"I used to leave four children in the charge of my 6-year old daughter, and go to people's houses to wash clothes and utensils and wipe floors. Some gave me Rs.50 or Rs.75 a month, and some paid me rokda (small change) for odd jobs like getting the wheat ground at the mill, or getting them milk from the dairy's booth. Although I must have earned Rs. 200 a month."
"I left the children all day in the care of the One Above....my little daughter used to buy milk for 50 paise, and feed the smaller children. She could wash their bottoms. But she couldn't boil the milk..."
Shanta breaks down at the memory of her children's near fatal attack of cholera because of unhygenic living conditions.
An older women in the neighborhood who knew how desperate Shanta was , took her to the seth.
"Give her some work", the older women requested the seth, "She has too many children. Her husband is a casual mill worker, with work only on some days. On other days he is either asleep, or drunk. Let her roll agarbattis (incense sticks)".
That was four years ago. Shanta was physically and emotionally not in a position to risk a new venture. "But, I thought, O God, if I can be with my children and work, you are truly merciful."
The seth inducted Shanta into the established pattern: She went each morning to the nearby Karkhana(factory) which is actually a two-room structure with a verandah and courtyard, where women and girls sit on the floor and work.
The seth, it turned out, was only a contractor for the proprietor whose identity Shanta doesn't know. In fact, she doesn't know either where the seth lives, although it is somewhere in the locality.
At the factory, a veil of secrecy is drawn over the production of the formula paste which is the combustible on the agarbatti stick. Shanta is in awe of the operation. She discloses, "Behind a closed door the seth and a trusted karigar(skilled worker) mix the masala (paste). Nobody goes in, the door is locked."
This technological secret throws a gulf between Shanta and her contractor-proprietor. He creates a distance between himself and Shanta not only via his capital, but also via technological know-how. Her ignorance is pitted against his knowledge; her financial and social vulnerability against his risk-bearing capacity.
So this masala and 5000 sticks are the day's roti (wheat bread)and dal (lentils) for the family. She works from 12 noon to 5 pm in the factory because there she earns Rs.2.25 per 1000 sticks rolled, while at home the rate plunges to RS.2.00 or less per 1000 sticks, since the seth assumes that unsupervised work must have a component of leakage.
But Shanta is so grateful that she asks a visitor to lower her voice when the latter enquires about changes in the piece-rate payment in case somebody reports this breach to the seth.
"There have been some increases. When I joined 4 years ago we got Rs. 1.50 per 1000 sticks and know it is Rs.2.00. But work was not assured."
Then a Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) Organiser contacted several agarbatti rollers in their homes. A neighbour told Shanta to come along to a meeting in the locality where they would talk about the piece-rate.
Shanta says, "But I didn't go because I thought if the seth finds out he will not give me any work. That meant no food for my children , or going back to being a domestic help. But I prayed for the meeting's success."
The organiser recalls of the meeting , "Women are very willing to listen, but not to speak out publicly. After 5-10 meetings they said, "You lead, we will follow. "So a delegation of workers and SEWA Organisers went to the seth's house where SEWA had also called representatives from the Labour Commissioner's office, and some concerned public person."
"We won't work at these rates, After 12 hours we make Rs 4/-. Our children have to help us to make ends meet. Every night they fall on the bundles of agarbattis. And we earn so little."
Similar delegations were taken out to one or two other seths. They resisted, but aware of the Labour Commissioner's interest, they yielded, and increased the rates to Rs.2.00 or Rs. 2.25 per 1000 sticks.
Agarbatti workers like Shanta now send, with the greatest difficulty, one or two children to school for a few hours. That is their first priority. The other children help to roll all day and the school going child helps from evening onwards upto midnight.
But no change has taken place in deductions for rejects. Shanta ties up the sticks in bundles of 500. The seth counts all the sticks in the bundle picked at random, then pronounces the number of sticks which are short. He slashes the entire production by 10-20%. Since Shanta can't read, and is to apprehensive about loosing her work, she doesn't say anything. Wordlessly she affixes her thumb impression on his register to validate the seths calculation of her productivity. Then he pays them after 30 days, long after Shanta's anxious mind has lost count of how much she supplied and how many he rejected.
"But at least, you work with perfumed ingredients," says a naive visitor.
"Oh no," reports Shanta with the only discernible sign of excitement. "The masala (paste) is full of foul-smelling chemicals and powders. He adds the perfume at the end, after we have rolled them, when he packages the agarbattis."
Shanta talks about her routine household work. "I cannot use the water tap after 6 a.m., because 18 people share the same tap. And my powerful brother-in-law, who is a foreman in the State Transport Company, he lives in the two rooms next door. His wife thinks they are big people because he has a permanent job. So we must be out of the way before they wake up".
Baths, washing utensils, filling pots- all this is over by 8 a.m. Now Shanta and her daughters cook the morning meal. After that she leaves for her factory, the eldest daughter and son go to school. Two of the other children tag along with the older sister to school and the other two children go to the factory with Shanta.
"God is kind. At least I know that all the children are safe," Shanta says with gratitude' but in an uneven voice, which betrays the weight of compromise and exploitation.
Shanta is winning some rights without directly struggling for them, because others less vulnerable than her are taking up the fight. If she has other rights as a home-based worker and as an Indian Woman, Shanta doesn't know them, although she is eager to listen.
( source : Invisible No More :The Story of Home- Based Workers, ILO Publication, 1991. )
Asian Women Workers Newsletter