On the night of 24-25 November, a blazing fire gutted an 8-story garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka killing at least 112 people. The burnt factory was said to be producing clothes for a U.S. based company. Five years ago, in a similar accident in Bangladesh, at least 50 workers were killed in a fire at a garment factory on the outskirt of Dhaka. In the second week of September this year, more than 300 people were killed in two separate incidents of fire on the same day in Pakistan; at least 289 workers were burnt in Karachi’s garment factory and 25 in a shoe factory in Lahore. These are not isolated incidents, but depict the miserable and dangerous working conditions in the garment industry in poor and developing Asian countries. In fact, most of the world’s garments are made in Asia, but the workers who are instrumental in making the garment industry a success in Asia are subjected to inhuman conditions. In fact, Asian workers, including those in India, are paid the least in the world. However, it has been a difficult task for workers’ organisations to wage a hard bargain with employers due to the real fear of companies relocating to another ‘cheaper’ destination. In this context, Union leaders and Labour activists in Asia joined hands to form an Asia Wage Floor Alliance (AWFA) to explore a union-based pan-Asian strategy for the global garment industry. Like-minded organisations and activists from Americas and Europe soon become part of the process. The AFWA was officially formed in 2006, and includes up to 71organisations, which constitute a network from 17 countries across Asia, Europe and North America to represent the garment industry, trade unions, NGOs, consumer groups, and research institutes.
“Through variety of means such as infomalisation, casualisation, outsourcing, the replacement of non-unionised for unionised workers, and a strengthening of the employers’ capacity to hire and fire, the effective real wage of workers, even in the so called organised sector of the economy, has been declining in the recent period despite substantial increases in labour productivity. The current capitalist crisis has made matters even worse, as firms attempt to survive the crisis by cutting wages, which only makes matter worse in the aggregate. The struggle for a floor wage goes against this tendency of increasing the burden on the working class and is therefore most welcome. But even as we struggle for a minimum living wage for the workers, we should remember that the conditions of the petty producers, artisans, craftsmen, poor and marginal peasants and fishermen, is so abysmal that the return per labour day that they get falls well short of even the statutory minimum daily wage. The struggle for a floor wage therefore must be accompanied by demands for ensuring that these pretty producers too are offered income security ensuring that their return per their labour day does not fall below the floor wage.”
–Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Eminent Economist
With the initiatives of the AFWA in India, the first ever National People’s Tribunal on Living Wages for Garment Workers was successfully held in Bengaluru, from November 22 to 25, 2012. An Alliance of sixteen trade unions and NGOs in India, along with garment industry workers, experts in labour relations, economists and representatives from garment power-houses, participated in the Tribunal. It was the third of its kind to be held in Asia, the first being held in Sri Lanka in 2011 and the second in Cambodia earlier in 2012. These will culminate in the first-ever International People’s Tribunal on Living Wages for Garment Workers scheduled to be held in New Delhi in 2013.
“There is a policy deficit from the Government to ensure living wage paid by industries. The Government has left it to the market to fix wages but given the high unemployment and underemployment it is impossible for the labour market to provide for a decent living wage. The wages should be such that people can get out of poverty and not subsist within it.”
-Ashim Roy, General Secretary, NTUI
The testimonies and experiences of workers from the garment sector as presented during the Tribunal were an eye-opener about the pathetic working conditions and level of exploitation of workers. The worker gets caught in a vicious cycle by working long hours and with such low wages. Getting out of it seems almost impossible without some changes in the current system. The calculation of minimum wages took into account only food, clothing, shelter and a partial consideration for health and education. But in the current climate of privatisation of these services, the minimum wage does not compensate adequately. This has resulted in standardising an inadequate wage for living. There is no scope for intellectual and/or physical development for the workers. Since they are unable to send their children to schools or give them nutritious food, their children are susceptible to get caught in the same loop. The living wage is insufficient for workers to support their families. No bonus, forced overtime, lack of PF, no medical expenses covered makes the situation worse.
The Indian textiles industry employs a whopping 35 million people and accounts for 4 per cent of GDP. Asian workers, including those in India, are paid the least in the world. However, it has been a difficult task for workers’ organisations to wage a hard bargain with employers due to the real fear of companies relocating to another ‘cheaper’ destination. In this context, Union leaders and Labour activists in Asia joined hands to form an Asia Wage Floor Alliance (AWFA) to xplore a union-based pan-Asian strategy for the global garment industry.
