The state assembly elections are just eight days away in the Southern state of Karnataka. For the major political parties in the state, Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)], it is a countdown to a verdict on their political fate. It will also begin a test for the candidates of these parties, especially, who manage to win – whether they succeed in fulfilling the promises they made during the campaigning.
The workers from the garments and textile industry of the state, however, do not feel hopeful about any party. It is an industry that has maximum number of female employees, but has been ignored by all the governments, feel the workers.
Pratibha and Jayaram, members of the Garments and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), talked to Newsclick,about struggles of the workers and insufficient wages that plague one of the largest informal sectors in the state of Karnataka.
Jayaram said that none of the state governments have any clue about how many women and men work in these industries. According to him, in Bengaluru, there are 4-4.5 lakh workers. “According to a government survey two years ago, there were 3.75 lakh workers and 857 factories. Now, there are more than 1,000 factories and 4-4.5 lakh workers work here. Eighty per cent of the workers in the state are women, and 45 per cent of them are from the women-headed households,” said Jayaram.
The workers of this industry have been fighting for minimum wage and improvement in their working conditions. Jayaram said, “Governments, since 1979, have ignored the garment industry. The reason is that Karnataka has 76 industries with scheduled employments and none of their managements are united. They are scattered. But, that is different with the managements of the garment industry. They are all united. This makes them powerful players. They lobby with both the central and the state governments.”
Both Pratibha and Jayaram noted that they refuse to believe in the promises made by the candidates of all the parties during elections, as none of these, according to them, are fulfilled. They also felt that when it comes to the garments and textile industry, it is the management – the industrialists – lobbying with the governments, and the governments functions in the interests of these industrialists, and not the workers.
PM Narendra Modi is campaigning for BJP in the state by attacking the ruling party Congress – appealing to the voters in the state not to vote for Congress. However, he is not talking about what BJP would do to address the issues of poverty, unemployment, housing, workers, or health.
The working class, minorities and various oppressed castes and genders in the state have questions for the PM about his policies like GST, demonetisation, SC/ST atrocity act, and labour laws. Pratibha and Jayaram speak about the dilution of the labour laws in the country. “The law says that the wages have to be increased minimum every three years and maximum every five years. But in last 38 years, we have seen only four revisions and according to the law, there should have been eight revisions. We make for 10 lakh votes from the garment industry. It is not only the garment industry, but for textile, printing, dyeing, spinning industries are in the same boat. We have to see what is in the pipeline for this time. None of the governments do anything good for us.”
Pratibha pointed out at the attitude of the BJP government at the Centre, which is “anti-labour”. She said, “The first thing that the central government did, as soon as they came to power was to meddle with the labour laws. We do not know what they are up to and what is it that they want. We all are aware of the protest that the central government had to face when they issued a notification changing the provident funds withdrawal norms. The government had to take back the notification. This government has been doing this throughout. We are worried when this government starts talking about reforms. In the name of reforms, they dilute laws that are the interest of workers.”
People in the state are eagerly waiting for the PM, who is currently touring the state to explain his anti-workers policies. However, he has chosen to remain silent by ignoring the flaming questions that the people have for him.
According to a report in The Indian Express, the PM, addressing one of the rallies, accused the Congress of defaming Bellary as “inhabited by robbers and thieves”, and ignoring the good governance in the region in 14th and 17th century Vijayanagar empire. The accused in the infamous Bellary mining scam, B Sriramulu and Gali Somashekhar Reddy (younger brother of Gali Janaradhana Reddy) are both contesting from BJP, and people in the state are questioning this open support that these mining lords are receiving from the party.
Both Pratibha and Jayaram said that they have no hopes from the BJP, its candidates in the state and from the central government. “Congress has not mentioned anything about us in its manifesto and JD(S) has and please don’t get us started on BJP. We have nothing to say to the BJP and they will have nothing to tell us,” said Jayaram.
