Labour rights

For Bengaluru’s garment hub workers, the minimum wage is actually the maximum wage

From April 2016 to January 2017, apparel exports grew by 4.5%. But the narrative that the cost of labour is squeezing the industry is a constant refrain.

Come April 1, and as garment worker Manjula K had bitterly predicted, the joke was on her.

That was the date when she and 95 other workers from Bengaluru-based apparel maker Amruta Creations Pvt Ltd were told they could expect cheques giving them five months of unpaid wages.

“Instead, the owner sent a letter to the Labour Department asking for an extension – for the eighth time,” Manjula said in Kannada. Cutting vegetables for Sunday lunch, she dropped her voice and added, “I may apply for a cleaning job in a nearby mall.”

That is the kind of job Manjula had sworn never to do.

“I thought garment factories were about international brands, so it would be respectable,” she said. “But I’m done with them, their work pressure, and their reluctance to pay a decent wage to women.”

Employment behemoth

The Indian garment sector directly employs more than 24 lakh people – industry estimates say 45 lakh, only second to agriculture. Almost three-quarters of these are young women from rural backgrounds, often first-generation industrial workers. They are the backbone of an industry that contributes 11% to India’s exports, and over 5% to the gross domestic product. Driven by a strong domestic market, the sector has been expanding, and the Union government’s Make in India programme has identified garments and textiles as a priority area to encourage investment.

And yet, garment companies pay the majority of its workers – tailors, helpers, store managers, packers, trimmers and button fixers – only minimum wages.

In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur, the largest knitwear production cluster in the country, knitted garment companies pay the state stipulated minimum wage of Rs 9,600 a month, and woven garment units Rs 11,000. In Delhi, another major garment hub, units paid Rs 9,742 until March, when the state government announced a 36% hike, raising the minimum wage to Rs 13,350 a month. Units in Bengaluru, the biggest region for readymade apparel production and export in India, with over 1,200 factories employing more than five lakh workers, pay Rs 7,474 a month, including dearness allowance.

“When I moved to Bangalore from my village in Tumkur, I thought I will save and send money home to my ailing parents,” said Jayalakshmi R, 24, who has been with apparel manufacturer Gokaldas Images for five years. “But I learnt a new kind of mathematics after coming to garments.”

On average, Jayalakshmi earns Rs 8,000 a month, including monthly incentives or overtime pay. Her husband Shivamurthy does the acid wash for denim jeans in Fibres and Fabrics International Pvt Ltd, making around Rs 9,000 a month. Their rent for a single room and kitchen is Rs 3,000. “For a room with an attached toilet, it is Rs 3,500,” said Jayalakshmi.

The couple’s monthly expenses – groceries, milk, electricity, water, and cable TV – add up to Rs 6,000. Jayalakshmi tries to invest Rs 1,000 per month in a chit fund.

“Right now, I can send Rs 5,000 to the village, but I’m scared to plan children,” she said. “How will this income be enough?”

Her neighbour, 42-year-old Uma K, entered the garment industry eight years ago when she lost her husband to cancer. Despite having twice Jayalakshmi’s experience, Uma also earns only Rs 8,000. When asked how she manages to raise two school-going children, she laughed wryly. “What are moneylenders for?” she said.

Uma has little social protection and job security. A year ago, for a throat surgery, she tried to use the employees’ state insurance that would have entitled her to avail up to Rs 60,000 after furnishing medical bills. But when she was on medical leave, her employer fired her. “Without insurance, I had to spend much more in a private hospital,” said Uma, who now works with Sonal Apparel Pvt Ltd. “That was the moment I realised the significance of good pay and worker benefits.”

The sewing floor at Lawrence Clothing Pvt Ltd, a medium scale factory in RT Nagar, Bengaluru. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)
The sewing floor at Lawrence Clothing Pvt Ltd, a medium scale factory in RT Nagar, Bengaluru. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)

Static wages, gender bias

For years, research has shown that a Rs 7,500 monthly wage is far short of what is needed for a worker to sustain a family, build some savings, provide transport and afford quality health care and education.

“The adage in the garment sector is minimum wage is the maximum wage,” said Anita Cheria, whose OpenSpace gives strategic advice to Garments Labour Union, a women-led trade union based in Bengaluru. “At the most, the pay has been keeping up with inflation, but has hardly risen in real terms.”

Said Mohan Mani, a researcher at the Centre for Labour Studies at the National Law School, Bengaluru: “There is no justification for a globalised industry not even being able to pay wages above poverty level.”

