Garment workers: numerically strong, but weak bargaining powers as voters

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The four-lakh strong garment factory workers in the Bangalore region have received a recognition of sorts during the run up to the Lok Sabha elections with some of the candidates campaigning even on factory premises, normally out-of-bounds for non-workers.

This is an interesting development considering that this segment of the city’s unorganised workforce — nearly 80 per cent of whom are women — remains largely invisible, in stark contrast to the workers of the Information Technology industry who are constantly in the spotlight.

Even so, there are no indications of their real workplace issues — casualisation of work, low wages, occupational hazards, unrealistic production targets and gender discrimination — getting attention as electoral issues. Bangalore is among the five major garment production hubs, producing exclusively for exports, others being Delhi, Mumbai, Tirupur and Chennai.

“Garment labourers do not exist as a political constituency of workers,” observed Supriya Roy Chowdhury, Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) who has studied garment and other unorganised workers. Barely 10 per cent of them are unionised and their politicisation is minimal, she added.

“They do not see themselves as a constituency in terms of their status as workers. So thrust is not on work, wages or terms of employments,” she said, adding that mainstream Left unions barely have a presence in this segment while the reach of the others is limited.

The issues facing garment workers have been highlighted by many studies. A sample survey by the Bangalore University in 2012 said that 80 per cent of garment workers in Bangalore are migrants from surrounding villages, pushed out because their traditional sources of livelihood are “systematically destroyed.” Another study in 18 garment units in 2013 by the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and Centre for Workers Management, New Delhi, said that most workers took loans for healthcare and education of children, with over 70 per cent of those surveyed having outstanding loans.

K.R. Jayaram of GATWU said the garment labour force is in a constant state of flux, making organising difficult. “Most women workers commute from villages and small towns. Recently factories are themselves moving out of Bangalore because of real estate prices and to ensure better access to workforce,” he said. Living wages and decent working conditions should get focus in the run-up to the election, which is not happening, he added.

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