The decision of temporary suspension and/or dilution of labor laws taken by various states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat has caused major uproar among labor unions and activists all over the country. While UP has chosen to temporarily exempt most industries and factories from labor laws, MP has allowed free reign over the hiring and firing of laborers and removal of any factory inspections for 3 months—all of which is estimated to have a considerable impact on all workers but a major brunt of which will have to be borne by the female workforce. The suspension of benefits and equal remuneration will result in a decline in the female population of the workforce according to experts. On May 27th, the Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi urging him to prevent dilution of labor laws and protest workers’ rights. However recently, Karnataka joined the list of states to dilute labor laws by permitting factories to increase the working hours to 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week from the current 8 hours a day and 48 hours a week.
Besides the obvious effect of these new laws on the mental and physical health of factory workers, they seem to have a more exaggerated effect on one specific section of the labor force – the female workers of the garment industry.
Garment factories consist of mainly women workers who work long hours to sustain their families and are considered to be one of the worst affected by the lockdown and subsequent changes in labor laws in the state. “A lot of women from our factory have gone back home due to coronavirus and their salaries have not been given. These new working hours will only add to our woes”, said Sandhya, a garment factory worker in Bengaluru, who spoke to Feminism in India.
Sandhya is a mother of two young children and is finding it harder to keep up with the new working hours as her husband works as well. “Thankfully schools are closed right now but it will become harder to manage these timings once they open”, she further told FII. The lockdown has only worsened the state of affairs for these factory workers, most of whom have been forced to leave their jobs and go back to their villages due to non-payment of salaries.
An Overwhelming Report of Despair and Helplessness
A survey titled, ‘Garment workers, Covid-19 pandemic and the Lockdown: A report from South Karnataka’ undertaken by the Alternative Law Forum and the Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade between May 16th-May 18th reveals startling statistics regarding the impact of these laws on garment factory workers. This survey is based on a telephonic conversation of 82 workers in Bengaluru, Ramanagara, Mandya and Mysuru districts.The report shows that 65% of the total women workforce can’t and won’t be able to work for longer hours thereby resulting in them dropping out of their jobs. The report further elucidates the lack of empathy shown from the employers with 63% of their respondents having not even received their salaries for the month of April and around 68% workers not having been able to pay their rent.
Other key findings of the survey:
- 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.
- 75% of the 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 the respondents said they had to borrow money to tide over the lockdown
- When asked about the new laws pertaining to longer work hours-
- 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.
These figures show a startling lack of redressal with respect to the grievances of garment factory workers. The factory workers have also complained about the lack of assistance from their employers and the state governments during the lockdown which has made undertaking the work harder than usual even with the usual factory hours.
With no proper standard for payment of overcompensation or arrangements for the safe transport of female workers to and from the factories, this law to increase working hours is becoming a permanent hindrance to women workers, most of whom are instead opting to travel back to their villages. The new increased working hours have also allowed for further exploitation of the female workers with the employers threatening to dock their pay or fire them if the extra hours are not logged in at the factories, decreasing the incentives of the already-demotivated workers to an even worse state.
The Sorrowfully Familiar Pattern
Sadly although not surprisingly, this isn’t the first time that garment factory workers in Bengaluru have come out in demand for their rights. In May 2019, the Garment Labor Union took out a rally to demand for an increase in minimum wages that they alleged were being rolled back due to political gain and profitability. The repeated exploitation and lack of proper management of their concerns show the lack of accountability the employers and state governments hold towards these workers who are considered easily replaceable labor.
The lack of reporting on their issues makes their plight an invisible one. The above-mentioned report that comprehensively lays out the problems of the new labor laws is not covered in any mainstream media besides one article in The Hindu, which shows the lack of focus on these easily over-burdened workers. The report has also mentioned several actions that the state governments can take like providing free transport and setting up a helpline for the workers, no steps have been taken so far to alleviate their grievances.
While PM Modi’s “Be kind to employees” message seems to have been long forgotten by factory owners and other employers, the changes in labor laws that are being brought about each day by the various state governments seem to be helping in taking the buck in the opposite direction.
Featured Image Source: Scroll