Women In The Informal Economy -
Bringing Home-Based Workers In Focus




A special series supported by FES







Within the informal sector, home-based workers constitute a large chunk engaged in various type of economic activity - ranging from sewing, embroidery, weaving, carpet and incense making, packaging and labelling goods to assembly of electronic components, etc. It is estimated that there are over 100 million home-based workers in the world and more than half this number are in South Asia - of whom around 80 per cent are women. In India, women constitute an overwhelming 57 per cent of this workforce and their numbers continue to rise. But despite their significant contribution to the economy of the country home-based workers have remained largely invisible in policy discourse. Through this features we try to take an in-depth look at the activities of this workforce with an emphasis on women's work in the informal sector, their issues and concerns, challenges and problems and also try and unveil success stories.

INDIA:
Waste Pickers Live, Work With Pride
By Suchismita Pai

Suman More, 50, is no stranger to picking herself up and getting on. So, when she fell during a recent Marathon in her city and bruised her hand and ankle she waved away most help, except for cleaning the wound, and continued on, proudly posing with her finisher's medal at the end. There's something inspiring and exceptional about this woman, who is the president of SWaCH, a collective of 2,800 waste pickers that provide door-to-door waste collection and other allied waste management services to 5,20,000 households in Pune. From scouring the streets for recyclable waste decades ago, More has worked hard and gradually secured a comfortable future for herself and her family – her son is a journalist and her daughter-in-law teaches in a college – but she continues to do her rounds at waste collection and makes her own living. The money she makes often goes to educate youngsters in the community. Waste pickers, especially, have a tough call: they are out on the streets, working for long hours, at risk of being harassed and threatened. They are essential to any city's waste management system and yet one of the most neglected groups, abused and underpaid. Nonetheless, in Pune, coming together to form a cooperative and an informal union has allowed them to fight for their rights and transform outlooks.

“We are recycling agents and help slow down climate change, but never receive our due. We have to struggle to make ends meet despite the service we offer in keeping the city clean and the environment less polluted.”


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INDIA:
Masrat Wanted To Teach, She Is Weaving Carpets Instead
By Afsana Rashid

Reading aloud the ‘talim’ (the script for weaving a carpet) while sitting at a loom, Masrat Bano, 21, and her sister, Fancy, expertly weave beautiful carpets. Their loom has been set up in the attic of their small home in north Kashmir, although the girls find it tedious to work there because of the extreme weather conditions. The roof heats up during the summers making the room very stuffy and uncomfortable while the harsh winters bring in the creeping cold and a continuous draft. However, keeping their discomfort aside the duo works hard everyday because they need to step up to make ends meet. The eldest of four siblings, Masrat has been shouldering the responsibility of keeping the household going ever since she lost her father. Carpet weaving is tough, painstaking and she needs to deal with all kinds of middlemen to procure the raw material – although briefly she thought she’d strike out on her own – but despite all the effort the money is poor and irregular. Sadly, the hands that wanted to hold a pen to become a teacher someday are today callused carefully threading wool to make wondrous patterns come to life.

“It is a tiring job. From morning till evening you just sit in one place. I would have quit doing this but I do not have any other skill.”


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INDIA:
Her ‘,Informal’ Work, Rights Count
By Azera Parveen Rahman

The majority of India's female workforce – more than 97 per cent – is in the informal, or unorganised, sector. Yet, most laws related to employment, be it to do with fair wages, sexual harassment at workplace, or maternity benefits, hardly offer them any protection. The latest amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act 1961, although a landmark step, is a case in point. Yet, as their numbers rise with each passing year, now more than ever, it's important that concerted efforts are made to bring these women and their rights, invisible as they are to policy-makers, to the forefront. There obviously needs to be recognition of their work and a fixing of accountability so that laws can be effectively implemented to safeguard their interests. We speak to experts and activists who share their ideas on rethinking the rights agenda in the informal workspace.

Asma Jahan, 24, a daily wage construction worker and new mother, has no idea what maternity benefits are. Between endless rounds of picking up basket loads of cement, every now and then she cranes her neck to check on her two-month-old daughter who lies on a mat some distance away.


