GLU: a wider perspective on unionizing garment workers
July 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
“We produce clothes of much value,
We stitch pockets on t-shirt, which they fill with loads of money
We cut colourful ties, which they wear to show off their status
Yet, we are not valued,
Neither do we have money to fill our pockets
And our status has been marginalized
But we ask ourselves what if we stopped today?
Oh manager, who will produce the clothes that fill your bank account?”
– A revolutionary Song written by Deepa on behalf of the Garment Labour Union-
At our first meeting with the staff and members of the Garment Labor Union (GLU), the members initiated the meeting by singing this revolutionary song on an Indian beat. It is through GLU that we came to learn the practice of unionizing garment workers in Bangalore. In this article we draw upon conversations with Deepa, the lead organizer of GLU.
The origins of GLU
GLU originates from Cividep, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) engaging in workers’ rights and corporate accountability. Until 2011 Cividep was running a project in organizing garment workers bottom-up. The project employed a team six field workers, most of them ex-garment workers, and was funded by Oxfam Novib. However, in March 2011 the project came to an end, when the funder cut off the money supply. The dedicated team of field organizers refused to give up their work, which had empowered many garment workers to stand up for their rights. Soon they formed a union through which they could continue their work.
‘It was very difficult to continue the work without any funding” Deepa explains, “Initially the union received some financial help from Cividep, but mostly we covered the expenses from our own pockets. It was hard, but we could not give up. Organizing these workers and protect their rights is fundamental, especially now that workers face more and more pressure due to the increasing and inhuman demands of globalized capitalism. However, being paid less than 2 euros a day garment workers are unable to pay membership fees that would make a union self sustainable. Fortunately, we were able to obtain funding from a small foreign NGO and for now this enables us to proceed with union work.’
A gendered perspective on unionizing
A year after the founding of GLU, Deepa and her team can proudly say they are running one of the first garment unions in India exclusively lead by women. “Traditionally unions in India are governed by middle aged men,’ Deepa explains. ‘ even though 90 % of the workers in the garment sector are women. In this particular sector women face the ugliest forms of male dominance, like sexual harassment and rape; the gender hierarchy already present in society is intensified inside the factories. And while at home women have a sense of self, in the factory they often feel like they are worth nothing. It is in this misogynic atmosphere that women face the hardships of exploited factory production; they call the women whores when work is not delivered on time and supervisors sexually intimidate those whom they force to work overtime. Hence, for a union to grow and for workers to unionize the union leaders need to understand the gravity of these issues and be able to tackle them with utmost priority. And though I have nothing against men in particular, we as women have faced many of these issues both as ex-garment workers and as women living in a male dominated society. In other words, I believe women are more effective in leading a garment union. And don’t forget that women are more willing to discuss these issues with other women; they will not open up to men and might even draw a rosy picture of life in the factory when they face male union leaders. In the end these men working high up in the union replicate just those gender structures that women in the factory find most difficult to fight against’ Deepa adds.
Gender and working conditions
To tackle a wide range of issues specifically faced by women working in the garment industry has been one of GLU’s main ambitions. Hence, GLU works on many gendered specific obstacles that women in the garment industry face. Though it is often seen as a minor problem among the hardships faced by the garment workers, it is practical stuff such as the lack of a crèche at the workplace that hinders many garment workers in their daily work.
“According to the labor law factories are obliged to provide for a crèche when there are more than 50 female employees, but still far from all factories offer this facility. Furthermore, common practice is to offer a crèche from the age of one. Hence, when a woman comes back from maternity leave 3 months after the birth of her child, she has nowhere to go and is forced to stay home without income for another 9 months” Deepa elaborates. According to Deepa the majority of garment workers are domestic labor migrants, hence they cannot receive help from their family in taking care of the children. The strictly limited maternity leave leaves many mothers with no other choice than to quit their work in spite of desperately needing the income. Others cannot afford to quit work, and are forced to leave their small children alone at home. ‘No mother will choose to leave children on their own, but imagine that a woman is the breadwinner of the family and her income is the only way to feed the children, then she has no choice. I remember a case where the mother had locked her small children inside the house so that they wouldn’t run onto the highway just outside the house. Somehow the children opened the gas tank in the kitchen, and they were suffocated to death. This is what happens when employers neglect workers’ basic needs’ Deepa adds.
