Monday, August 29, 2016

Dollar City - Review by Sujata Mody

RP Amudhan’s Dollar City : A Review

“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
- Bertolt Brecht

“Dollar City”, P R Amudhan’s 77-minute documentary is a story woven through the alleyways of Tirupur, the hub of Tamil Nadu’s garment industry. Through the stories of people whose lives depend on the garment factories it raises questions about a development model based on industrial production for the global market, but which has little concern for the lives of those who do the producing. Dollar City makes you think, question and connect to the people from slums and villages, homes, factories and trade union offices who are real and present throughout the film.

The film was screened at the South India Training College Hall in Chingleput on July 24th, for garment workers, union activists and members who came to celebrate the High Court Order that upheld a Government Order hiking minimum wages for garment workers..

The documentary revealed the enormous power wielded by the garment industry, the abominable conditions in which factory workers live and work in Tirupur, the gross indifference of owners, the continuing silence on the pollution of the Noyal River, the urban squalor and poverty in Tirupur town. And, while doing all this, the film raises questions about the silence of people to systemic violence and oppression.

Amudhan, the director, grapples with the quality of silence of working people and their acquiescence in their oppression. On the surface there appears to be a consensual relationship between the factory owners and their employees. But what the film shows us is the perennial disconnect between the official and the everyday. Ganesan, a factory owner proudly displays a pet fish valued at fifty thousand rupees, constrained in in a small aquarium, which he sees as a totem of his success in the industry. But, on the other side, the camera chronicles  lives of  contract labour and regular workers employed  on 12-hour- a-day-company-shifts, home based workers, supervisors, aspiring owners of garment factories, the small and big  owners of export units and  communist party leaders and trade unionists speaking at the May Day celebration. 

Mylama, about 60 years old, a cobbler’s daughter recalls happy moments while growing up in her native village - when her father brought home left-overs from the landlords feast.  But there was no dignity in the village, she says. She speaks of coming to Tirupur, and what change this town has brought for her and her clan. With stoic pride she says that now her grandchildren are tailors. In another frame, a lone elderly woman weaver works on her old wooden loom late into the night, preserving a dying tradition of the weft and warp, labouring at her own pace and in dignity and peace. Red flags and May Day speeches with which the film starts and finishes are very far away from this world.

As the camera weaves through the alleyways of Tirupur, Amudhan explicitly looks for Gramscian explanation to the silent acquiescence of the oppressed, their acceptance of the dominant ideology of development and profit, not by force or inducement, but “for reasons of their own”. Amudhan seeks to identify these “reasons of their own” and treats the documentary as a tool to understand and change the situation, question those who speak oblivious of the realities and hold a mirror to the present day trade unionists.

GaFWU activists from Chennai reacted to the film unequivocally, saying that the Tirupur workers appeared to be much worse off than them.  In Chennai they were able to resist twelve hour shifts. One of the workers in the audience said he resigned from his job as he was asked to work on Sundays. Another worker spoke of the need to educate Tirupur’s workers about their rights, as they had no security and no social life as they even worked on Sundays.

The film, which shows us the world of garment workers in Tirupur, also willy nilly explains the context of our struggle to raise minimum wages in in the Chennai region.  Kesavan, a garment factory worker in Madras Export Processing Zone, said, “we were able to get the government to revise the wages upward, by persistent petitioning, campaigning and agitation in the Chennai region. But, we were up against  560 factory owners who contested the wage rise and most of whom are from Tirupur. Since 1978, the garment industry has repeatedly used its power, money and even misused constitutional privileges to keep workers at poverty level wages, forcing them to work overtime and 10-12 hour shifts, often without the statutory weekly day off.”

Kesavan says that employers claim to ‘natural justice’ is hypocritical as they are the ones to bend laws in their favour, use political influence to change policies and resort to trade union bashing. ‘No one can believe that the industry did not know about the wage revision. Workers may not know as it is not published in popular media. However, are employers as ignorant as workers? Apparel manufacturers have consistently the Public Interest litigation route – the writ petition – to preserve their individual and collective right to business and profit and prevent workers from getting even a minimum wage. Is this natural justice?”

