Sakina* walked through the labour department in Bengaluru to enquire about the next date of her court hearing. She knew the layout of the building well, like her home, or her last workplace – the garment factory in which she worked for three years. She greeted the clerks, the security guards, the peons in the office, and they responded with wary smiles. At around 1 pm, they told her that the government officer she was scheduled to meet would take longer to see her. So 42-year-old Sakina sat under a tree outside, loosened the burkha around her neck, and opened her steel lunch box. “I won’t be going home until it is evening,” she said in Kannada. “Anyway, I can’t go home with hopeless news, or I’ll lose their support.”

Sakina’s family and friends are baffled by her decision to put her 25-year-long career, a job in a garment factory, and family stability at risk to challenge, as they put it, “one moment of sexual harassment at work”. Sakina said a senior colleague at the factory she worked at had demanded sexual favours from her, and punished her for not complying. “Almost everyone told me that complaining about harassment would prove that I wasn’t harassed,” Sakina said, holding her head. “Because in our culture, a woman who is harassed typically does not speak up.” But that very expectation of silence egged her on. Sakina complained about the harassment at work, and when unsatisfied with the response, she filed a complaint with Karnataka’s labour department. Even as the wheels of justice turn excruciatingly slowly, she has become more determined to see it to the end. “This is not just for me,” she said. “Tomorrow, my daughter may go to an office or factory – it has to be safe for her.”

A 2016 study by the non-governmental organisation, Sisters of Change, found that 60% of women factory workers suffered verbal, physical or sexual violence. But the National Commission for Women received only 522 complaints in 2015, of which those from factory workers was negligible. The industry Sakina works in – textiles and garments – is the second largest employer after agriculture in India. Almost three-quarters of its 24 lakh workforce are young women.

In Bengaluru, some 1,200 factories employ over five lakh women between the ages of 18 and 40. They work a gruelling eight hours to 10 hours daily, and are paid a minimum wage – under Rs 7,500 a month. But even in a sector that depends so heavily on women, sexual harassment is callously normalised and poorly addressed. Recruitment practices that source young women workers from distant rural villages or other states, and hostels where these workers are confined in, create an enabling environment for exploitation.

One in seven women garment workers in Bengaluru factories faces harassment. Actively prevented from unionising, underpaid and overworked, the largely rural-origin, barely school-educated women workers are not only vulnerable to verbal and sexual abuse within the factory, but are also less likely to protest and receive redressal. Women like Sakina, who complained, are rare.

(Photo credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP).

Over 60 Bengaluru workers this reporter spoke to in March and April said that they endure the backbreaking demands of garment factories – and routine abuse – because of financial pressures and the social stigma associated with admitting to being sexually harassed. “Garment workers are economically vulnerable and in no position to risk losing their jobs,” said Yashoda, a member of the Garment Labour Union, a women-led trade union based in Bengaluru. Many also face domestic violence at home, so abuse and humiliation is an everyday reality. “Without being made aware of their options and rights, without support against social stigma, they are forced to just bear abuse all their life – for employment, for children, for avoiding a bad name,” said Yashoda.

When the harassment started

Sakina too was burdened by familial and financial pressures, but what she finally shed was the fear of stigma. She was an A-grade tailor – experienced, skilled and better paid than other workers – for three years at Allure Fashions Private Limited, a garment exporter that manufactures for brands like Maximum. She stitched shorts and trousers.

“I had worked since 1992 in garment factories, so I was really good at my job,” she said. Her husband owned a hardware shop, and his income fluctuated. It was Sakina, with her stable Rs 12,000 a month, and extra income from stitching sari blouses and kurtas at home for customers, who paid the college fees for their son and daughter. “Life was about hard work, but after my children reached college, I allowed myself to be happy,” she said. “But you know those movies, no? Where as soon as everyone is smiling, something horrible happens?”

In March 2016, when salaries were handed out as cash packets at her workplace, Sakina says some workers found a few thousand rupees missing from their pay. “The production manager who was giving us the packets had taken some of our money,” said Sakina. Two other workers confirmed this wage theft to this reporter, but they did not want to be quoted. Having worked in the factory for three years, Sakina did not think much about going to the “boss’ cabin” to complain. The production manager denied taking the money, and Sakina said that the owner asked her to let it go.

