By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of textile workers in India's Tamil Nadu state have launched protests to demand that the first minimum wage increase in the southern state in more than 12 years is enforced.
In July, the Madras High Court ordered a pay rise of up to 30 percent for hundreds of thousands of garment workers in Tamil Nadu, but appeals by manufacturers against the order have left workers in limbo, labor unionists said.
Under the 1948 Minimum Wages Act, state governments are required to increase the basic minimum wage every five years to protect workers against labor exploitation, but textile manufacturers have repeatedly challenged pay rises in Tamil Nadu.
"The government must enforce the minimum wage notification," said S Elizabeth Rani, general secretary of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, in a statement.
"Our wages have stagnated while the cost of living keeps increasing. Many of us are single parents and sole wage earners."
About 50 protesting workers were arrested near the port city of Chennai last week before being released without charge.
Under the court ruling, workers would see their pay rise from a monthly average of 4,500 rupees to 6,500 rupees ($68 to $98) - which campaigners say is comparable to wages for textile jobs in most other states.
But manufacturers in Tamil Nadu say the hike is too high, putting them at a disadvantage to competitors in other states.
"States cannot have their own way of fixing wages without understanding the reality and the background," K.Venkatachalam, chief advisor of the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If such decisions are taken, industries would attempt to move to a state where they feel comfortable with labor policies."
India is one of the world's largest textile and garment manufacturers. The $40-billion-a-year industry employs around 45 million workers. Many of them are trapped in debt bondage, face abuse or are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, campaigners say.
"Manufacturers must recognize that this is a labor intensive unit requiring highly skilled workers," said Sujata Mody, President of the Garment and Fashion Workers Union.
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)