Cheria explained that even in a sector that largely depends on hard-working women between the age of 18 to 40, Jayalakshmi’s or Uma’s monthly pay is unlikely to increase with experience or skill.

There is a distinct gender dimension to wage compliance. The International Labour Union found that non-compliance rates regarding minimum wage in India’s garment sector was 74% for women, and 45% for men.

A 2009 survey of wages by Cividep, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation that works on labour rights and corporate accountability, found many industry experts who argued that “wages to women are a supplementary wage for the family”. Therefore, they did not need to be paid living wage, calculated at Rs 18,000 a month for India.”

What this approach does is to systematically devalue female labour.

Keeping wages low

The Minimum Wages Act mandates a revision of wages by state governments every five years. But each time state governments revise the minimum wage, manufacturers challenge it by asserting that it would make the sector uncompetitive. In Karnataka, in 2009, apparel producers challenged a hike in the minimum wage, from Rs 2644.20 to Rs 3,302, which the Labour Department then undid, citing “a clerical mistake”. It was only when the Garment and Textile Workers Union approached the Karnataka High Court that the revocation was struck down.

Today, Bengaluru’s apparel manufacturers are appealing against a hike in the monthly minimum wage to about Rs 10,000 a month, which is applicable from April 1. In Tamil Nadu, last July, the monthly minimum wages for tailors were revised upwards after 12 years, from Rs 7,500 to about Rs 10,000, but again, garment unit owners protested.

Meanwhile, an International Labour Organisation research note last year found that over half the garment sector in India pays less than legal minimum wage, worse than Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Many companies attempt to knock down labour costs through practices like seasonal contracting, rotation of workforce by constant firing and hiring, using cheaper migrant labour, shifting units to rural areas, forcing unpaid leave on workers during lean periods and enforcing overtime when there are orders.

For instance, instead of overtime, or OT, which is voluntary, has fixed hours according to the law, and attracts double the hourly wage, most workers in Bengaluru refer to their employers enforcing “OC” – compulsory, unpaid or single wage work, and with no maximum hours. Refusing to do it could mean losing one’s job.

Little regulation

“The women workers don’t have much bargaining power,” said Gopinath Parakuni, founder of Cividep. “They are poor, non-unionised, and often the sole breadwinners for their families. So, each of these changes means they lose jobs, or are short-changed of pay.”

Workers stitch the hem on linen shirts at Lawrence Clothing Pvt Ltd in Bengaluru. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)
Workers stitch the hem on linen shirts at Lawrence Clothing Pvt Ltd in Bengaluru. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)

There is little regulation on the part of the state – nine manufacturers admitted to this reporter that they paid monthly bribes to labour inspectors to “cause no trouble”. One medium-scale manufacturer in Bengaluru put a figure to it – Rs 70,000 in cash.

Jessy Lawrence, proprietor of Lawrence Clothing Pvt Ltd in RT Nagar, Bengaluru, who runs four apparel units with a total of 2,000 workers, said that as a woman herself, she understood the “pain of the poor women workers running families at just 7,500 rupees a month,” but insisted that if she had to pay more, her units would have to be shut down.

“The purchasing price we get from buyers are less, because the market and prices have been stagnant for the past three years,” said Lawrence. Details like margins and purchase price are closely guarded by manufacturers, making the supply chain extremely opaque. Most studies on the industry depend on rough verbal estimates from factory owners.

In the global assembly line, as power has shifted from producers to traders and retailers, brands now set the terms. A senior official at the Labour Department said that multinational brands largely offer “narrow margins” to manufacturers, who then fight to keep service conditions low.

“In absolute terms, wages of over 100 employees is a large payout for a small- or medium- scale apparel maker,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence said labour was 30% of her monthly expenditure. Another Tiruppur-based senior entrepreneur, who produces for Levi’s, put wages at 20% in his export units.

But the World Trade Organisation offers the clinching number. It estimates that in the supply chain, labour is only 1% to 3% of the market price of a T-shirt or skirt. So researcher Mani calls the manufacturers’ argument about not being able to afford labour is “untenable”. “There is ample room to increase wages if the system wants it.”

To further reduce wages, apparel manufacturers blame rising labour costs for eroding India’s competitiveness in the global market. As one Bangalore exporter put it, “it is leading companies to ruin”.

