In the week of June 27, Rukmini, chairman of the Garment Labor Union (GLU) from Bangalore, was in the Netherlands. GLU, a partner organization of Arisa, is the only women-led union in India. The union recruits and organizes garment workers and stands up for their rights.
Rukmini was in Europe for her award with the 17th Bremen Solidarity Award for her role in combating discrimination and violence against women. This prize has been awarded every two years since 1988 to activists in the field of human rights. After she visited Germany where she received the prize, she travelled on to the Netherlands. We spoke to her about the problems she encounters daily and what she thinks companies and partners can and should do for garment workers in India.
The daily issues garment workers face in clothing factories
The differences in treatment between men and women in garment factories are large, according to Rukmini. ‘About 85 percent of factory workers in garment factories are women, but the management is mainly made up of men. Female garment workers experience enormous levels of harassment and abuse in the factories, including bullying, sexual and verbal harassment, and threats. Many women use factory-organized transport, but the drivers are often drunk and harass the women. There is also discrimination between factory workers in different positions: for example, the crèche is only accessible to children of tailors and not to those of other garment workers. A large part of the female employees feels uncomfortable but do not dare to speak out.’
In addition to the poor working conditions in garment factories, wages are deplorable. ‘Minimum wages are very low. Every garment worker from the age of twenty earns the same wage. This wage always remains the same and has not increased in the past nine years even though the production targets have multiplied.’
Garment Labour Union: no progress for labour unions in factories
It is difficult for garment workers to join a union. That was already the case when GLU was founded, but in 2022 it is still a major problem. ‘It was just as difficult then and now for workers to join a union. Factory workers do not know what a union is. In addition, women have a lot on their plate at home and no time to come to union meetings. Management is always aware when someone in their factory is unionized, with negative consequences. Not one factory is happy with union members.’
The responsibilities of international clothing companies
The Government of India and international garment companies are both responsible for the situation of garment workers. ‘It is important for international brands to source from factories where there are trade unions present. No union? That should mean that a brand does not buy from that factory. The international clothing companies have the power to do this: they just choose not to. Companies can choose to buy products from factories where unions are already present, but they do not do that either.’
“Brands need to take more responsibility for the situation of workers in the factories they buy from. They make the maximum profit and are constantly looking for cheap labour. They spend a lot of money on audits and also write in their reports and annual reports about union freedom and how they encourage it. But nothing happens in the factories. That is why companies must have discussions with trade unions. That dialogue does not take place now, and there is no stipulation that this must be done. Brands claim they do not have the mandate to talk to unions, but that is not true.’
Reputation more important than the situation of garment workers
Rukmini talks about how companies deal with ‘scandals’ and problems in production countries: ‘We call what is happening now ‘putting out fires’. Most problems in factories in production countries have no impact on a brand in the consumer country. Only when the risk of reputational damage is great, and the proverbial smoke from the fire thus blows over from the production country to the consumer country, do brands take action, says Rukmini. ‘They know exactly what minimum effort is needed to uphold their reputation and name. At the bottom of the line, they do not seem to care how the workers are doing, whether they have work at all, and whether they have a family to support.’
‘It is important that factory workers are paid a living wage and not a minimum wage. With a living wage, workers can better provide for their livelihood and save some for retirement or emergencies. That is impossible with a minimum wage.
The responsibilities of governments and consumers
Rukmini believes that governments should also take responsibility. “Governments are also important actors in improving the situation of workers in factories. Governments in consumer and production countries must implement and comply with labour rights laws. There is already a lot of regulation on paper, but little is done in practice. When violations happen, there must be strict sanctions with high fines.’
‘We often see that companies use an escape strategy. They move easily between the different production countries in their search for the cheapest wages. Stricter rules need to be put in place to prevent this. Brands must do everything they can to improve the lives of workers in their supply chains.’
‘Consumers are also very important,’ says Rukmini. ‘They should ask brands about where their clothes come from, whether the people who make their clothes do so under decent working and living conditions, and whether they are paid enough. Consumers need to raise their bar and think about the harmful effects of fast fashion on the lives of workers in production countries.’
The responsibilities of partners and ngo’s towards
Collaborate in solidarity
When we ask Rukmini about the role of an organization like Arisa and other ngo’s in improving working conditions in production countries, she emphasizes the importance of good cooperation: ‘You are present in the consumer countries, and you are close to the brands. If we, in India, try to tackle these problems alone, nothing will happen. Partners must work together in solidarity to address and tackle the problems. Partner organisations in the Netherlands and Europe can help create awareness among consumers, put pressure on governments, and on companies to ensure ethical practices and transparency in their production chains.’
About Rukmini and the Garment Labour Union (GLU)
From garment worker to founder and president of the Garment Labour Union
Rukmini started work as a garment worker in 1991. Four years later, a free trade agreement opened the Indian market to export. ‘After this, the industry changed,’ Rukmini says. “The targets for the number of pieces of clothing to be produced skyrocketed – from about 20-25 pieces per hour to 100-120 pieces per hour. From this moment on, the harassment and abuse in factories also worsened. I thought that, because the factory gave us a job, they could treat their employees this way. That changed when, one day, someone handed us a pamphlet about ‘workers’ rights’. I never went to school and could not read, so I had someone else translate the pamphlet for me. That is how I learned that there was something like ‘rights’ that I knew nothing about as a garment worker. The pamphlet was an invitation to a training. During that training, I first heard the word union’. I learned more about workers’ rights and trade unions. In 2006, the first trade union for garment workers was established’.
‘From the moment I joined the union, I was increasingly harassed and verbally abused in the factory. After several months of many problems, the factory suspended me. From then on, I worked outside the factories to unite factory workers in the garment industry. However, the union I was a member of was led by a man who instigated a lot of violence against the women in the union. Together with four other women from this union, we eventually set up our own union in 2012. We had no financial means, but we pawned our jewellery to complete the necessary paperwork and have start-up capital. We decided on the day of the union’s founding that it would always be led by a woman, and the executive committee would exist of only women. This was the beginning of the Garment Labor Union, the only women-led union in India.’