Bengaluru garment workers protest: what happened in April 2016

People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) published a fact-finding report on Garment Workers’ Strike recently. This is the account of what happened on the day protests erupted – excerpt from the fact-finding report:

By most accounts, the Garment Workers’ Strike of 18th and 19th of April, 2016 started at Shahi Exports and spread from one unit of Shahi Exports to another, and to other manufacturers’ units as well. Around 4,500 workers walked out of the Shahi Exports unit in Maddur at around 9.30 am on April 18. Word spread from unit to unit, and workers of Unit 14, Shahi Exports at Bommanahalliwere the first to walk out. This prompted the workers to walk out of the factory, and ask other factory workers, in factories of K. Mohan, Jockey Exports, and other small factories in and around Bommanahalli to come out in support of the cause.

Around 15,000-20,000 workers congregated in Bommanahalli alone. Word soon spread to Peenya-Jalahalli. Many of the workers we interviewed spoke about how the management at their factories told them to leave early because of the protests, and as they stepped outside the factories, they saw workers from other factories marching on the streets, and they joined them.

While workers came out in anger, the unions, upon learning of the huge walk outs, spoke to their workers and asked them to demonstrate in peace. They came to the areas of protest and helped in maintaining peace. Although the demonstration saw the presence of union leaders, it was primarily led by the workers themselves.

At the demonstration, workers sat on the highways as a protest. They raised slogans, and they talked to each other about the PF notification. However, even though the protests were largely peaceful, the police was brutal in its crackdown against the protestors.

The police were taken by surprise when thousands of women workers got on to the streets. Initially, the Additionally Commissioner of Police (Law and Order-East), P Harishekharan tried to quell the protest and spoke to the workers, asking for a representation to be forwarded to the State Government. However, when no worker came forward as a leader, and no one had a representation, it became clear to the police that it would not be possible for them to negotiate with a leader to call off the protest.

In order to control the crowd, the police called for more personnel. At around 1.30 pm, the police began to lathicharge the protestors sitting on the roads. On seeing that the women workers were being ruthlessly beaten by male police officers, the men workers started pelting stones at the police, who then intensified the lathi-charge against workers and bystanders alike. Thereafter, arrests were made arbitrarily.

Workers, students and even residents around the area of protests were arrested, saying there was videographic evidence of their involvement in the “riot”, which in fact was instigated by the police who began the lathi-charge on peaceful protestors. The arrested were beaten in custody, and forced to give the police names of other workers who took part in the protest along with them. The arrested persons struggled to gather money for surety, and finally got out on bail. Many workers who had migrated to Bangalore to take up employment went back to their native places for the fear of harassment from both the management and the police.

Weeks after the protest, harassment and arbitrary arrests continued in factories and houses of workers. Those arrested found lawyers many of whom exploited their needs, and charged them huge amounts of money for bail and as their fees. Workers who were beaten ruthlessly at the protest and in police custody have found it difficult to return to normalcy at work, as they find it physically painful to operate machines.

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