80 000 Indian garment workers underpaid for years
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.
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.”