The Madras High Court verdict on 15 July upholding the Tamil Nadu governments’ order to increase minimum wages for garment workers by 64 per cent is a big victory. However, workers need strong unions in order to implement the wage hike.
Years of struggle for Tamil Nadu garment workers paid off when the Madras High Court’s dismissed about 550 petitions filed by garment employers opposing a government order to increase the minimum wages for tailoring industry workers.
Minimum wages for garment workers were last revised in 2004. In 2005, the employers went to the court and stopped the wage revision
In 2012, the government formed an advisory committee and in October 2014, a government order announced new minimum wages revision for tailoring industry. Accordingly, the minimum wage for a cutter, the most skilled position, is Rs 8480 (US$ 127) while the helper, at the bottom of the skill pyramid, will receive Rs 7201 (US$ 107).
Although a low wage revision, employers still petitioned the court to cancel the government order. Garment workers’ unions also approached the court to contest the employers’ petition and to implement the wage revisions.
On 15 July, the Madras High Court ruled that the government’s order be upheld and stated that:
“minimum wages as notified shall be paid to the workers by the petitioners/management on and from the date of the notification as published in the Government Gazette, i.e. from December 2014.”
The court further directed the employers to pay the minimum wages along with the arrears within two months from the date of receipt of the court order, along with a 6 per cent interest from the date of notification till date of payment.
However, even after the court verdict, implementation of the new wages remains a major concern as large number of workers are not aware of the wage revision. Further, the Tamil Nadu government created a loophole when announcing a different set of very low minimum wages for the hosiery industry in January 2016, which will help employers to avoid paying higher wages.
Apoorva Kaiwar, IndustriALL Global Union South Asia regional secretary, says that:
“Most of the government workers are precarious workers employed on piece rate and weekly wages with no regular employment contract. As employers do not regularize the employment of precarious workers, they are forced to shift from one factory to other factories frequently. Trade union presence in the garment factories in Tamil Nadu is also very low as employers strongly resist the formation of unions.
“Together these factors pose challenges for workers to get statutory minimum wages and arrears. It is imperative that we organize strong trade unions among garment workers to ensure that the new provisions are implemented”.
The Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GFWU), which played a crucial role in representing workers, welcomed the court verdict and called for the implementation of the high court order in letter and spirit.
“Irrespective of the fabric they are working, all tailoring workers should be considered on par and minimum wages should be implemented equally for all workers.“