Indian women's rights activist and trade unionist Rukmini V. Puttaswamy received the 17th Solidarity Award from the German Senate Chancellery of the city of Bremen. Women’s rights organisation Femnet recently organised a meeting with Puttaswamy when she came to Germany to receive the award on 20th June. Reason enough for FashionUnited to congratulate the president of India’s only women-led union GLU (Garment Labour Union) and to ask some questions.
For example, what some of the biggest challenges are that female textile workers are still facing today. Puttaswamy who was herself a garment worker for 17 years says that the challenges are many, among them low wages, unions not being allowed inside factories and sexual and verbal harassment.
Threats are common
Especially threats are common and when asked who is behind them, Puttaswamy says “production managers, supervisors or higher. They tell workers in a colloquial way, saying for example ‘there is someone who is trying to feed you and you are trying to harm them”, depicting factories as benefactors.
Scare mongering is common: “They also say that ‘there is some woman who speaks of trade unions, you all are following her and in the end, you will not have anything’”, continues Puttaswamy. “Especially if a union is formed, they tell the workers that the factory will get shut down.”
In her experience, brands do not support workers either. “When brands talk directly to trade unions, they say “yes, it is important to have a trade union, we should form one” but indirectly, I have heard from managements that brands have threatened them, saying ‘if there is a trade union within your factory, we will cut off from you, we are going back. We will not take in orders from you”.
As if that is not enough, there are also local groups or goons who have been hired to physically threaten workers. “They go to the workers’ houses and tell the husbands ‘look, your wife is not minding her own business, going into the union and other things’. They are trying to create a rift within the factories and families also. So there are multiple ways workers are threatend,” says Puttaswamy.
Awareness of rights is key
The 47-year-old herself had no idea that she had rights as a garment worker until she participated in a training by an Indian workers rights organisation. From then onwards, everything changed and Puttaswamy turned from a domestic helper and garment worker with no education to union president. It has been a steep and uphill battle marked by exploitation, threats and harassment. But against all odds, she has been standing up for the predominantly female workers in the textile industry for almost 20 years now.
Despite numerous trainings and awareness campaigns, there is still little or no awareness among workers about their rights. There are 1200 factories and about 1 to 1.2 million garment workers in Karnataka alone, so it is hard to reach a majority of them. The fact that factories are moving away from the urban to the rural setup is not helping either. “There is no recognition of trade unions within factories so if the businesses or management get to know that these factories have them, they are being targeted and threatened,” explains Puttaswamy.
In terms of daily challenges for GLU and social organisation Munnade, both of which Puttaswamy co-founded, creating awareness among workers is key as the women are first-generation workers who do not have any understanding of the industry and their basic rights. Thus, repeated trainings and mobilising workers is important, especially if they are being told that forming a union would lead to the closure of their factory.
Speaking to governments as they change quite often and raising the demands to achieve better conditions and the implementation of laws are also some of the challenges union workers face regularly.
“Building trust (with the workers) is very important,” explains the activist. “It is challenging though to win it, it takes a long time.” Especially given threatening calls to union members, which happen more often than not. “A member of parliament called and threatened me personally, telling me that ‘if you don’t stop with your union, then you’ll see what’ll happen’,” shares Puttaswamy.
“I have been working myself as a garment worker for 17 years and have seen the conditions inside the factory so it becomes a little bit easier to understand the situation but there are also out-of-state workers, migrant workers that come in and there is a language barrier. Also, then there are no resources; a union requires a lot of resources, it may be financial, communication or staff,” adds Puttaswamy. And this is how the 10,000 euro Solidarity Prize will be utilised.
Brands to the rescue?
Asked about brands and what international buyers could do to alleviate those challenges, Puttaswamy has a sobering reply: “Brands are the main problem in the end. As much as they speak about sustainability and transparency in their long reports, in the end, it is all only on paper and nothing really happens in reality, especially at the grassroots level.”
“We would see that things have improved if we saw positive change, an improvement but nothing has changed - there is no freedom of association, no trade unions within the factories, workers aren’t allowed to speak, there aren’t any grievance redressal mechanisms, brands don’t speak to the workers, they don’t speak to the trade unions, they don’t push for freedom of association within the factories,” sums up Puttaswamy.
But that is not all: “They don’t even advocate for a channel for addressing of grievances, they don’t look at strengthening the sexual harassment committee at work, they neither look at gender-based violence that happens in factories nor at paying a living wage to the workers,” adds the union leader.
“So whatever brands are doing is basically just on paper, saying ‘there are mechanisms, standing orders that we follow’ but the reality is different. What we see most often is that they make profits but as soon as there is an issue in the factory, they find the easiest way out, that is leave the factory and move away.”
Ask and you will get something
After this disillusioning reply, FashionUnited asked about the breakthroughs and changes that have been achieved over the years. “Without asking, nobody gives you anything,” says Puttaswamy. “We have seen that when we started asking and questioning, change comes. There are some managements that are willing to talk if there is an issue that comes from the workers. Some managements are recognising unions.”
“In the future, we will see our struggle go far and we will see more and more changes coming in. But it requires solidarity and support from multiple other actors involved. Some things have been achieved now but there is still a long way to go,” concludes Puttaswamy.