“My salary is Rs 8,000 per month but I get Rs 6,500 in hand. It’s not enough,” said Tahseena who has worked as a tailor for six years at a company called Shahi Exports near Ramnagaram town in Karnataka. “I am not married and my mother does not have a strong constitution. I have the whole responsibility of running my house.”

“We need at least Rs 10,000 in hand if we need to cope with the inflated prices of everything now,” said Susheela, who works with Tahseena. “These days we buy pulses at some Rs 200 [per kilogram] and rice is Rs 60. How do we provide three square meals for our families?”

Susheela and Tahseena had travelled to Bangalore on their day off to take part in a rally by garment workers almost all of whom were women, and most of whom have had little education or technical training. The primary objective of the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union that organized the rally is to get the Karnataka government to raise the minimum wage for these unskilled workers to Rs 15,000.

The union estimates that there are five lakh garment workers in Karnataka, especially in and around Bangalore, which is a major textile hub in the country along with Gurgaon near Delhi and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. The international brands that source from these factories include Gap, H&M, Old Navy, Banana Republic and JC Penny.

At present, a worker in Karnataka’s apparel industry who starts as a helper gets no more than the present minimum wage of Rs 6,816, which includes dearness allowance. The payment of dearness allowance to garment workers is a recent phenomenon, being implemented only in 2014 after a directive from the High Court of Karnataka. A recent study by the Indian Committee of the Netherlands estimated that on average garment workers in Karnataka got paid between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,500 per month depending on their skills.

Low salaries, lower increments

Jayamma has worked in the industry for 25 years now. She presently works at a factory at Nayandahalli on the western edge of Bangalore city. She gets only Rs 7,000 in hand after the company makes deduction for Provident Fund and Employee’s State Insurance payments.

“Every year the salary increments are only Rs 200 to Rs 300,” said Harini S who works on the quality control team at Namaste Exports and also receives only Rs 7,000 as disposable income.

But company representative say that the demands are impossible to meet. “At present we cannot accept it [demand from employees and unions to raise wages]. We are surviving because of the dollar rate. [because the rupee has fallen against the dollar] otherwise no garment industry will survive in India,” said Mari Gowda, general manager of human resources at Shahi Exports. “We are running profits of Rs 3-Rs 4 per piece. The brands have to enhance what they pay us. Then it might work.”

Jayamma and other participants at the rally talk about “production torture”, a term they use to describe being pressurised by their supervisors to meet hourly targets on the shop floor. The workers alleged that there are chided or shamed if they can’t meet these hourly targets and many said that their supervisors push them to exceed the set targets.

“I tailor pants that belong to the Gap brand,” Jayamma said. “Each person has to tailor one part of the garment and must finish this for 60 pieces in an hour. I normally do the pocket stitches on both sides.” Others said that the targets depended on the style of the garment or complexity of the work and could be as much as 80 to 100 pieces per hour.

Gowda said that the workers exaggerate claims of being pressurised because they don’t know how industrial processes actually work.

Much ado, little change

The state of the employees in these factories has been in the spotlight again recently. The findings Indian Committee for the Netherlands report on the plight of migrant workers at the Karnataka factories was splashed across international papers. The report details how this subset of workers face not only harsh conditions in the factories but also at hostels run by their employees where their movement is restricted and they have little contact with the outside world. These workers, the report says, come from states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and in fact make up a majority of the labour force in the apparel industry.

But there have been many fact-finding reports and news reports over the years. Bangalore and other India's other garment manufacturing destinations have witnessed many rallies and protests. The sector has seen only marginal improvements over the years for its labor force. “The issue of minimum wage has been there for a long time and there have been several rallies in Bangalore and other places over the years for the demand of better minimum wage,” said Ananya Bhattacharya, president of the Garment and Allied Workers Union in Haryana. “This is old stuff but nothing is changing.”

KR Jayaram, member of the executive council of the garment workers union in Karntaka, said that they are fighting not only for a significant improvement in wages but also warding off a threat that the existing norm will be reduced. “All the factory managements have made representations to the government saying that even this Rs 6,000 is very difficult and to reduce that,” he said.

He hopes that this time the troops have have rallied the troops early enough to make a difference. “The wage revision decision will come up in April 2017. The wage revision process will start six months before that, with the draft notification and the minimum wage committee sittings. That’s why this campaign now,” he said.