Shafiq R Khan

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WOMEN AT WORK: RIGHTS AND VULNERABILITIES


One thing that emerges clearly is that many women have come  to  the city  in  search of a livelihood for themselves. Although many of them did migrate with their families, it
is they who became the primary bread earners over time. The changing scenario of the rural economy in the backdrop of privatisation and liberalisation has led to mass-scale unemployment in  the  rural areas. The loss of small-scale industries and the closing down of economic units has forced people to leave the village for the city. There is  a  hope  that in the city they will at least  be able to earn enough to sustain their families. The cities, at the same time, have seen a different kind of change. With greater education for the women and rise in the buying capacity of the middle class, the demand for the work of domestic care has increased. More women are coming out of their homes
to earn, however the responsibility of child-care and housework remains theirs  too.  This creates a need to employ others to take on these responsibilities of house-work  and child and elderly care. Thus, the factors  that  push women out of the villages are omplemented by demand factors in the city that pulls them. The result is that there is a huge workforce of women in the city of Delhi, primarily in the unorganised sector.  

Domestic worker in Taimoor nagar Delhi Photo-Srkhan
The Unorganised Sector
All the women in our  sample  were located in the unorganised sector.Characteristically, there is  no written  contract that enumerates the benefits and the conditions of work for women. There is no concept of a minimum wage, no redressal mechanism and no monitoring body.
The working conditions are often poor and the only recourse to any violations is to leave the job.  Our field-work experience  suggests that the factory, which is traditionally  understood as a private-sector  undertaking, is also slowly being converted into an
unorganised sector work- setting.
Such change should also be explained taking into account the policies of liberalisation and privatisation, which have  entailed new work practices  including outsourcing, flexible work and other such practices which further informalise their work.
Increasingly,  in factories, less workers are employed on a regular basis and more are taken  on  a contract. A large portion of the work in the factory is also being distributed to the small, home- based kind of settings. Such homebased work is usually very poorly
paid. 
The desperation to earn their livelihood somehow makes the women even more vulnerable to all kinds of violence at the workplace. These include theft accusations,  nonpayment of wages, bribery, and sexual and physical harassment. The employers and others who are in the position of power take advantage of such vulnerability of the women working in the unorganised sector.

The City and Work: Some Common Concerns
The following are some of the common concerns that emerged from the interviews with the women: Opportunities for Earning: Working in the city and earning their livelihood has various meanings for the migrant women. It means having an opportunity to earn on their own, in stark contrast to their life in the village. It also offers an opportunity to make new working relationships- with the employer, factory owner, contractor and so on. Despite their vulnerability in such power relations, these people are the ones to whom women turn to in times of need. There are hardly any other support structures available to them.
Apart from providing a source of income for women in general, the city also provides opportunity for the single women, who would otherwise live without any earning in the village and in the absence of a male member to look after them. 
In addition to this, the city provides opportunities for the women to engage in multiple
occupations. 
The Triple Burden: Although most women migrate with their families and husbands, in due course of time they often become the primary earners of the family. For the women, it means that over time,
they are the ones who become responsible for everything- the children, the house and the work as well. While earning on their own may make the women more independent
and empowered, at the same time, it puts this triple burden on them.
This is to emphasize the fact that although more number of women have come out of their homes to work, there has not been a similar, or even comparable, increase in the
men’s responsibility at home. The workload of the women thereby has tremendously increased. Their life is a continuous drag of work from morning to night, often without
even a second’s rest. In addition to this, some women also express that their coming out of homes sometimes makes the men in the families become even more violent
and possessive. The result is domestic violence, regular abuse and accusations of infidelity. Thus, life at the same time becomes more difficult.
 
