We all enjoy shopping for clothes. But the ready-mades we buy at high end outlets hide the grim reality of the people who make them. It’s a universal fact that retention of key personnel and cost control is crucial to competitive success. However, garment factories appear to have crossed the line in pursuit of these objectives, as this story by Raina Paul & Elizabeth Mani informs us.
Shradha is a young girl. 17 going on 18, from village Bhanipanna in Odhisa. At the age of 14, she took up a job in Shahi Exports, a manufacturer and exporter of garments.
Shradha remembers travelling around Bangalore with her brother when she first came to the city. She recalls a visit to the Lalbagh Botanical Garden. “I like travelling. When I first came to Bangalore, I visited Lalbagh. It was beautiful,” says Shradha (name changed). That was then. Not now.
Life has changed for the teenager. These days she’s only permitted, by order, to go to the Hosur road market in the city. Moving out of her hostel “at will” is not allowed. Got a problem, go home. Period.“We are allowed to go to the market from 11 to three on Sundays only, the only day and time we are allowed outside the hostel,” says Shradha
Shahi Exports has manufacturing facilities in Delhi, Bangalore, Mysore, Shimoga, Hyderabad, Salem, Tirupur and many other places. It has a workforce of 90,000.The company produces men’s shirts and T-shirts, lady's tops, men’s and ladies’ bottoms and kids wear. It makes millions. It also claims to produce garments for a number of national and international brands: Abercrombie & Fitch, American eagle, Gap, J C Penney, Mexx, Benneton, Decathlon, Esprit, Wal-Mart, Liz Claiborne, Phillips Van Heusen, Ralph Lauren, Sears, Target, Tommy Hilfiger and H & M.
Garment workers coming out of a factory in Bengaluru after the day's work
The girls go through a training phase of three months when they join the company. Training includes stints in the cutting, levelling border, quality control and washing sections. Each section is headed by a female supervisor. They are given a target of manufacturing a hundred garments per day.
Shradha is not the only one who has left home to work for the company. Many like her work for minimum wages, living miles away from home, unaware of the millions of dollars that their work garners for these big businesses.
Fifteen-year-old Kavitha (name changed) is another garment worker from Shradha’s village. She took up the job with Shahi Garments last year. Since then she has been home only once. “It is very difficult to get leave. We have to apply to too many officers to get leave,” she said.
Getting leave to go home is just one of several issues. Accommodation is another. The hostel accommodates around 250 girls from Odisha. 10 to 15 girlslive in a room. Like cattle in a pen! The three-storey building is at a short distance from the garment factory. The girls walk to and from the factory every day.
The factory mandates that the girls have to leave their rooms at 8.30 in the morning, and should be back by 6 in the evening. There's a lunch break of 30 minutes. It is compulsory that they collect a receipt proving their presence in the factory in case they work overtime.After they return to their rooms, they spend their time cooking and chatting. At 9 pm, the watchman locks them in their rooms. It's like prison!
The walls of the rooms are painted pink. The paint has started to peel at the corners. The small rectangular room can hardly accommodate three. There is a washroom in one corner. At another corner is a cubicle which is a 'kitchen' with a gas cylinder placed next to a stove and an old pan to cook.The management has made it compulsory that at least eight girls should be accommodated in each room. The girls share sleeping mats. Otherwise, it's a tight fit. The rooms are small and have a washroom and a kitchen. We have complained many times to the warden, but every time we do, she asks us to take it or leave it,” said Kavitha.
“No matter how hard we work, our salaries are fixed. Native employees are paid better. We cannot fight them, we have no choice but to keep working with this company," she said. “Workers from Karnataka are paid a net salary of Rs.8000 per month. The girls from Odisha signed to work on a salary of Rs.7900 per month. But what they get in hand is Rs.6000 after deductions for food and lodging.
Shahi Export's Bangalore office did not respond to phone calls made by this reporter. The desk kept transferring the calls which went unanswered.
There is a company canteen. The girls avoid buying anything from the canteen. They are in Bangalore to save money to send home.“So, we cook food in the room. We pool Rs 1000 for food expenses,” said Kavitha.
Shradha remembers her first few days in the hostel. There were 100 girls at that time. The number rose as the days passed. "It's not only a new place but also kind of aloof; the language is alien," said Shradha.
The feeling of displacement increases with the low wages that they get compared to what the native workers are paid, and the alien language that restricts communication. “We are not allowed to talk to any outsider,” said Shradha.
Shradha has a mission: To ensure her five-year-old-brother gets to become a matriculate, a goal she could not achieve because of circumstances that forced her to drop out of school after class 7.
It's another matter that her village does not have a high-school. “We have to travel long distances to study further,” she said. "Most of us in our village are farm labourers. We are poor. We come here to work in garment factories for the better wages and for our families' survival."Most female workers in Shahi Exports said they were under the impression that they would be in Bangalore for a six month training stint with a stipend, not as permanent workers.
Bangalore is a major garment manufacturing hub in South India. And Shahi Exports is not the only garment factory in and around the city that stands accused of ill –treatment of migrant workers. Reports published by ICN (India committee of Netherlands), after conducting research and interviews with workers from the industry, prove that it is an industry-wide phenomena.
Workers of four garment factories in the city K Mohan, Texport Industries, Arvind, and Shahi Exports were interviewed. The survey found that 12 to 15 cooped in one room and shared a toilet. They have to cook their own food next to their bunk beds. There is no kitchen facility in the hostel. Irregular water supply adds to the misery. However the managements have a work around to accommodate inspections. Supriya (name changed), ex-warden of a hostel run by a garment factory located at Garepalaya, Bangalore, said the workers are often taken to an accommodation with better facilities whenever an inspection team comes calling.
According to an non-governmental organisation, Cividep India, an estimated 500,000 workers are employed in the industry in and around Bangalore. Ninety per cent of the garment workers are female, migrants from rural Karnataka or neighbouring states.
Prathibha R, president of Garments and Textile Workers Union, said GTWU tried to go to the hostels but found it difficult to reach the girls. “Outsiders are not allowed to meet them, they are always under the observation of wardens,” she said.
She also said that it was difficult to prove that child labour was being used as the age certificates of these girls are “made” by the garments factories themselves.
T. Srinivasa, Joint Labour Commissioner, Government of Karnataka, Dept. of Labour, said that he is not aware of problems in garment factories. He said a team will be sent to "rescue" the girls.