Growing industry

But the garment industry in India is in fact growing in size and production. While exports did decline by 2.1% from 2014-’15 to 2015-’16, and there are concerns that Vietnam and Bangladesh have surpassed India’s apparel exports, Chandrima Chatterjee, advisor at the Apparel Export Promotion Council said that there has been no exceptional shutting down or downturn in the industry.

“This is an industry with a low entry and exit barrier,” she said. “Every year, many small units close and others open. Bangladesh and Vietnam overtook us in 2012 because they built scale over the years, and have more competitive costing, which is not only about wages.”

From April 2016 to January 2017, exports grew by 4.5%.

When pressed, big exporters like Shahi Exports and Gokaldas Exports, small entrepreneurs and manufacturer lobbies alike admitted to various other significant factors influencing their bottom line, like increasing real estate prices, a recession-linked decrease in orders from brands in Europe and the US, heavy import duties on manmade fabric, unreimbursed duties, unimplemented subsidies, and even demonetisation.

MC Dinesh, president of the Federation for Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said that “power, taxes, land and labour weigh equally on the garment industry” and producers lobby with governments to reduce costs on all fronts.

And yet, the narrative pitching labour cost as the undoing of garment units is popular, and directly impacts government policies.

Workers must fix 80-100 buttons an hour, never taking their eye off the needle for eight hours, except for a 30-minute lunch break. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)
Workers must fix 80-100 buttons an hour, never taking their eye off the needle for eight hours, except for a 30-minute lunch break. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)

Last year, the Union government’s special package of Rs 6,000 crores for the textile and apparel industry – which was publicised as leading to an increase of Rs 1,93,407 crores ($30 billion) in exports, as well as the creation of one crore jobs over the next three years – introduced “flexible labour norms to increase productivity”.

Workers unions across India have condemned the changes in labour norms as “anti-worker”. One of the changes makes Provident Fund optional for employees earning less than Rs 15,000 a month, which comprises the majority of workers in this garment hub. For those eligible for Provident Fund, the government will pay the 12% employer’s contribution for the next three years. The package also introduced what is referred to as “fixed term employment”, or a time-bound contract. Worker unions fear that fixed term employment could lead companies to entirely do away with permanent contracts and long-term responsibility, leaving workers without a job and medical insurance. Fixed term employees would also not be eligible for benefits like bonus and gratuity that accrue from seniority and regularity.

A senior official at the Labour Department in Karnataka said that emerging economies like India always respond to the threat that brands would move to countries offering cheaper labour. “We keep wages low to attract investment,” said the official. “Today, strong competition between states is also playing a part.” Like many experts, he believes that without collective bargaining by workers, and consumer pressure on international brands for ethical business practices, companies will continue to pinch from the labourer. “The pockets of good practices that exist in India are thanks to brands who want consumer goodwill,” he said. “They, in turn, enforce better conditions at their supplier’s factories.”

Jessy Lawrence demonstrated that she has room to manoeuvre, even with uneven margins. A domestic apparel brand she manufactures for, sells ladies shirts at Rs 699. It offers her a margin of Rs 63 a shirt although her cost is Rs 110. “If wages increase, my cost is Rs 130,” she said. When asked how she manages to stay afloat then, Lawrence smiled. “By planning better,” she said. “By balancing orders from a few other brands that give me good margins.”

Chitra Ramdas, the organisation development in-charge from Shahi Exports, one of India’s biggest garment exporters with 54 units producing for brands like Gap, H&M, Kohls, and Columbia, said that the company’s focus on compliance and scale helped it grow 30% during the recession. For Hanif Sattar who runs Basics Life, a men’s fashion brand in Chennai, innovative design is the way to command premium prices.

Workers Jayalakshmi and Uma walk through a neighbourhood near Peenya in Bengaluru. Most houses here are rented by garment workers. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)
Workers Jayalakshmi and Uma walk through a neighbourhood near Peenya in Bengaluru. Most houses here are rented by garment workers. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan)

Chandrima Chatterjee of the Apparel Export Promotion Council welcomed the textile package’s labour flexibility. “But the technology subsidy and tax incentives in the package, like rebate on state levies, reimbursement of taxes already paid, and reduction of import duties are still pending implementation,” she said.

There are thus other avenues to cut costs, but labour remains at the centre of garment economics, globally and in India. While profits accumulate on top, losses are pushed down the line till the last rung: the worker.

In the past three years, even as workers demand better wages and benefits, garment companies have been developing novel workarounds. Among these is a distinct focus on rural India – by bringing migrant workers to the city factory and, alternatively, taking more factories to the village.

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

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.