By Eliza Ferdinando
Eliza is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence and will graduate in 2022.
“It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you; you should be shot and disposed of.” (1) This is just one example of the verbal and physical abuse that the Workers Rights Consortium, or WRC, documented in Bangalore garment factories. The woman in these factories are at a high risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They are forced to choose between their safety, their employment, and their monetary freedom. Three years ago, a group of eleven women wrote to a local union in South India outlining the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their section supervisor, including a threat to “pluck out their pubic hair” (Human Rights Watch). The women made it clear that they could not give their names out of fear of recourse, and asked for help.
For most women employed in India’s garment industry, finding another job is not an option. Unmarried women are oftentimes supporting themselves and their families until marriage, and married women are usually supporting their household and children. Unionizing can be extremely difficult due to inter-union conflict and the focus on gender roles. This robs many workers of the ability to seek recourse for the abuse they have to endure. Violence comes from both from their superiors and their male colleagues. (2) Many women find that their pain is minimized or dismissed, and they receive no support from supervisors when they report inappropriate behavior from male colleagues. One woman was told, when reporting her male co-worker’s inappropriate comments, that she needed to get over it or leave. In one factory located in Southern India, auditors found that women who had requested clean bathrooms, especially when they were menstruating, had been laughed out of their supervisor’s office. Menstruation remains a taboo subject in India, something that has sparked protests in 2018.
Ninety percent of the workforce in the garment industry is composed of women. Those who work in the industry are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and workplace fatigue syndrome. These workers are penalized for missing work or working too slowly. As they age the workers are at a higher risk for bladder and kidney problems as a result of working long hours without breaks. The high stress environment can also lead to heart problems and high blood pressure. Because production targets are extremely high and extremely variable, there is little time for any ill or injured workers to recuperate, which gives physical and psychological problems a longer time to incubate and worsen their effects. The work can also be physically demanding, requiring long hours spent standing or hunched over a garment doing fine finishing work.
The majority of India’s garment industry is production for export. Large brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Uniqlo, Walmart, and many more use India’s cheap labor to produce their goods. They are responsible for the abuse that millions of women suffer every single year, and part of a larger system of export and exploitation centered around the garment industry. By outsourcing their labor to various third party contractors, corporations are able to absolve themselves and their customers of accountability for labor violations by not being personally responsible for labor violations.
This past year, women in India took action in a call for labor rights. (3) Starting in Kerala, women began participating in a human wall in protest of gender based discrimination in a variety of public and private spaces. These women were demanding, among other things, labor policy reforms and a change in the attitude towards women’s work. Attitudes towards female labor are shifting, as more women are entering the workforce. This shift in attitude, however, has not lined up with legal reforms and social convention, and the attitude remains that young women should get married and stay home with their children while running a household.
Serious reform is needed in the garment industry and in the greater world of fashion. Many organizations have agreed that there are better ways to safely manufacture the immense amount of clothing India exports to the United States and Europe. Anti-harassment training is needed for workers and supervisors, as are legal reforms to ensure that abuse is dealt with in a timely manner and that medical care and breaks are provided to victims. A clear system to address grievances is also a necessity to address the problem. More frequent and unannounced audits need to be conducted to accurately assess working conditions. The formation of unions should always be encouraged, so that workers have security when seeking recourse for abuse.
The women most at risk for abuse in factories are minorities. Immigrants, religious minorities, or just poor workers from outside the cities are lured in with the promise of good wages only to suffer horrifically. In India, the caste system still operates systemically, despite having been legally abolished for almost 70 years. Lower caste women face derision from authorities for both their caste and their gender. Almost 99% of assault cases go unreported in India, and this number is higher among subjugated groups who already face obstacles in the workforce. (4) Women who report violence risk being ostracized by their communities for being ‘impure,’ losing their income, and being the victim of retaliatory actions for their reports. As one woman in Southern India said, “We want justice…. Is it our fault that we are poor?” (5) Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody deserves to be forced to live in fear. Nobody deserves to be forced to choose between a job and safety. Nobody deserves the uncertainty that such a life brings them, the hurt and the pain that follow them from those experiences.
- WRC Finds Beatings, Death Threats at Indian Factory Supplying University Apparel to Columbia Sportswear, by Scott Nova and Ben Hensler, for Workers Rights Consortium, http://www.workersrights.org, June 20th 2018
- One in seven women in Bengaluru garment factories face sexual violence, report says, by Anuradha Nagaraj, for Reuters, http://www.reuters.com, June 24th 2016
- For more on this topic see India’s garment workers continue to fight against exploitation, by Aarthi Gunnupuri, for Equal Times, http://www.equaltimes.org, November 22nd 2016
- For more on sexual violence in India, see A Closer Look at Statistics on Sexual Violence in India, by Sujan Bandyopadhyay, for The Wire, www.thewire.in, May 8th 2018
- Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry, by Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org, February 2nd 2019