By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Amit Kumar, is a young man from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, working as a “helper” in a garment factory in Udyog Vihar on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, for the last three years. A “helper” is responsible for doing odd-jobs inside a factory including carrying materials from one location to another, among other tasks. I met him one morning in January this year at his one-room house, one amongst several standing in a row next to a large open drain in Kapasheda, where many of the workers live.
The same one room serves as the kitchen, while toilets are shared. They are often inhabited by three to four workers living together, or an entire family.
He’s paid Rs. 6500, he told me. (A helper falls under the ‘unskilled’ category and he should be getting Rs. 7600, as per the revised guidelines). However, it has increased from Rs. 5000 that he got when he first came here three years ago. “We are getting paid less than other places. We have complained to the management but they don’t listen to us. They say they will see to it.”
Udyog Vihar, where Amit Kumar works, is one of the major hubs of textile industry in the country. There are around 2500 factories operating here, employing more than 20,000 workers. Export of manufactured garments brings billions of dollars in the country and the factories in Udyog Vihar, together with those in NOIDA and Faridabad, contribute a quarter of that sum; Udyog Vihar contributes the lion’s share. The MNC clients for these manufactured garments include Gap Inc., the American apparel behemoth, among others.
In September last year, the Haryana government increased the minimum wages for skilled and unskilled labour. The wages for highly skilled labour rose from Rs. 6,500 (approx.) to Rs. 9,700 ( approx.), an increase of almost 50 percent. For unskilled labour, the increase was to the tune of almost 30%: from Rs. 5,880 (approx.) to Rs. 7600. The wages for the categories in between – semi-skilled etc. – were also raised. In per day terms, this meant that a highly skilled labour getting around Rs. 200 for his work earlier was now entitled to be paid more than Rs. 300. The unskilled labour getting around Rs. 180 per day could now draw close to Rs. 250 per day for his work.
The increase in minimum wages was ought to have been good news as labour trouble in Haryana is a well-known phenomenon. The state has both automobile and garment industries operating, among others. While the troubles in the automobile sector have received substantial media coverage, especially after the death of a senior HR official in a scuffle with the workers in a Maruti plant a few years ago – the case still continues – the goings-on at the garment industry are still, comparatively, under-reported.
People’s Union for Democratic Rights released a key report on the garment industry operating out of Udyog Vihar in 2015. The organisation decided to investigate the working and living conditions of those employed in such factories after an incident that took place almost a year ago, in the month of February. A garment industry worker was thrashed badly by the guards at his workplace because he reported 15 minutes late for work. Rumours soon spread that he had been killed due to the beating and led to protest by the workers who came out on the streets. PUDR found out that the worker had not been killed but badly injured. The report further mentioned that accidents were common in these factories and were often hushed up, without proper compensation to the kith and kin of the workers. It also mentioned sexual abuse of female employees. The report painted a grim picture of the working and living conditions of the workers at these factories.
To find out more, Youth Ki Awaaz conducted a month-long investigation, in order to verify matters first-hand. I spoke to both male and female workers, salaried and daily-wage employees, officer-bearers of the association of factory owners in the area and labour activists. The picture that emerged confirmed the conclusion reached in the PUDR report: that the incident that took place in February last year was the “tip of the iceberg”.
Rahul Prajapati, from Farrukhabad, UP, who also works as a “helper” in another garment factory in Udyog Vihar told me that his company was giving workers like him the newly stipulated minimum wage of Rs. 7600. The notification about the raise in minimum wages had come into force from November 1, 2015.
Rahul was earlier being paid Rs. 5813. However, he says, the working hours are rarely limited to eight. “Generally, we work for 12 to 14 hours per day,” said Prajapati. Money for ‘overtime’ is paid but rarely according to official rates which should be double the usual wages. For someone getting Rs. 7600 as salary, money for per hour of ‘overtime’ should amount to around Rs. 60 (with the daily pay being Rs. 250 approximately, the per hour rate would come to around Rs. 30). Prajapati said that workers like him got anywhere from Rs. 27 to Rs. 30 as payment for overtime, in gross violation of the official guidelines.
