Friday, January 06, 2017

Dark World of Women Workers in a Modern City

Arup Kumar Sen

[Dr. Arup Kumar Sen works at Serampore College and he can be reached at]

[Editor's note: On 31st December, new year's eve, Bangalore was witness to wide spread mass-molestation of women. This report on the condition of women garment workers in Bangalore, is a timely reminder that gendered violence is endemic in society, and those at the bottom of the pecking order, are affected by it everyday.]

Bangalore has earned its fame as the IT capital of India. The headquarters of two IT giants, Infosys and Wipro, are located in the city. But, a dark side of city life is seldom discussed in the media. A large percentage of the city’s population, about 18 percent, live in slums. In addition to the recognized slums, a large number of poor households live in unrecognized low-income settlements and urban villages. The story of opulence and that of poverty go side by side. The recent two day protests by the garment workers in the city made the dark side of the moon more pronounced.

A notification was made on February 10, 2016 regarding change in the provisions of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) Act. The workers feared that this change would impact them adversely. Their chief concern was that they would not be able to withdraw employer’s contribution to the Provident Fund corpus until the retirement age of 58. The garment workers became apprehensive of the new Ordinance passed by the Central government as they depend on withdrawals from the Provident Fund for payment of house rent and school fees of children, and for health-related emergencies and other financial emergencies. This led to the mass walk-out of “footloose” garment workers from their factories and participation in a series of spontaneous demonstrations on April 18-19, 2016, in various parts of Bangalore. It is reported that at least 50000 garment workers, most of whom were women, participated in the protests. The workers interviewed by an investigating team stated that peaceful protests turned violent on April 19 due to police brutality on women workers on day-one. Reportedly, male police officers started raining blows on the women workers, in spite of their repeated assurances that they intended to protest peacefully. Based on personal interviews with garment workers, the investigating team observed that “the level of brutality exhibited by the police throughout the protest as well as in the following weeks was due to a calculated effort by the police to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst the workers.”1

In fact, fear is very much a part of everyday life of garment workers in Bangalore. There are about 500000 garment workers in the city of Bangalore, working in big, small and medium-sized factories and producing for global giants including Wal-Mart, TESCO and Primark. The industry employs mainly women workers, who constitute around ninety per cent of the total workforce. Deprived of their right to associate or unionize due to intimidation and reprisals by management, the space for articulation of protest against workplace harassment and low payment is very limited.2 To put it in the words of one woman worker, “They treat us like dogs”. There are instances of women who committed suicide to evade their oppression in everyday life. Women aged between 18 and 45 are often found running towards the factory gate to reach just on time. Otherwise, they face harassment to get permission to work for the day. In a particular case, a woman worker crashed in the factory gate and got severely injured. The security men present at the gate did not lift her. She was saved by her co-workers. In another case, a pregnant woman started feeling unwell after reporting for duty. She appealed to management for her release at around 10-10.30 am. She was granted leave at around 12.30. Finally, they let her off at 1pm. With the cooperation of a younger woman, she got into an auto and became unconscious there after giving birth to a baby, who died for lack of care. A study of PUCL, Karnataka, in collaboration with other human rights organizations, bears testimony to multiple oppressions suffered by women garment workers in Bangalore. The story of oppression as documented in the PUCL Report is summarized below:

Gate checking in the factory finishes at 9.30 AM. On days when one is late, she has to stand at the security check for an hour or so till the HR manager permits her to enter and start work. On days like this, she has to make up the lost one hour by forgoing her lunch time or staying after working hours to finish the given target for the day. The women workers also face sexual harassments including verbal abuse of a sexual nature. The male supervisors, floor in-charges and managers call them by abusive names, such as dog, pig, monkey, ‘loose’ etc. and cast aspersions on their character. The women do not report about sexual harassments to higher authorities in the fear that they would lose their jobs.  Being allowed limited toilet breaks, workers are forced to reduce their consumption of water considerably, and many women faint inside the factory due to dehydration. When a woman goes to the toilet, someone follows her to ensure that she does not waste time. No concessions are given to women workers during advanced stages of pregnancy. It is difficult to withstand such mental stress and agony. It is a common sight to find many women crying and weeping in the factory. However, they are not in a position to give farewell to this dirty world of the factory, as most of the women come from a modest financial background, and they are either the sole breadwinner of their families or their income constitutes a substantial part of their family income.3  

The future struggles of workers in the city of Bangalore should focus on minimum wages and other basic necessities for the survival of “footloose” workers. But, the multiple oppressions faced by women garment workers in their everyday life must be an organic part of the struggles for ensuring their right to live with dignity.


1.For the protests and their aftermath, see People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karnataka, and Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, Karnataka, Bangalore Garment Workers’ Protest Demonstration: A Preliminary Fact-finding Report, 2016.
2.PUCL, Karnataka, NLSIU, Bangalore, Vimochana, Alternative Law Forum(ALF), Concern-IISC, Manthan Law and Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade, “Production of Torture”: A Study on Working Conditions including  work place harassments faced by Women Garment Workers in Bangalore and other districts.