Markets on Mysore Road in downtown Bangalore, close to union offices where Natalie and Salina conducted interviews.

Markets on Mysore Road in downtown Bangalore, close to union offices where Natalie and Salina conducted interviews.

We all buy clothing. Most of us buy our clothes from corporate stores like H&M and the Gap. And yet, as students of Peace, Conflict, and Justice, a program that has encouraged us to think globally, it is difficult not to wonder about the conditions in garment factories in low- and middle-income countries. We travelled to Bangalore, India in August to explore the success of the Munnade Social Organization and the Garment Labour Union (GLU), a partnership comprising a grassroots union and a women’s social organization that organizes and educates female garment factory workers and provides services. Our research is supported by the Dean’s International Initiative Fund, which gave us the opportunity to conduct field research under the supervision of Professor Teresa Kramarz. We worked with Professor Kramarz throughout the academic year to conduct extensive desk research, refine our research question, and prepare for interviews in the field. As Munk One alumni, we are fascinated by solutions to devastating and challenging global problems. The garment industry is a complex ecosystem where promoting labour rights is notoriously difficult; Munnade and GLU are innovative because they have created a union model where workers’ well-being both inside and outside of the factory is prioritized.


Fast fashion is an extremely lucrative industry. Stores like Zara, the Gap and H&M source garment factories from across the globe, and bring cheap, appealing clothing options to the consumerist Western masses. As a result, a demand has been created for readymade garments, which in turn have become India’s largest foreign exchange earner. This is particularly evident in the state of Karnataka, where the garment factory industry is well-established and employs more women than almost any other industry. Of the 788 Karnataka garment manufacturing units, 729 are located in the capital of the state, Bengaluru (colloquially Bangalore). Here, garment factories are known to be capable of circumventing regulations and legal provisions for the workers. Sexual harassment and mandatory (unpaid) overtime are frequently imposed on the factory employees.


 A banner hanging in the Garment Labour Union office in Peenya, Bangalore.

A banner hanging in the Garment Labour Union office in Peenya, Bangalore.

We travelled to Bangalore to determine lessons that can be learned for other unions in similar contexts. A number of key findings stood out: firstly, a key indicator of success for Munnade and GLU was pre-union organizing, where workers would gather to form microfinance groups. Since women were incentivized to attend their microfinance groups in order to take out loans, and groups created a platform where discussions were facilitated regarding workplace sexual harassment and other labour rights issues. Munnade and GLU are also unique in their relationship to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Cividep and Amnesty International. The Garment Labour Union’s connection to NGOs has allowed the union to offer services outside of the factories, focusing on the holistic well-being of the worker. International NGOs also offer accountability, where organizations have in the past refused financial support to unions who are not meaningful providing benefits to factory workers on the ground.


As we learned more about the individuals that have been exploited and oppressed within this industry, we became particularly interested in the extraordinary work Munnade has done to promote the individual and holistic success of those who work in garment factories. The unique model designed by this organization educates women about their rights and encourage new membership of GLU while simultaneously contributing to their quality of life. This is done through “Factory Gate Meetings”, gatherings held outside of factories at the end of the work day, where women can speak publically about labour issues and the work done by unions to promote workers’ rights. Internal groups led by union members within the factories also serve to pass on information to women who have not had the time or awareness to approach a union. Munnade and GLU also advocate for their members, maintaining a relationship with the Karnataka state government. Other services include “Self Help Groups”, which conduct savings and credit activities to help women gain education, medical and legal assistance, family and individual counselling, and a daycare that educates children of garment factory workers. These additional elements truly set this model apart from typical unions. There is an implicit understanding that mere advocacy will not solve the issues that exist currently, and these will continue to exist despite efforts for governmental and systemic change.

Salina and Natalie hiking at Nandi Hills.

Salina and Natalie took a break when union offices were closed to go on a hike at Nandi Hills.

As a result, Munnade acknowledges these issues by offering the aforementioned services, eliminating some of the barriers to success that factory workers face in their daily lives.


Conducting this research has been very relevant to studies in Peace, Conflict, and Justice. Munnade and the Garment Labour Union show how grassroots groups can be effective in promoting and maintaining human rights in fragile contexts. Our research also proved to be telling for the ways in which we understand gendered issues in our studies; in speaking to women directly, we were able to understand the particular socio-economic vulnerabilities female garment factory workers face.  The lessons learned from this case, including the importance of pre-organization trust-building and accountability mechanisms, are relevant for organizing vulnerable populations around a common goal, within the garment industry and beyond.



Natalie Boychuk is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Peace, Conflict, and Justice and minoring in French as a second language and political science.

Salina Suri is a third-year undergraduate student specializing in History.