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Why Half A Million Workers, Mostly Women, Came Out To Protest In Bengaluru

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By Saumya Tewari, IndiaSpend.com:

Bengaluru’s garment workers–about half a million of them, mostly women–have no pensions, job security, health insurance and live life close to the poverty line. This hitherto silent mass was suddenly agitated by a central government order to restrict early withdrawals from the Employee Provident Fund (EPF), a financial security net.

Thousands blocked arterial roads, causing snaking traffic jams, and as the protests escalated into rioting, burnt vehicles, and police firing, the Centre suspended the decision to restrict EPF withdrawals.

The Employee Provident Fund has been around since 1951, a law passed by India’s Parliament, requiring employees to contribute a fixed proportion of salary to their EPF account, with the employer matching this contribution. Here’s how it works:

The employee earns an interest of 8.75% compounded annually on the money accumulated in her EPF account.

Contribution by the employer is tax-free. The contribution by the worker is taxed. But the savings withdrawn later are not taxed.

In this year’s budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that EPF would be taxed when claimed–to prevent savings from being used before retirement–a move he had to roll back. People did not want the government denying them access to their savings.

There are 65.6 million active EPF accounts–both public and private sector–according to this August 2015 Employee Provident Fund Office (EPFO) newsletter.

Here are three reasons why Bengaluru’s garment workers rioted:

1) Restrictions On Withdrawing EPF Savings

Until the controversial order, workers could withdraw all their EPF money, with interest, if they were unemployed.

Now, EPF holders cannot withdraw all their money for marriage, education of children, serious illnesses and buying property, according to this notification issued on February 10, 2016.

The order was a blow to garment workers, who need money at intervals for precisely the reasons mentioned above.

2) Withdrawal On Retirement, Now Delayed By Three Years

The new order says you can withdraw all your EPF money only at retirement, the age of which has been increased from 55 to 58. This rule has now been suspended until July 31, 2016.

3) 92% Private-Sector Retirees Have No Pension, Health Insurance

India’s formal, or organised, workforce comprises 28.9 million workers, with secure employment, pension and medical benefits. Of these, 40% (11 million) work in the private sector, according to government estimates.

In general, public-sector employees enjoy better and more regular pensions, health benefits and income security than private-sector workers.

The 40% private-sector employees we referred to are only those the government’s statistical agencies categorise under the organised sector. Of these, 92% have no income security, pensions or health insurance, an IndiaSpend analysis has shown. Garment workers are among this insecure population, which needs regular access to EPF accounts for vital life needs.

The Growing Distress Of India’s Unorganised Workforce

While many private-sector workers, such as those in the garment industry, lead precarious lives, they are better off than their compatriots in the unorganised sector.

“Unorganized workers consist of those working in the unorganized sector or households, excluding regular workers with social-security benefits provided by the employers and the workers in the formal sector without any employment and social security benefits provided by the employers,” according to this government definition.

About 72% (340 million of 472 million) of India’s workforce was in the unorganised sector at the end of 2011-12, as IndiaSpend has reported.

Much like workers in the private sector, those in the unorganised sector also depend on money from EPF accounts–if at all they have such accounts–to get by.

This article was originally published on IndiaSpend.com, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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