As states use Covid to tweak labour laws to favour employers, a survey finds that Karnataka’s garment workers went nearly six weeks without pay; most got little or no state help; majority said they would not work for less pay or longer hours.
Bengaluru: The Karnataka government on 22 May 2020 issued a notification that allowed factory owners to extend working hours from eight to 10 hours per day and from 48 to 60 hours in a week.
In doing so, the state joined Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh who have also amended labour laws to increase working hours.
The skewed priorities of states that privilege employers over labourers and profits over lives are possible because of a worldview in which the losses of the pandemic have only been borne by private companies.
“It is a fact that the entire world has faced losses. It is a fact that factory owners have faced losses. But we have also faced losses. Who will listen to our losses?”, Poorna, 39, a button operator at a garment export factory in Mandya district asked us as she spoke of her farmer-husband’s crop loss, the loss of an academic year for her son, the pressure from micro-finance institutions for loan repayments.
Garment Mahila Karmikara Munnade and Alternative Law Forum reached out to Poorna and 81 other garment workers for a telephonic survey between 16-18 May, 2020 (see report here) to document the impact of the nation-wide lockdown on the material and emotional lives of informal sector workers.
Here’s what we found:
96% of respondents had received absolutely no assistance from their employers, be it in the form of cooked food, dry ration kits, loans and advances.
75% reported not receiving any free food from the government.
60% said they believed that the state had done absolutely nothing to assist workers during lockdown.
51% did not get any free ration from the government.
66% said they received no subsidised ration from public distribution system (PDS).
18% said they received absolutely no assistance from the government.
The Karnataka notification cited Sec 5 of the Factories Act, 1948, which allowed for factories to be exempt from the provisions of the act during a public emergency, defined as “a grave emergency whereby the security of India or of any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbance”.
The crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly real but it does not qualify as a public emergency as defined under the law.
Through its notification, applicable till 21 August 2020, the government exempted factories from Sec 51 and 54 of the Factories Act,1948 which placed a cap on the maximum hours of work per week and per day, respectively.
The move came after weeks of lobbying by employers’ associations who have demanded that the state further dilute labour laws, including a free rein to retrench workers and reduce salaries (here, here and here). Calling themselves annadatas (providers of food) and udyogadatas (providers of employment), employers have cited “grave losses” as reason for these demands.
When we asked Poorna what she thought about the proposal to extend working hours, she said: “If they increase the working hours, our children will not remember their mothers anymore. Our bodies will give up under the burden of labouring. Also, if we work from 6 am to 6 pm, who will do our housework? Can we afford to hire domestic help?”
No Benefits, Only Bills
Poorna’s response captures the difficulties that women as garment workers face in accessing employment—the torturous nature of garment work is matched by the labour expected from them as mothers and wives at home. It is not surprising then that 65% of the workers we surveyed said they would not (or could not) work longer hours.
What workers said on key aspects of their employment:
66% said that they would not work for reduced pay.
75% said that they would not work if Employee State Insurance (ESI) facilities were withdrawn.
82% said they would quit if the provision for PF was stopped.
While the extension of working hours is a clear instance of the state’s abdication of its responsibility towards workers, it is pertinent to remember that this is just one of many such abandonments. Although the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued an order mandating that employers pay full salaries to workers till 18 May, 2020, the Karnataka government has been lax in its implementation.
63% of our respondents reported not having received any salary at all, while 17% had received 50% or less of their salaries for April. Some factories were providing 50% of the salary for the month of April only if workers returned to the factory in May and worked for at least a week.
By the end of April, many workers had gone nearly six weeks without pay. They also reported receiving little to no assistance from the state and were faced with mounting bills for rent, utilities, and interest on loans.
Covid And The Commute
At the time of our survey, nearly all workers were keen on returning to work, but many couldn’t make it to work because the state did not resume public transport. The state’s apathy towards workers, already under financial duress and mental stress, could not be starker.
If Sheela, a garment worker in Bangalore and the sole earner in her family, was shelling out nearly 30% of her salary on taking autos to work, Raji, another garment worker in Mandya was starting from home three hours before work, hailing down passing vehicles for lifts to reach work at 9 a.m. These risky, expensive modes of travel that workers were resorting to was primarily an effort to save their jobs, which paid them anywhere between Rs 8,000-Rs10,000 per month. Those who could not afford to travel to work were desperately afraid that they may be the first to be retrenched.
By creating these artificial divisions between workers who could make it to work and those who couldn’t, Karnataka greatly exacerbated the anxieties of workers already reeling under panic, anxiety and uncertainties.
Already, rumours are afoot among workers that factories with over a hundred employees could retrench workers without explanation, that orders to factories were reducing, that factories could be closed without notice and workers would not be able to demand their dues, and that workers may have to work on Sundays and may even be moved from fixed pay to piece rates.
These rumours, together with the deprivation faced by workers during the lockdown, were the cause of so much desperation that Chandra, a Bangalore-based garment worker told us: ‘We have no money absolutely. We are so desperate that if they give us even Rs 3,000 we will have to work.’
For factory owners who have always resisted the payment of even minimum wages to their workers, this desperation offers possibilities for further exploitation. During the course of our telephonic surveys, phone numbers of our volunteers got circulated among a few workers in Ramanagara who called us asking for help because factory owners were pressurising them to work on Sundays as well.
One worker-organiser from the district told us that tailors in particular were being harassed to increase production and stitch masks; workers were being asked to submit to oppressive conditions because employers know that they cannot afford to lose their jobs.
Post the release of our report, retrenchment of workers has started with multiple factories closing down without paying salary dues to workers. This environment of uncertainty requires the state to stand up for its workers; however, economic revival measures seem geared towards the further exploitation of the already-depleted workers.
‘What Will Be Left Of Us?”
During World War II, B R Ambedkar, the-then labour member in the British Government, was faced with a similar situation of economic uncertainty, including growing rates of unemployment. Workers were not only being retrenched but those who continued to be employed were being asked to work longer hours.
Under his stewardship, the labour department issued a memorandum stating that it was ‘unjust’ and ‘unwise’ to extend working hours. A worker’s time away from the factory was ‘indispensable for the building up of citizenship and for the maintenance of his physical efficiency’, it said.
Echoing a similar sentiment decades later, Shiva, a garment worker from Ramanagara, when asked about the extension of working hours, said: ‘We will not work. We already work nine hours and are exhausted at the end of the day. Then we spend two hours travelling back and forth; if in a day we give up about 14 hours of our day to these factories, what will be left for us?’
The Karnataka government would do well to heed the words of Ambedkar, listen to worker-citizens such as Poorna and Shiva, to trade unions who pointed out the need to actually strengthen labour laws now. The state must withdraw this notification, ensure payment of salaries to workers and create enabling conditions that allow workers control over their working lives.
(Swathi Shivanand is a Bangalore-based consultant with the Alternative Law Forum)