The Demon of Demolition: Most of the migrants live in illegal colonies that are in constant threat of demolition. Such demolition often happens without a sufficient legal notice period. A constant threat in the minds of women who are staying in migrant
colonies is the threat of demolition. The fact that their homes could be broken down any day lurks in their minds all the time and gives a sense of uncertainly to their lives. For them it means searching for a new place to live in, loss of livelihood and losing everything that they may have invested in building their homes.
Often, they are relocated to new areas, which are situated in the outskirts of the city. That means that they have to now travel much longer distances for work. The amount of money and time spent on the travel is huge making the occupation itself absolutely non-
viable for them. The result is loss of work for a large number of migrant men and women. 
Harassment: The responses revealed a tremendous taboo around the issue of sexual harassment. For most of the women on being asked about their experiences of arassment,
their first reaction was strong denial. They denied having ever heard of or experienced it. We noted that the women talked more freely about domestic violence, as compared to sexual violence. But still, some of them did share about their experiences of having faced
such harassment. They talked about harassment by the people, police and their employers and even relatives. The need for work to sustain themselves makes them especially vulnerable to harassment which could be varied in its forms and intensity. It could be nonpayment of wages, maltreatment or verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

Types of Work
The migrant women in our study are employed in various types of work.
The largest percentage of women whom we interviewed work as domestic workers. They do tasks such as washing dishes, clothes, cleaning, mopping, and sometimes cooking for other households. These women fulfill the growing demand for domestic workers in the city.
A considerable number of women are also working in the factories in Gurgaon, Govindpuri and Faridabad. A factory, as mentioned earlier, is traditionally understood as a private sector undertaking that is guided by the rules and regulations of private enterprises. But, most of the women whom we interviewed worked in these factories on a
contract basis. The contract usually is from anywhere between 10 days to four months. A large number of women also work from home doing textile–related work like piece cutting, stitching sequins and beads on the cloth, and making drawstrings.  
Shafique with Domestic workers children
in their community  : Photo- Nirmala
Apart from this, there are a large number of seasonal migrants who come to the city every year to work at the construction sites. They leave their family and home behind and often move with friends and relatives from the same village.
More often than not, they come to work for the same contractor. Finally, some women are also categorized as self- employed. They are petty shop owners, tailors, vegetable and fruit sellers and so on. 
The economic and civic issues that face all the women, no matter what kind of work they are engaged is, are the same. All of them are working extremely hard to eke out a living for themselves and are vulnerable to various kinds of harassment.