Jayaram also shared the Union’s experience with the Yeddyurappa’s BJP government of 2008 in the state. “In 2007, GATWU had organised a large campaign demanding an increase in the minimum wage in Bengaluru. In May 2007, a draft notification was issued by the then government, but none of them did anything about this draft notification. In March 2009, the government finalised this notification. The final notification has said that the minimum wage will be increased to Rs 125 from Rs 100 per day. This was the revision of the wage after eight years. In 2001, was the previous revision had taken place. Even though we were not happy about this figure, we were ready to accept it only because we had been struggling for eight years.”
He added, “None of the managements implemented the notification. We approached various ministers to act upon this. On being ignored by all of them, we approached the High Court and the Court sent a notice to the then BJP-led state government to act upon it. In this context, all the managements, had approached the labour ministry of the government. I must note that the BJP labour minister and ministry was the worst that we have ever seen. In 2010, the government withdrew its own final notification. It issued another one in which the wage rates were reduced.”
Jayaram says that when they questioned the government about this, the government replied that it was a printing error in the previous one and it shouldn’t have been Rs 125. The High Court had cracked down severely on the government and had refused to buy their story of the printing error. In its judgment, the court accused the government of doing this on purpose and ordered the state to pass an ordinance immediately.
“None of this made any difference though. We gathered 30 women working in the industry and visited the then labour minister. When I told him that nothing has been implemented till now, the minister shouted and verbally attacked me for causing trouble for the managements of the industry; and I was asked, ‘Where would the managements get so much money to pay these workers?’ And he also asked the women present there not to be influenced by the union. We returned empty-handed and fought our own struggle and finally won the battle. We have decent wages now,” says Jayaram.
Jayaram and Pratibha insist that they are not a part of any political party and their fight is just for fair wages.
Vote to struggle and fight for Minimum wage?
While the PM is busy in educating the people of Karnataka about the good governance in the 14thcentury, workers are far away from experiencing good governance in his regime. Is the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government better for the workers in any way? According to GATWU, the current government is no different when it comes to appeasing the managements and because of which the fight for minimum wage has gotten stronger.
Talking about the current and central government’s attitude towards the garment industry workers, Jayaram said, “It is a misfortune of this country that all those who seriously vote, and to whom vote matters, are workers and farmers, but they are cheated the most. We have no hope from the government at the Centre anyway, but the state government is also involved in lobbying with the managements in deciding the minimum wage for the workers.”
He further explained, “Every government in the state, both BJP and Congress, have cheated the workers. Since last two years, we were involved in numerous dialogues with the state government in this regard. We were successful in creating pressure on the government to increase our wages. Finally, on February 22, 2018, government had issued a draft notification. We were not very happy with the notification, but definitely it took our interests into consideration. The notification promised an increase of our wages from Rs 8,500 to Rs 12,250. The managements of garment industries in the state, in regard to this draft notification, met the government. This was enough for the government to shut their ears to us. The managements had said, they would not be able to pay that high an amount. The government ignored us, those who vote for them, who vote them to power, and it has retracted the draft notification on March 24.”
“In 2001, it was not a draft notification but a final notification. Six months after issuing it, they retracted it and on top of that, they also reduced the wages. In 2009, again, the draft was approved, but was never implemented. In 2010, they further reduced the wages. The GATWU challenged this move of the government then and we won the battle. In 2014, because of our struggle, the wage rates were increased by more than Rs 1,450. After so many years, garment workers saw such an increase in the wages for the first time,” he added.
This election, according to both of them, no lies and false promises of the central government and the state governments are going to work. Workers are not happy with either of them. BJP and also the other two parties, Pratibha says, are busy in breaking down the unity among the workers by dividing them based on caste and religion. Would the dilution of labour laws in the country, and also recent attempts by the BJP to damage the Provident Funds of the workers, and the experience with the Yeddyurappa’s government in 2008, cost votes for BJP in this election? Pratibha and Jayaram say, yes.