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Cauvery agitation: Bangalore garment factories make workers bear the brunt

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 1 October 2016, 13:26 IST

The Cauvery agitation in Karnataka has come at a huge cost for the garment factory workers in the state.

To make up for the work lost during the agitations, apparel firms in Mandya district near Bengaluru have been compelling workers to work on Sundays. They have also raised working hours on other days without paying them overtime or following due procedure, the largest trade union of the textile workers has said in a complaint to the state government.

The clothes made in these factories are supplied to multinational brands such as H&M.

Karnataka had come to a standstill in early September after the Supreme Court ordered the state to release water from the Cauvery river to the downstream Tamil Nadu state.

Karnataka is itself facing water scarcity, which prompted hundreds to take to the streets. As a result, no work took place in the garment factories from 6 to 9 September and then on 12 (half day) and 13 September.

Also read:

What is Cauvery water dispute: Core issue and timeline

As a result, workers have been made to work an extra hour every day since 15 September, and have been continuously working without their Sunday offs on 11 and 18 September, the Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) has alleged in a complaint filed with the Karnataka government's Factory and Boilers department on 22 September.

"The decision to close the factory for these days was taken by the management and not the workers. However, to make up for the time, Shahi Exports has illegally increased the working timings from September 15 by one hour (8.30am to 6.30pm) as well as declared two Sundays (11, 18 September) as working. There has been no announcement of additional pay for workers who worked on these days," the complaint reads in Kannada.

Overworked & underpaid

There are over 3 lakh textile workers in Mandya and Bengaluru and just a fraction of them are unionised. GATWU represents around 8,000 workers, it is the largest union. The complaint is specifically against a unit of Shahi Exports Ltd, a major player in the textile export market in the region, although the practice is prevalent in all other companies.

Jayaram, the legal advisor to GATWU, told

Catch

that most of the garment workers in the region have been made to turn up on Sundays and put in extra hours without overtime. "We are okay with no work no pay on the days when the factory was shut. But overtime wages have to be paid for work on Sundays, these can't be denied."

Jayaram added that that the factories department has begun carrying out inspections at the Shahi Export factory - this entails checking attendance records of workers to confirm the allegation.

Later, the Union will request the information through an RTI request. Once they receive the data, the Union will file a case before the Labour Commissioner.

Common practice?

This is the first formal complaint filed against the practice, which as many say is quite common in the textile companies, which run on tight schedules and are known to even impose hourly targets on workers.

Mohan Mani, an independent labour researcher in Bengaluru, said that textile firms commonly shut down early on working days if there were fewer orders, but make workers come on Sundays when the workload rises in lieu of the lost days. This goes against labour laws, which say that double wages have to be paid for overtime work, and it should not be compulsory.

This practice reduced a year ago when this issue was raised with the multinational brands such as H&M that source from these factories. But the Cauvery agitations have brought back the practice.

"What's happening now is reminiscent of those days. The factories were closed for no fault of the workers. And now they are made to work on Sundays without being paid overtime wages. It is a clear illegality," Mani said.

"Workers usually do turn up (on Sundays to make up for the lost work) as they also understand that production losses affect them as well. They are willing to cooperate as long as it is done as per the law," he said.

Jayaram of the GATWU said that multinational brands that source the garments usually respond faster than governments in addressing such violations, as in April when factories had remained shut due to a workers agitation against provident fund rules. But this time, the union hasn't heard back from the brands.

Past agitations

In April, thousands of garment workers took to the streets after the central government proposed to make it harder for out-of-job workers to withdraw their provident funds.

Over 1 lakh workers - mostly women - took part in the protests, burning nearly 50 buses. The government eventually withdrew the plan, but factories were shut for around 13 days and workers in some factories were made to cover up production targets by working on Sundays without overtime payments.

A labour rights specialist with a US-based organisation said that the revival of the practice, of making workers compensate for lost work without extra pay, is a response to the April agitation.

"We see this as a larger strategy to scuttle strikes, by making the workers compensate for the loss of hours on other days. We saw the same during the provident fund strike this April," the specialist said, adding that there is little resistance to such measures because of the lack of strong unions in most factories.

The GATWU itself consists of just about 2% of the total labour force and is not uniformly present in all companies.

Speaking up

Responding to a query from Catch, H&M's communications team said, "The supplier and the unit mentioned in your mail - Shahi Export unit 26 - is one of the suppliers we work with and we also have regular communication with GATWU from our Production Office in the country. Any overtime must be in accordance with legislation as well as our own demands, be voluntary and be correctly remunerated, as it is stated in our Sustainability Commitment that all our suppliers must comply with."

Catch could not reach Shahi Exports officials despite repeated attempts.

Also read: Cauvery water dispute: How it has raged on for over a century

First published: 1 October 2016, 13:26 IST
 
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.

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