Nos. 72 & 73, May 2018
Nos. 72 & 73 (May 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects
Simmering Rage I:
Discontent and Militancy among Garment Manufacturing Workers
Twice over the course of less than six months in 2015, garment manufacturing workers of Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon spontaneously collected in response to a rumour of a worker’s death and resorted to militant agitation and ‘rioting’.
In February 2015, hundreds of workers had gathered on hearing about the alleged death of Sami Chand, a worker at Gaurav International, plot number 236, Udyog Vihar, Phase I. At least six garment manufacturing units were ‘vandalised’ and over 100 cars damaged by angry factory workers of Gaurav International and its sister-company Richa Global. It became clear later that Sami Chand had been assaulted by officials and staff of the company but was alive.
In the second incident, on June 20, 2015, thousands of workers rioted at a factory owned by Orient Craft Limited, one of India's top garment-makers and exporters. The workers damaged vehicles in and around the unit and set fire to them. This was in response to the rumours that one or more workers had been electrocuted in an elevator inside the plant that morning. It later became clear that Pawan Kumar, who works in the ‘finishing’ department of the plant, had received shocks but had not died.
This unit of Orient Craft is situated in Plot no. 9 of Gurgaon Sector 37, and had been the site of a similar situation in 2012. On that earlier occasion, about two thousand workers had gone on a rampage, pelting stones at policemen and burning vehicles, following the assault of their colleague by a contractor of the company. Yet another unit of Orient Craft, located in plot no. 7D, Sector 18, Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon, was in the news in March 2014, when a tailor named Sunil had collapsed and died on his seat in front of the sewing machine. Orient Craft Limited has 21 units, and employs nearly 25000 workers. The company produces for nearly forty top global brands, including Banana Republic, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer, Abercrombie and Fitch.
Both in February and June, there was heavy police deployment after the ‘rioting’ and atmosphere was thick with rumours, anger and fear. In the second incident, two separate rumours had broken out on the same day, one about the death of one worker and another about the death of four workers. Even in the February incident, it became clear only after a couple of days that the worker, rumoured to have died, had actually been injured.Three things stand out in the course of events described above — the frequency of accidents or incidents in the garment industry in which workers are seriously injured or killed; the alacrity with which rumours are spread; and the response of the workers in the form of spontaneous militant actions, labeled ‘rioting’. The following article seeks to explain each of these on the basis of surveys conducted amongst the garment workers of Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon.2
The accidents/incidents reflect the stressful work conditions and inadequate use of safety gear, the latter itself being linked to increase in the pace of work. The frequency of accidents and incidents of assault on the workers creates fertile ground for rumours. As soon as there is some incident, it gives rise to the worst possible fears, and the overall vulnerability of the workers makes the rumour more believable.
The response of the workers needs to be understood in the context of near absence of trade unions or other organisations of the workers. In a situation where there is no organised outlet for the demands of the workers, the simmering discontent and rage take the form of riotous outburst whenever there is an accident or an assault. With a change in the organisation of production resulting in ‘flexibilisation’ and ‘casualisation’ of labour, and the strengthening of the position of capital vis-a- vis labour, legitimate organisations of workers have taken a beating, leading to spontaneous militant actions, termed ‘vandalism’ and ‘rioting’. Section I analyses the situation of the garment workers of Gurgaon and Section II locates the response of the workers in the context of weakening position of Labour vis-à-vis Capital.
I. Work conditions in the garment industry in Udyog Vihar: Low wages, long hours and rising pace
This is fairly evident in the garment manufacturing cluster of Udyog Vihar. The Haryana industrial belt known as Udyog Vihar developed as a cluster for garment exports in 1990s, when manufacturing units relocated from parts of Delhi to Udyog Vihar. This happened both due to the mandatory moving of industrial units from Delhi and in response to generous tax concessions provided by the Haryana government. Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon area is one of the important garment manufacturing and exporting clusters in the country. It may be noted here that in 2009-10, manufacturing contributed 27.6 per cent of total employment in Delhi-NCR, and manufacturing of wearing apparel is an important sub-sector of manufacturing.
The garment production in Udyog Vihar takes place in registered manufacturing units and fabricator units. Some of the larger manufacturing units employ as many as 1000 workers, but there are also smaller units employing 400-500 workers. These units are registered under the Factories Act, and they take orders directly from the global brands or indirectly via the buying houses. Fabricator units in turn take orders from the registered manufacturing units operating within this region, i.e. the registered units sub-contract a part of their work to the fabricator units. Fabricator units often work illegally, and vary in size from those employing 10 workers to those with 500 workers. Some part of the work is outsourced to home-based women workers.
