Finding a family in the union: A garment workers’ leader in Bengaluru

21 April 2021

Tayamma serves as joint-secretary of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (Koogu) in Bengaluru. She talked to CLB about the struggles of India’s garment workers and her own personal journey from victim of abuse to worker leader.

When Tayamma first came to work at the Shahi garment factory, Unit 8, in Bengaluru in 2012, she was, in her own words, timid and gullible. With a difficult upbringing and first language of Telugu - rather than the Kannada language spoken most commonly in the city - she found it hard to adapt.

“I used to get scared if anyone scolded me or got angry with me. I would just burst into tears,” she said.

Tayamma described how someone in the outer suburb of Bengaluru where she rented accommodation at the time, had conned her into paying into a bogus investment scheme for low-income workers that would allegedly yield R1.5 million (about U.S. $20,000) after just a few years.

“Eventually, my coworker got suspicious and asked me to get more information about the fund. When I asked the person who I was paying the money to, he got agitated and started abusing me. I told one of the union organizers at the factory about the incident, and she said come to the union, the union will support you and talk to the fund agent to recover the money. They did support me and the person gave some money back, but not the full amount.”

Once she became a member of the union and started attending meetings, Tayamma said she gradually learned more about the issues faced by all garment workers and became more confident in dealing with other people. Soon Tayamma was organizing workers and helped form a nine-member union committee in 2018. It was then that she and her sisters in the union came to the attention of the powerful Shahi Unit 8 management. Shahi is one of the largest garment manufacturers in India, with 60 production units nationwide.

“We mobilized the workers inside the factory, demanding the right to set up a worker-based union committee there. We wanted management to recognize our committee. But they called us in and told us to stop our organizing activities. When we told them that this is our right, they got angry and started abusing us. Then they physically assaulted us. I was severely injured on my head. I fainted and was taken to the hospital.”

Doctors at the hospital discovered a blood clot during a CT scan. “There are still stitches in my head. Six of my coworkers gave blood during my treatment. My union workers were there to take care of me day and night, continuously. I was not able to move or travel by myself. They took care of everything until I recovered.”

“I feel very happy, they love me very much, we share blood ties now like a family. Because of the injury, I sometimes faint while working, but my coworkers take care of me. Management doesn't care, but my coworkers help me just like a family. The union is my strength. I am alive today because of my union.”

Tayamma explained that the management’s violent response stemmed from their fear that the union would raise rights awareness among the workers and that the employees would be less compliant as a result. By beating the union representatives, they thought that they could intimidate the other workers into submission.

However, the workers were empowered rather than subdued. Koogu filed a complaint about the beating with the local police and put pressure on the international brands that purchase garments from Shahi. Following an investigation by the US-based Worker Rights Consortium, the managers responsible for the violence were dismissed.

“I feel that no other worker should have to go through the kind of abuse that I had to endure. While I am alive, I will keep working for the union. If anybody has a problem, I will support them and try to solve their problem. That is my job as a union representative,” Tayamma said.

Garment workers registering for union membership. Photograph from Koogu.

Tayamma stressed that garment workers could not depend on the government for help and that the union was just about the only resource available to low-paid workers. 

“The government supports the big corporations, not the workers. They just care about the business and the factory - they want them to grow and flourish - but will that improve working conditions? The government helps the owners and factories to extract the labour from the workers. If the government is for the workers, why has there been no improvement in wages?”

After eight years at Shahi, Tayamma, who is employed as a product checker, earns just R9,500 (US $88) per month, which she says is barely half the amount needed to support an ordinary working family. 

And the situation became even worse during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, what did the government do?” Tayamma asked. “There were no facilities for working people, many people lost their jobs, no wages, no money for rent, people were suffering, there was no food. Only the better off were supported. Migrant workers don't have ration cards, so how can they get government rations? Some government scheme was announced but the workers had to queue for up to eight hours each day for five days in a row just to receive a small bag of rice and lentils.”

For Tayamma, being a union representative is a day-to-day struggle. But the union has succeeded in bringing management to the bargaining table and has won some improvements in working conditions.

“We have raised several demands, including adequate rest breaks for workers and safe drinking water. They used to give us very poor-quality water, and as a result there were many cases of skin disease and other health issues among the workforce. We issued a demand for better drinking water in the collective bargaining meetings, and management agreed.”

“They now check the water quality every two months, and have introduced hot water and additional seating in the canteen because of the union. We also spoke about how workers with health issues should not be burdened with additional production targets.” 

When the garment factories reopened after the pandemic lockdown last year, many - including Shahi - cancelled the bus services from the surrounding villages, citing public health considerations. This meant that the workers who lived in these areas would either have to walk about 100 kilometres back to work or quit their jobs. The affected workers organized a strike to demand the resumption of bus services.

“Only after the strike was management ready to listen to us. They started the bus service again, but at increased cost. The villages are situated in a wooded area populated by wild animals. It is difficult for women to travel that route in the evening so the union is now paying their fare to ensure they can all reach the main bus stop and assemble there to catch the bus to work.”

It has been a long journey for Tayamma, now aged 35.  Her parents died when she was just three months old and she grew up in an orphanage near Bengaluru. When she was a teenager, her elder brother and sister-in-law forced her to marry a much older and abusive man. She left her husband's home because of the abuse, but was then kept hostage by her brother and sister-in-law in order to claim her share of the family property. Tayamma was locked in a room for several months and eventually managed to escape. She found refuge in a Hindu temple near Tavarekere, outside Bengaluru. She worked in the temple for three years, cooking and cleaning in return for shelter and food. After starting work in the garment factories, Tayamma still found time to do volunteer work at the temple once a week as a gesture of gratitude to the priest who took her in and supported her.

She has no contact with any members of her family. Tayamma says the union and her co-workers are her family now.

For more information about the Karnataka Garment Workers Union, please see our profile of the union, written during the height of the pandemic last year.

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