In a landmark ruling by India’s top court, Godavari Garments Limited will pay pensions to thousands of women who worked from their home in the 1990s. The Supreme Court ordered the garments firm to pay over a million Indian rupees to the women within a month.
The main issue brought before the court was whether the women workers employed by the company are covered by the definition of “employee” under Section 2(f) of the EPF Act or not. Godavari Garments engaged women workers who were provided with cut fabric, thread, buttons etc. to be made into garments at their own homes. The court noted that the Provident Fund officer held that the women workers engaged for stitching garments were covered by the definition of “employee” under Section 2(f) of the EPF Act.
In the judgement, the bench comprising of Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre and Justice Indu Malhotra noted that the definition of “employee” is an inclusive definition and is widely worded to include “any person engaged either directly or indirectly” in connection with the work of an establishment. “Merely because the women workers were permitted to do the work off site, would not take away their status as employees,” the bench said. “The mere fact that the women workers stitched the garments at home, would make no difference. It is the admitted position that the women workers were paid wages directly by the Respondent Company on a par piece basis for every garment stitched,” it observed.
According to a report authored by Siddhart Kara, ‘Tainted Garments: The Exploitation of Women and Girls in India’s Home-based Garment Sector’ published by Blum Centre for Developing Economies, University of California 2019, due to lack of transparency and the informal nature of home-based work, wages are almost always suppressed. The report says that conditions can be harsh and hazardous, and the worker has virtually no avenue to seek redress of abuse or unfair conditions.
Kara says power imbalances relating to gender further perpetuate the exploitation of female home-based workers, as their liaisons (labor subcontractors) tend to be male and can often be verbally abusive or intimidating in order to secure compliance. He said conditions are worsened by the fact that there is little to no regulation or enforcement from the state regarding conditions for home-based workers in India. The report brought to the fore that home-based work performed by these individuals involves the ‘finishing touches’ on a garment, such as embroidery, tasseling, fringing, beadwork and buttons.
It observed that majority of those exploited in India’s home-based garment sector are women, girls and outcaste communities.