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Shopping, at what price?

Sunday, 9 December 2012 - 5:58am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

I hear it’s the wedding season. Which means a lot of people are shopping without dropping. In any case, the new Indian middle class no longer waits for festivals or weddings.

I hear it’s the wedding season. Which means a lot of people are shopping without dropping. In any case, the new Indian middle class no longer waits for festivals or weddings. Shopping is weekend entertainment.

This is possible partly because of an abundance of low-priced readymade garments. Another big change is that we now shop for labels. We no longer pick out our own style. It is enough now to know that we’re buying into a name that is internationally known. Hence, streets offer ‘reject maal’ or copied samples of fashion trends in Europe or the USA. Malls are packed with ‘labels’ and most are not frightfully expensive.

Ever wondered why? Of course, labour is cheap and plentiful in India. But still, ever wondered — how cheap exactly?

The average monthly wage for garment workers in Bangalore is Rs4,472. And it’s not like the owners of the factories are proudly publicising these wages. We only know because of the National People’s Tribunal, organised as part of a campaign by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. According to the report, Rs4,472 is only 43% of what the worker’s family actually needs, given that they pay for rent, food, water, children’s education and healthcare.

India’s textile industry is supposed to be worth USD 55 billion. Reports say that two million people are employed in readymade garment units; 80% are women. Now, testimonies from 250 garment workers reveal low wages, overlong work hours, sexual harassment and work conditions that amount to “bonded and forced labour practices”.

As for safety, most units are a disaster waiting to happen. One such disaster happened recently in Bangladesh , the second largest exporter of readymade garments. A fire broke out in a factory near Dhaka, and this certainly wasn’t the first such incident. This time, 112 people died. Some tried to jump out from the eight-storey building. The guards did not open the main gate even after smoke emerged from the building.

After the latest fire incident, garment workers in Bangalore staged a candle light vigil, demanding safer working conditions. News reports quote workers as saying that buildings pose a safety threat; there’s only one door and no emergency exit.

Part of the responsibility lies with international brands who buy from such factories, but it is a telling fact that at the Tribunal hearing in Bangalore, with the exception of Swedish firm H&M, no other global brand showed up. Nor did the India suppliers.

And we shouldn’t be surprised. If they can’t fix fire hazards in Bangladesh, what makes us think they care to invest in safety in India? It is India’s responsibility to ensure that the rules are followed.

But then, workers say the Karnataka Labour department doesn’t even recognise their trade unions. In any case, the department doesn’t have a good track record of intervening on behalf of labour. Take the Bangalore metro project. Some accidents led to a group of students asking a question in 2010: who is responsible for safety at Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) sites? The BMRCL did not reply. In 2011, the students approached the Karnataka Labour department, which shifted responsibility onto the Ministry of Urban Development. In September 2012, the Ministry just asked the BMRCL to respond.

So, what kind of faith do we expect garment workers to have in the department that’s supposed to protect their rights? Will the state do its job?

And what about us, the shopping hordes? Through their testimonies, the women who create our inexpensive pleasures are talking to us, telling us what really goes into these clothes. Are we listening?

Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)

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