After food that appeases hunger, cloth comes as the 2nd most basic necessity of humanity. Humans who lived naked in caves and forests have come a long way to today’s era of modern garments of fascinating colours and varieties. The capitalistic mode of production and its culture of consumerism have made us forget the purpose of wearing clothes which is hiding of private parts and protecting body from environmental forces. Instead they have spawned among us a degeneration of wearing ever more new clothes. But the garment workers producing such magnificent dresses are abused like rags.
India has become, after China and European Union, the third biggest player in ready-made garment exports. In thousands of textile and knitting units spread all over the country especially in the states of Haryana, Uttarpradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamilnadu, around 5 crore people are employed directly or indirectly. Thirupur metropolis of Tamilnadu has become the main export hub and the capital of knitting industry built by the the hard labour of lakhs of workers.
Workers who come in search of a means of livelihood are reduced to modern indentured labourers and the colour in their life has faded out out of extreme exploitation in sweatshop conditions. It is from the exploitation of their blood and sweat that the dresses like jeans, t-shirt, and other clothes, beautifying our bodies and adorning the shopping malls with tags of multinational brands, get created.
The industry of ready-made exports emerged in the 1980s in Thirupur and has grown into a massive industrial sector due to the new economic policy imposed in 1990s. This gigantic growth was made possible because of lakhs of people like agricultural labourers, poor farmers and people under caste based oppression migrating to Thirupur in search of livelihood from southern districts that are drought hit and delta districts where farming has been crippled. It is not because of entrepreneurship of Gounder caste as claimed by persons like Gurumurthy the RSS ideologist who cunningly props up the caste system and gives lip service to self-reliance. While few hundred businessmen who started small scale units have now become millionaires, lakhs of workers who produced those millions face extreme hardship.
These workers who bring in billions in foreign remittance and earn lion’s share of profits to capitalists are paid a pittance. The number of permanent workers in these mills is very low. The capitalists engage most of the workers on contract or on piece-rate basis for meagre wages and exploit them in all possible ways. In order to make two ends meet, the workers are pushed to work over-time, continuous shifts and thereby get physically over-burdened. In addition to these, the capitalists have loaded these workers with the burden of bearing the negative effects of the bursting of American bubble in 2008. In order to safeguard their profits even during the economic depression, the multinational corporates have reduced the procurement price of ready-made garments. In order to keep their profit margin safe, the local capitalists have in turn slashed the already nominal wages of the workers. They justify this unjust wage decrease with the pretext that if they don’t agree for reduction the orders from multinational clients will go to the countries of even lesser wages like Bangladesh, Thailand, etc and thereby leading to job loss to the workers. Thus, while the multinational capital with insatiable hunger sucks labour power out of the workers in the pretext of keeping them from starvation, the local broker capitalists suck the blood out of workers and bloat themselves out of shape.
The eight hour work duration was beyong reach for the garment workers right from the beginning. 10-12 hours work is the norm here. In order to deliver the order within shortest possible time and to face the stiff competition, workers are forced to work over-time and continous shifts. The capitalists consistently disrespect the legal requirement of double wage for over-time, cheating the workers in this count too. The workers running away from poverty in villages are helpless to oppose such limitless and illegal exploitation. They can’t even dream of job benefits like PF, Pension, Gratuity, etc.
The contract labour system that has now gripped all sectors with its octopus tentacles and sucks the workers dry has its origins in these textile mills. As the seasonal nature of cotton and the fluctuations of export orders favour the capitalists, they don’t like to have permanent employees. They get most of their workers through contractors whom they can throw out as they please and hire them later for still lower wages and make them work for still longer hours. With the pretext of having north Indian migrant workers coming to Thirupur, the capitalists hire for even lesser wages and make them work even longer hours. The textile mills that took root in the poverty, ignorance and helplessness of the workers have now grown into gigantic leeches.
There is no industrial safety arrangement worth its name here. The workers producing world-class garments are given no protective gears. The constant exposure to fine cotton fibres affects the lungs and endangers the very life of the workers. Standing for long hours, non-stop noise of machines, imposition of ever higher production targets, resulting stress, verbal and sexual abuse of supervisors, danger of losing job any day, limitless long working hours, insufficient break time for refreshments and food, etc are some of the oppressions they undergo. Back-pain, headache, sensory problems, gastric problems, kidney problems, deafening of ears, impairment of eye sight, mental stress, etc are some of the health problems they face. In addition to all the above, the problem of insufficient income renders them unable to have nutritious meal, thereby weakening them soon, rendering them unfit for this job. And when out of job, they become burden to their families for the rest of their life.
The workers working in the dyeing units without any protective gears end up soon in the street after their hands and feet are damaged beyond cure. As the capitalists don’t spend for the medical expenses of these industrial hazards, leave alone paying for ESI, these workers spend out of their meagre savings or get indebted.
Mostly girls are employed in the ready-made industry. For these helpless children, the capitalists of weaving and spinning mills of Tamilnadu operate a cruel scheme, named ‘Sumangali’, for exploiting them from the very young age. As per this scheme, girls from villages not even 18 years old and who have not yet completed their school education are employed contractually with false promises like possibility of studying while working, optimum work, free food and shelter, a payment at the end of 3 years, a handsome amount to meet their marriage expenses, etc. The girls who joined them trusting these promises are locked in the jail-like mills under jail-like rules. In addition to making them work hard for long hours for little wages, the cruel capitalists also exploit them sexually. The government has shut its eyes to these injustices. When two girls in Thindukkal (spelt also Dindigul) recently tried to escape from this cruel jail term by scaling and jumping from the fort-like walls, got hurt grievously and their plight got some media coverage, High court made some high decibel noise and then returned to its usual demeanour. The wails and cries of thousands of young girls keep getting smothered within the fortifications of these mills.
The miserable situation of not getting enough income even when husband works in the mill as contract employee and wife and children work at home for piece-rate wages, unsafe working conditions, etc push these garment workers into severe mental stress. The workers who resort to liquor to alleviate their body pain due to excess work end up becoming addicts. After losing their meagre income to Amma’s TASMAC, they borrow from money lenders for unavoidable emergencies and thereby get trapped in vicious dept circle.
The incidence of workers, who have lost their will to survive under the force of cumulative effect of all the above factors, committing suicide, is on the rise in Thirupur. The capitalists have thrown the name-sake laws enacted for protecting the labourers into the dustbin with contempt. Notwithstanding this, Modi’s government claims that even these meagre laws are hindrance to free play of multinational capital and therefore is trying to nullify the minimum labour safeguards that were won out of workers’ struggles. Modi government is rewriting the labour acts given them a new name, industrial relationship act that would reduce the workers into modern indentured labourers. The labour unions of pseudo communists with no class perspective are incapable of staging a real protest beyond few whimpers. The garment workers are living nightmares entrapped in cruel sweatshops with no outside help.
Bangladesh garment workers die in mass in building fires and collapses in order to fatten the multinational capitalists and their local broker capitalists through reduced expenses on safety. Thirupur garment workers are pushed to commit suicide with no hope of getting a minimum livelihood. Anti-people governments are steadfast in their service to capitalists.
Recently, Bangaluru garments workers have succeeded in their battle against anti-labour changes in PF act by marching on the streets pushing aside the police unleashed on them and thereby shown us the way to follow to free ourselves from all shackles. The garment workers have to rally with other workers as one single fighting force and wage such definite street battles that can shake off this anti-worker ruling class once for all from power.
Translation of article published in Puthiya Thozhilali, tamil magazine
Translated by – Nesan