ON A SWELTERING summer morning in the southern Indian city of Chennai, a dozen garment workers crowd into a small courtroom for the latest hearing in a protracted battle over low wages in factories supplying global fashion brands.
The women are among tens of thousands of workers in Tamil Nadu state – the largest hub in India‘s $40 billion-a-year textile and garment industry – who are seeking millions of dollars in compensation following a landmark court ruling last year that declared they had long been grossly underpaid.
The Madras High Court ordered that the garment workers should receive a pay rise of up to 30 percent – the first minimum wage hike for 12 years – and that they could claim arrears going back to 2014.
But 12 months on, many factory bosses have failed to pay up.
Squeezed into a corner at the back of the stuffy Chennai courtroom, a middle-aged woman leans against the blue walls, clutching polythene bags full of documents to prove her claim.
Normally she spends her days hunched over a sewing machine, stitching skirts, shirts and dresses destined for high streets around the world.
But for months she has been taking days off work to attend court.
“I forgo a day’s salary to come for these hearings. It may not seem like a big amount, but for us it is hard earned money,” said the 48-year-old seamstress, who did not wish to be identified fearing it would impact her case.
“I am only asking for what is rightfully mine. And they won’t even tell me how they are calculating my dues.”
More than 150 claims have been filed against tailoring and export garment manufacturing units in the Chennai region alone, according to data requested by the Thomson Reuters Foundation under the Right to Information Act.
The claims, which would benefit at least 80,000 workers at factories around the port city, add up to more than 490 million Indian rupees ($7.6 million).
But workers’ unions say these claims are probably the tip of the iceberg as they only represent cases filed by government labour inspectors.
Under the 2016 Madras court ruling, Tamil Nadu’s garment and textile workers should see their pay rise from a monthly average of 4,500 to 6,500 rupees – which campaigners say is comparable to wages for textile jobs in most other states.
But workers say managers have defaulted or delayed on payments since the ruling, with some even introducing pay cuts.
Despite the state’s minimum wage laws, salaries continue to be “grossly low” for thousands of workers who are still not given pay slips or are often hired only as apprentices, campaigners say.
“Instead of paying workers their correct salaries, companies are finding ways to surreptitiously squash their rights,” said Selvi Palani, a lawyer helping workers’ unions fight their cases.
“There is a court order but the money is not on the table. Workers continue to be underpaid.”
Sujata Mody of Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, a women workers’ union, said some companies that had raised wages were now docking pay for sick days, and for factory meals and shuttle buses which were previously free, meaning many workers had seen little or no change in pay.
Some factories were also firing more expensive workers on trivial grounds, she added.
“The workers are struggling to be heard and the managements are coming up with new forms to deduct their income,” Mody said.
Under the 1948 Minimum Wages Act, state governments are required to increase the basic minimum wage every five years to protect workers against exploitation, but textile manufacturers have repeatedly challenged pay rises in Tamil Nadu.
The state’s labour commissioner, Ka Balachandran, said inspectors were verifying every company’s records to check that wages were now in line with last year’s ruling.
“We are doing everything to ensure workers get fair wages, and get it quickly,” he added.
But manufacturers in Tamil Nadu say the hike is too high, putting them at a disadvantage to competitors in other states.
Some say they are already paying workers more than the minimum wage.
“The new norms are not distinguishing clearly between skilled and non-skilled workers,” said S Shaktivel of the Tirupur Exporters’ Association.
He said some companies had launched an appeal against the order at the Madras High Court.
In the Chennai labour court, case numbers are called out in quick succession.
The seamstress, who is expecting arrears of up to 5,000 rupees, strains to listen over the slow whirring of the ceiling fan.
“My financial situation is not very good,” she whispers.
“My husband had surgery a few months back, we have a loan to pay back and a house to run. The company owes me arrears for almost one year. I need that income desperately.”
Her case is called. The lawyer representing the company asks for more time. Another date is set, with the judge warning against further delays.
“I hope I get a good settlement,” the seamstress said as she left court.
“After all these years, I would like to stop working, but that looks unlikely. At least if they paid me properly, I would feel a little better.” – Reuters