Per-Ake Westerlund, a CWI member from Sweden attending the WSF in India, spoke to N.M. Muthappa, General Secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in Bangalore, and to Parjssban (General Secretary), Shankarananayanan (vice-president), and Umapathy (Joint Secretary), of the General Electric workers’ union. socialistworld.net cwi online.
Garments workers and General Electric workers fight the bosses
Beyond the surface of NGOs and left wing ‘celebrities’ the World Social Forum in Mumbai offers a lot of information on workers’ struggles globally. Particularly groups of Indian workers involved in ’dharammas’ (strikes, sit ins, and protests) have approached the CWI stall in Mumbai. Garment workers in Bangalore fight harassment.
N.M. Muthappa is general secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in Bangalore told us: “We are 500,000 garment workers in Bangalore, facing a very bad environment a work. 70 per cent have no proper toilets or safe drinking water. The official working day is 8 hours, but in reality its 10-12 hours, with only one hour extra pay. That’s why we have formed our own union.”
The union was formed in 1996 and has 25,000 members today. 97 per cent of the members are women, as are all members in the leadership, apart from Muthappa. “Women workers from the rural areas are recruited to the garment industry in fast growing cities Bangalore. Here they are extremely exploited by the employers. Most live in 15 x 20 feet rooms with up to five other workers. The wages are 700-2,500 rupees per month. The minimum wage in Karnataka is 2,100 rupees.” (1 euro=58 rupees. Bangalore is capital in the state of Karnataka).
“On top of the bad conditions and the low wages, the workers are subject to sexual harassment at work, from supervisors and management. Women workers are regarded as of less value than male workers. They have almost no education and their own families don’t want them back after moving from home. After five years of work, they should be permitted to 15 days extra wage. But the employers even get around this, by sacking them just before the five years have passed. This makes union work even more difficult.” “In October 2003, the company, ‘NJIP Leather India’, announced that it would close its factory in Bangalore, keeping one in Delhi, and one in Chennai (Madras). The workers were sacked instantly and would get no benefits. On 10 October, we organised a dharamma, a 4-hour sit in strike out side the factory. We invited the media and everyone who supported us. The workers in Chennai gave their support.”
“Despite the factory eventually closing, it was a success. All workers got benefits. 128 out of 138 workers got new jobs. A provident fund was initiated, to help workers when factories are closed.”
“’Dudiyorahoraata’ (the CWI in India) offered us support during the strike, and they were the only political organisation that organised solidarity action for us."
I finished the interview with N.M. Muthappa by asking him, why did you start your own union?
“I started the work in 1996, after working three months in a garment factory. The communist parties, the CPI and CPM, both have unions, but we did not want to join them.”
“Because of the problems of organising activity in the factories, we have twenty three area committees. We are discussing the need for a new political alternative. In the local elections, in three years time, we are planning to stand seventy GWU candidates, all women. Our programme is for a minimum living wage, gender equality, and to campaign against violence against women. We now have twenty five thousand members based in sixty factories. We are planning our own mayday rally, with five thousand workers, during the day, and ten thousand after work has finished at night time.”
General Electric workers locked out
I also spoke to Parjssban (General Secretary), Shankarananayanan (vice-president), and Umapathy (Joint Secretary) of the General Electric workers’ union, who explained that one hundred and thirty six workers at the general Electric factory, in Hosur, have been locked out since 3 November 2003.
“We have all been working at the Hosur plant since it started in 1981. The factory produces electrical goods, switch gears, fuses etc. In 1992, when we had 268 workers, the French owner, Alstom, sold the company to General Electric. GE immediately increased the share of temporary jobs and sub-contractors. Their strategy was to increase the pressure so that workers would leave the factory.”
“In 1992 we presented a charter of demands in connection to wage revision. One year later, negotiations failed on 25 March 1993. Instead of discussions the company presented us with a ’code of demands’. That meant increased productivity (of 100 per cent, 500 per cent, and 40 per cent respectively, in different parts of the factory) but with no change in the number of workers. Our response was to agree to half an hour increased working day.”
“The company just dismissed our offer and proposed a wage increase of 975 Rupees per month, not even a third of what other companies offered [1 Euro = 56 Rupees]. Our wage is 9,300 Rupees per month and that’s after 23 years in the factory. On 27 March, the company dismissed the union treasurer and, in July, another leading union member was also sacked.”
“The final straw came on the 28 August when the Union General Secretary Parjssban was sacked along with 6 other workers. The six belonged to a group of 12 workers which the company ordered to be transferred to the factory in Delhi. We went to court against this ’transfer’.”
“Our answer was a lightening strike the same day. We developed a Dharamma (sit in strike) for 14 days. Then the company, with the help of the high court and police, forced us out of the factory. Before that, the company had cut off electricity and water and we could not use the toilets.”
“It has been very difficult for us to survive since the lockout declared on the 3 September. We can’t cover the costs of food, education fees for our children, and loans for housing. On September 11 we organised a one day hunger strike. We are all 40 plus in age and have difficulties in getting new jobs. Our case is still in court. The company use scabs and sub-contractors to keep up production. We are organising support and solidarity from unions and community organisations.”