate who appeared on behalf of the workers, says: “Ideally the labour department should intervene and ensure they get arrears as well, but the department is indifferent.” Attempts to contact officials in the labour department proved futile.
Often, these companies show the workers’ due salary raise as an increment in dearness allowance, according to members of the union.
Abuse at work place is common, say workers. Speaking of instances of supervisors demanding sexual favours and harassing young women, Elizabeth Rani says: “Such episodes never go outside the four walls of the unit. Everyone is scared they will lose their job. They need the money desperately.”
Also, a number of women working in such units tend to be abandoned single women or single mothers, becoming soft targets for the male supervisors.
As V. Kanthimathi, a tailor, speaks of the high pressure environment and physical and mental stress at work place, Jhansi Rani is quick to add: “They [supervisors] throw clothes on us and shout.”