We cry out in glee and take pride when we come to know that the t-shirts worn at the recently concluded Australian Open by the tennis players are manufactured in India and specifically from Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. India stands as one among the world’s largest producers of textiles and apparel with the industry providing employment to close to 45million people.

Tamil Nadu is the largest textile hub of India and the textile industry plays a significant role in the Indian economy by providing direct employment to an estimated 35million people. The textile industry accounts for about half of India’s total spinning mill capacity and the western region of Tamil Nadu [Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Karur and Dindigul], referred to as the Textile Valley of India has the majority of spinning mills. Knitted garment units of Tirupur have been exporting garments for more than three decades and the industry that had an export value of less than `10crores in 1983 has seen exponential growth and now stands at `25,000crore. Nearly 7,000 garment units function from the western region of Tamil Nadu and provide employment to 1million people. Chennai and the neighbouring Thiruvallur, Chengalpattu and Kancheepuram districts also have a large presence of woven garment (shirts/pants) manufacturing units.

Women constitute a bulk of the workforce in the textile and garment industry, with many joining work when still a child. Traditionally, the age of women in the industry has been between 15 and 27 years. The women opt to join the textile and garment industry to fight out poverty in their homes and due to the lack of employment opportunities in their own villages. They migrate to places where the textiles mills and garment factories are located. Several of these establishments have built-in hostels that accommodate the girls and women and provide them with the basics of food, transport and shelter. Studies reveal that the conditions of the hostels are far from satisfactory, although they are governed by a special law, the Tamil Nadu Hostels and Homes for Women and Children (Regulation) Act, which regulates the functioning of hostels. The demand for labour in Tamil Nadu in the textile and garment industry has seen an influx of migrant workers from states like Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and sometimes even from the North East. Yet again reports reveal that the living and working conditions of the migrant workers are woefully inadequate and they are an exploited group with language and cultural differences adding to their pitiful state. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is hardly invoked to provide redress to the
migrant workers. Eminent economist and feminist, Prof. Padmini Swaminathan has pointed out that women have been relegated and continue to remain in a subordinate position as the State has failed to address and implement the issues relating to wages. The State in order to ensure women’s equality in the workplace in respect of wages should examine the definitions of basic needs and family to name a few.

The long-standing demand of the women workers is for the State and the employers to provide them with decent work. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has developed a Decent Work Agenda that brings within its fold job creation, rights at work, social protection and social dialogues with gender equality as a crosscutting objective. Decent work is an aspiration of the working people to be provided for work that is productive and provides them a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for workers to express their situation, to enable them to organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.

There has been a long-standing demand by the workers for a fair wage, but in reality, they are not even paid the minimum wage stipulated by the State government. Minimum wages are recognized as an important tool to prevent poverty and for providing social protection for the workers and their families. The Minimum Wages Act, 1948 governs the area concerning wages for scheduled employments and the Act provides for revision of the minimum wages every five years taking into consideration the cost of living allowance and the cash value of the concessions in respect of supplies of essential commodities. Sadly, the realization of even drawing the minimum wages for the worker has been fraught with legal impediments. For instance, the Tamil Nadu government issued a minimum wage notification in 1994 fixing minimum wages for various categories under the tailoring industry. The notification was challenged before the High Court of Madras by the garment industry and textile industry employers, but the cases were dismissed. Once again the government issued a notification in 2004 and this was also challenged before the High Court by the employers and the cases were ultimately again dismissed in 2012. The government again issued a notification in 2014, which was also challenged and ultimately dismissed in 2016. Against the dismissal, the employers have approached the Supreme Court and the case is still pending with the Supreme Court giving an interim direction to the textile mills and garment industry owners to deposit 50% of the arrears of minimum wages along with interest. While select companies have complied with the order many are yet to comply. The wage issue has always been contentious and the workers would not have even attained this level of success but for the efforts of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, an all-woman registered Trade Union that sustained the legal battle for all these years. When such is the fate for the workers to receive the government prescribed minimum wages in the industry, the demand for fair wage appears to be bleak, although they are hopeful that their unionized and sustained efforts may lead them to be paid a fair wage. It remains to be seen if the Code on Wages Act, 2019 when notified to be implemented will provide succour to the beleaguered workers.

The Wage Code is the first of the four labour codes which have now become an Act, and has replaced four labour regulations viz. the Payment of Wages Act, 1936; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965; and the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976. The other three labour codes are the Industrial Relations Code; the Social Security Code and the Code on Occupational Health and Safety.

The Code on Wages Act is set to cover all establishments, employees and employers as defined unless specifically exempted. The definition of wages now has three parts to it — an inclusion part, specified exclusions and conditions which limit the quantum of exclusions. The definition includes basic pay, dearness allowance and retaining allowance. It is expected to bring about a quick settlement of wages and provides for a national minimum wage to be prescribed by the central government. The national minimum wages are expected to act as a floor for the State government to fix their respective minimum wages. However, there are many reservations regarding fixing the national minimum wage as the workers are demanding a significant rise in the prescribed minimum wage and not a marginal hike. The code envisages to compulsorily consider the skill of workers and geographical area; it does not make it mandatory to consider the arduous nature of the work, like temperature or humidity or the hazardous nature of the occupations or processes.

The Code on Wages Act may take a while to get implemented as the central government proposes to implement all four codes simultaneously. But what is crucial is whether the worker will get her fair wage at the end of the day? The Indian Constitution envisages for the State to provide by law or in any other way to all workers a living wage and suitable conditions of work that would ensure a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities. Denial and delay by the State and the employer in the payment of wages to the worker amounts to forced labour and violates the fundamental rights enshrined under the Indian Constitution. This has been reiterated in a plethora of cases by the Supreme Court which held that, “person who provides labour or service to another for remuneration which is less than the minimum wages, the labour or service provided by him falls within the ambit of ‘forced labour’ under Article 23 of the Indian Constitution.” Further, forced labour is an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code.

The rights of the worker cannot be allowed to be exploited, and it is our responsibility to prevent exploitation. We are often asked to remember the farmer or the plantation worker when food or tea is placed before us. Likewise, we need to check to see that the brands that we buy adopt ethical standards, which include payment of at least the minimum wages.