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INDIA:
Tribal Women Make The Most of Leaves For Livelihood
By Rakhi Ghosh

Sampati Kahanra has a deep connect with the forest. From ever since she can remember she has been walking the dense covers to pick food, firewood and leaves – earlier with her mother and now to run her own home. Up at dawn she quickly finishes her chores and then traverses the jungles abutting her small hamlet in Odisha’s Kandhamal district with other women. Together they forage for Bhalia seeds, tamarind, mahua flowers, and most importantly, Siali leaves. Back by noon with her collection, she sits down to stitch plates, locally known as ‘khali panna’, and bowls from the durable leaves. It’s time-consuming and Sampati does get tired sitting for long hours on the floor of her thatch-roof hut carefully binding the leaves together but she knows that this will enable her to bring in much needed money for the family. Whereas earlier, she used to make a pittance – Rs 200-Rs 300 per month – today, thanks to a Indo-German venture, which is exporting the biodegradable leaf plates internationally, her monthly income has increased to Rs 3,000. In fact, three Self Help Group federations in Kandhamal, Sambalpur and Deogarh districts are benefiting from this initiative that has given a whole new meaning to this otherwise labour-intensive, home-based work done by impoverished tribal women.

“We sit in groups to stitch plates and bowls. Some we use at home while the rest is picked up by the agency. Earlier, we used to stitch them roughly but now we take care of the quality of the leaf as well as the stitch.”


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INDIA:
Fatima's Bid To Make Work-Life Better In Dharavi
By Mehru Jaffer

Fatima Shaikh, 35, has been working since she was little. Her parents came to Mumbai from Andhra Pradesh in search of viable work and settled in Dharavi. From then on this crowded shanty has been her home and workplace. Over the years, she's been a vegetable vendor and then a domestic worker, who toiled for 12 hours daily without proper wages or benefits. At the end of it, she never had enough money nor a home and no proper identity that would enable her to avail of government schemes. Like her there were many women in her neighbourhood who laboured day and night as informal workers to supplement their meagre family income but they were deprived of rights, lived under tough conditions and suffered from severe ailments. Infuriated at the situation of her lot Fatima was looking for an opportunity to make a difference when activists of the Labour Education and Research Network came to Dharavi, a hub of small-scale industries like pottery, snacks, rubber, electronic waste and plastic recycling units, handicraft, embroidery and kite-making, among other, to mobilise the dispersed workforce of women engaged in the informal sector. Today, Fatima ‘apa’, as president of Dharavi's Mahila Kamgar Sanghatana, is working with women on issues of housing, sanitation, wages, healthcare, and so on.

“Women form a large majority of those involved in home-based work but no matter what they do they are extremely low paid. In several Dharavi slums, adolescent girls and physically disabled people are engaged in similar exploitative activities.”


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INDIA:
Women's Dairy Discontent
By Taru Bahl

Bora Bai lives on the outskirts of Guwahati in Assam on a small hillock set against the picturesque backdrop of lush hills of the Shillong plateau. What looks like an idyllic setting is actually quite the opposite. Life is really hard for Bora, a single woman who runs a small dairy on the outskirts of the city to make ends meet. Moreover, as the sole caregiver for two elderly relatives and a lively grandson, Bora truly has her hands full. From doing the household chores to cleaning the cattle shed adjoining her little hutment to bathing the two cows and buffaloes, lugging loads of fodder from the nearby forest, milking the cattle twice a day, and then managing the sale of milk, her packed schedule doesn't leave the 55-year-old any time for herself. Of course, while Bora is not averse to working hard it's the demands of her livelihood that keep her on the edge. Indeed, across different states in India, female dairy farmers face several challenges. Whether it's dealing with middlemen for the sale of milk, maintaining the infrastructure, or keeping a close watch on the health of the cattle, there are multiple tasks they accomplish single-handedly. And yet, when it comes to managing the money it's the menfolk in the family who call the shots.

“To make women dairy farmers more independent, awareness is key. They understand the business well but have limited exposure to market dynamics. Greater linkages to government schemes and extension services will build their capacity.”


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INDIA:
She's No Longer The Powerless Labourer
By Rakhi Ghosh

Generally, when one pictures a construction site, it's a space where men are in-charge – as contractors, supervisors, masons, painters, and so. Women are usually relegated to the role of the overworked and underpaid unskilled labourers who have no voice or rights. But what if we were to say that, while this may be the overwhelming reality, when women are able to overcome the gender barrier and skill themselves, not only do they outshine their male counterparts but are, in fact, able to secure plum assignments without the assistance of middlemen who otherwise control this sector. After all, for every Sumati Behara, who tirelessly toils away as a daily wager on construction sites across Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Odisha, without adequate pay or prospects, today, increasingly, there are those like Radharani and Sabita Sathua, who have taken their careers into their own hands and are earning good money and admiration as professional painter and mason, respectively. The two have their own teams and have the liberty to pick assignments and set their fee, which is indeed a departure from the norm.

