LAST week, over April 18 and 19, 1.25 lakh women working in the garment factories of Bengaluru held flash protests that turned violent, leading to the central government changing its policy on the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF). The protests were over a February 10, 2016 notification that would have allowed employees to access only half their EPF corpus until they reached the age of 58, a policy change that would have affected the finances of over 7 crore workers in the country. So why did Bengaluru alone erupt, leaving over a hundred injured? Who are these women, and how did they manage to get their voices heard?
Investigations into the background of the protests have revealed that workers, unions and the managements of factories had been talking about the new EPF policy and considering a signature campaign and a low-key protest — a 10-day campaign leading up to Labour Day on May 1, when the new EPF rules would have come into force.
But in the estimated 2,500 garment factories of Bengaluru, whose lifeblood is women workers, employees were getting restless. Given their low wages, troubled homes and bottom-of-the-pyramid status, garment workers invariably turn to their EPF corpus to tide over small and large financial crises.
The immediate provocation for the snap strike in Bengaluru was an April 16 article that appeared in Vijaya Karnataka, a leading local Kannada daily, that said that if employees did not apply for their EPF before the end of April, then, beginning May 1, the new policy would come into effect and they would be given only half their money.
The report triggered panic among factory workers because, under the existing policy, workers could access their full EPF amounts two months after they quit a job. Many who were banking on their EPF money began thinking of quitting before the end of April to gain access to their entire corpus. Factory supervisors and senior management too panicked over possible largescale exits before May — something that would have affected production badly enough to cripple the industry.
“As it is, everyone in the garment industry knows that it takes several months to get EPF payments. In the garment industry, people keep changing jobs, so when this newspaper article appeared, people called each other across factories and began considering quitting in large numbers. On Monday, April 18, when we returned to work after the weekend break, we held meetings in our factories to discuss the issue and decided to start protests,’’ said Rathna K P, a tailor at Texport Garments, an exporter to the US and Europe with an annual turnover of over $ 90 million.
Seeing the mood of the workers, the factory managements grew uneasy. They are understood to have given tacit support to the workers, and allowed them to leave the factory and stage protests on the streets.
“We were constantly getting phone calls from factory workers affiliated to us on what to do. We asked them to wait since we were anyway planning a proper protest. The workers were, however, very edgy. In the end, they decided to come out and protest. On the first day, there were protests in Maddur and Bommanahalli. On the second day, the protests spread to industrial areas all over Bangalore,” said Prathiba R, president of the Garment and Textiles Workers’ Union, GATWU.
While unions like GATWU were advocating a restrained approach, outfits like the pro-Kannada organisation, Jaya Karnataka, a political platform launched by former underworld don Muthappa Rai, entered the fray — and that’s when things began to get out of hand, said many workers The Indian Express spoke to. Nine government buses were burnt down and 116 people — three of them women — were arrested on April 19.
“Jaya Karnataka is usually not involved in the issues of women at garment factories, but they jumped in when the protests began. They took the workers to places like Mysore Road without even creating a memorandum of demands. We had to rush to the spot and ensure that the interests of the workers were protected,” said a worker who was involved in the protests on April 19 on Mysore Road.
GATWU president Prathiba, a former garment factory worker who is now a full-time union worker, said an incident like this was waiting to happen. “While it was the EPF issue that brought the workers to the streets, this was essentially an eruption over a whole range of issues that plagues the industry — from poor wages to abuse — which have not been addressed over the years,” she said.
The garment sector is a key element of the Centre’s Make in India push — with annual exports worth nearly Rs 10,000 crore from Karnataka. There was no way the government could have ignored the protest by some 1.25 lakh workers, mostly working women.