The Garment and Fashion Workers Union (GAFWU) that screened Amudhan's film is an independent trade union, led by women workers, waged a long battle to hike in minimum wages in the export garment industry. However, in December of 2014 when Government of Tamil Nadu issued an order to raise the minimum wage by 30 percent, about 560 employers garment factory owners went to the High Court and got  a stay order on the government notification. Though there is a sufficient body of case law that could have been used to set aside the management driven writ petitions, and it would have saved workers, government and courts huge resources that were used to deal with these 560 cases.  All petitions carrying  the same arguments, same wording and with same lawyer were admitted even though similar petitions had been ruled as frivolous in 2010 and 2012 by the same court.  

During the court hearing Justice Ramesh asked the counsel for the management as to why they come to the court, instead they could have used the statutory two month period between the preliminary and final government notification to give their suggestions and objections. The management senior counsel sheepishly admitted that he as the advocate had failed to advice the management in time.Once the cases were instituted, the High Court used its better judgement in allowing the employers to be heard and gave an order upholding the GO, except that this order took 18 months to come.  GAFWU led by women workers, is the only trade union to have fought the long battle to hike in minimum wages in the export garment industry. Coincidently, Amudhan’s film vindicates the experience of womenthat the trade unions are disengaged from the reality of the situation and like the employers expect workers to adhere to rules they set for them.

In Dollar City, Tirupur Exporters Association(TEA) are shown to be proud that there has been no strike since 1980 and that the bipartite agreements between employers and trade unions has ensured industrial peace. Ironically, TEA also claims to be working in national interest, and at the same time they seem oblivious to the caged voices to workers.  This strikes a resonance with arguments of  A L Somayaji, Advocate General of Tamil Nadu who argued on behalf of the government before the Madras High Court, “the petitioners having not paid the minimum wages since the enactment of the Act(for tailoring workers in 1978), the petitioners should be fastened with the liability of paying interest along with penal interest for their act of trying to dislodge a social welfare legislation.

Dollar City vindicates the protracted struggle of Chennai’s garment workers for a fair wage. Tirupur exporters used the ‘natural justice’ argument in and out of court to stall implementation of social welfare legislation with impunity. The garment union activists watching the film could see the power and resources of those they are up against.  The TEA by its admissionhas had access to all the Prime Ministers, it receivesawards for entrepreneurship and trade, is able to bargain for tax subsidies and influence labour law reform in favour of its members. On the other hand workers appear fragmented, trade unions only visible at the ritual May Day meetings and red flags symbolise gruelling poverty and pain, not struggle and power.

After the film, Chokkammal, a GaFWU leader spoke of the battles on the shop-floor, day to day struggle for dignity. Rani an ironing worker repeatedly raised her fear that the minimum wage would not be implemented. Nithya, at a factory workers from an interior village in Thirukalikundram said, we find it impossible to deal with ‘torturous harassment, not being allowed to use toilets, fear of the stoppage of transport to and from work, and not knowing where to take our complaints. Mary spoke of her long illness and how systematically the company denied her claim the medical leave benefit. In the GaFWU meeting workers were speaking about wages, social security, their rights at work, infringement of their dignity by supervisors, in stark contrast to the muted voices from Tirupur.

None of the garment workers interviewed in the film spoke of their difficulties. Ironically, even those who worked on Sundays after an uncompromising 12-hour shift felt obligated to the employer. Yet, the film in a manner of speaking pulls off the invisible gag on the mute unquestioning social order that underpins the Indian garment industry. Dollar City unwrapped the continuing myth of entrepreneurship, progress and development, and counter poses the grinding poverty of working people in Tirupur with culturally deracinated lives devoid of a basic social exchange or leisure. And it parodied the dominant public opinion that Tirupur employers are patriotic, industrious and enterprising, as the viewer can see on whose labour and sacrifice foreign trade and foreign exchange are built on...

RP Amudhan’s film, Dollar City is anhonest document of the alienation of workers at bottom of the end of a global supply chain. It comes at an important juncture when the Indian Government is dismantling its minimalist labour regulation to make it attractive for foreign investors and promote ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’. The film captures the caged, captive and suppressed voices of working people telling us that they too are present and have an experience to share.

Even as the film-maker despairs at the silent majority, the narrative draws us back to the small acts of resistance. The film takes you to other sites in Tirupur - striking power-loom workers, the boy-worker who refused to return to a violent job, the handloom workers who struggle to keep their livelihood against all odds…these other voices resonate in my mind and confirm that varied struggles are challenging the profit model of the Tirupur and also their cultural hegemony over ideas of economic development, poverty and profit.

Sujata Mody
Garment and fashion Workers Union (NTUI)
August 25, 2016

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