By VASANTHI HARIPRAKASH
Less than 7 km from where I live in north Bangalore, at the bustling Jalahalli Cross off National Highway 4, on Tuesday afternoon a state transport bus burned – sending up fearsome toxic black embers, almost engulfing the Tumkur Road flyover right above it.
Chances are, like me, you too watched this image on loop on your tv set, Live, nonstop on television. Disturbing images also of police man-handling women protestors; women with anger and anxiety writ large on their faces. This a day after this city of ours had a 10-hour block on Hosur Road (the one that leads to the Electronic City, which houses Infy Wipro global IT majors et al).
This is the first time in all my years in Bangalore, as a student & later as journalist, that I have seen something that has even remotely united hitech Ecity with poor cousin Peenya on the polar opposite direction. The uniting factor is a sad one though: Garment workers protesting against the new PF rules that were brought in by the Modi Government that prevents people from withdrawing their EPF share, until they turn 58.
The city has an estimated 12 lakh workers (some papers say 5lakh) in some 800 garment units. The workers are mostly women – migrants pouring into Bangalore to escape a bleak future in their villages. Their working conditions near-slavish; sexual exploitation and physical abuse by their managers is almost a given. Leaving behind children either in their homes or back in their villages, the women often stay a dozen to a ‘house’ – often a single room with a shared toilet – as cheaply possible, and as closely to their factory.
Years back, I did a ground-report series for the national television channel I used to report news for – first on Peenya, that houses by some account one of Asia’s largest hub for small medium scale industries and yet has pathetic infrastructure. And then, on women in Bangalore’s garment factories. Any attempt to talk to owners of these units to get their take, was futile. My activist-friend connected me to a few women leaders,who somehow sneaked in my camera-colleague and me to talk to some of the workers (we shot them in silhouette, of course to protect their identities.).
These ‘warehouses’ for global big brands and designer names are actually shoddy sweatshops, dingy, crammed, dirty. The garment workers, who work often 14-hour workdays or more, are not allowed to even go to the toilet easily & certainly not without the supervisor (most often, male)’s yes.
Payment is peanuts. Dignity drops to the absolute minus.
Unions were almost nil – I spoke to labourlaw’specialists about how even the right to protest is a joke, there are fewer cases in courts these days, and certainly not because they have nothing to complain about… Maybe that’s why when I read reports and watched how ‘garment workers have brought Bangalore on its knees’ my sympathy was still for the inconvenience-causing party.
The PF issue is only the tipping point for anger being built up over years now. Possibly there is greater awareness among the workers and even the courage to mobilise themselves and protest – despite the risk of losing jobs & livelihood.
The grouse is real, but the galaata – well that could be politically-sponsored.
Sponsored by whom, to embarass whom, to pull down who – leave that to be explained by my political journalist friends & analysts!
The sad thing though is that this protest – burning of public property – is futile and with the government now putting the new plans on hold, the workers will have no excuse but to go right back to their pitiable pigeonholes, this time with even fewer chances of escape.
Beware, there is a tear in that designer garment you wearing.