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 of her tenement with her bowl of bone beads. She threads them into necklaces that will be marketed as an artifact of beauty from the rich repository of Incredible India’s handicraft traditions. 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 (US$1=Rs 44.9) 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 sits for three to four hours at a stretch 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 work may seem simple, but it is extremely laborious.
The money she gets for it is a pittance: Rs 3-4 for 144 packets of plain ‘bindis’, and Rs 12 for the same number of ‘fancy’ ‘bindis’, that require fixing additional bling. 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 many women who make up India’s home-based work force. 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 organising 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. The global economic crisis has hit this section very hard.”
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 documented the spectacularly varied work performed by these workers. In 1989, it conducted a survey in Pune city (Maharashtra) and identified around 150 kinds of home-based work. Almost a decade later, the organisation conducted a study in Delhi’s working class areas and identified around 48 types of piece-rate work.
These include not just making handicrafts and ‘bindis’ like Naseem and Sita do, 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 managed to earn an average of only Rs 32.54 per 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 the AIDWA, women got work for an average of 15.96 days a month and 6.99 months in a year. While the piece rates of 43.01 per cent of women had remained the same over time, only 16.06 per cent said that they received higher rates. What is even more disturbing is that 40.93 per cent reported their piece rates had actually decreased, but they were helpless 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 that we have no identity as home-based workers. Everybody pushes us around. The contractors, the suppliers, even the police. We spend our whole lives working like this. What happens when we are too frail to work? Who will support us then?”
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. Underlines Sheba Farooqui, secretary of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, “We are also raising issues of food security. These women need to be provided with BPL (below poverty line) cards so that they can buy food grains at a subsided rate.”
So far there has been little progress, apart from a weak law – the Unorganised Sector Worker’s Social Security Act – that was passed in Parliament. 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. There has not even been an attempt made by the government to enumerate them. Many of these women are performing highly hazardous activities, working with shards of glass and toxic chemicals. Who is looking at their health needs? A worst injustice than this – given the neo-liberal paradigm that marks India’s economy today – is hard to imagine.”
The reality bears her out. Ironically, these women are actually sparing their employers the costs of running establishments, paying electricity bills and instituting labour regulations. Yet, they end up getting shortchanged in terms of a proper wage. 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.”
History has thrown up innumerable instances of such exploitation. The British poet, Thomas Hood, wrote on the shirt-makers of his day in his ‘Song of the Shirt’ (1843), working till their “brain begins to swim” and their “eyes are heavy and dim”. Hood could just as well have been writing about the invisible lives of India’s eight crore women in home-based work today.