A failure to protect

A failure to protect

Will India’s economic growth come at the expense of its women workers?

The area around Bangalore comprises almost 1,200 factories and employs more than 500,000 workers. The largest exporting companies here have turnovers of over $160 million, employ up to 30,000 workers and service contracts from global multi-national brands such as H&M, GAP, ZARA, Next, Tesco and M&S. If you look in your wardrobe, odds are a few jumpers, several t-shirts and even your shoes may be from India.

80% of the workers in these factories in Southern India are women. They come mostly from poor rural and lower caste (Dalit) communities, often leaving home at the age of seventeen to become “helpers” in a factory on a wage of less than £40 per month.

Workplace surveys estimate that over 60% of workers have been exposed to harassment at work, ranging from verbal to physical and sexual violence. Sexual harassment which starts in the factory often extends beyond the factory gates, to forced prostitution and sex work. However, due to India’s tough stance on unions, less than 3% of these women are unionised, thereby giving them no collective bargaining power. Because so many of them are part of the informal workplace, they are often called “invisible.”

What has this got to do with India’s future economic growth?

India’s share of the global garment and textile trade is currently 4.5% with exports approaching $40 billion in 2013. The industry is critical to the country’s economy, accounting for 4% to GDP, 14% of national industrial production and 17% of total export earnings annually. It is the second highest employer in the country after agriculture, providing 45 million jobs.

It is the growth of this sector – manufacturing – on which India’s new Prime Minister Modi is pinning his economic growth strategy “Make in India.” As Onno Ruhl, World Bank Country Director, India, wrote recently: “the government’s efforts at improving the performance of the manufacturing sector will lead to more jobs for young Indian women and men.”

Failure to protect and prosecute

But while the government is keen to see the sector grow, it is doing little to safeguard workers’ rights and even less to ensure that these ‘shiny’ new jobs are safe for women workers. India’s record in tackling sexual harassment is poor. After the watershed judgment from the Supreme Court in 1997 (Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan), it took the government another decade to introduce a bill prohibiting sexual harassment (2007) and another 6 years for its enactment (in the form of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act 2013).

“At home my husband hits me, and here it is the Supervisor” ….. “I’ve seen my friend being hit. When we complained, the HR Manager asks if we don’t get hit by our brothers.”

And while talk from the new Government on the issue of sexual harassment in the work place is tough – “Any organisation that does not have a sexual harassment committee [required under the 2013 Act] will face serious legal action,” said Union Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Ghandi, at a press conference on 18 September 2013. – according to the official 2013 Crime Statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau, recorded incidents of general non-workplace-specific sexual harassment (under section 354 of the Indian Penal Code) increased by over 50% from 2012 to 2013. (Statistics are not yet available for cases brought under the 2013 Act.)

An urgent need exists to support poor working women who have little knowledge of sexual harassment laws and their rights, low literacy levels, the most meagre of means and limited access to justice. This is why Sisters For Change is working with women garment workers in Bangalore to make the 2013 Sexual Harassment Act accessible and to help them take action to secure its effective implementation.

The majority of women garment workers are migrant workers, poorly educated, lower caste and vulnerable. The violence they face includes sexual coercion, rape, forced prostitution and abduction. Sisters For Change are legally empowering women garment workers in Bangalore to collect data systematically on the prevalence and types of violence suffered by women workers, to bring complaints under the 2013 law, to monitor the corporate and justice system’s response to these complaints and to lobby the Labour Ministry and factory owners for stronger protections and serious reform.

We want to go further and extend our work to more factories, unions and women’s collectives. Help us legally empower some of the most marginalised women workers in India. Make a donation today.