Workers are employed in various departments of the garment units such as sampling, quality control production or sewing, finishing etc. The workers employed in this industry are largely migrants, and are predominantly employed through labour contractors both on time rate i.e. monthly (and sometimes daily) wages and piece rate, wherein they are paid per unit of piece made by them. The production takes place under a ‘chain system’ or an assembly line. Here, a large number of workers sit in a row and the garment passes from one worker to the other, with each of them responsible for small part of the work, such as stitching the collar or stitching one arm of the shirt. The rows or columns of workers are supervised by ‘supervisors’, who are responsible for meeting the production targets and hence keep urging the workers to work faster and faster. There was a time, when ‘full piece tailors’ were common, who were responsible for stitching the entire garment and thus were necessarily required to have requisite skills. The chain system does not require these kind of skills, which also means that the workers now can be paid less.
The sampling department also has senior tailors called master tailors, cutting tailors and pattern tailors who earn Rs 20,000 and Rs 36,000 respectively, but these are very few in number. Most of the tailors are employed in the production department, and are called production tailors. They received a monthly wage of Rs 6,500 (April 2015) but there were no further allowances. “Even these meagre wages can be deducted under various pretexts, such as 10 minutes of delay in arriving for work can lead to a deduction of an hour’s salary” (Perspectives & PUDR 2015). Although there is some revision in the basic pay periodically, it is too little and too slow to keep pace with the rise in prices. In real terms, the basic pay has fallen over the years, as shown in the table and graph below.
These wages force the workers to work overtime in order to increase their monthly earnings. With overtime of at least 3-4 hours every day (and Sundays), the workers manage to make monthly earnings of around Rs 10,000. The report by Perspectives & PUDR states that according to some accounts, many workers put in an overtime of 100 hours per month (at present, legally only 50 hours of overtime is permitted per quarter i.e. for three months). During the peak months, it is not uncommon for the workers to be working till after midnight. Interestingly, although workers themselves generally want overtime work (because their wages are so depressed), there are situations where a worker may be asked to quit if he/she cannot put in the overtime hours when the employer demands it. Legally, the wage for overtime work is supposed to be double of the usual wage; however overtime at single rate is the norm in Udyog Vihar.
Many workers work on a piece rate system, which forces the workers to work very long hours in order to produce as many pieces as possible, so as to increase their daily earnings. Some piece rate workers are women workers taking orders for small tasks and working from home. This can include tasks like putting buttons or sequins. Then there are workers in the ‘fabricator’ units which often operate illegally so as to evade taxes and are even known to employ child labour.
These wages are much below the minimum required for a dignified existence. A skilled worker earning about Rs 10,000 per month, including overtime, explained to the Perspectives & PUDR team that he was only able to feed his family by supplementing his earnings with rations from his native village. The workers live in miserable rented rooms measuring about 8 by 10 feet (Rs 1,650 per month for asbestos sheet roofs, Rs 3,000-3,500 per month for brick roofs, not including electricity charges). “Usually an entire family consisting of 5-7 members vie for space in these rooms with the cooking stove, a small gas cylinder, utensils, rations, buckets for water storage, clothes, a small bed/mattress, extra sewing machine (which they keep to earn some extra money by stitching clothes locally), and the children’s school bags and books. There are three bathrooms and two toilets in each housing block to be shared by all the (18 families) living there.” The landlords collect the rents themselves; alternatively, their overseers, who are usually the local strongmen, collect the rents for them. The workers are sometimes forced by the landlords and their overseers to buy everyday provisions from the shops run by the landlords/overseers where items like milk and spices are sold at inflated prices. (Perspectives & PUDR)
Intensifying surplus extraction
The competitive advantage of garment manufacturers lies in lowering the wage costs as far as possible. This is done in a variety of ways. The employment of migrant workers and women workers are methods to do this. As already discussed, the low monthly wages and their fall in real terms ensure that workers put in very long working hours, simply to make ends meet. Piece rate workers work long hours in their own interest. All these methods which ensure that the workers put in long hours of work enable the employers to extract more surplus.3
Apart from this, there is continuous pressure to increase the intensity and pace of work. The supervisors are always egging the workers to work faster and faster. Production targets have become extremely punishing, so much so that when one worker collapsed on his seat in a factory of Orient Craft Limited in 2014, other workers realised this only after some time had lapsed, as they did not have the time to raise their heads from their sewing machines.
Both changes in the organisation of production and, to lesser extent, technology, have been used to increase the pace of work. An extremely important Taylorist step to increase work intensity was the introduction of chain system or the assembly line. Another method employed to enhance the pace of work is to keep a piece rate worker in the same assembly line as a time rate worker. This ensures that the piece rate worker himself puts pressure on other workers to work faster.
