Indian garment workers fight for justice after factory injuries

CHENNAI (India): Rasu Mahalakshmi didn’t celebrate when she received compensation for a factory accident that cost her four fingers. She had waited seven years for help and got just $2,000 for her life-changing injuries.

Her fight is far from over — and campaigners say her plight is typical in the country’s textile industry.
“I lost my fingers, my livelihood and my confidence,” Mahalakshmi said.

The garment worker was 19 when she was caught up in a mill accident in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It took until last December for Mahalakshmi, now 26, to get 136,000 Indian rupees ($2,000) from the government to cover her medical fees.
Her fight for a 500,000-rupee payment from the mill management goes on.
“They paid for the immediate surgery and the hospital stay but then forgot all about me,” said Mahalakshmi.
“There were multiple visits to the doctor, medicines to be bought and bandages changed. I had to pay for all that.” Mahalakshmi was employed under the Sumangali scheme, a form of child labour where adolescent girls are hired for three to five years and promised a final lump sum to pay their wedding dowry. She was promised 30,000 rupees after three years.

Shown the door

Then the accident happened.
“One day I was suddenly shifted to work on a machine I was unfamiliar with,” she said, recalling how her life changed forever when she switched machines.
Mahalakshmi said that when she approached managers with her parents and asked for compensation, they were “shown the door”.
Money had already been deducted from Mahalakshmi’s salary to pay for a state insurance scheme that should guarantee workers access to free medical treatment. Nor was she paid for the two years of labour that preceded her injury.
Campaigners say that factories are defaulting on their share of the scheme or paying only in part — meaning that her struggle for justice is the norm in India’s $40 billion garment and textile industry.

No work, no pay

Just as Mahalakshmi finally received her payout, another drama began, when a garment factory van overturned near the state capital of Chennai, injuring seamstress M. Muniyammal and 11 other people.
Two weeks after the accident, Muniyammal was back at a factory sewing machine, stitching clothes for global brands.
Her injuries had not healed and she suffered excruciating pain. But according to co-worker A. Nithya, she had no choice.
“Twelve of us were injured in the accident. We were told we would be compensated for the medical expenses and paid salaries only if we went back to work. She needed money,” Nithya said.
Two months on, the women are fighting to have their bills reimbursed and hold on to their jobs.
Prema, who did not give her full name, injured her hand in the same accident as she travelled to work with her 6-year-old son. Prema said she had to go to the factory 10 times just to get her November salary.
The mill management denied the allegations.
“We are willing to pay them after they show us proper medical records,” said a company representative, requesting anonymity.
“We have audits where we have to justify every expense. How can we pay them salaries if they don’t come to work?”

Battle lines

For an estimated 45 million workers employed in India’s garment and textile industry, battle lines are drawn each time there is a work-related injury, campaigners say.
“The accidents have a ripple effect on the entire family because in most cases, the woman is the only earning member,” said Sujata Mody of the Garment and Fashion Workers’ Union.
“In this case, the company had defaulted on paying its share of medical insurance, though they were deducting the workers’ share from their salaries every month.” In 2016, Felix Jeyakumar — of non-profit Social Awareness and Voluntary Education — documented 13 accidents and eight deaths in factories in the “textile valley” of Tamil Nadu.
In every case, there were long deliberations with management over medical expenses and how much time off the injured could take without losing their money or their job, he said.
“In most cases, the managements try to pay a few thousand rupees and end the case,” Jeyakumar said. “Even in cases of death they don’t take into account that often the woman is the only earning member of her family.”