Manjula has workers in the garment sector for 20 years. She started out as a helper sorting materials and pre-stitched parts of garments for tailors. She now works in a factory in Peenya as quality checker.

“My salary is 8,300 – too little to pay rent and make a livelihood,” she said, when she spoke to last month. “They should pay me at least Rs 11,000. But they don’t raise the salary how much ever we ask.”
On the occasion of International Labour Day on May 1, many garment workers in Bengaluru like Manjula are joining a march and public meeting to draw attention to the government inaction on raising their minimum wages.

The workers, led by the Garment Labour Union and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, are demanding that the garment manufacturers pay all workers a minimum wage of Rs 11,587 per month as was suggested in a state government draft notification last year. The workers are asking that this payment be made retrospectively for the year 2018-’19.

Their bigger long-term demand is for the Karnataka government to raise the minimum wage to Rs 18,000 per month for all workers in India, including anganwadi workers, ASHA workers, sanitation workers, construction labourers, and garment labourers.

“We are expecting at least 1,000 workers from about 20 factories to join us for the march,” said Saroja K, general secretary of the Garment Labour Union. “They are coming from the garment units around the Peenya industrial area, from Kanakpura and even from Mysore.”

Employers’ reactions

According to the Karnataka Minimum Wages Act, wages need to be revised once every five years at least. But every time the state government has raised minimum wages, garment manufacturers have called the increase untenable, often forcing the authorities to back pedal. Garment workers have had to move the courts to get minimum wage increases implemented. The garment industry in Bengaluru consists of more than 1,200 garment manufacturing units that employ close to five lakh people, most of whom are women. About 70% of the workers are unskilled labourers.

In February 2018, the labour department issued a draft notification for minimum wages to be raised to about Rs 11,500 for unskilled workers and about Rs 14,000 for skilled workers.

“Once again the factory managements protested saying that they cannot afford such an increase and it was never implemented,” said Saroja.

Changing tack

Soon after, the labour department withdrew the draft notification. It said instead that the government would decide the minimum wage increase under a different provision of the Minimum Wage Act – that is, it would not finalise the increase by publishing its proposals in the official gazette and getting feedback from stakeholders but by appointing a committee to advise it on the revision.

“The government has decided to form a tripartite committee of government representatives, of garment industry representatives and representatives of garment workers,” said a senior official in the labour department.

The Garment Labour Union noted that the committee has not been able to make any decision in over a year.

“They have kept putting off meeting making excuses like the model code of conduct first before the assembly elections in May last and now for the general elections,” said Saroja.

By the union’s accounting, the garment industry owes its workers more than Rs 1,800 crore in arrears for 2018-’19 for not implementing a wage increase from the current levels of about Rs 8,000 to Rs 11,000 as suggested by the draft notification of February 2018.

But the Karnataka High Court has given the workers some hope with a judgment this month that upholds government notifications increasing minimum wages for 34 industries. The court directed employers to pay minimum wages within a period of eight weeks with an interest of 6% per annum from the date from which the revised wages are payable as per the government notification.

“The court order has just come and we will look at it properly and take a decision,” said the senior labour department official.

Saroja concedes that an increase to Rs 18,000 seems to be a long way away. “If the government hasn’t given us the wage of Rs 11,500 that they decided themselves then the chances of them accepting the demand of a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 is small,” she said. “But if they implement the increase of at least Rs 14,000 for skilled workers then it is one step towards a living wage of Rs 18,000.”

Also read: Half the Vote: A Bengaluru garment worker says politicians ignore the sector since it employs women

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