Karnataka, especially in and around Bangalore is a major hub of garment manufacturers, mostly for the export sector of the country. Estimates from the garment and textile workers union state that the region employs around half a million workers. A large portion of these workers are poor migrants from states like Odisha, Assam, and Jharkhand. More than eighty percent are women. Many of them live and work in circumstances that increase their vulnerability to issues that thwart their health and wellness.
I visited some of these factories as part of a worker well-being research team. As I walked through the shop floors, I felt eyes staring at me. The common expression I picked up was fear. I tried to smile but got timid looks in return. In this very short time of interaction, the stories they told left a big impression. “We are far away from our homes and there is no one to take care of us when we are sick. Migrant workers like me are not provided with an ESI card even after six months of joining” said Tanvi, a 23-year-old from Odisha.
The longer working hours coupled with the unhygienic working conditions and unhealthy habits push most of them into the vicious cycle of everlasting illness and poverty. Health seeking behaviour and access to services is quite poor, especially among the women. When asked about menstrual products Tanvi whispered, “The leftover scrap cloth is easily available from the cutting section. We use this as sanitary pads” Seeing my surprise, she continued, “The factory is providing us sanitary napkins. But we need to pay Rs.5 per pad. How can we spend such a big amount for such a small purpose?”
Whilst walking through the hostels these workers reside in, I noticed how crowded and unhygienic the environment was. In many hostels, 10-12 women shared narrow rooms without proper ventilation. There were not enough toilets compared to the number of women living there and there was no proper space for the disposal of sanitary napkins. Breakouts of contagious diseases were quite common within this environment.
In one of the hostels we visited, I saw a young lady covered in blankets. I could see rashes and raised red spots on her face and hands. Her roommate murmured, “It’s amma”, which is the local term for mother and also used to describe chickenpox. I curiously asked if she was taking medicines, and everyone including the welfare officer said, “No no! it is a gift from the Goddess, no medication is needed. She will have fever for 10 days and then will be fine” I again asked why she was sharing the room with nine other girls in such a contagious state. The answer was “We should take care of her, we only cook food for her, moreover there is no separate room where she can go and take rest in the hostel. We don’t know what else to do”. I was informed that on the same floor, six people were suffering from chickenpox. There were no isolation rooms and instead sick people stay with their roommates, which increases the vulnerability to disease.
Even when my field visits were over I could not stop thinking about the workers I had met. For most of them, their only wish is to survive and make ends meet. Are they getting basic human rights? The question remains to be answered. None of what I have seen required a lot of investment to change. Just a little bit of time and effort. They might have meek voices, but listening to them will definitely help in weaving the world to be a better place to live.
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