By Anjora Sarangi:
For eons, in India, women’s work has been shunned, neglected, and taken for granted. Women have never received the respect, remuneration, acknowledgment and recognition for the work they do. It was only around the 1980s that these issues were brought to the fore by the feminist brigade.
Men and women both work – the difference is in the type of work, where and how it is done and what remuneration is obtained. Women workers’ experience is that the line between the organised and the unorganised sectors is very thin. They are often pushed from the organised to the unorganised sector and oscillate between skilled and unskilled work. In the informal sector, women work for long hours, at low wages and without any legal protection against exploitation. In rural areas, women work in sectors of agriculture and in the urban areas they work for manufacturing units of garments, food processing and the like. Though agriculture continues to be a major field for women’s employment, they are not recognised as farmers and are assigned supplementary work to that of men such as weeding, winnowing, and transplanting. Also, land is never in the name of the women folk of the family even though they are actively involved in the cultivation, production and tilling of land.
Faced with deprivation, women from rural areas migrate to urban sectors but since they possess negligible skills, they end up working in sectors of construction, processing, domestic labour, etc. Sometimes big industries get small employers to employ women for producing and assembling small items as this is a much easier and economical method than providing for working conditions, security, and proper wages to workers in a factory. Over the past few decades, however, women in the unorganised sector have made efforts to organise themselves and improve their conditions. One of the most successful women’s cooperative is the Self Employed Women’s association (SEWA) formed in 1974. Another one is the Vanalaxmi Women Tree Grower’s Cooperative which is working towards implementing collective agriculture for landless poor women. Efforts are also being made to establish international networks such as HomeNet, StreetNet etc.
Trade Unions are essential for women’s groups so that their voices get heard in the work sector. Other social agencies in the civil society such as NGOs could also organise and provide a voice to the vulnerable sections of the working class. Alas, traditional unionism is faced with several problems.
Women form a very small percentage of the organised sector and an even smaller percentage of those are protected under laws. Though women’s employment in teaching, finance and other areas of the service sector is on the increase, access to this field is limited to educated women usually from the urban middle class.
Displacement has been a very unfortunate and disastrous consequence of barrier free trading and WTO restrictions under liberalisation. Thousands of women silk spinners of Bihar, for example, have lost their employment due to the import of better quality Chinese silk yarn. Similar displacement has come with the entry of large fishing vessels into Indian waters. Import of cheaper gum from Sudan has led to unemployment among the women gum collectors in Gujarat. The hosiery sector primarily employed women workers, but today, button stitching machines are exclusively being used by male workers.
The effects of globalisation and its kin have not been entirely undesirable as they may seem. There are many areas where new employment opportunities for women have been created without loss for anyone else. In the crafts sector for example, employment has grown at a very fast pace including for women. Trends continue to indicate that while male participation in this sector is slowly decreasing, female participation is increasing. The daily average earnings of women workers however are still low; nearly half of their male counterparts proving that gender based wage disparities exist across all sectors and all occupations.
In the light of such developments, one would assume that women’s work has a gloomy forecast, but this is not the case. The rising cost of living, new avenues of employment, career aspirations and women’s rising awareness are important forces urging women to climb the ladders of success. It is to the credit of Indian women, both in the organised and unorganised sectors, that they face difficulties with grit and determination, exude with positive self-image and seek empowerment through their work.