Another area of major concern, as it emerged in the Tribunal, is wage theft through underpayment, non-payment, late payment and illegal deduction. On top of it, workers suffer during menstruation, pregnancy, face subsequent health problems like TB, asthma etc. Nor are they treated with dignity – with verbal abuses and insults being the order of each day. Human dignity is at stake in the garment factories, so is Article 21 and 43 of the Indian Constitution that guarantee safety and dignity of living and working conditions.
There are also high levels of gender discrimination in factories. If any woman worker dresses up well, lewd comments are passed; even cases such as snatching off the managlsutra were reported during the Tribunal. Sexual harassment has become a norm in the factories, which assiduously keep its doors closed for the outside world. The harsh environment of the factory does not enable workers to share or communicate these issues with each other. As a result, issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination remain unaddressed. In an interesting move, the AFWA had invited all textile brands in India to present their case, particularly with regard to violation of minimum wage provisions and inhuman working conditions. However, only H & M was present, and Adidas group provided a written statement on the issues. Many others, rejected the invitation.
Adidas Group Initiatives
“We are fully aware that Adidas Group, and other international brands, have been the subject of calls from NGOs and trade unions to commit to a living wage for workers and for us to be more proactive in securing such a wage in our global supply chain. Faced with this challenge, Adidas Group has taken several initiatives to explore the ‘Living Wages’ in close engagement with critical stakeholders.”
From the Statement by Adidas
Based on the workers’ testimonies, the Jury presented recommendations and immediate action points directed to brands, suppliers, unions and Government officials and towards starting a sustainable multi-stakeholder dialogue. The Jury said that a combination of long working hours and low wages amount to bonded and forced labour practices. In its verdict, the Jury stated, “The preceding factual material and the dramatic consistency of the testimonies provide overwhelming evidence of grave and systematic violations of individual and collective human rights. The responsibility of the competent public authorities are even more clear as the violations are perpetrated in a country where compulsory legal provisions to prevent, judge and redress the rights of the workers are mandated in the Constitution and signed International Conventions with the ILO. The Planning Commission and relevant financing authorities need to allocate sufficient resources to labour ministries to increase their capacity to enforce labour laws, monitor and inspect factories and adopt methods to tackle labour disputes.”
The Jury comprised of Gianni Tognioni, Secretary General, Permanent People’s Tribunal, Italy; Coen Kompier, Senior Specialist on International Labour Standards, ILO; Utsa Patnaik, Economist; Marina Forti, Senior Journalist, Italy;Hemlatha Mahishi, Distinguished Advocate, Bangalore; Mary E, John, Senior Fellow and Former Director,
Centre for Women and Development Studies, New Delhi.
The Jury underlined that brands have to accept their complicity in the violation of the basic rights of workers, the myth of surprise inspections by their representatives, the need for skill training to stabilise the workforce, and their own role in the setting of impossibly high production targets. Moreover, the Jury said, the brands must confront the myth that their profitability and competitiveness will be negatively affected by wage increase. Rather than empty gestures of good will, the Jury demanded more credibility and transparency on the part of employers by participating in a genuine dialogue with parity among all stakeholders.The textile sector, especially the export oriented sector in India, is reviving fast from the recent global economic crisis which engulfed most of India’s export markets. According to the note on Indian Textiles and Clothing Exports by the Textile Ministry dated 26 March 2012, theIndian textiles industry employs a whopping 35 million people and accounts for nearly 12 per cent share of the country’s total exports basket. The textiles industry accounts for 14 per cent of industrial production, which is 4 per cent of GDP. As per WTO data on international trade, India ranked as the third largest exporter in the global export of textiles (just behind China and EU 27), and 6th largest in global export of clothing (behind China, EU 27, Hong Kong,Bangladesh, Turkey). During the year 2010-11, readymade garments accounted for almost 45 per cent of the total textiles exports and apparel and cotton textiles products together contribute nearly 70 per cent of the total textiles exports. It is ironic that the hard-working and cheap labour force in India, which is the key in ensuring the global success of India’s garment industry, is subject to constant violation of legal and constitutional rights, in particular their living wages and appropriate work conditions. As a result, people who provide clothes to the middle class and rich in this world, remain poorly dressed, illiterate, affected by illnesses and unable to come out of poverty.
(Parimal Maya Sudhakar is Project Coordinator, Society for Labour and Development, New Delhi.)