Connecting for collective action

One complaint on a community media platform changed the future for 420 workers at this unit

Never looking back

A normal day at Padmavathi’s home is filled with the sounds of children getting ready for the day.  As the children get ready, Padmavathi and her sister do the same, Padmavathi for the factory and her sister for the house. Afterwards, she checks school uniforms and bags before leaving for the factory. 

At 40, Padmavathi is the sole bread winner of a family of seven. An accident, three years ago, left her husband bedridden and recently, her widowed sister arrived with her two children seeking support. Padmavathi is soldiering on with these personal responsibilities in addition to being a strong voice from her union advocating for fair wages.

She works as a stitcher in a garment factory in Manamadi Industrial area outside Chennai, Tamil Nadu in the southern region of India. Padmavathi joined the Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU) seven years ago to fight for her rights and hasn’t looked back since. Whether to secure social security through the Welfare Board or fight illegal deductions to her wage, the union’s support helped her and fellow workers in claiming their rights. Urimai Kural is an interactive voice response system (IVRS) powered by Gram Vaani’s community media platform. In 2017, Padmavathi submitted a complaint on this platform that was the catalyst required for change.

IVRS to reach workers far and wide

C&A Foundation and Gram Vaani partnered to develop Shramik Vaani (workers voice), an initiative that uses technology to strengthen awareness and foster collective action among workers. Gram Vaani has been building media platforms to empower communities to demand accountability since 2012. They use IVRS on mobile phones- easy to use and widely accessible in multiple locations in India. Urimai Kural is one of the four active IVRS platforms on this initiative. The platform is managed by unions, which in this case is GAFWU. Union leaders are trained by Gram Vaani on how to operate and manage the IVRS to enable stronger leadership by the union in using the platform. It helps streamline operations and connect workers in different parts of the country.

In 2017, Padmavathi lodged a complaint on Urimai Kural regarding her wages that brought about positive change for everyone.  The state government raised the minimum wage in 2014, and the employers objected to this in court, leading to a two-year-long legal battle. The victory was bittersweet. Courts ordered companies to pay the new wage including arrears with immediate effect and they, in turn, decided to levy a fresh deduction for company provided transport. The workers were back to square one.  Wages increased from Rs.6,000 (Eur 76) to Rs.8,000 (Eur 101) per month, and the hike was now being deducted for transport. 

“I am getting Rs.5,000 in hand even without taking any leave. It has become difficult to support my family”, Padmavathi recalls the words of her complaint on Urimai Kural. The complaint was filed on September 10th, 2017, on behalf of 420 workers that commuted via company transport from her unit at the factory. This, in addition to a day-long strike, garnered a promise from the management to release new wages if the workers returned to work. A week later, transport services were cancelled. The workers had no access to reliable public transport or private transport to get to work.

The management told the union, “if you don’t want the cuts, make transport arrangements yourself”. GAFWU gathered evidence that other neighbouring factories were deducting much less than this one and that public transport – be it unreliable – cost only Rs.10 per day. Mustering support on the IVRS platform, the union created a petition – signed by 60 union members – to the labour court and filed a case. 
The Kanchipuram district court ruled in their favour and declared deductions for transport at source from minimum wages illegal. GAFWU followed up with a writ petition to ensure payment: two union members were given the authority to collect dues owed by the company in May 2019. The commuters have made transport arrangements with a shared van costing them a little over a quarter of company charges. “Everyone should use the IVRS, so we know what's going on and share widely”, Padmavathi advises. 

Initiatives like Shramik Vaani and its Urumai Kural platform leverages the power of IVRS technology to identify solutions to garment worker's problems and use a basic mobile phone to connect workers in galvanizing around these solutions. Since trade unions manage these IVRS lines; once these solutions are identified they can negotiate with factory managements effectively. When one worker raises an issue on the IVRS, the power of the collective leads to solutions. This provides an opportunity to amplify worker participation in improving working conditions to make fashion a force for good. 

Tamil Nadu, India