Domestic Work
The Rising Demand: Domestic work is taken up by a large number of women who are living in migrant colonies in Delhi. This is a low- skill job in which women do not have to have particular skills. The work that they do as a domestic worker is ‘gendered’, it is something that they have been doing as women all their lives- washing, cleaning,
cooking and other traditionally female household work. There is more demand to employ women to do household work as they are seen to be less demanding, less likely to
protest in cases of theft accusations and other kinds of harassment and most importantly due to the fact that domestic work is understood as ‘women’s work’.
The Informal Network of Information: For most women, the network that they use for getting the information about the availability of work in any household is informal. It is
usually a neighbour who is also doing the same job who tells other women about the work that is available in a particular house.
But, we have come across some rare cases in which women have gone on their own to look for job and have got it. 
The Work: The women who were interviewed during this research are part-time workers. The work is part-time in the sense that they do not live with the employer. On an
average, one woman works in about four to five houses and she has to do two shifts. Often they have to leave home at about seven in the morning and it is only by late in
the afternoon that they come back after finishing one shift. They just have the time to finish their lunch and get a little rest, then it is time again to leave for work for the second shift. Most of the women have to cook after they come home and then feed the children and then eat. If there is an older daughter or a mother-in-law at home, then they gets some support for their household chores, otherwise the entire burden falls on them. In the words of a women from East of Kailash,   
“I get up at six in the morning. After my morning chores I clean the house, wash the utensils of the past night make breakfast for everyone and most of the time leave
for work without eating anything.
After coming back from the work at around 1:00, I have to prepare the lunch and wash clothes.   Again I leave for work at four in the evening and then come back not before 7 p.m. After making dinner and having it I go to sleep around eleven.”
The Pros and Cons: Despite the continuous hardships and monotony of the job, many women find it preferable to work as a domestic help. Many of them say that it is
because they are able to come home during the day to take care of their young children. At the same time, domestic work does not involve much commuting. Often, only
those women are employed who stay close to the employer’s place of residence. This gives them the freedom to call her whenever they want, sometimes earlier and
sometimes a little later than the scheduled time. Even the women do not have to travel much and spend money in commuting from one place to the other. In most cases, women
are able to walk down to their places of work.  Benefits, however discretionary: In
working as a domestic help, women often make several new relationships with the various members in the households. It is these people, who often support the woman with money, food, medical assistance, old clothes and so on.
However such benefits are completely at the discretion of the employer. There are homes in which no such benefits are offered. We observed that the women took a lot of pride in not even asking for a cup of tea or any other benefits. If given, they will accept, but
they will not ask for anything on their own accord. This is the only kind of employment in which the women get some benefits, howsoever discretionary. They are given old
clothes, holidays, medicines, and sometimes even money from the employers in whose house they work, particularly in the case of any social event such as marriage.
There are cases in which the employer has helped the women in handling domestic violence from the husband. The following are the words of a woman who worked as a
domestic worker in East of Kailash about the benefits that she received:
“I got a lot of benefits. They would give me meals, clothes and blankets – everything, from there. They supported me whenever my husband would ill treat me or beat me. They got my daughter admission in a school and also gave her bag, notebooks etc. They would tell me that they would deduct my wages for the number of days that I took
leave, but they never did. They only wanted me to let them know in advance whenever I wanted to take leave. But this made them prepare for arranging for alternatives.”
Another woman from the same area went to Saudi Arabia for work. She shares her experience: 
“I was treated very well there. I used to get food, good money and medical facilities. Once when I was washing heavy carpets, my earlier stitches opened up and I was in
terrible condition. This happened about 6-7 months after I had got myself operated. When I had the above mentioned health problem, I wanted to come back to India. They gave me a watch, golden earrings, one chain when I was leaving and also helped me in coming back to India by taking care of the travel expenses.”
Another domestic worker from the area shares her problems at work: “My employers, kothiwalis do not give me any food except for maybe a piece of bread and tea sometimes in the morning. No I  cannot ask. That is bad manners. My salary gets reduced for those days on which I take leave. When my younger daughter was born, I went on leave and my brother-in-law filled my place during my absence. If we are absent for more than two days, salary gets deducted. I do not get anything much, except for old
clothes and some sweets and Rs. 20/-. Whenever anything is lost in the house, the blame is put on me.
Once a necklace was lost which was ultimately found in the same house.
I did not go to work for two days, till it had been found lest they blame me for planting it there. The employers came to seek forgiveness. Instead they give me stale food. If
I refuse to take it, they feel insulted. I work on one cup of tea practically throughout the morning. If I answer them back, madam says leave work.” Vulnerabilities: Although preferred by many, domestic work has its own set of vulnerabilities. Many women
complain of continuous bickering by the employers, more often, by the lady of the house. Apart from this,
they have to face theft accusations from the employers. It is evident from few interviews that often, these accusations would only be an excuse to make the worker leave the
house. There are also cases in which the woman was harassed by male members of the household and by the other male servants in the house. Since in the beginning, the workplace is new and unknown, and is within the closed, private domain of the household, the woman is vulnerable to sexual and physical harassment. When they
complain they are not believed. The only recourse in case of facing such violations and theft accusations is to leave the house. There is absolutely no redressal mechanism that the woman can go to, when faced with such circumstances. A woman from Hanuman Camp shares her experiences in the following words: 
“…….then I joined another house where I would clean utensils. Phir mujhe us sahab ka niyat kharab laga (then I suspected the intentions of the employer). When madam would be out of the house sahab would come to the kitchen when I am washing utensils. He would ask me to light a cigarette for him. My hands would be wet at that time washing so how does he expect me to light one? And one day he said his wife is out and asked me to sit beside him and told me to demand whatever I want, he’ll give me everything. I told him, I’ll leave this house if you talk to me like this and I left the work next day itself. But I told his wife that her husband’s intentions are not good at all. We come from
such a distance to work here and your husband misbehaves. She got angry and defended her husband.
After 2 days they cleared my Money “.

