Unorganised and helpless

DAILY BATTLES

Unorganised and helpless

GROUND REALITY The Janwadi Mahila Samiti has been petitioning both the Central and Delhi governments to formally recognise women  workers, provide them with identity cards, and ensure guaranteed  employment. PIC FOR REPRESENTATION ONLY.

She lives in a cramped dwelling, tucked away in the warren of bylanes, that mark the neighbourhood of Asia’s largest mosque, Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Every day, once the household chores are done, Naseem Bano sits on the floor with a bowl of bone beads. She threads them into necklaces that will be marketed as an artifact of beauty. But no matter how hard Naseem works, and for how long, she is unlikely to earn more than an eighth of the daily minimum wage for workers in the capital. 

“We never make more than Rs 25 a day. But we do this work, hour after hour, day after day, because we need every rupee to keep our households running,” says Naseem, who despite being only 45, complains of backaches and numbness of the feet because she is sitting for three to four hours at a stretch — often late into the night — to craft her necklaces. 

Sita Kumari, 35, has been making bindis from her home in Manakpura, near Delhi’s Karol Bagh. The contractor supplies her with the material from which she fashions these cosmetic embellishments, which she then places on small cardboard pieces for distribution and sale.

The money she gets  is a pittance: Rs 4 for 144 packets of plain bindis, and Rs 12 for the same number of ‘fancy’ bindis, that require additional work. Sita echoes Naseem, “We can, even if we work non-stop, only hope to make around Rs 15-20 a day. Not being trained in anything else, we have no escape. We need it for our ‘dal-roti’ (daily sustenance).”  

Naseem and Sita are just two of the many women who make up India’s home-based workforce. According to the 2007 report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector chaired by the late economist, Arjun Sengupta, women constitute 32.3 per cent of workers in this sector, and more than half of them – nearly eight crore – have home-based occupations. 

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has been involved for many years in bringing some form of repreive for these women. Explains AIDWA’s general secretary, Sudha Sundaraman, “It breaks your heart to see the conditions these women work in, how after a full day’s hard work they end up getting just a few rupees. The most shocking aspect is that over the years their wages have actually fallen even as the cost of living has risen several-fold. ”

For Sundaraman, this is irrefutable proof of how women continue to be pushed into the most exploitative of work. “They who most need protection, find themselves falling between the cracks, unable to access any of the government’s welfare provisions,” she says.
AIDWA has also documented the spectacularly varied work performed by these workers. In 1989, it conducted a survey in Pune and identified 150 types of home-based work. Almost a decade later, the organisation conducted a study in Delhi’s working class areas and identified  48 types of piece-rate work. These include not just making handicrafts and bindis, but embroidering fabric, filling chuna (edible limestone) into containers, fashioning key rings out of thick metal wires with pliers, and even semi-specialised work like assembling TV parts, making insulators for ironing elements, and chemical washing of car parts.  

The study also found that after working on an average for nearly seven hours a day – often with help from other family members – home-based workers in Delhi manage to earn an average of only Rs 32.54 a day. The full extent of their situation can be gauged by comparing this to the statutory minimum daily wage in Delhi, which is around Rs 250. The majority of them did more than one sort of piece-rate work. It was also found that an ever-increasing number of women were driven to such work because of a shrinking job market. Sometimes a crisis in the family – the death of a husband or sudden expenditure because of illness in the family, or even because the children needed extra milk – compelled many to take up these occupations. 

Insecurity continued to dog them nevertheless. Work was largely seasonal, with only a very small section getting work throughout the year. According to AIDWA, women got work for an average of 15.96 days a month and 6.99 months in a year. What is even more disturbing is that 40.93 per cent reported their piece rates had actually decreased, but they were afraid to demand more for fear of losing even this piffling income
Kamala, who has been organising women home-based workers in Delhi for five years, reveals why this is the case, “The trouble is, we have no identity for home-based workers. Everybody pushes them around. The contractors, suppliers, even the police.

What happens when they are too frail to work? Who will support them?”  
This is precisely why AIDWA and its affiliate, the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, has been petitioning both the Central and Delhi governments to formally recognise this category of workers, provide them with identity cards, ensure guaranteed employment and comprehensive social security, including a contributory provident fund programme and insurance scheme.

So far there has been little progress, apart from a weak law – the Unorganised Sector Worker’s Social Security Act. The law doesn’t go beyond stating that social security requires to be provided to unorganised sector workers. It does not lay down any specific financial provisioning, nor does it ensure the implementation of social security schemes for such workers. The one requirement under this law – the setting up of state-level boards for formulating social security and welfare schemes with only advisory powers – has not been implemented as yet.  

Asks Sundaraman pointedly, “How has this law helped the hundreds of thousands of women in home-based work? There has been no attempt to set up the separate boards mandated by the Act. Many of these women are working in hazardous conditions, working with shards of glass and toxic chemicals. Who is looking at their health needs? ”  
The reality bears her out. Ironically, these women are actually sparing their employers the cost of running establishments, paying electricity bills and instituting labour regulations. Yet, they end up getting shortchanged. Says union leader Kamala, “Most of our women are ignorant about their rights. They are just grateful that they get a little money without having to leave their homes. We are struggling to make them more aware, but it is a long and difficult process.”

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