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India: Liberalisation Burden Falls On Women

By Bharat Dogra

As men lose jobs in India's restructuring industries, millions of women are absorbed by the growing unorganised sector where they slave for wages far below the legal minimum, new studies show.

Separate studies by researchers Sindhu Menon and Amrita Chachchi have also shown that in many households women and children have had to find work even if the men are employed because of sharply rising costs of living.

Here in the capital city, Delhi, droves of women became industrial and home-based workers with the closure of 168 industrial units two years ago as a result of pollution control orders of India's apex Supreme Court.

Desperate to keep their family's together, they were pushed into employment for the first time in low-paid, low-skilled and repetitive work.

Take Durgesh, 33, who had never ventured out of the home before but had to plunge into eight-hour shifts in a workshop making electric heaters when her husband suddenly lost his job in a textile factory here that shut down.

She had to find her way alone to and back from work, and work in an environment that was not at all safe for women. ''I had to work with 10 men and there was no other woman, causing a lot of problems for me,'' she says, embarrassedly.

Conditions at work are primitive - since employers like her's know that desperate workers will not protest - and she takes home a paltry 800 rupees monthly (20 dollars) which is less than half the legal minimum wage and far from adequate for the family.

''I wish we could go back to our village in Mainpuri, but the livelihood prospects are very uncertain there too,'' she says.

Sumitra, 30, shares Durgesh's plight. She too became the family breadwinner in a factory manufacturing rubber balls after her industrial worker husband was sacked overnight by a management trying to trim losses.

Now she combines exhausting and monotonous factory work with her never ending domestic chores - cooking, cleaning and making sure the children are not neglected.

Her neighbour, Chameli has switched to home-based piece-rate work. Like women surveyed by researcher Menon in her study titled 'Scattered all over Delhi, they work at home', Chameli puts together packets of 'bindis', the decorative dots women stick on their forehead in India in her tiny one-roomed home in the

working class neighbourhood in Sultanpuri, southwest Delhi.

Its eye-straining work - each bindi has several layers and even a small mistake can lead to its rejection. Chameli is paid a little less than one dollar for 144 packets of bindis, which take her nearly three or four days to do.

Since she couldn't handle the work alone, she had to take her daughter and two sons out of school to help her. ''I didn't want to involve the children. I wanted them to concentrate on their studies,'' she sighs.

Industrial recession is pushing women and children into jobs that exploit labour, flout labour laws and is hazardous to health. Taking advantage of their vulnerability and lack of bargaining power, factories employ them at rates lower than that of male workers.

Although the legal minimum wage rate in Delhi is 1,937 rupees for the lowest category of unskilled workers, it is quite common for women to be paid less than 1,000 rupees.

Munni Devi who works to supplement the earnings of her husband who works in a garment factory, slipped and fell into a tank of hot water. But such are the economic compulsions that after a few days of treatment, she was back at work which involves carrying heavy loads on her head.

Fifty-year-old Rajmati looks older than her age. Her job is to weed out used plastic bags from stinking piles of garbage. Her only child is very ill, and she must continue to work, she says.

Shakuntala, 35, has to support her husband, who has been ill ever since he lost his permanent job, and five children. She works in a factory, where she is paid 750 rupees per month for working 12 hours a day.

The work is so exploitative that Shakuntala herself wonders why she continues to go there. But as the only breadwinner there is not even the time to look for an alternative job, she says.

Even educated women are deprived of their rights by managements. A recent study on women workers in the electronics industry by researcher Amrita Chachchi titled, 'The New Labour Market', describes the process by which women are being deprived.

''There is a two-step process of restructuring. The first step is casualisation of the workforce. The next step is redundancy of existing workforce and relocation of units to lower wage areas with a temporary workforce.

''In fact, apart from transfer of jobs from permanent to temporary categories, companies had also resorted to direct reduction of workers,'' she states.

Chachchi surveyed 24 electronics units, more than half (13 units) of whom, she said, had reduced their workforce through methods such as no new recruitment or replacement, retrenchment, voluntary retirement schemes, increased subcontracting, automation and shut down of departments and closure.

Women are shouldering the burden of liberalisation in India.

(Source: New Delhi/LABOUR-INDIA)