Threadbare lives of Bengaluru’s seamstresses

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More than 90 percent of home-based garment workers can be called ‘forced laborers’ as they are paid less than the state stipulated minimum wage.

By Jagriti Parakh

While walking down the narrow lanes of Hosahalli, through the dimly lit basement shops along Mysore Road, and across the dystopian concrete buildings in Peenya and BTM Layout in Bengaluru, there is one thing that will meet your eyes: garment workers feeding threads in the needle and bobbins, cutting fabrics, pedaling the sewing machines, occupying a few square feet area. And, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

If you talk to these workers, they will tell you how much they get paid on a daily basis: some say that they earn as low as Rs. 50 per day. They barely secure full meals; spending on education and healthcare sounds bizarre to some of these home-based garment workers.

In Hosahalli, 31-year-old Mamta works with her children, tufting buttons to upholstery for a furniture manufacturer. She is a daily wage worker. She does not send her kids to school because whatever money she gets out of tailoring is only enough to feed her kids and pay for the rent.

A seamstress from Bangalore.

“I get paid Rs. 150 for 50 pieces, with at least 15 to 20 buttons in each piece. I spend almost all day making them. It is very tough to tuft buttons or to pass a cluster of threads through the material to strengthen it, but the manufacturers do not pay more than this. They say it unreasonably increases the cost of their product,” she said.

Suragini, a seamstress who stitches 50 to 75 tops in one day for a manufacturing unit of a popular fast-fashion brand, for which she is paid Rs. 300 per day, said, “I am the only one who earns in my family. Alongside this, I have to take care of the household as well. If I am unable to reach the target, I am subjected to verbal abuse and harassment, sometimes the manufacturer even deducts my salary. Whatever money I make from this, I use it for my family and home.”

There are other home-based garment workers who do not get enough work throughout the year, except the seasonal work during festivals and occasions. They say they find it extremely difficult to sustain their families and they expect some sort of social security from the government.

Laxmi, another seamstress who lives near Kumbalgodu, said, “During the wedding season, we earn around Rs. 10,000 over a month, but when it’s off-season there’s absolutely no work and we have no money to even meet the basic requirements.”

Laxmi, a home-based garment worker from Kumbalgodu, Bangalore.

These home-based garment workers, mostly women, are struggling to barely secure three meals a day for their families. They also have to endure unfavorable working conditions and adverse impacts on the health– more specifically, they experience abdominal pain and miscarriages due to continuous pedaling; postures and poor lighting conditions result in eye problems and joint pains among these women.

They work from their home, or in awfully tiny shops. The work that they do is mostly left invisible in the eyes of the law and policymakers as these women are not even recognized as workers.

Given the present circumstances in the garment industry and their standard salaries, the government’s move of increasing the minimum wages for garment workers and tailors is like pushing on a string. In Karnataka, minimum wages and Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA) from April 01, 2019 to March 31, 2020 for garment workers and tailors ranges between Rs. 340 to 380 per day, depending on the skill, category, and zone they live in. This is for the organized sector and the recorded workforces. Now, this is where the problem arises: more than 50 percent of the garment workers cannot be seen on paper in the State of Karnataka’s official documents.

Saroja K, General Secretary of Garment Labour Union, said, “As per the government documents from 2018, there are about 3.5 lakh garment workers, but in reality, there are about 6 lakh workers and maybe a little more than that.”

The remaining ‘unrecorded’ workers operate in an unorganized set-up. They work for big manufacturers on a daily or monthly contract basis. The manufacturers decide their wages, depending on the number of pieces they put together per day, or their working hours.

Most manufacturers that work for the western or fast-fashion brands consider outsourcing as a better alternative, as they can hire these home-based garment workers depending on the workload at much cheaper rates, without any employer liabilities.

Rajesh Chopra, a cloth manufacturer who outsources tailoring jobs, said, “When there’s a high demand from the brands that we manufacture for, we hire the home-based garment workers. We pay them as they finish the daily targets assigned to them. It is a more economical option for us, and it is good for the workers as well because they get a source of income.”

Rukmini, a labor rights activist, said, “Home-based garment workers remain at a serious disadvantage even in comparison to most other workers that fall under the category of the unorganized sector because these workers do not hold any bargaining power with the contractors or manufacturers. They are often isolated within the home, with limited opportunities to interact with others like them. They cannot form unions against their employers and are hence subjected to extreme abuses of the labor laws.”


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