Resurgent India is facing many anomalies. For instance, the economic growth curve, somewhat affected by the global meltdown, is now expected to get back on track and move upwards again, beyond the 9% high of 2008. This has not, however, improved our HDI ranking. This year’s UN HDR Report places us at 134 out of 182 countries.
The growing list of millionaires and billionaires is no less impressive. The Forbes billionaires’ list puts India way up at 6th rank. But the HDR Report 2009 shows that 41.6% of people live on less than $1.25- the current poverty index, and 75.6% live on less than $2 a day.( one dollar=approx Rs. 45/-) The situation of women and children, especially from amongst the marginalized communities, continues to deteriorate. Every third malnourished child in the world is an Indian, and every second Indian woman suffers from anaemia.
Despite this shocking reality, many mandarins of growth still refuse to critique the current patterns of economic development. Among other things, one of the curious features which they point to, as a measure of justification, is that women’s work participation rate in India has increased over the 5 years, from 1999- 2000, to 2004- 05. (NSS data, 2004-2005). Their contention is that with more women entering into paid work, their economic and social conditions will improve automatically.
However, what is the reality? While it is true that women’s participation in social production is an important pre requisite for her emancipation, the current entry into the job market is occurring within the economic paradigm of neo liberal globalization. As a result, the conditions of work, wages, the structures and systems that influence hiring and firing, etc. combine to place her at a tremendous disadvantage. It is unfortunate indeed that the women’s incursion into the work place has actually achieved the opposite of what it should do- it has made her a victim of greater exploitation and oppression. How unjust is the capitalist system which sabotages the working woman’s rights so systematically. How important for the women’s movement to take up this challenge on every front!
There are many ways in which the current trends are exacerbating existing problems, and highlighting even a few issues reveals the multiple dimensions of oppression and discrimination that women workers are being subjected to.
Increasing insecurity of employment
Even as more women are appearing on the map as part of higher female work participation rates, unemployment figures for women and the number of women seeking jobs are also going up. The organized sector jobs have been deliberately limited by Govt. policy. With low work availability, most of the recent increases in employment have been in the form of self employment. But, as those who have experienced the vagaries of the market can tell you, they are exposed to a great deal of insecurity, and instability of incomes.
Domestic workers: For urban women the increase in work has predominantly been in services, including the relatively low paid domestic service. The NSS data (2000) showed that there are 12 lakh domestic workers. Since then, the numbers have increased to an estimated 30 lakhs - an almost threefold increase. This is not by chance. Women from poorer economic strata, often unskilled and uneducated, are pushed into it because of lack of an alternative. Migration into the urban areas from crisis ridden rural areas is a major push factor. Many women consider it an advantage to be able to combine it with the pressures of their own household work. But the impact on their health and well being is very adverse. An AIDWA survey done in Pune revealed that they suffer from multiple health problems. A significant section comprises women headed households, many had alcoholic and abusive husbands. They are subject to various indignities, and are vulnerable to sexual harassment at the workplace. They are often, baselessly, accused of theft. Girl children are victims of gross abuse. Such is the predicament of the domestic segment woman worker.
Home based workers: The other major segment- the manufacturing sector, is proudly reporting growth. Here, the work is mainly outsourced to homebased petty workers as part of a larger production chain. The condition of home based workers, who are predominantly women, is truly deplorable. In Delhi, an AIDWA discovered the incredibly low piece rates that were being offered to the women. For sticking bindis on packets for instance, they receive Rs 3-4 for 144 packets of plain bindis, and Rs 12 for fancy bindis. Making paper envelopes got them Rs10 for 1000 pieces. The piece rate calculations peg payment at abysmally low levels. Unbelievably, in a context of spiraling prices, women complained that the wage rates have actually been going down over the past few years. Such is the demand for the pittance that is given as wages. Since the actual employer is not even in the picture, the question of organizing to demand just wages, etc. does not even arise! The employer does not have to provide any amenities to the worker - no electricity, no work spaces, no PF, no bonus or gratuity, no maternity benefit, no nothing. It is these profits garnered at the expense of the dispossessed woman worker that translate into the disproportionate growth in incomes
Government service: Perhaps the most cruel injustice has been meted out by the Govt, which has not only refused to lift the ban order on jobs, but is increasingly resorting to extensive privatization of essential public services and utilities. Only a privileged and small minority of women are in Government service, enjoying the benefits of the Government employee. But in many departments, women are becoming contract workers. In school education, hundreds of para teachers, mostly women, are being appointed under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan at much lower wages. The ICDS anganwadi scheme - one of the most ambitious projects to address malnutrition amongst children - pays the “ volunteers” – generally women- an honorarium, which has only recently been increased to Rs.1500 per month, after long years of concerted agitation. The ASHA in the Health Mission is conceived of as a service provider on a voluntary basis, who is only given a small incentive for rendering certain crucial health services to other women.
Thus the Government is guilty of accentuating the exploitation of women workers by refusing to make women Govt employees, even though they may be carrying out those responsibilities.
The agrarian crisis
In rural India, till date, women are not recognized as farmers, despite their significant contribution to agricultural production. Self employment has come to dominate women’s activities even in non agricultural occupations largely because of the difficulty of finding paid work. The agrarian crisis has forced women to opt for work - any kind of work, at any rate - as a survival strategy. In AP,( as in many states), AIDWA found that women farmers who committed suicide were not considered for assistance by the Government because the land was not registered in their names. The experience of NREGA reveals how women in many areas asked for jobs despite the strenuous earth work that had to be completed under existing work norms, revealing their desperation. In some states, single women are often turned away from work sites, and women workers are paid much less than the minimum wages which is their right.
Migrant Workers The severe agrarian crisis has also led to greater migration amongst women. In distress driven migration, the line between voluntary migration and trafficking of women and girl children is very thin. The internal migrants face a major problem, due to their invisibility as far as public policy is concerned. All citizenship rights, and services in our country are residence based, which means that short term migrants are denied many entitlements. Apart from the usual deprivations that women workers in the informal sector are subjected to, the migrant woman has no place to stay, no access to water supply, sanitation or other basic services. The children are deprived of education. The incidence of child labour is high. So is indebtedness. Migrant workers are unable to exercise their franchise during elections. These are some of the most disadvantaged and deprived sections of the working class, but their plight has not become visible, as the official data is unable to capture the reality of their lives.
Women’s work is never done. Not only do woman manage the home sphere and the work sphere, the double or triple burden they carry is often at the cost of leisure and rest. This has been aggravated by policies which reduce social care mechanisms, and affect common property resources, or those leading to privatization of commodities like water.
Hence, even as the existing system seeks to extract profits from women’s labour in multiple ways, women too have to organize and mobilize around their demands and join up with others so as to counter these trends. In the struggle for equality, bringing the unorganized sector women worker- who today constitutes nearly 90% of the female work force, into the mainstream is a crucial task The potential for changing existing equations would get considerably strengthened if the militant energy of the woman worker can be mobilized in the proper direction. This must be a priority for the women’s movement in the future.