The Plight of Women Labourers in India
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Category : STATS AND FACTS

It is pertinent to know more about a demographic group that is a perfect example of “triple exploitation” – i.e. the working class women of India.

Triple exploitation is a term coined by Black feminist scholar, Louise Thompson Patterson to describe the oppression pertaining to class, race, and gender suffered specifically by Black women. In the case of India, a majority of the country’s women labourers belong to Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, and tribal communities. They face not only the pre-existing economic and social challenges that women in society generally face; but they also have to navigate the ugly and often violent layers of casteism, classism and even communalism (when it comes to women of minority communities) on a regular basis.

In February of this year, global fashion brand H&M launched an investigation into the alleged murder and rape of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 20-year-old Dalit garment worker at an H&M supplier Natchi Apparels in Kaithian Kottai, Tamil Nadu, allegedly at the hands of the supervisor of her workplace.

In the same month, Dalit labour rights activist, farmers’ protest organizer and an industrial labourer herself, Nodeep Kaur, was granted bail after being imprisoned on trumped up charges related to the farmers’ protest in Delhi. She was allegedly physically assaulted as well as sexually abused whilst in prison.

As far as the media is concerned, both cases received little attention owing to the caste backgrounds of both the individuals. The latter case only gained traction when international public figures drew attention to her story.

The various fields of female labour in India

There are certain sectors of the economy where women account for a significant percentage of the workforce and sometimes even outnumber men. For instance, in rural areas, the government primary healthcare workers known as ASHA workers are exclusively local women. 85% of rural women work in agriculture, but only around 13% own any land. Another example is the garment manufacturing industry in which women comprise 90% of the workforce. Cumulatively, 95% women in India are involved in the unorganized sector in urban areas – as anganwadi workers, as workers in MSMEs, as sanitation/janitorial staff, manual scavenging/waste-pickers, clerks and receptionists in offices, domestic helpers, construction site workers, migrant labour etc. As for rural areas, they work as agricultural labourers, farmers, plantation labourers, fisherwomen etc. While each of these sectors have their own unique circumstantial challenges, there are some common issues that afflict women workers across sectors.

What are these challenges?

Despite being 48% of the population, India’s women have the rough end of the bargain in almost every socioeconomic indicator. And in the case of working-class women, the reality is even grimmer. Recently, there has been much discussion in policy-making circles over the abysmal rate of female labour force participation as a consequence of the unemployment crisis, which was further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown. FLFP is one of many drivers of growth in an economy and has been demonstrated to positively influence development outcomes. According to the data released by the World Bank in June 2020, India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) is the lowest in South Asia. From 30.3% in 1990, India’s FLFP dropped to 20.3% percent in 2020. At present, the overall unemployment rate in India is 7%, but it is as high as 18% among women.

While examining the causes for this sharp decline, the plight of women labourers becomes painfully clear.

  1. The burden of balancing dual responsibilities of homemaker and breadwinner: Due to social expectations and rigid gender roles, the domestic duties like household chores and child-rearing are largely relegated to women and familial support and sharing of work by male members of the family is very rare. This is a major reason behind low FLFP. For many women, leaving the paid job is not an option due to the economic situation of the family as an additional stream of income is required for survival. Research has revealed how the national lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this situation.
  2. The gender wage gap: Across different fields, Indian women’s overall earnings are less than their male counterparts. The median gross hourly salary for men was Rs 345.8 whereas it was only Rs 259.8 for women. Women-dominant fields like self-employed schemes and small businesses have been hit the hardest due to the pandemic. According to UN Women, the pandemic-induced poverty surge will also widen the gender poverty gap – meaning, more women will be pushed into extreme poverty than men.
  3. Sexual violence: The very nature of the Vishakha Guidelines and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Redressal Act of 2013 is predisposed towards workplaces in the organized sector or formal economy. There is no equally robust law for working women of the unorganized sector. The local committees instituted for the latter are few and far between. This means that these women rarely have any sort of grievance redressal mechanism. As many of them come from underdeveloped regions or poor families, they often cannot afford to abandon the job to escape the sexual harassment and they continue to face it as matter of routine. The #MeToo movement in India has been criticized for failing to make space and center the struggles of working women from marginalized communities.
  4. Physical exploitation: Instances of overworking and not compensating for extra work done are the norm at those professions which are left unregulated, since they fall outside the ambit of formal economy. Innumerable incidents are reported every year of domestic helpers and caretakers being made to work for extra hours without any remuneration.
  5. Unsafe working conditions and toxic workplaces: Women working in sweatshops, garment factories, chemical industries, etc. are disproportionately affected by respiratory diseases. They are often also subject to physical and psychological abuse (harassment, bullying, etc) on account of their gender.

