Freedom of association is a right recognised internationally and reiterated in corporate policies of all major garment brands. So, workers have to simply organise and collectively bargain to achieve better conditions? Well, it is not as simple as that sounds. These two women were beaten up in April last year for doing so.
Thayamma, 35, has been working in the garment sector for the past six years. She joined the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU) in 2016 and now serves as the joint secretary. The union is her family. Last year, a simple signature landed her in surgery.
On April 3rd, 2018, Thayamma had followed her regular routine to arrive at work. The only irregularity was the brief pause at the factory gate to sign a petition for clean drinking water, better transport and a modest raise. Later in the day, she was pulled aside by a group of managers and co-workers and beaten up severely. She had to be rushed for urgent medical attention and surgery. They wanted her to falsely testify that the Union was collecting money from workers and attempting to close the factory. When she was being strangled, she felt this was the end.
Never give up
Thayamma says, “I thought I was going to die that day, but I clearly told the Union that my death should not go in vain and the fight should go on”. She recovered with the support of her medical team and the union. While the negotiations for the raise are still ongoing, access to clean drinking water and stronger grievance redressal systems have been approved.
Before I did not have the courage to speak up. I only knew how to cry. Now after regular trainings, union support and attending several meetings, I can stand up for myself. Not only that, I am now strong enough to extend support to co-workers to combat injustice
The low wages and poor working conditions in garment factories are no secret. Women form a majority of that workforce. Despite national laws protecting freedom of association, attempts to do so are often met with resistance. These women are often caught in a cycle of oppression at work and home that unions like KOOGU help break.
Having the courage to speak out
For Deepa Shree, 32, the abuse was continuous, and her fear kept her quiet. Union activists identified her as a victim of domestic violence and supported her in filing a legal complaint against her husband. However, the abuse intensified at work. The attack in April wasn’t the first time that she had been targeted by her supervisors because of her union association. “Before, if a supervisor touched me inappropriately, I would let them due to fear,” she recalls. “Now I know how to stop it then and there. Today if I am sitting here wearing jeans and t-shirt and attending the Union Committee meeting with confidence, I attribute that to KOOGU. I am the opposite of what I used to be before. This has also led to increased respect at work. Now I even stand up for others at the workplace and encourage my colleagues to make written complaints to the human resources department”.
Thayamma and Deepa feel that “being part of the collective is the only way that we achieved the kind of respect, we have today at the workplace and at home.” These two women are committed to stopping fellow workers from suffering the way they had to. Unions have been a transformative force of action to finally give the workers what the needed the most: a collective voice.