The condition of garment factory workers is under scrutiny once again. The India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights organisation, has released a report, ‘Unfree and Unfair’, that brings out the appalling treatment of migrant workers coming to work in Bangalore’s garment factories, with a focus on housing. Based on 110 interviews in four factories – K Mohan, Texport Industries, Arvind and Shahi Exports – the report brings out shocking realities about the living conditions of Bangalore’s migrant labour. While this is not the first report of its kind, it has prompted a response from the international companies these factories cater to.
Bangalore has close to 1,200 garment factories, producing clothing for several international brands. While a majority of the labour comes from rural areas in and around Karnataka, the Garment Labour Union (GLU) in Bangalore estimates that close to 10% of workers in the city’s garment factories are migrants from geographically and culturally distant states like Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. These numbers also vary; 75% of the workers in the Shahi Exports factory, for instance, are from North Indian states. The influx of migrant workers into the sector is largely female.
Most garment factories in the city pay their workers very slightly more than the minimum wage, which is still far from a decent living wage. This is one of the several reasons that migrant workers choose to stay in hostels provided by the factory – it is cheaper than independent housing in the city. In addition, North Indian workers cannot speak Kannada and are unfamiliar with their surroundings, making it much harder for them to find housing outside. Since many of the migrant workers are female, safety is also an important concern.
One of the most disturbing practices in the hostels is the restriction on freedom of movement, particularly for women. Most of the hostels only permit women to leave the premises for two hours a week (on Sundays), and punish them if they ever come in late after work (like making them wait outside for hours). A male guard is stationed outside the hostel at all times to monitor movements. These restrictions are defended in the name of “safety”, though one of the interviewed women believes it is to “… ensure that we do not leave for our villages after taking our salary”. While they are allowed to speak to their families on the telephone, if family members want to visit special permission have to be taken in advance.
In the K Mohan hostels, women earning around Rs. 6000 per month have to pay around Rs. 2000 for accommodation and food. This for a room and bathroom shared by 12 to 15 workers. While rent is less in the other hostels, they are not provided with food and have to cook for themselves without being provided with proper kitchen facilities. There are also problems of irregular water and electricity supply. None of the factories provide the workers with proper mattresses, cupboards or furniture. There are no provisions for any sort of recreational activities.
Given their unfamiliarity with the local language as well as the restrictions on their movement, these workers do not have access to unions in the area. Many of the workers were afraid of speaking to the researchers, fearing for their jobs if the factory management were to find out. Researchers were not given permission to enter the hostels.
The factories studied for this report produce clothes for major international brands like C&A, H&M, PVH (that owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, amongst others), Inditex (that owns labels including Zara and Bershka) and GAP. When sent the findings of the report by the ICN in November 2015, all the companies except for GAP (infamous for its poor working conditions) responded with the intentions of taking serious action. Their responses along with plans on how to improve conditions have been included in the report. C&A, H&M and Inditex are planning a joint action plan to provide better conditions for workers in Bangalore, including a review of curfew regulations. PVH is also working independently to draft new guidelines for their source factories. What comes of these initiatives remains to be seen.