The comatose corridor of the Karnataka Labour Department in Bengaluru’s Dairy Circle was jolted awake by Manjula K’s angry question. “Why should we believe you?” she shouted in Kannada. The labour officer responded in a terse whisper. Manjula dropped her voice with an apology, but her words were still audible: “We have heard this a dozen times, sir, so what’s the guarantee this is real?”

Manjula and three other women, all tailors from Amruta Creations Pvt Ltd, were at the Labour Department in mid March. They stood in the room while the representative from the factory sat across from the labour officer. This was the women’s seventh meeting with the labour officer in the past three months, but only the second time a company representative had shown up. “You just sit there and support the boss,” said Manjula, to the representative’s back. “You got your salary, right?”

Manjula is among 96 factory workers at Amruta Creations in BTM Layout, a neighbourhood in South Bengaluru, who have been demanding unpaid wages since October. The factory makes readymade garments – both for the domestic and export markets – including for brands such as Arrow. In January, 150 of its workers went on strike and sat outside the locked factory gate for three nights. The case has now reached the Labour Department for mediation. If the company does not settle its dues soon, it will be transferred to a labour court.

Exactly a year ago, over a lakh workers, over 90% of them women, from Bengaluru’s garment export hub had staged a massive protest in the city. The specific trigger was the Union government’s decision to block workers from withdrawing a portion of the Employee Provident Fund until they turn 58. That decision has since been undone in response to the protests. However, the underlying financial insecurity it exposed seems to have deepened. Every other week, there are bursts of strikes in the city’s Peenya, Mysore Road and Bommanahalli areas, where garment factories are largely situated. In the two months during which visited these locations, this reporter recorded at least eight strikes across companies – a significant number for a largely non-unionised workforce. Labour officials say that the majority of these strikes are for the non-payment of salaries.

Manjula K and Shruti M leave the Karnataka Labour Department. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan).

The unpaid wages these women struggle for, sometimes for years on end, is on average just Rs 7,500 a month – the minimum wage in Karnataka. Employers said such defaults occurred when export orders dried up, multinational brands offered thin margins, or factory overheads like electricity or rent got more expensive.

One jacket manufacturer blamed workers. “They drag their feet when order deadlines approach, forcing the company to pay them overtime hours,” the manufacturer said. “These are pressure tactics.”

‘A heavy price’

Over March and April, this reporter met several workers as they poured out between 5 pm to 6 pm in the thousands from factories on the outskirts of Bengaluru, and later at their cramped rented homes.

Few of them had time to talk. After spending eight to nine intense hours at work, many had to travel on foot or buses for up to an hour to reach home, where they would have to cook dinner and do household chores.

When asked how many hours a day she worked, Gladys Kumar, a 38-year-old tailor asked, “You mean at home or at the factory?”

She desperately needs her job, but said, “It exacts a heavy price”.

Kumar does high-pressure, repetitive work, stitching 60 to 100 pockets per hour on garments, depending on the orders. She takes two five-minute toilet breaks and a 20-minute lunch break during her work shift.

“If I so much as take my hand off the machine to crack my knuckles, I’ll be abused for lazing around, and they will pile more work at my station as punishment,” said Kumar.

Nearly all workers said that the rot ran deeper than the strikes suggested.

“It is only a handful that actually protest for wages,” said Sukanya KN, a tailor who is still awaiting her dues from export garment unit Outdoor Clothing Pvt Ltd. “Nine of 10 times, we cannot afford strikes and just give up on unpaid dues – sometimes up to six months – and just try to find a job elsewhere.”

Outdoor Clothing has allegedly been firing workers in droves for the past two years without notice or settlement of wages. Sukanya now works with Gokaldas Images Pvt Ltd, which caters to global brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Weekender, Gap, Levi’s, and Enamor. “All any company wants is production,” she said. “If we say targets are inhuman, they say, ‘Ok. Go home, there are 100 women waiting at the gate every day for a job’.”

Some former workers at Sonal Apparel Pvt Ltd said they were among 300 of 1,300 workers fired overnight in August for striking against the seemingly forced resignation of a production manager. The management allegedly denied the workers a settlement comprising three months of wages each, claiming that the workers had resigned on their own. Dejected, both Sukanya and Sonal Apparel’s workers approached the Bengaluru-based Garment Labour Union, which comprises former garment workers, all women, who helped Outdoor Clothing and Sonal Apparel workers lodge complaints and negotiate payments.

Sonal Apparel was unreachable at the time of writing this article, but after publication, a company representative contacted this reporter. “No workers were fired during the incident,” he said. “Despite the best efforts of the company to counsel the workers and to request them to resume their work, 285 protesting workers chose to resign, unfortunately swayed by false rumours spread by a production manager. We have paid the entire settlement due to these workers. Within one week of the incident, more than 150 out of 285 workers came back to the factory, rejoined and continue to work in the factory till date.”

At least five former workers this reporter met, however, continue to claim a settlement of three months wages.

“The reason these women work in garment factories in spite of the abuses and exacting targets is the promise of a dependable salary,” said Yashoda, a former garment worker and member of Garment Labour Union. “When even this promise is violated, it is just cruel.”

Low pay, high targets

The Indian garment sector is estimated to be the second-largest employer in the country after agriculture. At least 70% of its workforce comprises women. Indian companies pride themselves on providing better working conditions than other garment industry hubs in Bangladesh, Cambodia or China.