It has been observed that some workplaces do not not hire or promote female workers since they do not want to shoulder the cost of maternity leave or take the responsibility of setting up a sexual harassment committee within the workplace.

  1. Societal issues: Alcoholism is another cause of pressure upon working women. Since the male breadwinner of the family is constantly out of work on account of his drinking habits, the financial responsibility of the entire household falls upon the woman who has no choice but to accept whatever work she comes across, even if it is at the cost of her physical and mental health and her rights as a working woman. Abusive in-laws, pressure of dowry payments, repaying exorbitant amounts of debts to moneylenders (especially in rural areas) are also reasons for the above phenomenon.


The path to amelioration is a two-way process

What can the state do?

The government of India has undertaken initiatives to address the issues of working women- from creating numerous welfare schemes that address financial concerns (Mahila Shakti Kendra, Working Women Hostels, STEP scheme) to mass awareness programs (Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao). More recently, there has been much discussion over the reformed Labour Codes passed by Parliament last year and their potential impact on working women. Whilst there is criticism that the new laws do not allow for workers’ rights to protest/strike, there is also general consensus that the law itself grants more autonomy and enhances social security benefits for working women.

Bureaucratic red-tapism, dysfunctionality in government offices and lack of awareness and guidance with regards to the procedures required are the reasons why these schemes are unable to impact the intended beneficiaries. Policy analysts and researchers are of the opinion that effective implementation of government schemes and execution with accountability are key towards achieving the desired outcomes. Some commonly suggested measures are:

  • As far as urban areas are concerned, make city planning and urbanization models gender-sensitive. Eg: free/subsidized and accessible public transport for women.
  • Set gender-based targets across courses under Skill India and similar skill development schemes to equip women with enhanced skills which improve their employment prospects.
  • The quality of public education must include incentives and programs to keep girls in school, especially at higher secondary level, decrease the dropout rate and increase graduation rates of women.
  • Special scholarships and funds for women of marginalized communities.
  • Anti-sexual harassment cells operated by local self-governments must be made mandatory for unorganized sector.
  • For the above, it is crucial for local self-governments to be empowered enough to see the implementation of these schemes to their end, but they must be given adequate renumeration so that the work does not fall into limbo (as happens too often with government schemes.)

What can society do?

As members of civil society, we have a long way to go in terms of reforming the prevalent problematic attitudes towards women. While the onus of improving conditions of female labourers does fall on the government, it is also the responsibility of society to stop their mistreatment and exploitation. The Indian urban middle-class as well as the private sector, both thrive upon women’s labour at many levels. They have the opportunity to make a difference in the conditions of women workers. At the bare minimum, they must consider them as equals in humanity and get rid of a casteist and classist mentality towards them. They must pay their wages on time, compensate them equitably and ensure safe working environments for them. At an individual level, we could support various NGOs that are involved with women labourers and support their families via fundraisers, education sponsorships for them or their children, etc. Collectively, we must interact with our elected representatives and compel them to give due attention to this issue, at policymaking and implementation levels. Subsequently we must hold them accountable to this issue and most importantly we must demand change at the structural level.

An Islamic perspective

‘Their Lord answered the Prayer thus: “I will not suffer the work of any of you, whether male or female, to go to waste; each of you is from the other…” (Holy Quran 3:195)

This verse of the Holy Quran implies that all humans are equal in the sight of God. God does not have separate criteria for judging the male and the female. Each will be rewarded by God abundantly, without discrimination, if they obey Him and His commandments faithfully.

It was narrated from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said:

“Give the worker his wages before his sweat dries.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)

Islamic tradition emphasizes on the inherent “humanity” of every individual regardless of their gender. The entire humankind are the descendants of Adam and Hawwa. Therefore, the humanity of the individual should be paramount and manmade distinctions of upper/lower caste should be abolished and faultlines of wealth, culture, etc. should never be a cause for discriminatory treatment. Especially when the individual in question is shedding sweat, blood and tears in order to provide service for your ease.

If Islamic concept of equality was practiced more, the conditions of labourers –especially of women, would definitely improve.


In the case of India, a majority of the country’s women labourers belong to Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, and tribal communities. They face not only the pre-existing economic and social challenges that women in society generally face; but they also have to navigate the ugly and often violent layers of casteism, classism and even communalism (when it comes to women of minority communities) on a regular basis.

 

At present, the overall unemployment rate in India is 7%, but it is as high as 18% among women.

Bureaucratic red-tapism, dysfunctionality in government offices and lack of awareness and guidance with regards to the procedures required are the reasons why these schemes are unable to impact the intended beneficiaries. Policy analysts and researchers are of the opinion that effective implementation of government schemes and execution with accountability are key towards achieving the desired outcomes. Some commonly suggested measures are:

While the onus of improving conditions of female labourers does fall on the government, it is also the responsibility of society to stop their mistreatment and exploitation.

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