Chennai: Selvi Murugesan spent 13 years making buttonholes for shirts and stitching on buttons for one of India’s biggest clothing manufacturers “without raising her voice" but says she now risks losing her job for speaking out.
For three months she has been “waging a war" against her employer for suspending her amid a broader push across India for the fashion industry to improve workers’ conditions as trade unions start to play a more high-profile role.
Murugesan, 35, said she protested because she did not receive her full annual bonus and her employer started deducting costs for her bus to and from work from her salary. “I didn’t create any trouble in the factory in all these years," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a series of conversations over the phone and in person.
“When I asked for my bonus and joined a few workers in a protest outside the factory sometime in October, the managers said I was out of line and suspended me."
Murugesan’s employer, Chennai-based garment exporter Celebrity Fashions Ltd that supplies various Western brands, said she and 13 other workers were suspended for obstructing employees from entering the factory on the outskirts of Chennai.
Human resources spokesman Charlie Roy said by email that an internal enquiry was underway to investigate the grievances of the 14 workers and the company will abide by its outcome with internal committees in place to handle staff complaints. “The workers were suspended due to their riotous behaviour during an uninformed demonstration in front of the factory premises," he said.
“Based on the complaint from a majority of the workers and to safeguard employees and the company we were forced to suspend our own employees who were maliciously motivated." The row is one of the latest disputes between workers and employers in India’s multi-billion dollar textile and garment industry that employs some 45 million workers, mostly women.
Campaigners say many of these women are underpaid, some work 14-hours shifts, and some face verbal and sexual harassment. The fashion industry has come under pressure to improve conditions and workers’ rights, particularly after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in which 1,136 workers were killed.
A growing number of workers in the south Indian garment hub have been suspended or dismissed within days of joining unions or attending events primarily to demand the implementation of revised minimum wages, campaigners and union leaders said.
A landmark 2016 court ruling declared that garment workers should receive a pay rise of up to 30% and that they could claim arrears going back to 2014.
“We have increasing number of workers coming to our office and saying they were forced to sign resignation letters, but in fact, need the job to support their families," said Sujata Mody, of Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, a women workers’ union.
“Women are suddenly finding themselves unemployed for taking leave to care for a sick family member or if they are found talking to a union member and sometimes even if they happen to have a pamphlet that talks about their rights."
Mody co-authored a report funded by the International Labour Organization (ILO) which found grievance redressal mechanisms in India’s garment industry were “virtually absent" in factories. It said garment workers in Chennai who raised issues were “isolated" and kept under the watch of human resource officials.
The ILO says freedom of association is a “human right" and encourages companies not to discriminate against workers joining or forming unions. The study also criticised factory committees, saying they rarely have guidelines to address workers’ complaints.
Campaigners say factories are resistant towards workers joining external unions. Like most factories, Celebrity Fashion does not recognise the Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU), which Murugesan has joined.
Roy said the union did not have the support of employees.
“This external union is not able to represent the grievances of our employees in a fair and correct manner to ensure proper redressal," he said.
Mody said management prefer taking cases before the government’s labour department for conciliation talks but this could mean workers travelling up to 50 km to attend, making it difficult to sustain protracted struggles.
But Murugesan is ready for the fight. “My co-workers - many are also friends - have been instructed not to talk to me by the managers," she said. “They are scared of losing their jobs and so I hope that my voice is heard and we all get justice." Reuters