Other issues encountered by GLU is the rise of verbal and physical harassment at the workplace. The workers are yelled at, and sometimes hit and slapped by their male supervisors and managers, which increases distress as well as depriving the workers of their self-dignity. This forms of harasment are manifestations of male dominance, and is closely connected to a rise in sexual harassment. Workers report about sexual intimidation as well as harsher forms of assaults such as rape. Considering the fact that there are no existing possibilities to deal with this inside the factories, the level of stress on the workers can be enormous.’ Deepa explains. In some cases the harassment has led to tragic consequences seen by an alarming number of suicides among garment workers. Deepa continues: ‘Only the last few weeks we know of about eight cases of suicide among women working in factories. The last one was a 19 year old girl. She saw no other way than to end her life on the railway tracks after being raped inside the factory.’
Moreover, Deepa reminds us of how hardships in the factories are closely linked and worsened by the hardships faced in the domestic sphere. Alcoholism and domestic violence is widespread in poor neighbourhoods like Nayandahali, women face abusive husbands that accuse them of promiscuity when they arrive let at home after being forced to work over time. It is also these problems that GLU addresses through union efforts, as they are closely related to the overall vulnerability of women in the layers of society.
A firm belief in organizing
Hence, it is not strange that GLU’s tiny office is found right at the heart of India’s garment industry in Nayadahali, a poor neighbourhood where most garment workers reside. Though the neighbourhood may not appeal to many, it is here where GLU has been able to establish deep bonds with the garment workers and their community.
Moreover, being in close proximity of the garment factories GLU’s staff has made themselves familiar to a wide network of garment workers; every morning and evening the staff members are found outside the factory doors passing out flyers to workers, singing revolutionary songs and performing street theatre on various work related issues. ‘The traditional unions don’t organize bottom-up’ Deepa explains. ’But we believe in this strategy, garment workers are powerful and they are capable of so much, but for that to become true they need to see that together they will be able to make the earth shake. And, while the workers looked strange at us in the beginning, now they often sing along, help with distributing flyers and defend us when factory management is intimidating our staff.’
Consequently, GLU’s membership rates are increasing with the day and GLU’s name has become known throughout all layers of the garment industry. According to Deepa and her staff there are two main reasons for this rapid growth in membership rates. Firstly, due to the increasing working pressure and overall worsening working conditions in the garment industry more and more women are overcoming their fears. This fearlessness is further strengthened by the small successes that GLU was able to achieve over the first year.
But GLU appeals to women workers mostly because they have never restricted their work to discussing and tackling only so much as working conditions. ‘Raising awareness on workers’ rights is very important, but understanding how problems at work are affecting women at home is trivial in organizing women in the garment industry’ Deepa explains. ‘Therefore, we connect with women, their families and their community. We discuss their private issues at home and at work, while reminding them that we need collective action to change the destructive structures that hinder them and their co-workers in their daily life as female garment workers.’ Deepa adds.
GLU provides for help in all spheres of family and community life; they ensure educational funding for the garment workers’ children, help them in applying for various government subsidies, talk to their families when women undergo domestic violence and help out when workers are facing home evacuation. ‘Sometimes women call us in the middle of the night, saying that they left their abusive husband and that they are standing in front of the office with their children.’ Deepa utters. In other words, it is by means of establishing these heartfelt bonds with their members and in fact with the community as a whole, that GLU has been able to gain trust among a growing network of women workers. An organizing strategy that comes from the heart and demonstrates to be most effective in organizing the most vulnerable of India’s formal working class.
Together GLU’s staff and the active members are literally working day and night to get the new union up and running. And by taking on individual as well as collective cases GLU forms a small light in the darkened future of the garment industry. Finally, Deepa concludes ‘In the short term we will not change so much, but that doesn’t mean that our demands are not reasonable. In fact our demands are more than reasonable and they should be easily achieved if there was any good will among the factory owners, manufacturers and producers. However, if they are reluctant to meet up to our demands, we will have to demonstrate through action the true power of the working class.’