Big spenders, who pay humongous amounts for branded clothing, hardly realise the struggles of those who produce them. Categorised as ‘garment and textile workers’, most of them are women and work in the textile and garment manufacturing hubs of Tirupur in western Tamil Nadu, Gurgaon in the National Capital Region (NCR) and Bengaluru, Karnataka, contributing between 55 to 60 per cent of the country’s total apparel exports.

The Union Textile Ministry in March, 2012 pegged the turnover of the textile industry at $ 55 billion at current prices, with domestic demand accounting for 64 per cent. WTO data on international trade ranked India as the third largest global textile exporter, coming up behind China and the European Union (EU); and the world's sixth largest clothing exporter after China, the EU, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Turkey.

Yet, the people toiling to achieve these figures get minimal benefits. There was a screening of a documentary by Surabhi Sharma, titled Labels from a Global City, on the lives of garment workers in Bengaluru recently. In the discussion that followed, Madina – who has been a garment worker for 10 years – shared the realities of her working life, “I stitched around 60 pieces an hour previously. Now, we produce nearly 150 pieces. Any gap or error means that we have to work extra without pay. This we have to do even if we are unwell, tired out, expecting a baby or face a personal emergency. Failure to fulfill the target attracts a penalty.”

Aged around 30, this cheerful mother of two school-going children was deserted by her husband. Fortunately, she has the support of her brother and mother, with whom she lives in the city. Many others, however, are not so lucky. In fact, a significant number of Bengaluru’s garment workers come from adjoining rural districts like Ramanagara, Devanahalli and Doddaballapur. They belong to poor families and commute every day or share small rooms in the city.

An alien environment, a minimal knowledge of labour laws, lack of confidence and financial constraints force them to continue with their ill-paid jobs. Garment workers rarely have the agency to negotiate for better terms. Those who muster up the courage to complain sometimes face dire consequences. Some have even been silenced forever to serve as a warning to the others. But such incidents are rarely recorded or are dismissed as suicides. There was, for instance, the case of 17-year-old Roopa, who was employed with Golden Seam Garments in Bengaluru. Her body was traced days later in March 2010 with burn injuries.

Garment workers have to typically be on their feet for nearly 12 hours a day, in dark, overcrowded spaces. They suffer from backaches, respiratory infections, failing eyesight and are allowed just two or three strictly timed breaks to visit the wash room. Floor supervisors, who are often men, admonish or harass them verbally, physically and sexually.

There are other abuses as well. Former garment worker, Yashoda, reveals, “Middlemen or employers sometimes manipulate the age of young textile workers without their consent to avoid being penalised for employing child labour. Warnings from the Labour Department whom we had notified did not seem to deter others from doing the same.”

According to Stefanie Karl, International Verification Coordinator at the Netherlands-based Fair Wear Foundation (fairwear.org) that monitors working conditions and labour practices in the garment industry, “Factory owners must provide sufficient wages and a congenial operating environment to all employees. India and other nations may earn a bad reputation in Europe due to poor labour standards and work conditions.” She also points out that some brand owners violate rules and do not necessarily mandate fair labour practices along the supply chain.

There are, however, some organisations providing succour to these workers. Take the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and the Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade (meaning Women Garment Workers' Front in Kannada). Launched as a registered body in 2006 and affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative of India (NTUI), GATWU has around 2,000 members. While fighting on behalf of garment workers for labour rights, GATWU has intervened when its members faced problems at textile production factories.

The Munnade, which campaigns for the rights of women garment workers, encourages them to discuss their problems with colleagues. A former vice president of the Munnade, Saroja, herself a garment worker for 15 years, and her peers collaborated with Bengaluru-based child rights groups to pressurise apparel manufacturers to deliver relevant benefits for garment workers and create childcare facilities mandated under the Factories Act. Sometimes, the Munnade handles domestic and other harassment cases of the workers as it is linked to Self-Help Groups near their homes. It also publishes a bi-monthly Kannada newsletter, ‘Sooji Dhaara’ (Needle and Thread), highlighting textile workers' challenges and suggesting measures of redress. (Women's Feature Service)

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