“In the past few years, there has been better compliance. Most export companies pay at least minimum wages due to the presence of a few small unions and stronger pressure from multinational brands,” said Gopinath Parakuni, Founder of Cividep, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation that works on labour rights and corporate accountability. “But we are also seeing the opposite: high attrition of over 80% a year due to tough production pressures, more sub-contracting, and a race to lower labour standards and wages.”

Since pay is uniformly low across factories, many studies of the Indian garment sector show that workers frequently move from one job to another to escape harassing supervisors and impossible targets.

Labour officials admit that companies stridently scuttle any demands for increased wages, settlement of dues or long-term responsibility for its employees.

A senior official at the Bengaluru Labour Department said that the majority of complaints by apparel workers are related to final payments or unfair dismissal, while employers claim that the workers quit to claim lump sum benefits. “The implementation of minimum wages, Provident Fund, gratuity, bonus, and maternity benefits is very weak,” the official said. “The prime business model in the garment industry globally, and in India, is to keep labour standards very low.”

Remarkably, eight manufacturers this reporter spoke to in Bengaluru said that “small strikes” and “labour issues” were “quite routine”, and that unpaid or delayed dues especially when factory units shut down, shift or downsize “could not be helped”.

On March 18, workers with exporter Scotts Garments Pvt Ltd in Bengaluru protested outside the factory demanding their wages. For over a year, they have got extremely delayed and partial payments. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan).

At the Bangalore labour office, Manjula described how the protest at Amruta Creations began. “At the first default of the October salary, five workers asked the owner personally if everything was okay,” she said. “Many of us have been here for at least five years, and we did not want to ruin our relationship [with the proprietor].”

Before the strike, Manjula worked as a piece worker at the company, which meant that she was paid by the number of collars or pockets she stitched per day, instead of by the hour. She said that the unit received quite a lot of orders, and on short deadlines, so her monthly income ranged between Rs 10,000 to Rs 13,000, higher than the minimum wage of about Rs 7,500, but without Provident Fund or a travel allowance.

In November, the workers were told that demonetisation had sunk some of the company’s funds, but that it would be fixed soon. By December, however, it was clear that no money was forthcoming.

For four months, the workers, both permanent and contracted like Manjula, were alternately cajoled with a few thousand rupees or threats of police complaints of fabric theft and misbehaviour into working 10 hours a day. In the meanwhile, four workers who quit Amruta Creations to work in a different factory discovered that the company had been deducting 12% of their monthly wage towards the Employee Provident Fund contribution, but had not transferred that to the Employee Provident Fund Organisation for over two years.

“That was the last straw,” said Shruti M, 36, another employee who has worked for 14 years at Amruta Creations, during which the factory management changed hands constantly.

Enraged about the years of what they refer to as “wage theft”, on January 13, close to 100 employees, most of them women, sat outside the factory premises in Maruti Nagar, Tavarakere, and protested for three days and nights. This was the first such protest for most of these women.

At the strike, the factory owner came to visit the workers with his wife and newborn child. “He begged us to call off the strike, or the family would have to commit suicide,” said Shruti. “We had heard this from him often. We were not going to fall for emotional blackmail once again.”

Shruti’s landlord is threatening to evict her, and when she could not pay her children’s school fees in February, her son was not allowed to write his final exams. Manjula’s daughter too dropped out of Class 9 when she saw her single mother struggle. Using falsified age documents, she now works with a call centre, earning Rs 6,000 a month.

“How many times will the owner ask his 100 workers to put his family above their own?” asked Manjula. Many of her colleagues gave up the fight and looked for other employment. Others filed a complaint at the Labour Department with help from the 3,000-member strong Karnataka Garment Workers Union. “We are not members of any union – they are banned in every factory I have worked in for 15 years. But we got in touch when we had no other option,” said Shruti.

Tailor Sukanya KN and her daughter attend a Sunday workshop on gratuity conducted by the Garment Labour Union. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan).

Serial promises

This reporter repeatedly reached out to Murali, one of the proprietors of Amruta Creations, for his comments, but he did not respond.

A government officer in charge of issues related to the Employees’ Provident Fund confirmed that the “wage theft allegation is under investigation”.

A labour officer who was privy to some of the discussions related to Amruta Creations said that the company has not denied the allegations – it has admitted to non-payment, but also insisted that its finances are in the doldrums.

“The reasons range from demonetisation to the absence of export orders to blaming striking workers for mounting losses,” said the labour officer. In each meeting, the factory proprietor asks for more time to arrange the money to pay the striking workers.

The seventh meeting in mid March was no different. After half an hour, Manjula and the others stormed out of the building, dejected once again.

“They promised to give us cheques on April 1!” said Manjula, clapping her hands in mock approval. “They are going to make us April Fools!”

“The truth is that the company mismanaged its finances. They have maxed out their bank overdraft and debt,” said the labour officer. “It is a common story. Companies have to pay taxes, duties, electricity, fabric cost, and rent. And proprietors will take their salary. So where can they cut cost with the least consequences? Labour.”

This is the first part of a four-part series on Bangalore’s garment workers. Read the other parts here, here and here.

Update: This piece has been edited to include the response of Sonal Apparel.