80 000 In­dian gar­ment work­ers un­der­paid for years

The Star Early Edition - - INTERNATIONAL - Anu­radha Na­garaj

ON A SWEL­TER­ING sum­mer morn­ing in the south­ern In­dian city of Chen­nai, a dozen gar­ment work­ers crowd into a small court­room for the lat­est hear­ing in a pro­tracted bat­tle over low wages in fac­to­ries sup­ply­ing global fash­ion brands.

The women are among tens of thou­sands of work­ers in Tamil Nadu state – the largest hub in In­dia’s $40 bil­liona-year (R520.7bn) tex­tile and gar­ment in­dus­try – who are seek­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in com­pen­sa­tion fol­low­ing a land­mark court rul­ing last year that de­clared they had long been grossly un­der­paid.

The Madras High Court or­dered that the gar­ment work­ers should re­ceive a pay rise of up to 30 per­cent – the first min­i­mum wage hike for 12 years – and that they could claim ar­rears go­ing back to 2014.

But 12 months on, many fac­tory bosses have failed to pay up.

Prove the claim

Squeezed into a cor­ner at the back of the stuffy Chen­nai court­room, a mid­dle-aged woman leans against the blue walls, clutch­ing poly­thene bags full of doc­u­ments to prove her claim.

Nor­mally she spends her days hunched over a sewing ma­chine, stitch­ing skirts, shirts and dresses des­tined for high streets around the world.

But for months she has been tak­ing days off work to at­tend court.

“I forgo a day’s salary to come for these hear­ings. It may not seem like a big amount, but for us it is hard earned money,” said the 48-year-old seam­stress, who did not wish to be iden­ti­fied fear­ing it would im­pact her case.

“I am only ask­ing for what is right­fully mine. And they won’t even tell me how they are cal­cu­lat­ing my dues.”

More than 150 claims have been filed against tai­lor­ing and ex­port gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing units in the Chen­nai re­gion alone, ac­cord­ing to data.

The claims, which would ben­e­fit at least 80 000 work­ers at fac­to­ries around the port city, add up to more than 490 mil­lion In­dian ru­pees (R99m).

But work­ers’ unions say these claims are prob­a­bly the tip of the ice­berg as they only rep­re­sent cases filed by govern­ment labour in­spec­tors.

Salary cuts

Un­der the 2016 Madras court rul­ing, Tamil Nadu’s gar­ment and tex­tile work­ers should see their pay rise from a monthly av­er­age of 4 500 to 6 500 ru­pees – which cam­paign­ers say is com­pa­ra­ble to wages for tex­tile jobs in most other states. But work­ers say man­agers have de­faulted or de­layed on pay­ments since the rul­ing, with some even in­tro­duc­ing pay cuts.

De­spite the state’s min­i­mum wage laws, salaries con­tinue to be “grossly low” for thou­sands of work­ers who are still not given pay slips or are of­ten hired only as ap­pren­tices, cam­paign­ers say.

“In­stead of pay­ing work­ers their cor­rect salaries, com­pa­nies are find­ing ways to sur­rep­ti­tiously squash their rights,” said Selvi Palani, a lawyer help­ing work­ers’ unions fight their cases.

“There is a court or­der, but the money is not on the ta­ble. Work­ers con­tinue to be un­der­paid.”

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