According to Sakina, the harassment began a week later. She says that the production manager changed her department every few hours, preventing her from meeting any targets. She recalled that on March 28, 2016, he insisted that she accompany him “to a hotel”. “I made some excuse and ran home,” said Sakina.

Over the next few months, she says he would call her on the phone late into the night to mention that his wife was away – could Sakina come over? He would claim to be unwell, she says, and ask her to take care of him. He apparently even threatened to fire her if she did not purchase 10 grams of gold for his daughter’s wedding. He insisted she do compulsory overtime “to meet her target”.

“I was running out of ways to avoid him,” said Sakina.

Sakina says she sent two anonymous letters to Allure’s owner in which she identified the production manager and described his behaviour. “The boss said nothing,” she said.

Allure’s owner Ritesh Dani said over the phone, “The fact is that this is a production issue, and not a genuine sexual harassment case. She was asked to move to a different department and she didn’t want to. The lady has a grudge against the production manager, so she is trying to get back at him and the company.”

Sakina admitted to production problems but said that it was entwined with harassment. Her supervisor started to reject her tailored pieces (other workers at Allure said they witnessed this). “After years of doing the same work, suddenly I was declared incompetent,” she said. When she protested, the manager doubled her team’s daily target. Angry co-workers soon stopped talking to her. “I was slowly isolated, branded a fighter-cock,” said Sakina, using the Indian English phrase to describe a person who frequently picks up fights for little or no provocation.

One of the reasons Allure’s owner Dani cites for disbelieving Sakina is that “this is the third factory in which she’s complaining of harassment”. When asked, Sakina put it down to her low threshold for abuse after decades of silently witnessing humiliation, sexually-laced comments and molestation in several garment factories. In 2014, she had attended an awareness workshop (she couldn’t recall who conducted it) on workplace sexual harassment. There, she says she realised that the behaviour many women workers like her had come to hate but accept – not being allowed to visit the restroom, getting reduced maternity benefits, being fired for talking back, and male supervisors raining curses on workers, commenting on a worker’s figure, or standing uncomfortably close – did not have to be inevitable. She decided to stay in Allure, instead of quitting as she had done before, and protest the alleged harassment.

The management fired Sakina in September 2016. “If it’s a genuine case, it would have been different,” said Dani. “We are a small garment company. As management, we can’t entertain anyone creating trouble.”

In October, with the help of the 3,000-member strong Karnataka Garment Workers’ Union, Sakina filed a complaint with the state labour department for wrongful termination and sexual harassment.

According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, any company with over 10 employees should have an internal complaints committee with one external chairwoman and workers’ representatives, whose names are publicised at the factory. It must meet once a month, when workers can voice their concerns.

Swamy, a senior member of the Karnataka Garment Workers’ Union, said that a labour inspector found that “Allure did not even have the [prevention of] sexual harassment committee.” Dani however insisted that the company had an internal complaints committee since February 2011, “but in between members left and we had to get new ones”. A labour officer in charge of the case admitted that he was shown documents to prove the existence of a sexual harassment committee at Allure, as well as signatures in a register, as if the members had met every month for the past two years. But unprovoked, he also added, “Of course, they can easily cook up some documents in the last minute in cases like this.”

Dani said he met other workers in his cabin to enquire about any complaints against the production manager. However, even if this were done with good intentions, according to the sexual harassment law, it is the external members of the committee who must investigate and interview women workers, preferably outside the factory premises, in a neutral place.

As her complaint lies in limbo, Sakina is without a job. “I have to visit the labour office often for the case, and when I tell new employers about it, they reject me as a potential troublemaker,” she said.

Desperate, Sakina requested the women’s welfare department of the Karnataka government for a letter of support. A union member who accompanied her to meet officials in that department said that was the only day she had seen Sakina cry. “A woman official read her letter, looked at Sakina and said, “What ma, all this for some dirty phone calls. It is not like it is rape, no?”

Sitting in the labour office garden in March, Sakina said, “I can see it in their eyes – the government servants, the labour officials, even some of my co-workers. They are thinking, ‘This woman is 42 years old, with two grown children. She is a garment worker. Who will make sexual passes at her?’ Who knows, maybe you thought it too?”

