It’s a scorching summer morning. Thousands of people are walking towards Gurgaon from Kapashera, an area in south Delhi which touches the border of Gurgaon. The searing rays of the sun make them break out in a sweat even before they get down to work — the daily grind that ensures two square meals the next day.
All these people flocking towards the NCR’s industrial zone are garment factory workers. The middle class is hardly aware that it is their labour — indeed, their struggle for survival — behind the branded clothes we get to wear. These are garments they would never be able to afford, not from their meagre earnings.
When TEHELKA met Manju, a worker, at her one-room accommodation in Kapashera, she was busy. Work for her is not merely the stitching she does at these factories but also looking after her husband and three children, one of them works as an under-age mechanic at a motor workshop to ensure the family has enough on its platter to survive.
But this is not the story of Manju alone; all these people heading towards the factories of Udyog Vihar have a more or less similar tale to narrate, a tale that has escaped the narratives around the workers’ struggle in Gurgaon. These people do not have a strong union, as workers of the motor vehicle industry have. However, this does not mean that they don’t have unions — mostly, their activism is discreet, almost invisible.
Every morning, Manju has to walk 5 km from her one-room accommodation to the factory where she works. And then complete a nine-hour shift, where she gets two breaks for lunch and tea respectively. Any delay in returning to work after a break means verbal abuses from supervisors. At times, she works overtime for extra earnings. As per labour law, Manju should get around 60 per hour as overtime payment, but what she gets is half of that.
That she is discontented with her lot is an understatement. As she puts it, “I want to quit this work as soon as possible, but the problem is that I have to take care of my family. There are no other jobs for us in the market, so where is the option?” she asks in despair.
On 28 April, these workers came together to protest under the banner of the Garment and Allied Worker union (GAWU) demanding implementation of the latest (2015) minimum wage notification of the Haryana government. The state government in September last year raised the minimum wage for skilled and unskilled labour. The wages for highly skilled labour rose from 6,500 to 9,700 per month, which amounts to a 50 percent hike. For unskilled labour, the hike was around 30 percent, which increases earnings to 5,800-7,600. If the figure is to be brought down to per day wage, the new notification guarantees 300 per day to skilled labour and 250 per day for unskilled labour.
It was only after the relentless struggle of the Haryana workers that the government raised the minimum wage by a notification issued in November last year. However, to the dismay of the workers, the factories found a new strategy to avoid implementing the new wage structure. At present, the employers are cunningly breaking down the amount into various allowances against the norms prescribed by the November notification.
Gunjan, a lawyer atthe Mazdoor Ekta Manch, explains the modus operandi of industries operating in this area, “The notification of November 2015 says that there will be no bifurcation of minimum wage paid to the workers. However, companies are indulging in breaking down the wages of employees into different allowances. This is done to minimise the amount of provident fund and other benefits calculated on the basis of minimum wage.”
In the garment industry at Udyog Vihar, scuffles, abuses, physical violence, injuries and death of workers embroider the garments produced by these workers for us to wear.
Ranjay Kumar, who came to Delhi with dreams of making it big in life, ended up being a tailor; he is one among millions of people who flock to metropolitan cities to chase their dreams, dreams which fade away with the passage of every day, smothered in the realities of life.
Today, Ranjan is toiling away at a garment factory to make ends meet and send some money to his family back in Chhapra, Bihar.
Similar is the tale of Ranjan’s friend Alok. Both of them, having failed to make their dreams come true, are hoping they can at least guarantee a better life to their kids by producing fancy garments for wealthier kids to wear.
However, the ordeal of these workers does not end here. Women workers often complain of being sexually harassed at the workplace. The harassment may come in different forms, mostly verbal and at times physical. Many of the women Tehelka met while working on this story do not even recognise lurid verbal abuse as sexual harassment. They have internalised it and have failed to recognise that it is against the law and violates their rights. For them, it’s common parlance, an everyday occurrence.
Anjali, a worker in the industry, tells us that our supervisors often use double entendre. For instance, they say, “Maal bohut accha hai, kya quality hai! (The material is very good, what quality!)
Another worker tells us that the first day she stepped into the factory, a supervisor passed a remark supposedly about the clothes, but actually about her: “Maal dekho, kitna badiya hai” (Look at the material, it’s so good’).
The GAWU names certain companies in which violation of all these labour laws is rampant, that too complete impunity. All attempts to contact these companies for their version of the story proved futile.
Ananya Bhattacharya, the president of GAWU, cites the reason for this impunity as rampant corruption prevalent in the state of Haryana and then the policy of Haryana government of zero tolerance for unionism.
“It’s not just about Gurgaon, such violations are rampant in entire Haryana. The government deals with unions in a high-handed manner, especially in the aftermath of the Maruti workers’ struggle. This emboldens employers to blatantly violate the rights of the workers with impunity,” says Ananya.
However, the suffering of these workers does not end at the factory. There is more misery in store once they come home after a day at work. Their landlords allow them fans but not fridges or coolers, even in this scorching heat. For cold water, they depend upon earthen pitchers. The localities in which they live are dingy, mostly ignored by the municipalities. There is no social life for them: work, home, sleep is part of their daily routine, at times ending up suffer terrible depression.
Aijaz from Gaya, Bihar, tells us that he has no social life. A day off on Sunday means completing pending household work. On regular days, after coming to home back from work, the only source of entertainment is television. “I have been in Gurgaon for almost five years,” he says. “I have relatives in Delhi but I can count on my fingers the number of times I have visited them. Most of our time is spent at the factory and the rest in our dingy rooms in front of the television. No one is around to give us even moral support.”
TEHELKA tried to contact the labour commissioner for comments. But failed to get a response.