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India's Home-Based Workers Fall Through Safety Net

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Work-from-home women in India are often trapped in physically draining, sometimes hazardous, tasks that pay far less than the minimum daily wage. Labor activists are lobbying the government for change.

Subhead: 
Work-from-home women in India are often trapped in physically draining, sometimes hazardous, tasks that pay far less than the minimum daily wage. Labor activists are lobbying the government for change.



NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--She lives in a cramped dwelling tucked away in the warren of bylanes near Asia's largest mosque, Delhi's Jama Masjid.

Every day, after the household chores are done, Naseem Bano, 45, sits on the floor with her bowl of bone beads and threads them into necklaces. They will be marketed as an example of India's rich handicraft tradition.

But for Bano there is no hint of richness in her own life. No matter how hard or long she works on any given day, she'll earn only about 50 cents, far below the statutory daily minimum wage of about $5.50 for workers in the capital.

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"We do this work, hour after hour, day after day, because we need every rupee to keep our households running," says Bano, who complains of backaches and numbness of the feet because she sits for three to four hours at a stretch--often late into the night--to craft her necklaces.

Sita Kumari, 35, has been making bindis--the forehead decoration--from her home in Delhi's Manakpura. A contractor supplies her with the materials and she places her creations on small cardboard pieces for distribution and sale. Like Bano, she can never expect to come close to the minimum daily wage.

"Not being trained in anything else, we have no escape," she says.

Bano and Kumari provide a window into the country's "unorganized enterprise" sector. About 32 percent of this work force is female, half of whom work out of their homes, according to a 2007 government study.

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), a longstanding advocacy group with chapters throughout the country, has been petitioning both the national and Delhi governments to formally recognize this category of workers, provide them with identity cards, ensure guaranteed employment and comprehensive social security.

Food Security Concerns

The association is working on this effort with another advocacy group, the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, which is particularly concerned with food subsidies.

"We are also raising issues of food security," says Sheba Farooqui, secretary of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti. She says women must be provided with BPL-- below-poverty-line--cards so they can buy food grains at a subsided rate.

Sudha Sundaraman is general secretary of AIDWA, which has headquarters in New Delhi.

"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," she says. "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."

AIDWA has documented the variety of tasks performed by these workers. In a 1989 study in Pune city, in the state of Maharashtra, the group identified around 150 kinds of home-based work. Almost a decade later, it conducted a similar study in Delhi and identified around 48 types of piece-rate work.

In addition to handicrafts, jobs included embroidering fabric, filling "chuna" (edible limestone) into containers and fashioning key rings out of thick metal wires with pliers. There was also some semi-specialized work such as assembling TV parts, making insulators for ironing elements and chemical washing of car parts.

After working an average of nearly seven hours a day--often with help from other family members--the earnings of home-based workers in Delhi were around the same range as that of Bano and Kumari.

The majority of the women performed more than one sort of piece-rate work and an increasing number were forced into such work by 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.

Seasonal, Part-Time Work

Much of the work was seasonal and part-time. The women, on average, worked about 16 days a month and seven months a year. The rates for each piece remained the same for several years for 43 percent of the women, with 16 percent reporting higher rates. Forty-one percent said their rate had fallen and they felt helpless to demand higher payment for fear of losing the work altogether.

"The trouble is that we have no identity as home-based workers," says Kamala, who has been working to organize other female home-based workers in Delhi for five years. "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?"

Kamala says most of the home-based women are ignorant of 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," she says.

The Unorganized Sector Worker's Social Security Act says social security should be provided, but makes no budgeting or implementation provisions. The one requirement of the 2008 law--setting up advisory state level boards to formulate social security and welfare policies--has not been implemented.

"How has this law helped the hundreds of thousands of women in home-based work?" asks Sundaraman of AIDWA. "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."

This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women's Feature Service. For more articles on women's issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org .

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Pamela Philipose is the director of Women's Feature Service in New Delhi. Previously she was senior associate editor with The Indian Express, a leading national daily in India.

For more information:

All India Women's Democratic Association:
http://aidwaonline.org/