The Odisha State Social Security Board is working towards issuing workers an Unorganized Workers Identification Number (UWIN) card so that those in the construction sector can secure their rights as provisioned under the Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Act, 1996.


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INDIA:
Stitches of Misery: Garment Workers’Bid To Take Control
By Pushpa Achanta

Bharati, 37, walks for 30 minutes every morning to reach her factory by 9 am; she can’t spend on public transport every day. She lives in a one-room tenement and she has to step out every time she has to relieve herself. Try as she may she hasn’t been able to rent a place that has something as basic as a toilet. Having been employed at a garment factory in Peenya, an industrial zone in Bangalore, for the past nine years she has experienced first-hand the difficult conditions under which female workers like her are forced to operate – not only are they subjected to constant verbal abuse, especially if they miss their daily target of stitching around 150 pieces, but they are forbidden from leaving their work areas aside from the two permitted bathroom breaks. Consequently, most of them end up with chronic ailments that they can’t afford to treat. But they endure everything because they feel that though their salary is meagre at least they have the Provident Fund (PF) money to fall back on. So when the government announced the move to restrict workers from accessing this corpus, in a rare show of agency, Bharti came out on the streets along with thousands of otherwise invisible garment workers, largely unconnected to any formal trade union, to finally speak out. What’s been the outcome of this show of strength? Let’s find out.

“We know of labour unions but are not keen to join them. If demanding PF independently or collectively can have such repercussions, we doubt we can appeal for anything else even with the backing of a union”.


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INDIA:
Climate Change Eclipses Women Artisans’ Livelihood
By Rakhi Ghosh

The year was 1999. When the super cyclone hit coastal Odisha bringing mind–numbing death and massive destruction in its wake, the women of the worst–affected Ersama and Balikuda blocks in Jagatsinghpur district decided to get back on their feet by doing what they knew best — weaving beautiful artefacts from the local wild golden grass, popularly known as kaincha. Tirelessly working at home, then setting out to collect the grass from the swampy marshlands, coming back and getting down to making utility items, from baskets to book stands, and then ensuring their sale — there’s a lot these women have done, and continue to do, to keep their home fires burning and providing for their children. But whereas they successfully managed to overcome the nightmarish situation brought on by the cyclone, and, today, have even managed to create a federation that enables them to market their wares and earn better, the vagaries of nature are once again starting to threaten their way of life. Inclement weather conditions, brought on by climate change, have severely affected the growth and availability of kaincha, forcing women to either scale down their work or dig into their pockets to buy the grass from elsewhere.

* “In extreme heat the grass dries up and can't be used for weaving handicraft. Heavy rainfall affects the roots and impacts its growth. Over the last three years, poor weather has affected our work bringing down our income.”


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INDIA:
Women Chikan Artists Mean Business
By Mehru Jaffer

Once, Tabassum, 25, and Sheeba, 26, had wanted to apply for a bank loan. Under the cover of their full-length ‘burqa’, the two had made their way to the branch of the nearest bank, criss-crossing through many narrow lanes in Lucknow's congested Madegunj Khadra neighbourhood. Encouraged by the recent sale of their embroidery on cloth, the two were excited about the possibility of expanding their work and perhaps even striking out on their own. ‘We wanted money to buy more cloth. We dreamt of having our own wooden frames, more needles and more thread,’ recalls Tabassum. However, after spending a few minutes with the bank official they promptly dropped the idea of applying for the Rs 50,000 loan. Instead, they scooted back to the safety of their home because the official had asked them to visit him later at home. That day, the duo would never have imagined that they’d eventually be able to realise their dream of becoming independent artisan-entrepreneurs, selling clothes embellished with their exquisite hand-crafted chikankari embroidery. Today, Tabassum and Sheeba are part of a group of 25 women chikan ‘kaarigars’ who have moved on from the days of exploitative, back-breaking work and poor pay to being the masters of their designs and destinies.

“I have been embroidering for as long as I can remember but it is only now that I embroider with a passion I did not know I had.”


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