The language of the unheard in Bengaluru

“A riot is the language of the unheard” is one of the less frequently cited sayings of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, but its truth has been illustrated in the recent textile workers’ strike in the Indian city of Bengaluru.

The Garment and Textiles Workers’ Union planned the protests over the government’s new laws stating that workers cannot withdraw from their provident fund until the age of 58. The laws have seen since been revoked, but they were hardly the only cause of unrest.

Staff were owed a gratuity by the employer of 15 days wages per year worked at the end of five years, but staff were typically dismissed before the end of the 5 years.

The textile workers are overwhelmingly lower-class, poorly educated and 80% of them are women. Women are generally provided with less training and are less frequently paid for overtime. Overtime can cause workdays lasting up to 16 hours, is usually unpaid, and workers who refuse overtime are threatened with being fired. Verbal abuse, corporal punishment, and sexual harassment are routine and workers who try to raise complaints are coerced into silence.

There are not enough bathroom facilities, and bathroom breaks are rarely granted. The backbreaking work and filthy air can cause health problems such as asthma, lung cancer, and musculoskeletal problems. Women experience diminished fertility because of spending long hours in a single pose. The union is not recognised on the premises so it has little bargaining power and workers’ rights laws are rarely enforced. Auditors are said to mainly lounge in the manager’s cabin and managers have instructed workers to lie to auditors about pay and conditions. Sudeshna Saha has carried out research (PDF) in Bangalore documenting this situation.

Given such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the protests of up to 125,000 workers have turned violent and disorganised. Several news articles have been focusing on the chaos caused, with burning vehicles, police using tear gas and lathicharges (long clubs). The newspaper The Hindu has described the protests as “spontaneous, unorganised and leaderless” due to the lack of union control over the riots. A police commissioner has said “They had no leader and no specific demand, except that they wanted justice.”

It is galling that the reaction of most news media is to focus on the violence and not on the workers’ conditions that caused the riots in the first place. The same short-sighted coverage has been done on the Black Lives Matter movement and on Palestinian struggles. Riots, as Pam Bailey puts it, are a symptom of oppression: we should look at the causes for symptoms, not condemn them for appearing.

Given the lack of other avenues for action, it may have only been a matter of time before the workers lashed out in such a way. Bengaluru may yet be a prelude of what is to come in nations with such widespread worker abuse. As socialists, the workers have our unending solidarity. The bosses will have our wrath to fear.