Garment workers speak up on bad working conditions

 The Hindu, 23 November 2012

Airing their woes:Participants at the ‘National people’s tribunal on living wage for garment workers’ which began its hearing in Bangaloreon Thursday.

“You end up like a machine working on a machine,” said Akshay Kumar, 36-year-old garment worker from Gurgaon, speaking of what it feels like to cope with inhuman production targets in bad working conditions in one of the several apparel units in the industrial city adjoining the national capital.

Mr. Kumar was one of the many garment workers who gave testimonies on low wages, long work hours and bad working conditions, at the ‘National people’s tribunal on living wage for garment workers’ being held here till Sunday. Workers from Bangalore, Gurgaon and Tirupur on Thursday spoke of how their human and labour rights were being abused as a matter of routine at their workplaces.

Poor wages

Sakamma, from Bangalore, said she works two hours as a domestic help to maintain her family of four, as what she earns at the garment unit was not enough to make ends meet. “After 22 years of service, I am not sure if I will keep my job tomorrow,” she said, speaking of the complete absence of job security.

Ms. Sakamma, who suffers from a heart ailment, said tuberculosis and asthma were common among workers. “Doctors ask me to drink milk and eat fruits, but how can I on my salary of Rs. 4,100?” she said.

Rehana Begum, also from Bangalore, started working at 13 and now earns Rs. 5,500 after 24 years of service. She presented her salary slip to the jury which bore no information on salary deductions or hours of work, which is in violation of labour norms.

Two workers from Tirupur — Jesurani and Tulasi — talked of how young women from poor families in rural Tamil Nadu were lured into three-year contracts by promising a big sum at the end of it. Working and living conditions were poor and contract period was arbitrarily extended, they said.

Yamuna, mother of three, described how false police complaints of assault and murder had been foisted on her for trying to organise workers at the unit in Bangalore. “I am fighting a court case for one year now,” she said.

Gurudas Bhat, Additional Labour Commissioner, while asserting the rights of workers to unionise, admitted that the staff strength of 55 labour officers and 247 inspectors was not adequate to monitor all factories, including garment units, across the State.

Tobias Fischer and Niklas Klingh, representatives of Swedish multinational fashion retailer H&M — the only brand to be present at the tribunal — said they conduct audits to ensure that the suppliers adhered to the prescribed code of conduct on wages and working conditions. It was important to “build trust, which is currently lacking,” said Mr. Fischer.

Michael Fernandes, president, Hind Mazdoor Kissan Panchayat, suggested a stronger intervention by the International Labour Organization.

Representatives of various unions participated in the hearing.

The verdict of the jury will be pronounced on Sunday.

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