Survey: Garment factory workers say they won’t, and can’t, work longer hours

longer work hours in factories

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Bengaluru's garment factories employ over four lakh women. Representative image: Wikipedia

Women workers will be among those worst-affected by the Karnataka government’s notification that allows factories to increase work hours to 10 per day, or 60 per week. In a survey conducted jointly by us at the Alternative Law  Forum and the Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade between May 16 and 18, 65% of workers said they won’t and can’t work for longer hours.

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Given that an overwhelming segment of the workforce in garment industries are women, extending their work hours will likely result in thousands of women dropping out of the workforce or being asked to leave if they can’t work the extended hours.

Karnataka government’s notification betrays a complete lack of empathy and concern for women workers and their right to livelihood. By diluting labour laws in such manner, the state continues to abdicate its responsibility towards workers and their right to a dignified and healthy life.

About the survey

The report titled ‘Garment workers, Covid-19 pandemic and the Lockdown: A  report from South Karnataka’ is based on a telephonic survey of 82 workers in Bengaluru, Ramanagara, Mandya and Mysuru districts.

Overall, in the report, we provide a sense of working conditions prior to the lockdown as well as workers’ perspectives of it; the impact of the lockdown on the material and emotional lives of garment workers; and the extent of vulnerability they feel now. Majority of the garment workers said they had got no salaries during lockdown, and no food or income support from the government.

Broadly, our study analyses the ways in which the state and employer have abdicated their responsibilities towards workers, and foregrounds what workers desperately need so as to survive the aftermath of the lockdown.

Key findings from the survey

  • 63% of our respondents reported not having received any salary for the month of April. 17% of workers reported that they received 50% or less of their salaries for April.
  • Many workers reported that full or partial salaries have been given only to those who reported to work in May. These workers are undertaking expensive or unsafe travel to be able to reach their workplaces.
  • 96% of respondents said they received absolutely no assistance from their employers, be it in the form of cooked food, dry ration kits, loans or advances.
  • The state’s absence on the ground and in assisting workers was noticed by workers. 75% of our respondents said they received no free food from the government, 51% said they received no free ration from the government, 66% said they received no subsidised ration from public distribution system (PDS), and 18% said they received absolutely no assistance from the government.
  • With employers not paying salaries and the state not providing any income or food support, desperate workers had to turn to informal sources to borrow money. 45% of our respondents said they had to borrow money to tide over the lockdown, mostly from neighbours, friends and relatives.
  • 68% reported not having paid rent during the lockdown period. Of those who had to pay rent, 32% borrowed money, dipping into savings or using their salary. 
  • This survey was conducted before the recent Karnataka Government notification was issued. Given that the threat of dilution of labour laws existed at the time, we asked workers if they would work longer hours, or for reduced pay without ESI and PF. 
    • 66% of the workers said they would not work for reduced pay; 
    • 65% said they would not work longer hours;
    • 75% said they would not work if ESI facilities were withdrawn;
    • 82% said they would quit if the provision for PF was stopped.
    • Those who did agree to work without these facilities pointed out how other members of the family did not have work, the pressure to pay rent, utility bills and interest on loans were extremely high, and the possibility of not finding employment was something they could not afford.
  • At the time of the survey, factories had been allowed to reopen but there were no transport facilities for workers. During our survey, workers reported with great anguish their inability to go to work despite factories having restarted. They reported feeling extremely worried about the security of their jobs, especially since some of their colleagues had begun to work. They feared that if factories begin to retrench workers, they would lose their jobs. Besides, their colleagues who had returned to work had received full or partial payments. They desperately wanted to get to work so they could get some payment.
  • Afraid of losing jobs, workers were walking to work, hitching rides from passers-by, or getting together to hire vans at expensive rates. Women in districts outside Bengaluru reported undertaking arduous and unsafe journeys to be able to reach work.
  • Workers are afraid of getting infected during travel or within the workplace, that they may carry home the virus to their family members, and that lockdowns could become a regular feature rendering them completely penniless.

Recommendations

  • Government should set up a helpline for garment workers on issues related to wages and work conditions. As this survey has shown, many workers are anxious about how they will make ends meet, given that nearly 70 percent have not been paid salary for April. Complaints made to these helplines must be immediately addressed. Government must ensure compliance with the MHA order which mandated employers to pay employees full wages until May 18, 2020.
  • Government must call a meeting with garment workers’ unions to address concerns of wages, work hours, work conditions, commuting facilities, etc.
  • Government should evolve a mechanism to address workers’ concerns if factories shut down in this period. It should ensure payment of wages, arrears and any other form of compensation due to them. Workers who have been laid off or will be laid off should be identified and provided access to social security nets such as medical insurance, universal access to PDS as well as income support. 
  • Garment factories must be strictly instructed to provide overtime pay, and to not force workers to work on Sundays and holidays. 
  • The exemption of factories from sections of the Factory Act regarding working hours must be withdrawn. 
  • BMTC, KSRTC must provide transport services to and from garment  factories at subsidised rates. Where possible, garment factories must provide free transport services to workers.
  • Health camps must be conducted for all garment workers and their families. Regular inspections of factories must be undertaken to ensure that safety practices, including physical distancing, are followed. 
  • Harassment from microfinance institutions and other lending institutions must be curtailed. Workers, already distressed by the lack of income and job security, must not be made to feel more threatened. 
  • Fees of children of garment workers must be waived off. 
  • Garment workers must be provided vegetables, eggs and meat at subsidised rates so that their nutritional status does not deteriorate.

Read the full study here.

[This article is based on a press release from Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade and the Alternative Law Forum, and has been published with minimal edits.]

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