Factory Work
The Contract System and the Contractor: The women working in factories state that there is hardly anyone who is employed in the factories these days for longterm employment. Most of the contracts are extremely short–term, no-benefit contracts, which are often as short as two to five days. The contract system works against the employee although it is done at the pretext of providing “greater flexibility”. The contract system has made the availability of the factory work erratic and women are unable to get other regular
employment, in the hope that there would be more work from the factory. They also need to maintain a good rapport with the contractor who takes decisions on whom to
hire.  Although mostly informal, some appointments are made through notices that are put outside the factories for specific requirements.
Another problem that the women who work in the factory face is the problem of late payment of wages by the contractor. The factory employer pays the contractor on a
monthly basis. Thus, he or she is able to pay to the worker, only on a monthly basis. So even if a worker works for five days in the beginning of the month, she would get the money only after the month gets over. Even for this much, she has to be constantly after the contractor for her money.
Shafique With a Women worker 
Uncertain Job Availability: There is no mechanism of knowing when contracts will be given out and how many women will be hired as it is completely  ad hoc and at the discretion of the owner and contractors. 
The Pros and Cons: One of the biggest problems with factory work is the extremely long hours that the women have to spend at work. Often, there are night shifts and overtime that the women have to do.
The children are left alone and unattended for this long stretch of time. As a result, the education and the care of the children suffer drastically. More often than not, they do not go to the schools regularly, or have already dropped out. Sometimes, the women in the
factory are also vulnerable to being exploited by the staff. Some older women indicated during the interviews that it is often the young women who are employed more
willingly in the factories. 
The Vulnerabilities: The conditions in which these women work in the factories are also not very healthy. Often, a factory is made in a small warehouse kind of a structure, which is insufficient in light and ventilation. The health condition of the women often suffers because of such conditions. 
An important factor that affects the women working in the factory most drastically stems from much larger environmental issues like VAT or pollution. For example, according to a Supreme Court Ruling, all the factories had to be relocated to the outskirts of the
city. For the women and their husbands, continuing to work in the same factories meant spending at least Rs. 30 daily in travelling to the new place of work and coming
back from there. For some of the lucky ones, a bus is sent from the factory, otherwise, they have to spend this much money. Often, this becomes the reason for which women
leave their work. Similarly, demolition also affects the women working in the factory very badly.
When they are provided plots that are located at the extreme outskirts of the city, it becomes very difficult for the women to continue going to the same factory.
At the new place where they have shifted, there are usually no factories because it is a less- developed area. In the words given below, a factory worker from Govindpuri shares her thoughts: 
“You can never trust factory work, it is there today, not tomorrow…
There is a lot of insecurity and tension in life and we have no clue about our future here. 
Maine apna majboori mein kaam karna shuru kiya. We were left with no money and no other options… So I put on my purdah and started going out for work. We did not have
anything at home so our neighbors called me and asked me to go with them for work. My husband was not very happy but he had no option so he agreed. Double work is not easy.
But we share whatever money we get and there are no fights at home about this. There are many days when we don’t get work.  These days we get Rs.50 per day. There is
nothing done in paper in our work, only your name will be written in their papers and the work you have done. We work from 9 to 6 in the factory. There is 15 minutes lunch
break. No tea breaks. I do clothwork. The room is OK. It has lights. The factory is located in Okhla. Sometimes I have problems with my eyes and I do get back pains. We get paid only for the days we work.”

Self-employment 
Some Autonomy: The self-employed women are the ones who are pettyshop owners, vegetable sellers, junk-dealers and so on. Many women use self-employment as a way to
complement their income, thereby engaging in multiple occupations. Self-employment gives the women some kind of autonomy over their work life. For example, in times of
illness, she can choose not to work, as the control of the shop lies in her hands. Fulfilling the responsibilities of housework and childcare at the same time (as, say, running a tea shop) can be extremely demanding and leaves the woman with absolutely no rest.
Getting Money Everyday: The biggest advantage cited by the self-employed women is that of getting money on a daily basis. It is also essential because it is this money itself that the woman has to use for buying the goods for her shop to sell on the next day. Thus, it is important that she sells a large portion of what she has bought on the same day.
Vulnerabilities: One of the vulnerabilities that the self -employed women, especially those who have shops on the road face is that of continuous police and public harassment. Often they have to bribe the police for the license of the shop. It was mentioned by
one woman that one policeman was from her own village, so he did not accept any money from her. And when the person was transferred and another policeman was made incharge of the area, she had to resume paying the bribe. Women street vendors also face a considerable extent of public harassment. When they go to the wholesale market to buy material, and, even on the road, they face the taunting of the public. Often, their own relatives living in the same colony also taunt and call names. There is a typical problem
with the Bangladeshi migrant women. From the areas where the number of such migrants was considerably large, the police often rounded them up, and released them only on
the payment of some money. Being Bangladeshi was an excuse that was used by the policemen to get illegal money from the women.  Self-employed women, especially the
junk-dealers were often accused of being involved in thefts. The police often raided their shops looking for stolen goods. In addition to this, the women who are self-employed are on the job for very long hours leaving them with no time for rest or leisure.