Technological devices are also used to increase the work pace. Orient Craft, the company involved in the incidents mentioned at the start, “started the practice of monitoring individual tailors with stopwatches in order to calculate the amount of time taken to stitch a piece of garment. This practice was further refined 1-2 years ago with the introduction of magnetic card readers. Now, every bundle of cloth that arrives at the desk of a tailor is accompanied by a magnetic card. Every tailor has to punch this card on the card reading machine at the beginning and conclusion of operations; the card relays data regarding how many seconds each worker takes per task, and how many pieces s/he has finished in a day. Since the installation of these machines, work intensity has increased markedly. One bundle usually has 10-15 garment pieces, and a worker is expected to finish working on 5-10 bundles in an hour” (Report of a fact-finding team 2014). Again, all these methods are tantamount to squeezing out more labour from the same workers and increasing the surplus. These methods help the manufacturing firms lower their costs of production, which enables global capital to extract more profits. Aggarwal (2015) reports that the labour cost for a shirt selling at Rs 1500 rupees in the global markets is not more than Rs 10.
II Weakening of labour and response of the workers
The discontent of the workers is increasingly taking the form of ‘rioting’, attacking the factories and vehicles, rather than of organised strikes. What is being seen in the garment industry in Gurgaon is reflection of a pattern, both in the NCR and the country at large.
“Since 2010, labour department officials have not recorded any strikes in industrial areas in Delhi. All over India too, strikes in factories have declined in the last decade.... [A]s per Labour Bureau reports, there were only 240 strikes in 2008, 167 in 2009, 199 in 2010 and 179 in 2011” (Yadav 2015)
Sood, Nath and Ghosh (2014) show that more mandays are being lost on account of lock-outs by the employers than by strikes by the workers, which is indicative of weakening position of labour vis-vis capital. Between 1999 and 2008, a total of 170 million man-days were lost to lockouts as compared to 84.05 million due to strikes.
The phenomenon of spontaneous, militant actions by the workers needs to be understood in the context of the weakening position of Labour, both due to restructuring of production globally and related changes in the labour laws, making it much more difficult to form unions. According to Satbir Singh, Secretary of CITU in Gurgaon, “Workers' dissatisfaction is not finding an outlet in non-violent agitation, or strikes as most factories discourage formation of trade unions.”(Yadav 2015)
Global production is restructured in accordance with the global value chain arrangements, wherein the competitive advantage of developing countries lies in providing cheap labour. The manufacturing units located in the developing countries face a continuous pressure to produce at the lowest possible costs so as to be able to sell to the global brand companies at lowest possible prices. This translates into low wage costs. Additionally, the local industries face fluctuating production orders, for which they want the freedom to hire and fire workers. This is done through ‘flexibilisation’ and casualisation of labour. Employers in a globalised economic environment favour flexible labour strategies, whereby they can hire and fire workers in accordance with the demand from global buyers. Production for global value chains is an important causal factor for the kind of work conditions seen in the garment industry -- extreme intensification of labour process, sometimes not paying even minimum wages, extremely excessive overtime, no premium payment for overtime, engaging large numbers of unreported workers and frequent hire and fire to avoid paying social security, bonus and gratuity. Seabrook (2014) shows that garment workers are paid US $ 1.66 an hour in China, 56 cents in Pakistan, 51 cents in India, 44 cents in Indonesia, 36 cents in Vietnam and 31 cents in Bangladesh.
Growing informalisation of labour is one significant manifestation of the onslaught on labour by capital. As per NSSO data, in Delhi-NCR, 86 per cent of all workers were informal workers in 2009-10, irrespective of whether they were employed in the formal or the informal sector. As far as manufacturing is concerned, although the share of manufacturing in employment in Delhi-NCR rose during the ten year period between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, the share of manufacturing in GDP fell, indicating the creation of low productivity manufacturing jobs (Human Development Report 2013). The growing vulnerability of the workers in both organised and the unorganised sectors has been pointed out by many studies.
At the all India level, Sood, Nath and Ghosh (2014) show that in 2011-12, 77.5 per cent of the total workforce employed in the organised manufacturing sector had no written job contracts; 60 per cent of the regular workers and 93 per cent of the casual workers were not eligible for any social security benefits. The vulnerability is further intensified and reflected in absence of trade unions and worker organisations. The aforementioned authors further show that, in the organised sector, only around one-third of the workers had access to a union. Moreover, while 36.2 per cent of total workers knew of a union or association in their activity in 2004-05, the number had fallen to 31.5 per cent by 2011-12.