(Photo credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP).

Weak compliance of sexual harassment laws

Sakina’s case is a classic example of the complex entwining of professional conflict and sexual abuse in the workplace. For her, it is clearly sexual harassment. But for Allure’s management, it is “a false case by a lady with a grudge”. The labour officers involved did not call Sakina’s case false, but they did not damn Allure either. “We are still investigating, so we cannot say much,” said a labour officer, both quoting the law and scoffing at it. “See, men must be very careful these days, because ladies complain if you sneeze in their direction.”

In another incident in March at a major Bengaluru factory (union members requested this repeorter not to identify the firm in order to protect the victim’s identity in a tightly knit garment sector), the committee allegedly did not investigate the complaint satisfactorily. It was only when the victim approached the Garment Labour Union did the company management call for talks. “We don’t trust them to do justice,” said Yashoda from the Garment Labour Union. The victim finally filed a police complaint. In this case too, the failure of the internal committee led the worker to seek help outside, risking loss of job, income and privacy.

By law, India’s sexual harassment procedure is revolutionary, and could aid women like Sakina.

“Unlike other laws to protect women, the sexual harassment law does not require women to go to the police and courts – this is to encourage them to speak up,” said Santosh Vas, founder of Janodaya Trust, and Bengaluru district officer dealing with sexual harassment appeals. But there is a long way to go.

In the absence of factory-level redressal mechanisms, aggrieved women have to go to the forbidding police or bureaucratic labour court. Or worse, they do not report the cases.

“It was only as recently as 2014 that companies started seriously conducting committee meetings and workshops,” said Vas, who has conducted sensitisation workshops and established sexual harassment redressal procedures in nearly 60 factories. “So many owners tell us to create a committee, but do not tell their employees about it. If I refuse, they find another social worker to do this.”

A 2015 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst & Young found that 36% of Indian companies and 25% of multinationals did not comply with the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act. About 44% did not conspicuously display the disciplinary or penal consequences of sexual harassment within the workplace.

A senior official in the Karnataka labour department, unconnected to Sakina’s case, said that verbal abuse and exploitation is so prevalent in the garment sector that companies and labour officials find the legal procedures a painful formality. “They perfunctorily maintain the committee in books, members are paid a fee to have samosa-tea and sign a register, but no worker knows about its existence,” he said. “The concern for company reputation over worker welfare is at the heart of it.”

Even when leading exporters in Bengaluru commit to a zero-tolerance policy, it is at odds with their acute anxiety about potential cases of sexual harassment tarnishing their name and ruining business opportunities. “How many times I’ve heard the owner say ‘let us settle it amicably’ and call for a meeting with him,” said Rukmini, a member of the Garment Labour Union. “But why have informal peace talks when the owner should be getting the committee to do an independent probe?”

MC Dinesh, president of the Federation for Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry, dismissed the complaints mechanism as “cumbersome and bureaucratic, an opportunity for unions and workers to hold companies to ransom”. Garment unions and Vas said that the companies begin by “doubting the complainant” or “hoping the accusation is untrue”.

The managing director of one of India’s oldest and biggest garment exporting companies admitted that even as his company conducted awareness workshops for women workers, he “lived in fear of the sexual harassment complaint”. He said although garment unions are tiny, he kept them at arm’s length, because “they make a hue and cry, contact police or worse, write letters to the brands”.

He added: “Even if the victim gets justice, my company will be known for the harassment rather than the solution…All I want is for my work to continue.”

Workers want the abuse to stop, but they too want work continuity. “Nine out of 10 times, women want redressal, but do not want the company to shut down or make losses, because their job is linked to it,” said Ratna Kumar, a senior consultant from Asara Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that works on workplace safety with over 60 factories in Bengaluru. “Safety and productivity do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

Even after fair investigations, however, typical resolutions are to transfer the complainant to a distant rural unit, ask her to go on unpaid leave, or to fire her for other reasons at a later stage.

