The now-deferred amendment to the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) scheme, which has sparked off widespread protests by garment factory workers in the city, is applicable to all EPF account holders in the country. But how and why did only the garment workers of the city erupt in protest, that too with no visible trade union leadership, are questions that have no straightforward answers.
Re-tracing the events that led to the protests, a garment worker said that there were deep fears with rumours going around for about two months about the possibility of “losing PF”. Some knew they would henceforth be able to withdraw only “single PF” (employee contribution alone), while others did not understand the nitty-gritty of the matter.
Those fears exploded when protests began on Monday from Shahi Exports Pvt. Ltd., a garment factory off Hosur Road. Workers say a news report in a Kannada daily on the new norms for PF withdrawal was photo-copied and distributed by some workers. “The higher-ups in the factories made no effort to convince workers that their money was safe,” a worker said.
Agitated workers from this factory came out to the road to protest, and soon the news spread to the cluster of garment factories that dot the area. Workers from all of them poured onto the busy Hosur Road, without any mainstream union assuming leadership. This resulted in a “massive flash strike”.
The protests erupted even as the joint action forum of unions was planning a campaign from April 26, pointed out K.N. Umesh of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). “There is a lot of pent-up anger among the garment labourers who work in extremely stressful conditions and are not allowed to unionise to voice their demands. The protests reflect this discontent and anger against exploitation,” he said.
A luxury they can’t afford
The garment industry workforce, consisting mostly women from lower-middle class backgrounds and earning a minimum wage of Rs. 6,800 (basic), see PF as savings that can be withdrawn in a distress situation. “Keeping aside PF as strictly a retirement benefit is a luxury garment workers cannot afford, given their social and economic insecurities. It is something they bank on when there is an illness or a marriage in the family,” said K.R. Jayaram of Garment and Textile Workers’ Union.
P. Harisekharan, Additional Commissioner (East), who led the police action against the protesters, said when he asked a few leaders to come forward to negotiate, none did. “The crowd neither had any leader nor any specific demand. When we asked them to submit a memorandum for us to take it forward, the women just said they wanted their PF money, that they wanted justice,” he said.
While the protesters seemed intent on marching to nearby PF offices on Monday, demanding their savings, Tuesday’s protests in Peenya Industrial Area and Bommanahalli were even more nebulous.
“I am certain that many vested interests joined the protest on Tuesday. We are an industry with 85 per cent women workers. We got beaten up by the police on Monday. But men who were burning buses on Tuesday were certainly not garment workers,” said Pratibha R. of Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade. She did not rule out the involvement of political lackeys.
There are also conspiracy theories that garment factory managements were fuelling the fire. “In many garment factories, they ensure that workers do not stay beyond five years so that they don’t have to pay gratuity. But if the management is not able to make a full settlement, including PF amount, workers may refuse to leave. This does not work to the advantage of the managements,” said a labour leader who did not wish to be named.
Ratnamma, a garment worker in Peenya, echoed the deep frustration within the workforce when she said, “We face harassment at work and on our way to work. And then the government decides to snatch away our savings. If we come to the streets to protest against this, the city is more worried about traffic problems and the police beat up hundreds of women.”