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Two decades, eight companies, no improvement. A career in Bengaluru’s garment industry has yielded little reward for Dakshayini, 41. Staffed largely by women, the industry in recent years has been in the news for allegations of underpayment and harassment of employees, and Dakshayini has seen little by way of effort to ameliorate the anger now simmering among the roughly 500,000 workers.

“I started out as a helper, and I have managed to reach the position of quality checker today. But that has not made my life any better. My salary is still a meagre ?8,000, which amounts to nothing in a city like Bengaluru. About 60% of it goes towards rent,” she says, and asks, “How do we manage other expenditure, such as our children’s education?”

What has taken a turn for the worse, she says, is the work atmosphere. “The workload has increased over the years. Earlier, production targets were manageable. We had to stitch 25 to 35 pieces in one hour. Now, even 70 pieces are not enough. We are subject to verbal abuse and harassment if we don’t reach targets.”

Wage battles

As the pressure of targets goes through the roof, what has triggered collective outrage and massive protests — the most recent one being on May Day — is the issue of pay. In February 2018, the Karnataka government issued a draft minimum wage notification offering workers ? 11,587 per month. However, the government soon withdrew it, allegedly due to pressure from the powerful industry lobby.

Then, in April, the Karnataka High Court upheld the notifications issued in 2016 and 2017 increasing the minimum wages for workers in about 34 private industries in the State. However, sources say, the garment industry was not part of this list. Workers have been up in arms since. And on May 1, hundreds of them, almost all women, marched from Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium to the Peenya industrial area to assert their demand.

Rukmini V. P., president, Garment Labour Union in Bengaluru, says that by not implementing the wages mentioned in the draft notification, lakhs of workers have suffered huge losses for around 15 months now.

India is held to be the third largest garment exporter globally, and a large employer of cheap labour in urban India, with an estimated 20 lakh workers.

History of struggle

Historically, there has always been a tussle in this sector between industry, government and workers over wages. A 2015 study by the Centre for Workers Management and the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) says the first minimum wage notification, in 1982, for organized factory-based garment manufacture in Bengaluru (which had its origins in the 70s) guaranteed a minimum wage of 12.90. It took a second notification in 1986 to add a dearness allowance to the package.

In 2001, the Labour Department issued a wage notification but withdrew it. When it reissued it later that year, the minimum wage was reduced due to what it claimed was a “clerical error,” the 2015 study says. Then came the 2009 wage notification, which was not implemented by the industry for a whole year. In March 2010, the earlier notification was reissued, but “again with the excuse of a clerical error”.

When the 2009 notification was not implemented, GATWU challenged the government in the Karnataka High Court, and in February 2013, the court held the arbitrary changes to be illegal. The court ordered negotiations between GATWU and the Labour Department, following which a new notification was issued in 2014 that promised a higher minimum wage.

Wrangling saga

Jayaram. K.R., legal advisor to GATWU, who was also a garment worker between 1979 and 2002, said the wage saga of the industry has been that of notifications being either withdrawn on flimsy excuses or not being implemented. “Either the industry is not taking the government’s orders seriously, or it is lobbying and getting the wages reduced. The wages for garment workers are below the urban poverty line wages fixed by the Rangarajan Committee report. What is making our case even more difficult is that the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana offer low wages too, which is being cited by the industry here as an argument against wage revisions,” he says.

A senior Labour Department official, on condition of anonymity, said that a recent High Court direction had asked them to “redo the whole exercise” for the garment, textile, dyeing and printing, and silk industry. “A committee has to fix the revised minimum wages and notify them within six months, which we will do.”

But what about allegations that the industry lobby derailed the whole process? “No one will deny that there are various lobbies at work. But the Labour Department’s job is to ensure the welfare of labourers,” he said.