Ratna doesn’t remember how long she has been working at Texports Creations, a garments factory in outer Bengaluru’s Peenya industrial area. She travels six kilometres every day and earns Rs 6,500 a month, most of which goes in paying her rent.
Her husband died a decade ago but she managed to put her two daughters through college. Most of the money for their education and household expenses came from her provident fund.
“I took breaks from my job every five years to get my provident fund (PF) amount - about 20,000 rupees or so – to pay for school fees, domestic expenses like rent advances, etc,” she tells HT.
“So if we don’t get ‘double PF’ (employer and employee contribution) then there is nothing left for us.”
Ratna is among the 100,000 garment factory workers who came out on the streets of Bengaluru on April 19 to protest against the government’s proposed changes in the PF withdrawal scheme.
They violently clashed with police and blocked highways. Over a hundred vehicles were burnt and 43 policemen were injured. Over 80 workers and bystanders also sustained injuries and the loss to industry from the three-day closure was estimated around Rs 1,500 crore according to industry sources.
The unprecedented protests forced the government to roll back the proposed changes that barred workers from withdrawing their entire retirement fund in case of unemployment of two months or more.
Every month, salaried individuals contribute 12% of their pay to the PF and the employer matches this, creating a fund that is pivotal for low-income workers in a country with no formal social security net.
“Out of 950 women in our factory, not even four or five have continuous service of 5 or 10 years. So when we read that the government has changed the rules, we were very upset,” says Ratna.
Bengaluru has about 700 garment factories where an estimated 1.2 million workers are employed.
Around 90% of these workers are women, who report at work at 8.30am and leave around 6.30pm, travelling as much as 200 kilometres daily.
In a notification issued in February, the labour ministry said individuals will be able to withdraw only their contribution to the fund and the interest earned on it, and not the employer’s contribution.
“There are women who work for a few months, accumulate their PF and resign so that they can pay their children’s fees. We tolerate much injustice and exploitation, this was the last straw,” says Bharathi, who works for a factory that produces coats for Raymonds.
To survive and make ends meet, Ratna stitches petticoats at home. “Many women do domestic work before reaching the factory, others string flowers or make agarbattis,” she says.
This kind of pace cannot be kept up for long, so there is usual high attrition of workers. This benefits factory owners, who are saved from having to pay workers their gratuity.
“They say that they won’t pay us ‘double PF’. We are not going to agree, even if we die,” says Anasuyamma.
Her co-workers Asha and Pavithra sit around with severe head injuries. Two others cannot speak as the police hit them on the mouth and face.
The simmering discontent drove the protests that saved the PF of 50 million Indians. But the struggle isn’t over. Workers say the government has booked thousands of protesters and policemen are roaming the roads near the factories where the women work.
“We cannot take any more injustice, madam,” says Anasuyamma.