Companies seemed more compliant when the brands they supplied were strict regarding sexual harassment. A Stockholm-based media officer of the Swedish clothing multinational H&M wrote on email that its Indian suppliers needed to have “a policy on Anti-harassment and Anti-abuse practices”, which their sustainability teams monitor. A communications officer for Dutch fashion brand C&A emailed to say that the brand was formulating internal guidelines to address working conditions, with a focus on violence against female workers. In the past five years, other global brands like Gap Inc, Primark and Walmart have launched broader initiatives on women’s empowerment, through health and life skills programmes.

(Photo credit: Rohini Mohan).

Women supervisors as a solution

In the context of protests for higher minimum wages in 2010-’11, the Karnataka High Court ordered all stakeholders, including representatives from brands, factories, non-governmental organisations and unions, to hold joint roundtable meetings in Bengaluru from 2011-’13. Participants discussed several issues, and identified that the root cause of sexual harassment was the power imbalance: in garment factories, middle and senior management was disproportionately male. Although women made up 90% of the workforce, they found that over 90% of upper and middle management were men.

“Companies do not consider women as capable managers, and even pay the existing ones less than male managers in the same position,” said Rukmini. “Many women are also reluctant [to take responsibility].”

Many workers had to prioritise their domestic workload – cooking, dropping kids to school, and caring for the elderly – over managerial responsibility. “Most women also think supervising is inherently abusive and want no part of it,” said Rukmini.

To tackle both ends, the roundtable devised a seven-week intensive women supervisors’ training programme in May 2014. Gokaldas Images, Indian Design and Industree Pvt Ltd sponsored women workers who were willing to be promoted. The trainees were taught technical skills to increase productivity, educated about human resources management, health and safety, workers’ dignity, and law and compliance.

“It was the first time many of these women even saw and met their company CEOs, and they were overwhelmed,” said Nishwath Hasan, an educator who created the programme with the non-governmental organisation Cividep. “We also held workshops for upper management.”

Monitored over the next six months, 25 of the 34 women who attended the programme were found successfully promoted to supervisory roles, with a 30%-50% hike in income. The second cycle in 2015 trained 30 women, but from the same companies. “We approached other big exporters, but they were apprehensive that open conversations in the sessions would make their workers aware of non-compliance or too demanding about rights,” said Hasan.

Under a programme designed by GAP, Shahi Exports Pvt Limited too trained women for supervisory roles. “Social benefits are fine, but having women supervisors has business benefits as well,” said Chitra Ramdas, general manager of organisational development at Shahi Exports. “We find that these women have higher self-regard, which increases their productivity and efficiency by up to 50%. It inspired more company loyalty, so attrition dropped. We also automatically have fewer fears about sexual harassment.”

Studies have shown that female supervisors can not only reduce gender inequality (in wages, treatment and career growth), but also improve worker productivity. A 2016 Stanford University study of nine factories of an unidentified Bengaluru-based garment exporter found that female supervisors increased overall productivity by 4.3%.

Garment factory manager Kasturi. (Photo credit: Rohini Mohan).

One trainee, 31-year-old Kasturi SI, became an assistant supervisor after working 12 years at Shahi Exports. Typical of many garment workers, this village school dropout is her family’s only breadwinner, funding the education of her two teen sons. Also typical of many garment workers, she initially saw herself only as a worker, never a leader.

“But when the trainer told us about three types of leadership styles – friendly, parental and firm, I was astonished,” she said, her hands cupping her face as she imitated her own surprise. “So, a supervisor does not have to shout and call caste names and insult me? There is another way? That was the moment I was ready to be manager.”

Being a manager has changed her self-perception – she uses the English word “staff” to refer to herself, rather than the Kannada word for worker.

Researchers and workers say garment companies in Bengaluru have been more eager about gender balance initiatives than prevention of sexual harassment. “It creates goodwill and productivity as a concept, but we still see only a marginal increase in women as supervisors,” said consultant Santosh Vas. “A few individuals do benefit, but a training workshop and a few success stories do not always address the systemic problem of devaluing female labour.” Vas believes that gender inequality in the workplace requires various fixes, including corporate responsibility, collective bargaining, and the legal stick of sexual harassment laws. That is the only way to effect real change in the garment sector and the lives of women who are its backbone.

*Name changed

This is the concluding part of a four-part series on Bengaluru’s garment workers. The first three parts can be read here.