GARMENT WORKERS dying in and around the premises of factories where they work reveal an extremely disturbing trend. Two days ago, 39 year old Padmavathi started vomiting at her workplace at 9.30 am. She requested her Production Manager at the Shalini Creations Factory for leave so she could go to a hospital. She was immediately shouted at and sent back to work. But a couple of hours later when the vomiting did not stop she was allowed to leave the factory. She left, only to collapse 50 meters away from its gates. Passersby carried her back to the factory and her colleagues then shifted her to hospital, where she died by 1.00 pm.
Is this a stray incidence of inhuman treatment of garment workers? Pushparaj, about 35 years of age died inside the same factory in October 2006 and therefore this raises a serious question about the HR practices in the factory. When 25 year old Ammu hanged herself in the toilet of the garment factory where she worked on February 10, 2007, it evoked little attention from the media and even less from the apparel industry. One more suicide in a city known for its growing suicide rate was hardly newsworthy. Also, it could be conveniently blamed on an unstable personality or unhappy “personal” life. Yet the fact that Ammu was young, female, migrant, a single mother and desperately poor are not irrelevant factors in her becoming a garment factory worker. Indeed, each of these is what the garment industry looks for in getting a docile workforce where gender, youth and poverty intersect to the advantage of the employer. While in most cases it spells indebtedness and drudgery, in Ammu’s case it culminated in a discursive drama that lead her to death. With her passing, the questions surrounding her final act of despair, could easily fade away into oblivion.
But for the three lakh women in and around Bangalore like Ammu, who continue to grapple with the very same issues on a daily basis, Ammu’s death is too close to the bone, too grim a reminder of what their tenuous lives are about. News has now spread that Ammu’s supervisor had pushed her and even thrown fabric at her. Her colleagues have now narrated that when Ammu expressed inability to work at the speed demanded by her supervisor, the production manager refused to sign her exit pass and ordered Ammu to resume work. The suicide note written on her palm and on the exit pass she was clutching, states that she was forced to take this extreme measure due to this harassment. Ironic, that the only “exit” she got was through death.
What makes these deaths so bizarre is that they have taken place while Brand Bangalore is busy acquiring an image of Garment City. After much hype about IT Parks and Electronic Cities, citizens of Bangalore have been told that we have one more dollar earning industry to be proud of. The 900 odd ubiquitous garment factories have put namma Bengalooru on the global garment map, earning a whopping Rs 7000 crores last year. The apparel boom is expected to take off in the wake of lifting of sanctions on textile imports by US and European countries following the 2005 Agreement on Textile and Clothing (ATC). Apart from export, the domestic retail market for foreign branded garments is also taking off, leading to a 2010 target of Rs. 10000 crores by the Clothing Manufacturers Association here. The Karnataka State is not a silent spectator while all this happens. It has announced the setting up of six Apparel Parks at Doddaballapur, Harohalli, Davengere and even as far away as Bidar and Bellary which are in various stages of completion. Six large enclaves of 200 to 500 acres are being developed by the State to facilitate the setting up of apparel related production units — weaving, spinning, bleaching, dyeing, embroidery, fabric processing, printing, tailoring, accessories like zips, buttons and labels or software for quality control. All such units can now be housed inside the ‘park’ and can easily supply each others requirements while sharing common infrastructure from roads to security to common effluent treatment plants.
Inside the ‘parks’, within each factory, a carefully calculated use of imported machines and local labour in finely calibrated proportions, is designed to maximize returns for the investor. It is not difficult to figure out why for certain orders, specific machinery is switched off and manual processes used. According to these mysterious formulae, each member of the human workforce, especially in the tailoring units, has to keep pace with an assembly line that moves at dizzying speeds, remote controlled by export order deadlines and fashion trends in the ‘west’. Forcing a less than adequate workforce number to work overtime with no extra pay and harassment of women workers by male supervisors have become entrenched as “unavoidable” ways of meeting deadlines. And using deadlines as an excuse, a culture of fear and powerlessness has been cultivated on the shop floor, to prevent workers from articulating even basic rights — be it wages, or time to have lunch or leave requirements.
Against this backdrop, we keep hearing announcements claiming that each Apparel Park would house 100-200 units and employ 30,000 to 60,000 workers, of whom about 80% will be women. While the State is busy making things easy for the investors, the lack of adequate attention to workers issues is unacceptable. Somehow, with Ammu’s and Padmavathy’s deaths, and increasing visibility of the dehumanized workplace, any “euphoria” about these three lakh new jobs already stinks.
What is also significant here is that Shalini Creations is a unit of Texport Overseas Group, and produces for global brands like GAP, Metlan etc who claim have staff welfare norms in place which are regularly monitored by the Compliance Officers representing these Brands. While the Brands are keen to convey to their western consumers that workers are well looked after, the actual gap between what the compliance officer sees ( or chooses not to see) and the rosy image that the Brand attempts to project, seems to be widening.
At the end of the day the complex set of practices and norms at the workplace is about money. Where Ammu worked was one of the units of Gokaldas chain of companies. This is especially disturbing because the company is one of the chief promoters of the Apparel SEZ at Harohalli , already running several units around Bangalore, with an annual turnover of more than 1000 crores, a profit of 13% and employing 52200 workers. If this is the institutionalized workplace culture in the larger business houses, one shudders to think of the smaller garment sweat shops and fly by night sub-contract operators.
Thankfully today there is an attempt to organize such workers, not taking the factory as a unit (where unionizing would be impossible), but unionizing for the industry as a whole and linking with garment unions worldwide. The International Trade Union, ITGLWF, has asked the company for an explanation regarding Ammu’s death. Certification agencies like WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production), the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Fairwear Foundation too conduct investigations into the prevailing labour conditions in the industry and have expressed concern at these deaths.
For those of us who watch from the sidelines, this seems the moment to salute the three lakh women garment workers of Bangalore. Applaud them, not just for enduring strife, but for the ways in which they are now coming together even as they survive long working hours, domestic chores, an excruciating pace of work, abusive supervisors, low wages and in the meantime manage pregnancies, childbirth, child care with almost no support from the employers. But then as garment “consumers”, our salutations to these exhausted women reduces to mere rhetoric, if we do not interrogate their multiple deprivations. More importantly, this is a time to re-examine our own workplace practices and consumption patterns and to question the hegemonies of class, age and gender that operate insidiously. Surely, all oppression needs dignified exits, other than death.