All over India, especially in the private sector, management adopts a variety of means to deter and prevent workers from exercising their right to associate and bargain collectively. Workers seen as leaders of efforts to form trade unions face punitive transfers and other forms of disciplinary action or are implicated in criminal cases (Krishnan, 2017). One study by Surendra Pratap (2011, p. 4) documents case studies of attempts by workers to form unions in several foreign- and Indian-owned manufacturing facilities where management displayed ‘systematic disregard for existing labour legislation’ and victimised workers. Pratap (ibid.) argues that between 2009 and 2010, ‘the majority of well publicized cases of workers’ struggles centred on two issues: (a) the victimization and repression of trade union organizers; and (b) the demand for regularization of casual and contract workers’.
In the case of large female workforces, management invokes patriarchal notions of ‘culture’ and morality, alongside methods of public shaming and sexualised abuse, to restrict women workers’ mobility and access to means of communication, thus deterring and preventing workers from unionising. Flawed Fabrics (Theuws and Overeem, 2014), a study of textile factories in Tamil Nadu, exposes a range of exploitative labour practices including child labour, bonded labour and a variety of gendered disciplinary measures for women workers. In their study, Martje Theuws and Pauline Overeem identify textile mills as part of the supply chains for major European and US clothing brands and examine the hostels, usually located on the factory grounds, where stay is compulsory for workers who migrate from other districts or villages and which severely restrict autonomy and mobility for women workers. Among their findings, Theuws and Overeem report:
at all five investigated mills [w]orkers are not allowed to leave the hostel on their own. There is hardly any outside contact … Workers may only contact their parents through the hostel phone. Mobile phones are not allowed and after-work activities are limited. Under the pretext of cultural traditions, girls and women are effectively locked up’ […]
Among the things they are scolded for include talking to co-workers (all mills), and talking to male workers ([mills:] Premier, Super, Sulochana) […]
If workers want to make a phone call, the warden will check the number they are dialling. The workers may only contact their parents if their number has been given to the warden. Phone calls are always made in the presence of the hostel warden. […] ‘The warden will check the girl workers; where they are going, which shift they are doing’. (ibid., pp. 6, 52, 58, emphasis in original)
Studies of the neighbouring state of Karnataka document similar work conditions. Production of Torture (PUCL et al., 2016, p. 10), a report by civil liberties and feminist organisations on the working conditions of women garment workers in Karnataka, found that women were prevented from communicating with the outside world: ‘once workers enter the factories, they are required to be cut off from all contact with the external world, even in case of emergencies’. Bans on carrying mobile phones in the workplace were found to be widespread, with punishments for possession including confiscation, monetary fines and requiring workers to submit written apologies promising not to carry phones in the future. Thus, ‘many workers surreptitiously carry their phones into the factory and keep them on a silent mode, as they wish to be contacted at a time of emergency’ (ibid.). Additionally, workers are prohibited from talking to each other:
Since the shop floors are arranged one behind another, it prevents any form of interaction between the workers except during the 15–20 min’ lunch break—this prevents any form of cohesion. […]
When not being present at the work stations, workers are consistently questioned about their whereabouts. Even toilet and canteen visits are monitored by security. (ibid., pp. 12, 25)
Like justifications for discriminatory student hostel rules, arguments used by factory management invoke ‘culture’ and parental concerns about ‘safety and security’. For example, responding to a draft version of the Flawed Fabrics report, the Sulochana mill management argued: ‘because of our State Tamil Nadu culture and the expectation of girl parents, they have been provided accommodation in the hostel of the management. Only for safety and security, the parents and girls decided to stay in the hostel and come for work’ (Theuws and Overeem, 2014, p. 59).