Virender Ram is a tailor, a higher-up in the hierarchy of garment factory workers. He came to work here two years ago, from the plains in Nepal. Although he is getting the newly revised salary of approximately Rs. 9000, he is still not entitled to any paid leaves or regular weekly offs, nor does he get the payment for “overtime” according to the official rates.
Ajay Kumar came to Udyog Vihar looking for work a decade ago. Initially, he received Rs. 2600 as salary for his work as “helper”. He continued at the same factory all these years and is now getting paid the revised minimum wage. He told me that while he was getting payment for “overtime” at the official rate – double of the usual rate – the behaviour of the supervisors in the factories in Udyog Vihar left much to be desired. “They are often abusive,” he told me.
Other workers corroborated the allegation. “The lower level of management treats workers badly,” said a worker on condition of anonymity. The reasons for the ire of the supervisor can often be a small delay in finishing lunch or having the tea within the stipulated time – they are allowed half an hour for lunch and fifteen minute breaks for tea twice a day. “Especially those in the housekeeping department, like sweepers for example, are treated the worse. They can be fired for the smallest of reasons, and that too only on the basis of suspicion sometimes,” said Rithik Kumar who has worked as a sweeper among other odd-jobs in these factories. He told me he had worked in several factories in Udyog Vihar and physical abuse was a recurring feature everywhere. “If they abuse us verbally, we also respond at times. If you have hands, so do we,” he said, explaining how fights took place. He added that no one was happy working in these factories. “People return to their villages as poor as when they came to work here,” said Rithik.
Rithik and other workers also claimed that while money for Provident Fund was deducted from every worker’s salary, hardly anyone received it. “They even throw you out if you fall sick a couple of times in quick succession,” another worker added.
Others pointed to the open drain near which many workers live as an important source of occurrence of illness. It traversed the entire length of the colony on one side. Flies and other insects hovered above its dirty water, with garbage rotting on its sides.
“What can be worse than this? Kids are playing next to the open drain. It is filthy here,” said one of the workers. “We are also human beings. But the way we are treated in these factories, I am afraid to set foot in them,” Rithik told me. Other workers added that even going to the loo was highly restricted and controlled, with workers expected to do it as quickly as possible.
Despite the raise in minimum wages, the situation at Udyog Vihar remains worrisome. In fact, the raise in minimum wages largely remains an administrative exercise as it does not take into account the way these factories actually run, with many workers employed at a ‘piece-rate’ basis and changing jobs every five-six months.
Workers I met added that the ‘targets’ had been raised since the increase in salary – the “target” amounts to the number of pieces a worker is supposed to finish in a work-day. In many factories, workers are paid according to the number of pieces of garments he works on per day which is another reason the raise in minimum wage, calculated according to number of hours worked, does not translate into better working conditions or enhancement in living standards for the workers.
I also spoke to some ‘samplers’ (skilled tailors) who received payment according to the “piece-rate” and for whom the increase in minimum wage was immaterial. Unlike others who work on only one part of a garment – the zipper or the sleeves for example – a “sampler” makes only one or two pieces in a full day. The ‘sampler’ – who makes samples of garments – is the highest among the workers’ hierarchy.
Gulab Chand came to Delhi in 2004-05 from Gaya in Bihar and has been working in Udyog Vihar ever since. He makes around Rs. 11,000 a month, based on the payment he received per piece, which is close to Rs. 200. Unlike other workers, Gulab Chand did not complain of any ill-treatment from supervisors.
Others like Mohammad Nizamuddin, also a worker on “piece-rate”, said that the payment of salary was rarely on time. “Maybe in one or two companies,” he said. He added that the payment per piece was usually lower than the “right” rate. “Even if we are late by five minutes, the company treats it as half-day,” he said.
