Invisible Scars: Female Ready-made Garment Workers' Gendered Exploitation.

AuthorRaman, A.V.


This empirical paper provides an integrated narrative of many nameless and faceless women workers in the readymade garments industry in Bangalore. It is an intensive study of the ready-made garments (RMG) workers in their natural work setting. The extrinsic and intrinsic causes that exploit her through widespread harassment at work, intensify her mental, physical, and economic burdens at home is brought out by the study. The focus area of study is Bangalore a major hub of the RMG industry, which is a significant contributor to India's economy. The units we studied and analyzed were full production cycle organizations employing more than 500 workers. The study has two primary research objectives.

  1. This quantitative and qualitative study aims to understand the cumulative impact of the combined interplay of economic, socio-cultural, legal, and political factors on the RMG women workers in Bangalore. We also study the nature of supervisory control in the RMG industry and how it contributes to the marginalization of women workers

  2. This study assesses the impact of various labor laws, collective mobilization, and social audits on the RMG women workers and to examine whether the trade union mobilization of women RMG workers was successful or not.

    The Context

    The RMG industry acts as a driver of economic growth in India within the basket of textiles India produces. India is a preferred destination because of cheap labor and decent manufacturing infrastructure. Bangalore is a production export hub of several RMG factories.

    Bangalore's RMG factories have been classified into structured and unstructured production units for analytical convenience. Structured factories are those units that had a proper factory working time and proper production schedule and mostly possess the bulk of the critical processes of the garment production chain. Most importantly, there is some semblance of a fixed-term employment contract. Large well-known manufacturing firms transact directly with overseas brands. They produce for Europe, USA etc. and multiple market segments in India and subcontract production to other firms. Structured firms also encompass subcontractor firms manufacturing for them or exporting directly to overseas buyers. They also produce for the domestic market for large brands exclusively for the retail buyers.

    The unstructured garment production-units are, generally scattered with low or poor amenities for workers. They are widespread and exposed to various inequities associated with the employment of women workers wherein production is often put out to small factories, homes, and sheds. The infrastructure and technology are suboptimal comprising about 100-250 sewing machines, and the production process is very labor intensive. Workers in these units work for 12-14 hours a day with hardly any regulatory controls. They produce part or whole of the readymade garments for the larger structured RMG factories or cater to the local market.

    The competitive RMG industry in Bangalore does not consider the interests of women workers because they are not at the center of the value chain owing to the business model adopted by the owners of the garment factories. The tightly structured value chain of fast-fashion (Thomas, 2019) results in work intensification. Secondly; globally, the RMG industry is capital intensive (Thomas & Johny, 2018), and this business model is rapidly changing to customer demand. It is an industry dependent on seasons and clothing trends. The global apparel market is somewhat fashion specific, seasonal, specific in its timing and situation. Correspondingly, the Indian-RMG industry is a buyer-driven commodity chain. Buyers seek cost savings and are always prospecting for countries having more significant labor arbitrage advantages. The corona pandemic coerced the buyers to possess a huge piled up inventory because of the collapse of demand (Tashjian, 2020) both on the online and offline sales make her or him reluctant to offer advance concession in credit or payment terms to suppliers in developing countries. A combination of extraneous factors such as order cancellation and invocation of force-majeure results in financial-insolvency of the structured and unstructured firms.

    This high-volume business has wafer-thin margins and short order lead-times causing unpredictable cost-escalations. The periodicity of payment of wages to workers alternates between, compliance by coerces big primary exporting factories to neglect by smaller subcontractor supplier firms and unstructured-factories, wherein wage theft (ILO, 2015 :78) and theft of social security benefits comprising unauthorized employer's wage and benefit deductions are widely prevalent. Worker costs are a minuscule of the overall cost of the garment production costs.

    As Mezzadri (2012: 52) speaks the variability of payments within production lines "varied tremendously, particularly from firm to firm and based on experience". "Primary export units generally, offer higher wages. In all primary and secondary units, women workers are classified and paid based on their skill and experience and are paid lesser wages than men. (ILO Report, 2018). Furthermore, paid either 'poverty wages' (Jenkins, 2013) or dependent on unreliable 'piece-rate pay (Jenkins, 2013; Anner, 2019), these workers become indebted by borrowing at usurious rates from money lenders or their subcontractors.

    Literature Review

    The literature underpins the complex interlinkages between unstructured and structured RMG production units and the diversity of patterns of labor recruitment and employment variability in manufacturing patterns and exports within and across garment hubs in India. The RMG woman worker in the factory is foregrounded in an unequal gender regime (Acker, 1992;1994) of Indian patriarchy. She emerges and dissolves in the intersectional never-ending whirlpool of poverty and caste discrimination, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Her subsistence and survival predate identification of her rights as a woman. She goes on seamlessly without thought about her role cooking, cleaning, and working disregarding her being. Marginalization as a concept is laid out first to guide the discussion of this paper. Her marginalization is created by the pressure exerted by the unpredictable global supply chain on the manufacturer and the exploitation caused by intensive labor process with no safeguards and authoritarian supervision.

  3. Marginalization as an Unrelenting Process & Reality

    The progressive material and emotional marginalization of women clothing works is not merely a manifest outcome or a mere statistic. As a dynamic process, her maltreatment results from the accumulation of several contextual and subjective episodic situations and impressions and insults by her superiors at the workplace. Understanding marginalization is "... the method of transition abstraction to concrete engagement with the lived experiences of life on the margins." (Joseph, 2019 : 1948).

    Marginalization proceeds silently and unannounced and progressive. Marginalization as a multidimensional process is real in its outcome and as an unrelenting process dehumanizingly impoverishes and silently obliterates her or him from living memory (Joseph, 2019:1856). Studies by Anner (2019), Mezzadri (2019), DeNeve (2014a), Jenkins (2013) and Kumar (2019) all point out to how surplus value is squeezed out of Ready-made garment workers in the diverse interconnected national and international value chain of the RMG industry and accelerate the downward spiral of marginalization of the female RMG worker.

  4. The Exploitive Value Chain

    The RMG industry in Bangalore comprises large structured primary exporting units which directly export to big brands. Bangalore is characterized by "the use of more stable and continuous employment relations is coherent with the industrial requirements of a more standardized and unrelenting tailored production cycle" (Mezzadri, 2019: 80-92). These structured firms either produce or outsource to unstructured firms of invisible marginalized workers, including young children in and around Bangalore. About 70% of the work is done in-house and roughly 30% is outsourced for economies of scale. RMG are produced throughout this production network, at different price ranges for various market segments and quality benchmarks, Subcontracting is mostly done based on uncodified trust, timeliness, and past credibility of the manufacturer (Harris, 2002 :7).

    Supporting the structured firms, the unstructured subcontracted labor-intensive production units embedded within the industry with unreasonable production targets work together to drive the worker further down into poverty. Thus, the complex hierarchical web of unequal suppliers in the garment industry has inbuilt self-regulatory mechanisms of neutering dissent.

    Male and female workers and their supervisors are at the mercy of buyers and brands who are in a position of substantial monopsonist power in a highly composite production process. (Mezzadri, 2017:108,158). The make or break strategy for the producer implies that any failed transaction means unused inventory and unfulfilled or rejected sales because of IPR constraints. Shipment deadlines produce enormous stress and squeeze the entire garment supply chain, which may fall short and hence require additional hands. The demand fluctuations are incredibly variable, leading to either work-intensification or sudden joblessness for the workers.

    This tightly inter-linked RMG value chain depends on a seamless labor process. She is battered and emotionally scarred both at work and at home as our data will subsequently illustrate.

  5. Work...

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