By Lavanya Garg and Snigdha Shahi:
The oldest of four sisters, Pooja Mishra was 17 when she got married. Being young and unaware, she didn’t question her parents’ decision and followed her husband to Delhi within a year of being married. What led her to look for a job in the garment industry was one, her inherent interest in stitching clothes, a hobby she had pursued as a young girl; and two, seeing self-confident women around her working in the nation’s capital. While it was self-drive that led her to participate in the workforce, it was the presence of favorable work place policies at Shahi Exports that helped retain her in it.
In 2009, when her first son was born, she wasn’t sure if she could continue working. Gendered household norms dictate women to give up their jobs to take care of children – Indian men, on an average spend 51.8 minutes per day doing unpaid work, as opposed to Indian women who spend 351.9 minutes per day on the same. In fact, in many workplaces, a woman is assumed to be “less serious” about her job from the minute she decides to get married, a presumption never made about men.
In Pooja’s case, the hesitance soon disappeared because she had access to a crèche. She said, “The main plus point of my company is that there is a crèche here, which helped me continue working.” Moreover, her supervisor understood the need for her to balance work and child-care, especially during the first year of having her son. She was assigned easier tasks for a year so that she could make frequent visits to the crèche. In an industry which is heavily production-oriented, it was surprising but heartening to hear that she visited her son as frequently as every two hours to breastfeed him.
All factories with more than 30 employees are mandated by section 48 of the Factories Act, 1948 to provide a crèche. The same has been reiterated for all establishments with 50 or more employees by the newly amended Maternity Benefit Bill (2016). Needless to say, this is not the norm, especially for small organizations and those in the unorganized sector.
Vanita, who has undergone Nursing Teacher Training, and has been managing the crèche at one of Shahi’s Faridabad factory for twelve years, remarks how she has seen women resigning after their child turns six. Section 48 of the Factories Act, 1948 only requires a crèche to be set up for children till the age of six. For her elder son who is eight now, Pooja pays Rs.3000 every month to leave him with a baby sitter outside. Apart from the fact that the crèche at her workplace is available free of cost, with various amenities and adequate staff, she is also constantly worried about his safety outside.
In addition to having a safe place for her children and being near them during the crucial years of early development, another policy that helped Pooja maintain a work-life balance was the option of coming to work early. She starts her day at 8 am, which allows her to leave work by 4:30 pm. By preponing her work shift by an hour, she can reach home soon after her elder son comes back from school. This is a classic case of how flexibility in working hours, can help retain more women in the workforce, as they often have competing demands on their time.
Such stories motivate us, at The Good Business Lab (GBL), to design and implement experimental interventions in factories that can improve job quality for workers. Frontier economic research on interventions that build comfortable and supportive work environments, can establish the social and business case for such interventions beyond doubt. For example, in one study, GBL estimated that adoption of LED lights in place of fluorescent lighting not only reduced energy consumption by roughly 85% but also dissipated 1/7th of the heat, reducing average indoor temperature by roughly 2.40 C. This ‘anti-sweat shop’ study has become an example of how a simple intervention, can have very tangible impacts on the physical working conditions, coupling worker welfare with greater retention and productivity.
At the Lab, we believe that improving job quality goes beyond improving only the physical working conditions. It involves providing facilities such as the crèche and adopting innovative methods like flexible working hours to influence macroeconomic trends such as female labour force participation. The latter will only happen if many more self-motivated, smart and young women like Pooja don’t just continue working after child birth, but have ambitions of moving up the management ladder in their company, encouraged by favourable workplace policies.
This article is part of a three-part series that aims to highlight the Good Business Lab’s three focus areas – freeing up female labor force, improving job quality and skilling the workforce – by bringing to life the voice of young female garment workers, on the occasion of International Youth Day. By sharing the hardships, triumphs and everyday lives of young women in the garments sector, we wish to build a dialogue on #WorkerWelfareIsGoodBusiness
These pieces have been written and compiled by Lavanya Garg (Research and Communications Manager at GBL) and Snigdha Shahi (Research and Communications Associate at GBL).