Urimai Kural, part of the Gram Vaani community radio station that spans 15 states, serves as a much-needed helpline for harassed garment factory workers.
A Ganesh Nadar reports.
Urimai Kural is the name of a very popular MGR movie of yore. Urimai means rights and Kural is voice. Literally, that translates into the voice of your rights.
It is also the name of a popular radio station that garment workers in Tamil Nadu are listening to.
The garment trade is said to be worth $ 40 billion annually, and Tamil Nadu is a topper among the states in this trade.
Sadly, the workers in this prosperous trade are not so prosperous, as the most vulnerable section of humanity, young women, are employed in this sector.
To address their concerns, we have a community radio station accessed via mobile phones.
Aaditeshwar Seth started Gram Vaani from IIT-Delhi in 2009. It is currently operational in 15 Indian states. In Tamil Nadu, one of its stations is called Urimai Kural under Lamuel Enoch, project director, Gram Vaani.
"It is not your usual radio. When you call our number, it's a missed call. The system will call you back in three seconds. You are given various options and if you want to say something, you choose option 3 and record whatever you like," says Enoch.
"In the day, from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm, our staff listens to the calls on the headphone and also see it on the computer screen. It can be tagged according to name if the caller gives it, location if it is mentioned, or topic depending on what the caller says," Enoch adds.
"If it is a grievance call we send it to the trade unions, if it is something that is of value to the rest of the community we publish it, meaning whoever tunes into our station can hear it," Enoch explains.
"When you call the number, you have options," points out Orlanda Ruthven, Enoch's superior in Delhi, "but even if you don't choose any, it will start playing like your playlist one after the other."
"Most of our listeners put their phones on speaker mode and listen to it while they go about their daily chores," Ruthven adds.
Gram Vaani has three stations in Tamil Nadu -- Urimai Kural, TTCU Kural and Tiruppur Kural.
"We popularise our phone number 9266616777 by partnering with trade unions. In Chennai we have partnered two unions, Penn Thozhilalar Sangam and GAFU, of garment workers," says Enoch.
"We publish (that is, air) within 12 hours of receiving it, after 5.30 in the evening. The recordings remain in the system, I can access it from my laptop and decide what to do with it whenever I log in, Enoch adds.
When there is a complaint about sexual harassment it is sent to the trade union which acts on it after verifying that it is a genuine complaint.
Some call about provident fund dues, others about long working hours, non-payment of wages on time.
Some even call and sing a song. Some relate interesting things that happened in the community.
"We get in touch with PF managers to solve the problem and usually they are very cooperative and helpful," says Ruthven. "We also have grama sabha meetings four times a year."
"In our dramas which they can listen to, there will be a message, but it will be put across in an entertaining manner. Our basic aims are to create awareness of rights and entitlements at the workplace," Ruthven adds.
"We have Indian and international donors who fund our project. In Chennai and Dindigul we are working with unions, and in Tiruppur with referral partners and committed advocates who help us to solve the problems of our callers," Enoch explains.
Discussing a particular intervention, Enoch says, "At 10 am we got a call from a lady who said she was going to commit suicide. Someone had told her to call us. I immediately called our people in Dindigul who contacted her, met her and counselled her. We saved her."
"We keep politics out of our services, anyone says anything political, we don't post it," says Palani Bharati, the radio station's community manager who works with workers, encouraging them to air their grievances. "We also don't publish attacks on the government or anybody else."
"The content generated by users is a separate option on the interface. We are special in that we are an interactive radio station," adds Bharati.
Sujata Mody, leader of a women workers union in Chennai, says Urimai Kural has helped the union in various ways. The first is that it gives workers information about labour issues. Secondly, it gives the community a platform to communicate their grievances and also with each other.
The community radio gives visibility to the union leaders and gives the workers a platform to share their experiences.
"Thirty per cent of our union members listen to Urimai Kural every day," says Mody. "A worker from Perumbakkam was listening to a psychologist speak about alchoholism and how to tackle it. This lady had been separated from her husband and she was taking care of her children."
"She brought her husband back and did what the psychologist had spoken about on the radio broadcast," adds Modi. "It worked and the couple is back together."
About the grievances forwarded to her union by the radio station, Mody says, "We have received seven cases of sexual harassment. We have solved one and the others are in various stages (of resolution)."
"We are careful when we deal with these cases as we don't want the lady to lose her job. Most women don't want their families, particularly their husbands, to know about this as they might react violently."
More women have begin participating in grama sabha meetings after Urimai Kural started its broadcasts, says Mody.
"Among grievances we pay serious attention to sexual harassment," says Dhivya Rakini, who heads the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union. "Though we name the harasser, we never name the victim.
"One woman named the harasser. That man was dismissed," says Rakhini. "In three other cases, the men were transferred to other departments. In two factories they appointed senior women monitors to keep an eye on the young women."
"Factories were not paying wages when women stopped working. Some were working without a lunch break and others were working for 11 hours in an 8 hour shift," says Rakhini. "We first talk to the management, the factory unions. Finally, we go to the labour commissioner."
The three radio stations each get 100 to 300 calls a day and have launched a revolution in the lives of garment workers.
Unbelievably, all this has been achieved with Gram Vaani's five employees in Tamil Nadu.