Trade union leaders have expressed surprise at the intensity of protests by thousands of women workers from garment factories over two days in Bengaluru, which forced the Union government to defer a proposal to amend Provident Fund rules.

Early on Monday morning, workers, of whom over 80% were women, left factories and poured into the streets. Within hours, workers from adjoining factories joined them, blocking the highway connecting Bengaluru to Mysuru and Chennai that cuts through industrial areas on the edges of the city. As protests intensified, the workers entered a police station and set fire to vehicles in the compound. They also damaged 50 buses across Bengaluru.

The protests forced the central government to respond immediately. It first offered to hold off for three months the changes that made it more difficult for employees to withdraw from their provident fund before retirement. But by Tuesday, as the protests grew in scale, engulfing more industrial areas near the city, the labour ministry had to withdraw the proposed changes entirely.

Employers as well as union leaders have since used the words “spontaneous”, a “massive flash-strike”, and “leaderless” to describe the protests.

The majority of the workers in this area are rural migrant workers, typically seen as vulnerable to whatever employers dictate. Most of the over 1.2 lakh workers who led the protests were not members of any union either.

Bafflement of unions

Then, what explains the ferocity of the protests?

Senior leaders of central unions affiliated to political organisations said they were surprised at the extent of the workers' resistance to the change in Provident Fund withdrawal norms. Local union leaders also said that they were unable to explain how the protests swiftly engulfed the area, and gained intensity, and said they could only partially explain it.

The Employee Provident Fund, or EPF, is a savings instrument that comprises a contribution (12% of an employee’s basic salary) each made by the employer and employee every month. So far, the practice was that a worker was unemployed for two months could withdraw the entire provident fund savings. But the labour ministry, in a February 10 notification, had revised withdrawal norms from this fund. The new rules said that employees could only withdraw their own contribution, and that the employer’s contribution could only be withdrawn at the retirement age of 58 years. Of the 12% of a worker’s salary that employers contribute to the provident fund, only 3.67% goes to the provident fund, the remaining 8.33% becomes part of a pension fund. The new order applied to this 3.67% of workers’ savings.

AK Padmanabhan, the president of the CPI(M)-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions, who is who is a member of the Central Board of Trustees of the Employee Provident Fund Organisation, said when the labour ministry in February first proposed the restriction on withdrawals, the union leaders had asked that workers be given the option “to withdraw or keep the savings in.” “But the word went out that workers will not be able to access the employers' share of the savings at all,” he said.

Padmanabhan added that since several state governments and private corporations did not permit unionisation, only eruptions could take place.“This eruption is a result of the situation prevailing in the garment industry, its rate of exploitation, and workers' lack of job stability and social security,” he said.

Virjesh Upadhayay, general secretary of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who is also a member of the Central Board of Trustees of the EPFO, said the protests were a political conspiracy. “Some restrictions on withdrawing the provident fund have always existed and are decades old,” said Upadhayay. “[For instance], the number of times an employee can withdraw PF, and the reasons for withdrawing.”

He added that women workers were “misled” to protest at a time when Assembly elections were ongoing in other states. “They are cheated of wages, and work in poor conditions,” said Upadhayay. “Gussa phootne ka toh ek karan chahiya tha. Their anger needed a spark, that is all.”

Spreading like wildfire

Trade union leaders in Bengaluru admitted that the protests had little organisational backing or support. Meenakshi Sundaram, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said that the struggle was spontaneous, and not backed by any large unions.

“We have only around 300 members in the garment factories,” said Sundaram. “In fact, most central unions have minimal presence in the sector. It is very hard to organise the workers. If the workers give a notice to the management that they are planning to form a union, the factory owners who employ 100-200 workers threaten to shut down factories and remove them from employment.”

Sundaram added that he had not witnessed protests of this magnitude in any industrial sector in Bengaluru in the last 10 years.

Madeena Taj, who has worked in the garment sector since 2000 and currently works at Bombay Rayon Fashions earning Rs 287 per day, said most workers did not find it easy to formally organise themselves because of pressure from factory owners. "They scare and threaten us saying that the factories will shut down and our wages will stop, and ask us where we will go then," said Taj. "If they find out which workers have joined the union, they harass them and increase their work-load."

KR Jayram, who has worked in garment factories for 22 years, is a member of the executive council of Garment and Textile Workers Union, one of the few unions with a substantive presence among women workers in Bengaluru. The union boasts of 8,000 members, and Taj too is a member of this union. But the union’s membership is still a fraction of the over five lakh workers employed in Bengaluru’s apparel manufacturing sector.

Most workers earn Rs 6,000-Rs 8,000 a month and work eight to nine hours a day without weekly offs. The factories run under the “chain system” in which many tailors stitch different parts – collars, sleeves, back – of the same garment. A group of 30-35 workers stitch a shirt every 40 seconds, and 70 workers stitch a pair of cargo pants every minute. The gruelling schedule leaves workers with little time for water or toilet breaks.

Jayram said the Garment and Textile Workers Union was planning a campaign around their work conditions and social security in the last week of April after which the union was going to send 1 lakh signatures to the President on Labour Day, on May 1. But when workers at Shahi Exports Private Ltd started a protest on April 18, and it spread from factory to factory, Jayram and other union representatives could only try to prevent it from turning violent in areas where they had substantive membership.

The Hindu had earlier reported that the protests began from Shahi Exports, a factory off Hosur Road after a news report in a Kannada daily on the new norms for PF withdrawal was photocopied and distributed by some workers.

“By 9 am on Monday, workers from Shahi Exports had come out and blocked Mysore Road,” said Jayram. “As news spread to workers in another unit of Shahi Exports 80 kilometers away in Bommanahalli, those workers came out on the streets. This is an area densely-packed with garment units, one by one workers started coming out, soon around a lakh workers were out on the roads.”

On the night of April 18, the women workers returned to their homes or factory hostels, but after security personnel and policemen beat the workers with sticks and detained more than 20 of them in Peenya Industrial Area on the second day, the workers' rage intensified, Jayram said.

“We tried to keep the protests at Mysore Road regulated and there was no violence there,” said Jayram. “But Peenya, Bommanahalli, we have fewer members and we could not control what happened there after 35,000-40,000 workers stopped work and came out of factories.” He added that the majority of the workers were permanent workers on the rolls to comply with requirements of international apparel buyers. But workers changed jobs, and factories also hired and fired workers frequently. Both permanent and contract workers took part in the protests, he said.

Alternative forms of resistance

The regular flare-ups suggest rising discontent among workers, even as the number of strikes has gone down sharply over the years.

Drop in strikes across India over the years
Drop in strikes across India over the years

All over India, strikes in factories have declined in the last decade. The 1970s witnessed almost one lakh strikes each year. But as per Labour Bureau reports, there were only 240 strikes in 2008, 167 in 2009, 199 in 2010 and 179 in 2011.

Neethi P, who researches globalisation and informal labour markets at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, said that workers are finding alternative ways of expression and protest as union membership and the political strength of workers' organisations declines. “Trade unions do not consider workers from smaller units as workers in the formal sense, or they often cannot access workers inside special industrial zones, behind walls of security,” said Neethi P. “Workers too sometimes do not accept the unions even as they find themselves vulnerable. But if they find their existence is under threat, they will come out and protest.”

The academic added that the news coverage of the protests as traffic congestion and a law and order problem showed that most people were unable to understand what was happening, and why. “Workers' issues get space if things turn violent," she said. "Here, for instance, if the women workers had simply come out of the factories and sat on a dharna, they would not have got so much television coverage.”

She said the squeeze from all sides was leading workers to alternative labour responses. “We may see more of this in the coming days.”