Changing labour laws – manifestation of changed balance of forces
Firstly, it may become more difficult to form unions. In the new Code, the requirement for registration of a trade union has been increased to 10 per cent of workers or 100 workers, whereas the earlier requirement was only seven members. Now the requirement of seven members applies only in those units where 10 per cent of workforce is less than seven. Also, till now, non-worker members of trade unions or outsiders played a crucial role in formation of the trade unions, but the new proposed Code does not allow any outside member in trade unions in the organised sector. In the unorganised sector trade unions, only two outside members are allowed. The new Code also does not have any provision for recognition of trade unions. According to Pratap (2015) this is one of the biggest problems that the trade unions face, because in the absence of any law regarding recognition of trade unions, the employers generally deny recognition to the “unions truly representing the workers.” This has been observed recently in the Maruti case.
Another change is in the definition of strike. Now, a group of workers (50 per cent or more) taking casual leave together would also be considered a strike. Pratap (2015) argues that the provisions for going on a strike are made so complex that it is next to impossible to have an effective strike if all legal procedures are followed. In case a strike is called without following legal procedures, there are provisions for serious punishment. Also, the provisions earlier applicable for public utilities are now applicable to all industrial units. It is also prohibited for workers to stage, encourage or instigate such forms of coercive actions as willful, ‘go-slow’, squatting on the work premises after working hours or ‘gherao’ of any of the members of the managerial or other staff during conciliation proceedings.
The new Code makes no reference to any law or provision regarding outsourcing and responsibility of ensuring labour standards across the global value chains. Further, under the new Code only state governments will have power to fix minimum wages, unlike now, when wages are fixed both by central and the state governments. “In a situation when all the states are competing with each other for attracting investments, this will lead to a race to the bottom among states…” (Pratap 2015). Pratap further asserts that the proposed Code “simply ignores the aspects related to contract labour.”
Thus, the proposed changes in labour laws clearly show the Indian State in its role as a facilitator of capital. This is both a reflection of weakening of labour and will further increase the insecurity and vulnerability of labour. In this context of rising vulnerability and increasing difficulty in coming together for their demands, it is not surprising that the simmering rage of workers takes the form of spontaneous violent actions.
1. Aggarwal, A (2015), ‘Piece by piece’, Himal Southasian, Labour and its Discontents, March 2015
2. Delhi Human Development Report (2013) Livelihoods and Employment, Chapter 2
3. Government of India (GoI). 2015 a. Labour Bureau, http://labourbureau.nic.in/indexes.htm
4. Perspectives, People’s Union For Democratic Rights (May 2015): Tailor-Made Lives
5. Pratap Surendra (2015), Political Economy of Labour Reforms in India Part III, Sanhati, Journal 2015, Issue 5
6. Report of a fact-finding team (2014), Hum Ko Bacha Lo: Death of a Worker in Gurgaon,Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra (IMK), Krantikari Naujawan Sabha (KNS), Mazdoor Patrika, Perspectives, People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Sanhati and Workers’ Unity.http://sanhati.com/articles/9560/
7. Seabrook Jeremy (2014); The Song Of The Shirt, Navayana (2014)
8. Sood Atul, Nath Paaritosh, Ghosh Sangeeta (2014), Deregulating Capital, Regulating Labour, The Dynamics in the Manufacturing Sector in India, Economic & Political Weekly, June 28, 2014 vol XLIX, nos 26 & 27
9. Yadav, Anumeha (2015), Workers riot at two work-sites, in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, http://scroll.in/article/735850/workers-riot-at-two-factories-in-himachal-pradesh-and-haryana, (accessed on 2nd July, 2015).
1. Archana teaches economics at Hindu College, University of Delhi. She has been tracking the condition of the working class in and around the National Capital Region. She was a founder member of an informal research platform, ‘Perspectives’, comprising of students and teachers. Perspectives undertook field surveys and published reports regarding social and economic issues. Archana can be contacted at archanaaggarwal67[at]gmail.com. (back)
2. This section is based on interviews with workers and activists of workers’ organisations in Kapashera. Kapashera is situated on the Delhi side of Delhi–Haryana border and is home to workers of the garment factories of Udyog Vihar. The interviews were conducted over a two year period from 2012-13 to 2015. The observations are also published in a report brought out by Perspectives & People’s Union For Democratic Rights. (Tailor Made Lives, May 2015) (back)
3. Marx explains extraction of surplus under capitalism on account of labour producing a value greater than the value which the labourer gets as wages. This happens on account of labourer working for a period longer than is necessary to reproduce his/her labour power. The capitalist can increase the surplus either by lengthening the working day and/or by increasing the intensity of work by variety of measures. Both processes can be seen in the garment industry. (back)
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