Home-based Work
There are many women who are employed in home-based work, especially in the textile industry. The work is generally that of piece cutting, making of drawstrings,
embroidering or sorting beads and sequins, and so on. A large number of these women also work in the factory, whenever it is available. At other time, they work from home.
Even the availability of the home- based work is extremely erratic, due to a large number of factories closing down, and getting privatised. The wages that the women receive are pathetically low and are often based on the number of pieces (eg. of drawstrings) completed- from the lowest being 50 paise per piece to around Rs. 7-10 per piece being the maximum. Homebased work is almost always available through the contractors, who take a commission from the factory (or someone subcontracted by the factory) for each person they get to do the work.  
Vulnerabilities: Various health problems are associated with homebased textile related work. The primary ones are backache and eyesight related problems since it is continuous work that strains the eyes and one has to remain bent for a considerable period of time.
Women have to cope with such occupational hazards without being taken care of at all, or any responsibility of the factory or the contractor for whom they work.
Like the self-employed women, these women who do home- based work also have to be on the job for long hours. This increases their vulnerability towards health hazards.

Construction Work
Seasonal and Temporary Construction Workers: Most of the construction workers whom we interviewed were seasonal migrants. They migrate to the city for a certain period of
time and then go back to the village. There are other women who do construction work at some times and stay in the city throughout the year. The experiences of working are extremely different for the seasonal and the permanent migrants. 
The Contractor: This work is available either through a contractor or from the chowk. Chowk is a market place, or busy crossroad or intersection where daily wage labourers go and offer their services. Both the employers and the contractors visit the  chowk at
a designated time (usually early morning) and take workers on a daily wage basis. During our interviews, we found that women hardly go to the  chowk to find work. There are a large number of men who can be seen crowding the chowks early in the mornings. One
possible explanation could be the fear of harassment at the public places and the feeling of insecurity standing at such a place. Seasonal migrants generally have some land in the village and they come to the city at a time when their agricultural labour is not required in the fields. They work for about four to six months, save some money either to get their
daughters married off, or to pay off a certain debt, and go back. They often come with one particular contractor who provides them with a place to stay, and pays for their
other housing expenses.  
Vulnerabilities: The construction workers have to work in terribly difficult conditions in which they are completely exposed to the extremities of weather. The children have to be left behind in the villages, and it is often the eldest daughter of the home who has to take care of her other siblings.
At the same time, the migrant workers who are engaged in the construction work are totally dependent on the contractor with whom they come to the city. This makes them vulnerable to any kind of violence that could be inflicted on them. The following are the
words of a migrant construction worker from Dakshinpuri that describe the problems that they face at work:

“The work is very strenuous. We often lift loads of 100 kg. Our hands and feet start paining. We do mostly government work- building roads, public utilities, toilets, garbage pits etc. The stench is terrible. We often vomit. We work the whole day. The shift begins at about 9 a.m. and finishes at about 5 p.m. We get an hour’s break for lunch, that’s all. Often we have to work after 5 p.m. Sometimes we work all night….till 5 a.m. the next
day. We don’t get any rest. We get overtime after 5 p.m. depending on how long after that we have to work. Night shift may cost the contractor 135 Rs. The munshi pays
us Rs. 65 for a day’s labour. Every week we get about Rs, 200 per labourer for rations, living expenses etc. We collect our total dues when we leave for the village.
No, we don’t get leave. The munshi informs us a day in advance when there is work and a tempo comes to collect us n the morning. No we aren’t given any food or water. We
pack our own food and take to the site. We aren’t given any water. We ask the people nearby or find a tap to drink from. No, we have to manage on our own.  We either go to work in a tempo which comes to collect us or go to work in a bus The Munshi pays for our travel. We go to work in all kinds of places. Nizamuddin, Kotla, Okhla, Old Delhi. It takes an hour or two coming back in the evening…depending on where we go to work.  We work as long as it takes to finish the job. We don’t decide where we go or the kind of work. We just go where we are told.”   (------) 
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