These studies offer further insight into how women themselves internalise patriarchal ideologies of ‘culture’ and morality. Theuws and Overeem’s report describes how workers, while resenting ‘prison-like’ conditions, expect such restrictions:
In rural Tamil Nadu, it is generally felt that it is not safe for young unmarried women to stay on their own, in a place where there are no parents, relatives or community members to keep an eye on them. As one of the workers at Premier put it: ‘We are girls; we must follow some values in society’. (ibid., p. 57)
Studies from both states document the extreme emotional distress to which women garment workers are subjected. Demeaning, exhausting and exploitative conditions of work—which in some cases include humiliating corporal punishments—have made some workers suicidal. Theuws and Overeem (ibid., p. 53) detail the events related to the attempted suicide of a 17-year-old worker at Best Corporation’s spinning mill in Dharapuram which was reported in Tamil newspapers on 12 October 2013. The young woman attempted suicide after she was ‘scolded and hit in front of the other workers’ for using a cell phone inside the mill and ‘charged a INR 500 penalty and was forced to clean the wall where the workers spit out. […] The teenager’s mother came to the mill to take her daughter home but the management refused to let her go’, and she could leave the factory premises only after a trade union intervention (ibid.).
The PUCL et al. (2016) report confirms how women are subject to continuous surveillance and humiliating corporal punishments to pressure them to meet production targets. Punishments include being scolded in front of other workers or via the public address system; being made to stand outside the workplace or factory gate for taking leave without permission or late arrival; having one’s work-station machine switched off and being made to stand in front of other workers; and being followed to the toilet to ensure no time is wasted (ibid.).
Additionally, the report documents how male supervisors including managers, ‘call the women workers by abusive names … and cast aspersions on their character’ (ibid., p. 11). Such ‘scolding’ includes asking the woman worker ‘if she ate food or shit, whether she is a woman who lives on the streets, and asking her why she was late to work’ to suggest that she is a sex worker (ibid.). Such abuse draws on forms of humiliation that are shaped by caste and gender. Cleaning or touching human excreta is associated with the oppressed Dalit castes, and forcing people to ‘eat shit’ is a common caste atrocity to which Dalits are subjected;Footnote 6 therefore, this particular abuse references a caste atrocity to a woman worker if she is Dalit and is experienced as humiliation by a non-Dalit. Saying that a woman belongs ‘on the streets’ is to suggest she is a sex worker and thus to call her immoral.
These punishments and ‘scolding’ are designed to be exemplary: their public, performative character enables them to be used to discipline, demoralise and control the entire body of workers, not just the individual worker targeted. The PUCL et al. (ibid., p. 25) report observes that ‘a worker is sometimes made to stand aside for an hour … before the assembly. This often reduces the humiliated worker to tears. Equally, this isolation of the worker from the assembly … who look on helplessly and silently, makes all of them feel lost and incapacitated’.
Women in the Karnataka factories are frequently subjected to physical violence, ‘including throwing the garment at the worker’s face (most frequently reported by the workers), hitting the woman worker on her back, dragging her out from her workstation, and physically compelling her to stand away from it’ (ibid., p. 34). Sexual harassment is common, including ‘staring hard at a woman worker in a sexual manner; making obscene threats, such as saying that chilli powder will be applied on the woman’s vagina if she did not work efficiently’ and ‘scolding’ using sexual expletives (ibid., p. 15). These practices are found elsewhere where women are incorporated in the globalised workforce, including in the Dominican Republic’s export processing zone (EPZ), where practices of sexual harassment are deployed to keep women from organising (Pantaleon and Dominicana, 2003).
Regimes of surveillance, sexualised abuse, sexual harassment and public humiliation are integral to the production process and used to keep the women workers insecure by pressuring them to meet impossible production targets. The PUCL et al. (2016) report notes how systemic workplace harassment and social shaming keeps women in an emotionally fraught state, provoking weeping, depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and a sense of humiliation. Workplace harassment further strains family relationships. Women workers do a ‘double shift’—that is, bear the entire social reproductive burden including care for children and/or elders, cooking, cleaning and running the household. Their husbands or in-laws ‘do not object to her work but are nasty when she is late or is unable to complete household work’ (ibid., p. 6). The social reproductive burden of providing emotional support is also largely born by women; resultantly, ‘Most women garment workers expressed an inability to share such feelings [of depression, job-related stress, etc.] with their husbands, as they feared that the husband would compel the woman to leave the job, which she desperately needs to financially support her family’ (ibid., p. 18).
