In all the debates about the global supply chain, perhaps the very laziest and self-serving arguments proponents of free trade make is that the workers overseas need to lobby their own nations for changes if they want their lives to get better. This is a grotesque argument for a number of reasons, including that it allows consumers and, more importantly, active supporters of global labor exploitation, to feel real good about themselves while they benefit from the suffering of others. But it’s also absurd on the face of it because these workers face tremendous daily exploitation that the people who make these arguments have never experienced and cannot comprehend. And despite this, they do stand up and make demands whenever they can! But the reality for these workers is a hard, brutal life. Ila Ananya on garment workers in Bangalore.
“People were angry and they were scared,” Yashodha says. “Very often, any small issue can mean that a worker loses their job. Those who are in charge don’t even have to say that they are terminating our job, all they say is, “naale inda kelsakke barbeda”, “don’t come to work from tomorrow”, and we can’t go to work anymore.” Yashodha laughs in the same way that she does when she talks about doing “OC kelsa”, or free extra work, because they are told that they haven’t met their already high production targets. The targets depend on the piece they are working on – it’s lower for trousers, and also depend on the brand making the clothes (some are for large international brands like Banana Republic and H&M), or the kind of stitches involved. Shanthi, a garment factory worker, says that the production targets have been increased at her workplace, “They used to be about 50 [items] in an hour, which we could do. But now they want 80-90 per hour.”
Yashodha is quick to point out that on paper, workers are supposed to get a lot of things. “According to the law we can have 14 days of leave, but we never get any leave even for emergencies. Someone has died in our family in the village, and we aren’t allowed to go. If we go for a day or two without leave, we are asked to quit work,” she says.
Workers also face restrictions on unionising. Anyone who does unionise or mobilise support for an issue is immediately asked to leave – Rukmini, currently the President of GLU, wasn’t allowed to continue her work when she joined the union. Instead, Yashodha says that they are sometimes given money, and are removed from work – “they have all these tricks,” she says.
Workplace harassment is common, the women say. In February 2007, Ammu, a migrant garment factory worker committed suicide in Bangalore after being harassed by her male supervisors, and in October 2007, Renuka, also a garment factory worker, committed suicide after harassment. “They’re always yelling at us,” Savitri says. Shanti says that when they try to tell their superiors about their problems, nobody listens, “All they say is that it’s in the rules.”
This is why we as Americans have to make decisions on the labor conditions and environmental standards we will accept for products sold in this nation, especially products sold by American corporations. There is no good reason for these conditions to exist. You can still have relatively inexpensive clothes and treat women workers with dignity. Telling them to lobby for change in India and Bangladesh while we do nothing is an absurd argument that is not only offensive, but neocolonialist. We have to expand the American regulatory system to cover imports. We already do–elephant tusks, slave labor, etc. We can expand this tremendously. If we care.