Aslam Ansari also works on ‘piece-rate’ at one of the factories. “The employers often delay payment just so that the worker cannot leave and has to continue working. This is like working inside a prison,” he said
All the workers I met more or less agreed that if anyone tried to form a union, he was likely to get a thrashing first and later turned out of the company.
They added that no compensation was usually provided in the case of accidents within factories. “Only for some first-aid and nothing else,” said a female worker who wished to remain anonymous.
On my next visit to Kapasheda, I spoke to workers, including many female ones, who were waiting to be picked up by the contractor for daily-wage jobs. Several of them told me that the contractor pocketed almost half of the due minimum wage paid by the company for the workers. They also told me that when the foreign companies sent their officials for inspection, the factory owners forced them to present a rosy picture of the working conditions.
They also complained of high-handedness on part of their landlords. “If we default on paying the rent, when salaries are delayed, the landlord turns us out immediately. We have to stay out till we can pay him back,” said a female worker.
Others added that they were forced to buy groceries from the landlords who ran stores. Not buying grocery from the landlord could also lead to eviction, they alleged. “They sell us the items at a higher rate,” complained another female worker.
“This is basically the fault of the company owners. They need to remember that we also need to live. If we won’t be there, how will their companies run?” asked an incensed female worker.
I also spoke to a female contractor who was picking up workers at the spot. She expressed her helplessness. “We pay them according to what we get from the companies. It is not in our hands,” she explained.
Others added that rents were also raised as soon as salaries were raised. “We are here now. If we get work, we will get some money otherwise we will return home empty-handed. The lala (landlord/grocer) won’t leave us in peace in any case,” a female worker said.
An office-bearer of the Udyog Vihar Factory Owners Association spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. The office-bearer, who is a factory owner himself, also admitted that workers themselves preferred to work on “piece-rate” which rendered the stipulations about minimum wages according to the number of work hours pretty much irrelevant.
As far as other allegations were concerned, he said that the MNCs had their own compliance agencies which conducted annual checks. “We can’t slip up following the rules related to the welfare of workers as MNCs have stopped working with such negligent factories earlier,” the office-bearer told me.
To know the perspective of the labour activists on this issue, I met Dithhi Bhattacharya, the executive head of Centre for Workers Management, an NGO which works for the rights of garment workers.
Dithhi agreed that workers themselves preferred to work on ‘piece-rate’ instead of minimum wage, as it ensured them more money, regardless of the longer hours. She added that many workers did not want the status of a permanent worker as they preferred the flexibility to change jobs which, once again, meant more money.
According to Bhattacharya, this made the job of the activists much harder.
The garment industries, explained Dithhi, on the outskirts of Delhi, including Udyog Vihar had no “working-class history” as the workers were generally first-generation migrants from U.P. and Bihar, usually with some land back home and they kept going back after a few months of work in the city. “All this has created a lumpenised workforce in the garment factories here,” she said.
She added that the southern part of the country had a more literate workforce willing to fight for their rights and this had led to a better regulatory framework there. “Moreover, workers themselves don’t take the responsibility of (organising themselves). Crisis situations generally fizzle out although sometimes they lead to an explosion,” she told me.
According to Bhattacharya, it was the responsibility of the factory owners more than the MNCs to make sure the workers were cared for better. “The factory owners have some leverage as this region is politically stable and they have domestic demand for the garments also. The MNCs depend on them and won’t mind paying more,” she told me.
Regardless of whose fault it is, fact remains that an unorganised labour force seething with sundry grievances is a dangerous thing, like a powder keg, which can be set alight at a moment’s notice with a mere spark. It is time now for the various stakeholders to not let things slip out of control irreversibly because that can put an end to an entire industry and rob thousands of a livelihood, and at least, a life of sustenance, if not dignity and comfort.
Photos by Manira Chaudhary