Both the reports from Tamil Nadu (Theuws and Overeem, 2014) and Karnataka (PUCL et al., 2016) indicate the systemic way in which the garment industry takes advantage of women’s precariousness to exploit them financially and ‘fashion a more disciplined and hence cheaper workforce of women’ (ibid., p. 24). Women’s vulnerability to suggestions of sexual immorality helps deter mutual solidarity; in both wider communities and factories, women are expected and encouraged to maintain a distance from ‘immoral’ women and prove their own respectability by their willing submission to regimes of surveillance and restrictions on mobility and communication. In the Tamil Nadu factories, the women workers are younger and unmarried; in these cases, factories draw on parents’ anxieties regarding dowry payments and preventing daughters from contracting ‘unwanted/undesirable’ (read: in violation of caste and community boundaries) romantic/sexual relationships to justify women workers’ incarceration in hostels. For the women workers in the Karnataka factories, who tend to be older and married, sexualised shaming tactics deter them from seeking support from families. Abusive working conditions at the site of production (factories) strain the conditions of life and social relationships at the site of social reproduction (households). Likewise, women’s vulnerability to or fear of violence and humiliation in their own households and the pressures of supporting economically precarious families make them more likely to submit without complaint to abusive disciplinary workplace regimes.
While rationalisations for gendered restrictions on workers’ freedoms invoke concerns of ‘culture’ and ‘safety’, the fact is that these restrictions have a practical value of deterring unionisation. By preventing women workers from interacting with male workers or outside activists and by discouraging socialisation even among women on the factory floor, the women workers are very effectively prevented from even visualising the possibility of unionising. For instance, Theuws and Overeem (2014, p. 70) note that although rights to association and collective bargaining are recognised by India’s labour laws, they are widely violated in the garment factories. Interviews with workers illustrate how gendered restrictions make it difficult to consider joining a union: ‘“we have no outside contact so how could we ever join a trade union?” […] “I am a female worker then how can I become a member of trade union?” […] “I don’t think that the workers are having much freedom of joining the trade union because all the workers here are girls”’ (ibid., pp. 53–54).
Exploitative practices in the Tamil Nadu factories are able to continue unchallenged, since unions cannot recruit women workers as members and are prevented from even meeting them. Theuws and Overeem’s (ibid., pp. 6–7) report also establishes that the infamous Sumangali scheme, which subjects women workers to bonded labour on the pretext that they will earn their own dowry in the form of a lump-sum payment, continues undeterred even though the scheme has been officially abandoned. In many cases, employers fail to transfer the required amount to the provident fund, or cite minor infractions by workers to deny payment. Such practices are illegal (which is why the Sumangali scheme is no longer formally in effect), and yet they are rampant.
Despite efforts to impose gendered discipline and create a cowed and docile female workforce that is unable and disinclined to unionise, there have been several mass, spontaneous protests by women garment workers.Footnote 7 In April 2016, a spontaneous strike in Bengaluru saw 350,000 garment industry workers, almost all women, blocking roads to protest against a new central government ordinance on the Employment Provident Fund which imposed restrictions on withdrawals from the fund (D’Rozario, 2016). Clifton D’Rozario (ibid.) explains why the restrictions evoked such an intense reaction among garment workers in particular: the management of garment industry factories in Karnataka systematically sack workers before they complete five years of work in order to prevent them from becoming eligible for gratuity, and the minimum wage for workers is very low. As a result, provident funds (PF) are often a worker’s sole savings and safety net in between jobs: ‘as they search for another job, the PF amount of Rs. 40,000–Rs. 50,000/- helps them survive and even invest on lease amounts for their rental houses, marriages, etc’ (ibid.).
