Jeanne P., our intern, attended a meeting of the union of women textile workers in the Roopena Agrahara neighborhood of Bangalore. The Karnataka Garment Workers Union is supported by the FEDINA’s network and is recognized as one of its most active. Our intern is more than surprised to discover the organization of the KGWU, where ‘people actually listen to each other’.
5 years ago, the garment workers of Roopena Agrahara joined and created the Karnataka Garments Workers Union, helping them to organize and put across their demands to obtain better working conditions. The KGWU is a well-established union that knows where it’s going. The women present at the meeting are incredibly determined, even if one could say that their revolution is step-by-step.
Exploitation behind the sewing machines
In the factories, women get every day a new model and enough fabric to produce 60 pieces.
They get up at 5.30am to take care of household chores and get to work at 9am. Officially, the factory closes at 5.30pm, but they will never finish working before 6pm : there is simply never enough time to finish all the pieces required. This half-hour of overtime is not paid: these women have to excel themselves, working 6 days a week, 48 hours in total.
The workers earn between 4,500* and 6,500 rupees* a month1. Over ten minutes late at work and women have to work an extra half-day unpaid on Sunday. At the end of the month, only if the workers have been present at the factory every day, they get a 300* rupee bonus. There is no such thing as a social security for most garment workers even if they do damage their health at the factories (eyesight troubles, chronic migraines, accidents at work). Finally, the elder the worker gets, the reduced is its wage, for productivity matter.
A great example of ingrate process
Three years ago, the factory decided to sack all the workers overnight, close up shop and take off with the money.
The factory owner gave the workers 2,500 rupees compensation and told them to go home.
However,15 women chose to turn to the union and a complaint2 was registered at the Labour Department. In the following days 150 women went also to obtain what was rightfully due.
Discouraged from following through the lengthy legal process, only 15 syndicated women carriend on the fight during a two year trial. In the end, the verdict condemned the employer to pay them 22,000 rupees.
Pushpa, garment worker and member of the KGWU says : ‘Over the last 5 years, the union has helped us to understand our rights at work. This has helped us to fight against abuses by the factory managers and in many cases to have our rights respected. Before the union existed, we never spoke about our working conditions outside our homes.The union helps us know our rights, meet others, have hope and become respectable.’
1The decent living wage for a family is 10,000 roupies per month
2 The law requires that employers in this situation must pay their employees 3 months’ salary
The anti-domestic violence group in Roopena Agrahara was set up in 2011 thanks to the Karnataka Garment Workers Union. Through meeting and speaking about work, the women came to feel the need for a dedicated group for an issue shared by many: domestic violence. Jeanne P., intern at FEDINA, came to meet the women vigilance committee and its brave members.
In India and in regard to domestic violence, women seemed to have an endless strength. More and more go out to work, look after their households and fight for better living conditions. FEDINA helps them with the latter struggle, organizing conferences on women’s rights and legal aid. Each focus group has a monthly meeting with a member of FEDINA to help women along the road to freedom.
Rihana, her fight for respect
Her name is Rihana. She has been involved in the anti-domestic violence group from the start. Rihana suffered countless attacks in her home, but the worst was when she woke up to find herself covered in petrol, her husband standing over her: ‘Shall I burn you tonight or another night?’ At the time, she just had the strength to beg him to put out the match, but talking to someone about these ‘domestics’ was impossible for her.
In joining the union, Rihana gained confidence in herself and courage to speak to her husband. She also gained a network of friends by joining the union. Little by little, over the course of 4 years, she came to understand that this group of women would be the first not to say ‘it’s your own fault‘ if she spoke about her domestic situation. Today she feels free to talk about her past suffering and to stand up to her husband: her life changed considerably.
‘We are not afraid’
When a victim of domestic violence decides to break her silence, the group listens to her and then acts.
The objective is to protect the woman and stop the violence: the greater the ill, the greater the response.
The group and the new member go to the house of the victim and they in turn attack the abusive husband, until he promises to stop abusing his wife.
Generally speaking, when a man is intimidated, the violence stops. This ‘working method‘ is very efficient but was not easy to begin with.
The women in the group have had to bear insults and threats. Now, though, they don’t even hear them. ‘We know what we’re doing and we’re not afraid.’ In just one year, they have composed a hard-core of 15 women always ready, day or night, to go and knock at the door of an abusive husband.
Over 70% of women experience domestic violence
A well-documented study in 2010 about domestic violence showed that:
- Social background has no effect on domestic violence ;
- The level of education of the women has no effect (for men, there is a link of negative correlation) ;
- The presence of a child has no incidence ;
- The income of the family and the professions of the wife or husband make no difference either.
It has also been observed that domestic violence intensifies in the lack of outside intervention.
Over 70% of women experience domestic violence, but there are men who support those who fight against it. Some of these men even go with the group to take on an abusive husband side to side with women : at FEDINA we are convinced that only through collective action women will be able to achieve respect.
