On the occasion of CD release of “Behind the Label”, a series produced by the Garment Workers, we share Rukmini’s story – a former garment worker, union leader and a Radio Jockey, who started working at the age of 18 in a garment factory .
“Clothes as text, clothes as narration, clothes as a story. Clothes as the story of our lives. And if you were to gather all the clothes you have ever owned in all your life, each baby shoe and winter coat and wedding dress, you would have your autobiography”
While we can definitely have an autobiography based on our clothes, who makes our clothes? What is their story behind the labels? Who washes, dyes, and dries the fabric? Who cuts? Who seams? Who makes the buttonholes or insert the zips? Introducing the Garment Workers – self-employed or employed in factories across as a piece rate labour or a job work labour, most of them continue to hide behind the labels. Bangalore houses over 4, 00,000 garment workers and according to statistics over 80% of the workforce is women, who toil for both domestic and international brands, either for local markets or exports.
Here is Rukmini’s Story of determination, from not being allowed to go to school, to being married off early and her tryst with the garment industry.
“ My name is Rukmini. I was born in Mandya. My father was a farmer and an alcoholic. I have three siblings now having lost my elder brother in an accident My parents decided that early on only boys should be educated as the girl children would always go away to someone else’s house. They educated my sister as she had polio. Even though I wanted to go to school, I did not as I had to help out in the farm, considering that my father was an alcoholic and my mother had to handle everything. I did try going to schools for about three months but dropped out soon after.
At the age of 16, as was the norm, I was married off. My husband was from Bangalore and his salary was about Rs. 300/- . We were staying in one room house, and for one year we barely managed, but after I got pregnant, I was sent to the village for delivery. In an anganwadi , tailoring classes were being offered and I enrolled. After delivery I came to Bangalore and soon reality stuck , as with my husband’s salary I will not be able to manage my son’s education so I joined a plastic recycling factory. I was earning about Rs. 15/- per day but it was difficult working there. I tried my hand at domestic work too. But as my son kept falling sick, all the money I earned was going to the doctor. After about seven months, a neighbor told me about a garment factory. She asked me to identify myself as a tailor. The room was overwhelming with a room full of machines. The supervisor took me the sewing machine and handed me the tread and pins and asked me to prove my skills. I looked around, and mustered confidence and tried my hand, soon after they asked me to come. First two days was easy and after that they give targets. But after 15 days I realised that the factory had not registered my attendance and so I did not receive any salary. But even though I felt bad, I decided that what I learnt was more important and took it in my stride. I quit the job and looked for other jobs. When I went for interview, I realised there were about 20-25 people waiting for different roles. I went in for a tailor role. I was taken in. The company treated us well. I was not aware of the categorization of tailors like A-grade and B-Grade. I was taken as an A Grade tailor and made sincere attempts to learn the job. At that time we did not have any crèche facilities and was pregnant again. As I had severe morning sickness, I quit the job. And rejoined work in 1994. In a month my salary was about Rs. 1050/-.
I then quit and joined another factory. That factory was not giving us day-offs and the work was hectic. When I took leave as my daughter was sick, they asked me to leave. I joined another factory, and they kept yelling at us, calling us names. They did not leave us till 8.00pm in the night. The supervisors treated as even badly, either hit on the heads or scream. It was a nightmare. My kids would wait for me outside the factory, sometimes sleep outside only.
In 2002, I came across a flier from CIVIDEP, it. I managed to read it and decided to go for a meeting. They intend to start an SHG and conducted many trainings programs including labour rights, factory act etc. It was then I realized that not knowing one’s rights is a huge disadvantage and we started questioning by organizing our self.
We also used different forms of voicing our concerns, by tying black ribbons, without stopping work, to get the attention of the management. In 2004, we registered a women’s organization called Munnade and worked on family issues mainly and workers concern. We met every Sundays. But soon realized we need a union. However the factory did not take it kindly and we were questioned at every step. There were times we were not given work for four days and made to sit idle. I decided to resign after eight years and asked for an experience certificate, but was not given. I soon gathered my wits and decided to unionize the workers, told them that we can collectively bargain, only them we will be heard.
Soon, the management decided that we were more of a liability and wanted to fire us, so increased our work. They gave me a lot of work, which I finished on time. The production manager spotted me and asked me why I was sitting; I told him I finished my work so he reprimanded the supervisor. After many incidents, they called me early one day and told me I was being suspended. On questioning they said that I was involved in money for interest schemes. In reality I was involved in SHG savings. So I resolved to strengthen my union.
Soon the factory came around, and decided to allow me to continue work as a full time union worker but paid my wages. The factory was very supportive. However my happiness was short-lived, as within the Union sexual harassment took place. And it kind of shattered us, as for one the Union taught us to question, but within the Union, we were not allowed to question. And so we resigned in 2010.
After that we started Garment Labour Union in 2012. We decided that all executive members will be women, as in the previous union it was male dominated and even though I was the General secretary I was not given due importance. I did not want to be a rubber stamp. So in this Union, we decided while membership was open to all, executive members will be woman only. We do have lot of work to do from awareness to counseling and fighting injustice and we in 2015 we decided to use the platform of community radio- Radio Active to make our voices heard, air our grievances, provide counseling and tell stories from both perspectives the workers and the management, in addition to talking about labour rights, career progression, changes within the industry and more.”
So tune in Monday to Saturday 8.00am to 8.30am
#Cividep India was formed in the year 2000 to educate workers about their rights and campaign for corporate accountability
#Munnade is a community based women’s organization that educates women about their rights. It started in 2002 as a pre-union concept to work with women on issues of domestic violence and challenging patriarchy in their daily lives. It was officially founded in 2004 and registered in 2011
#Garment Labour Union is a women-led trade union based in Bangalore, engaged in organizing garment workers and protecting their rights.
Pinky Chandran and Rukaiyah Yusuf
Interview edited by Surendra
Listen to Rukmini’s Story