The Madras High Court’s order to hike wages of garment workers in Tamil Nadu by 64 per cent has done little to quell their protests, even as garment unit owners say paying higher wages is going to be a tough ask, given that they are already “reeling under financial troubles”.
On July 15, the court dismissed petitions challenging the October 10, 2014, order of the Tamil Nadu labour department revising minimum wages for tailoring workers in garment and hosiery manufacturing industries, and directed the managements of these industries to comply with it.
The wages were last revised in 2004.
The court order was meant to provide relief to thousands of garment workers in the state, especially those who work in the 2,500 units in Tirupur and draw a monthly salary of Rs 4,500-7,000.
While garment unit owners maintain that the industry is struggling, trade union leaders have long argued that several units where trade unions exist already pay a minimum wage of Rs 10,000 or above, and still manage to make a profit.
“This is an argument they (garment unit owners) have been raising for a long time to make us work for a pittance. What about the units that pay a minimum wage of Rs 10,000? What about units that pay Rs 500-600 for workers (under the piece rate system) a day?” said G Sampath, a senior Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader in Tirupur.
India’s textile and garment industry is considered the largest in the world, employing over 45 million workers. In April last year, over 10,000 garment workers took to the streets in Bengaluru to protest against the amendment to the Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952.
Sampath said workers wanted the implementation of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, to ensure that the basic minimum wage is increased every five years. “But using influence and powerful industry lobbies, owners of the garment and textile units have delayed this for years. Even this court order has come after 12 years. We want the minimum wage hiked to Rs 18,000, when central government employees are demanding Rs 26,000,” he said.
According to employees in Tirupur, those who work under piece rate contracts — a way to remunerate workers according to the number of units produced — get paid a “decent salary” as compared to the “underpaid” time rate labourers. “The work we do is the same, but the company, the presence of trade unions and the nature of the contract play a major role in determining one’s wage. A majority of the workers under time rate contract are underpaid. I used to get less than Rs 5,000 in my earlier job, now I get Rs 11,500,” said B Chandrakumar, who hails from a traditional weavers’ family in Tiruvannamalai.
“The industry’s claims of financial troubles are a lie because the company where I work does good business and makes a profit despite paying us more than what a majority of the companies pay,” he added.
In Tirupur units, many piece rate workers are paid up to Rs 600 per day, while those who have time rate contracts get a monthly salary of less than Rs 7,000 despite having nine-hour shifts, usually from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm.
Trade unions say they will continue to push for a Rs 18,000 minimum wage. All trade unions, barring the BJP’s BMS, have announced a statewide strike on September 2.
One question that lingers is exactly how many workers the court order would benefit. “Units employ anywhere between 10 and 1,000 workers. This order may technically be applicable to only those who enjoy formal contracts, mostly workers in larger units. Decline of trade union forces over the years has hurt their cause,” said a garment unit owner, who pays Rs 8,500 a month.
Besides the state’s 2014 wage revision proposal, industries had earlier opposed a draft notification issued to amend the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, by the Centre, meant to fix the minimum monthly income of contract workers at Rs 10,000. At the time, garment unit owners had said the increase in minimum wage should be done in a phased manner and overseen by the state, not the Centre.
Asking garment companies in the state to comply with a government order that revised minimum wages for the industry two years ago, the division bench of Justice Huluvadi G Ramesh and Justice M V Muralidaran had also dismissed hundreds of petitions filed by private garment companies seeking to quash the 2014 order of the Tamil Nadu government.