Jeanne P. was an intern at FEDINA in 2012. She was sent by our partner in France – Frères des Hommes – and joined our communication’s team for a couple of months. Her aim was to meet the beneficiaries and the organizers of local groups to understand how Fedina works. Jeanne was able to meet the Karnataka Domestic Workers Union supported by our network : here is the story of her encounter …
The meeting of the Union is usually held at Old Byappanahalli, one of the slums of Bangalore. Within 10 minutes, the group grows and the colored saris multiply: the meeting can begin. A discussion group meets twice a month and gives the women a space to talk about the work they do, their employers and most of all the problems they encounter.
workers slaves !
The women work in private houses in the morning (cleaning, cooking, shopping and looking after children or elderly relatives) and look after their own children and households the rest of the day. On average, they earn 2,500* rupees a month for a 24 hour week, when a decent living wage is estimated at 10,000* rupees : it doesn’t go very far.
Last January, Anarpori came to the meeting in a desperate state: after 27 days’ work in the same house, the man who employed her refused to give her any salary. As she was ill at the time, she didn’t have the strength to fight back alone. 15 of the group’s members got together to get her what was due. Knocking on the door of the culprit, they were welcomed by the same man brandishing a knife in an attempt to intimidate them.
However, they stood strong and eventually the man’s wife appeared with her furious husband and handed over Anarpori’s salary. Struck by kindness, or a little guilt, the man tried to give an extra 50 Rs. tip. The note was handed back to him: ‘we came to get what you owe her. Nothing more.’
Collective organization to support individual fights
The discussion group is supported by Fedina, but self-determined regarding the frequency of meetings and the decisions and acts made.
It gives women greater confidence in themselves and their work, and this confidence is the driving force when voices need to be raised (just a bit) in cases of exploitation (low salaries, non-payment).
When needed, Fedina also provides legal help so that the women can defend themselves, such as the frequent accusations of theft which they suffer.
In India there are over 90 million household workers, a surely underestimated figure due to the lack of visibility of domestic workers. 20% are suspected to be under 14 years old, even if the law forbids this.
Nowadays, thanks to FEDINA’s support, the domestic workers of Bangalore are well-organized and able to defend and claim their rights in front of the employers as well as the public authorities.
* These figures correspond to the period of 2012 and are likely to evolve.
One of the most important focus of Fedina is to sensitise the unorganised sector workers to the injustice of exploitation and enable them to organise into Unions. One of the greatest injustices of exploitation is the inequality of wages using the gender bias.
In agriculture and in construction sectors, both men and women are involved in different tasks. However, women workers are treated as lower beings with lower capacities than their male counterparts and paid two thirds to half less. Their work is treated as unskilled and as a light one. Women contribute therefore to greater extraction of surplus value and greater accumulation of capital.
Indian law vs Indian reality
The ILO convention 100 on equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value specifically targets the discriminatory payment of lower wages to women based only on sex. Cultural prejudices, gender stereotyping are deep rooted in society. ILO Convention 111 addresses the question of negative effect on the enjoyment of opportunity or treatment in employment and occupation due to discrimination based on gender.
The Constitution of India in Art.39.d mandates equal pay for equal work for both men and women. While the laws are in place, the capacity to access the law is very low.
In rural areas, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which mandates the payment of equal wages for men and women, has to be used to unionise agricultural workers.
One of the difficulties of unionisation of agricultural workers is the imbalance in supply and demand of agricultural workers.
But NREGA, if implemented seriously, could change the imbalance in favour of demand. This in turn would increase the bargaining power of the agricultural workers and eventually their unionisation. But what of the urban areas ?
Our network wants to promote the laws voted in the challenge of equality of wages between men and women through unionisation. That’s why Fedina is urging and pressurizing authorities to adopt some kind of Employment Guarantee Act for urban areas, specially for slums and migrant population.
It is in this context that the campaign for equality of wages assumes importance. On one hand, it has to address the mindset of the Union members, especially of the women themselves. On the other hand, it has to expose the deliberate attempts of employers and other vested interests, to reinforce the notion of lower status of women in society in order to exploit them. Respecting indian law is respecting indian workers.
The “News” section is the space in which you can discover FEDINA sector by sector, action by action. People first : you will get the chance to have an insight on the life of people we work with, individually as well as a group. You can also follow up our news through this section.
We will publish several articles in order for you, dear readers, to get an idea of our network, how it operates, who we support and so on. Publishers of this section will shift from post to post and we will leave the keyboard to our interns too : we wish to offer you a whole overview of FEDINA’s work.
This page aims to be participative, so feel free to comment and leave us your feedback : we want this section to be kept up-to-date with you, for you and of course for the benefit of oppressed people, always.
The Communication team of FEDINA.