A fact-finding report on the strike in Bengaluru, commissioned by the Garment and Textile Workers’ Union (GATWU), the leading garment workers’ union in Bangalore, and prepared by a team from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka (PUCL-K) and Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression-Karnartaka (WSS) (2016, p. 3), notes that ‘the protest was spontaneous, sudden, and unplanned’ and that ‘most of the participants and leaders were women workers’. The protest ‘was triggered by a newspaper article about the ordinance in Vijaya Karnataka (2016)—a Kannada daily—that appeared on 16 April 2016. The resulting demonstration was a landmark event, as it led the Central Government to withdraw the ordinance, thus benefiting lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of salaried workers across the country’ (ibid.). As the report illustrates, brutal violence at the hands of the police intensified the resolve of the workers to continue the strike. Workers said that seeing women workers being brutally assaulted by male police officers during a peaceful protest was a turning point, leading workers to decide to not call off the strike. The entire regime of discipline, intended to block and disrupt solidarity and empathy amongst women workers and between women and men workers, broke down.
D’Rozario (2016) remarks that the revolt by women garment workers challenged the gendered assumptions of bureaucrats and police officials, who wondered ‘how can women behave this way?’. Workers in sectors where greater unionisation is possible tend to raise issues of low wages and exploitative working conditions in their protests and strikes. Women garment workers in Bengaluru, however, have hardly ever been able to force factory management to enter into collective bargaining with workers. Instead, these workers have repeatedly held mass protests in Bengaluru in 1995, 2002 and 2016 against proposed changes in provident fund rules.
The PUCL-K and WSS report comments on how the opinions of those who dismiss garment workers’ protests as random and ineffective because they do not raise the issues of low wages and work conditions—which they see as more substantial and important—are informed by gendered assumptions:
The false characterization of women’s struggles as random, uncoordinated, and ultimately pointless, runs corollary to the understanding of women’s work as merely supplementary, sporadic, and ultimately secondary to their primary role as caregivers. Both assertions are steeped in gendered assumptions about women’s roles and abilities. (PUCL-K and WSS, 2016, p. 53)
Women workers facing precarious conditions at work and in households find it more challenging to unionise, enter into conflicts with factory managements and risk punitive loss of jobs. Instead, they have chosen to protest outside the factories and on the streets and enter into confrontations with the state to defend their control over their provident fund, which they see as their safety net for survival.
Evidently, gendered forms of discipline and surveillance that infantilise women workers, placing management in loco parentis for the workers, are not unique to India. Melissa Wright (2006) documents and analyses similar forms of discipline invoked by Chinese managers of multinational factories in China. Wright (ibid., p. 33) notes that while both male and female workers were expected to live in dormitories, female workers were ‘forbidden from leaving the building at any time and on any day except for Sunday’ while the male workers ‘walked between the two facilities on a regular basis’. Male workers ‘took breaks outside the doors, where they would smoke cigarettes and talk until a manager walked through, when they would head inside’ (ibid., p. 34). Explanations offered by Chinese managers for stricter control on women workers are similar to those offered by the management of Indian factories: they describe their roles ‘as those of a parent with an unpredictable teenage girl who requires a strong patriarchal hand to keep her under control’ (ibid.). Wright noted that according to one manager, ‘his own knowledge of Chinese culture and his own experience as a father meant that he was particularly suited for his job as production manager over a young female Chinese labor force’ (ibid.), and quoted the manager as saying:
The Chinese raise their daughters to be very obedient … The family is strict … The girls, sometimes, do not know what to do when they move away from their family. They can lose their obedience. They are naïve. I have two daughters, and we are very strict with them. Chinese daughters are good daughters, but you have to protect them from dangerous things in the city. (ibid.)
Gendered methods of disciplining women garment workers in Bangladesh as described by Dina Siddiqi (2009) strikingly and critically parallel the methods discussed above. Siddiqi (ibid., p. 167) observes that women workers are regulated ‘through a distinct moral regime, separating the “good” girls from the “immoral” ones’; she continues:
A highly sexualized regime of verbal discipline, as well as more overt forms of sexual harassment, also serves to keep women in their place. In this universe, the good women are the good workers, i.e. those who are morally disciplined—that is, those who do not protest or draw too much attention to themselves, are deserving of managerial protection (Siddiqi, 1996). Those who challenge such norms are much more vulnerable to managerial sexual advances. (ibid.)
As in Karnataka, sexualised abuse (such as hurling insults that question the morality of the worker’s father or mother) are common in the Bangladeshi factories. Globalised workplaces across Asia, then, draw on familial patriarchal norms and moral regimes to discipline women workers.