Did you know that for every Rs. 100 paid by customers, incense stick workers barely get Rs. 2.30? This has been going on for years, but finally there is hope, as these women home-based workers are organizing themselves to demand for basic human rights and adopting declarations to improve their working and living conditions.
Fatima is a whiz with the needle and thread. She has been doing intricate embroideries since she was very young, having learnt the skill from her mother and aunts in her home town in eastern India. When she came to Delhi after marriage, she decided to take up this work to lend support to her plumber husband whose income was irregular and insufficient to sustain their family of six.
Today, Fatima is a skilful ari worker, whose nimble fingers expertly affix sparkling sequins onto garments that eventually make their way to retailers outside India. Yet, her earnings per piece are minimal, not even half of the final product’s selling price, just enough for her to keep her two younger children in school and save up a meagre amount for a rainy day.
Fatima’s story highlights the harsh lived realities of millions of women home-based workers in India.
In fact, walk into the narrow by-lanes of any of the overcrowded slums or low income neighbourhoods that dot the urban landscape of cities across the country and you will meet several women who are experts at multi-tasking. Apart from completing household chores, minding children and caring for the elderly, they spend every waking hour doing work, often simultaneously with their other care duties that brings in some much-needed cash, which they use to pay bills or fund their children’s education.
From stitching garments, making craft items and processing and preparing food stuff, to the assembly or packaging of electronics, automobile parts and pharmaceutical products, there are a number of activities they undertake. But despite the fact that these women represent about one-third – 30 per cent – of female urban non agricultural informal employment in India, home-based workers’ contributions to households, society and the economy go entirely unrecognised.
Poor wages, bad working conditions and negligible social protection collectively make life difficult for the home-based workers. On an average, women like Fatima, particularly those who are paid by the piece and mainly depend on contractors or middlemen for orders and payments, earn little. Those producing goods for global value chains receive a marginal percentage of the final profits.
In India, for every Rs 100 paid by a customer, zardozi (gold thread) embroiderers earn a mere Rs 15, beedi (homemade cigarettes) rollers are paid Rs 17, and agarbatti (incense stick) makers get as little as Rs 2.30.
Compounding their low earnings is the fact that home-workers end up having to pay for many of the non-wage costs of production: notably, the overhead costs of space, utilities, and equipment. And contrary to the widespread belief that this is just a ‘part-time’ activity, the reality is that these women end up working very long hours, especially during peak production season.
Their dismal living conditions also exacerbate their troubles. Like Fatima, who lives in a shanty in east Delhi, most home-based workers reside in unauthorised settlements that have limited infrastructure facilities and urban services. Given that the home is their workplace, even the absence of basic amenities, like water and electricity, severely affects their productivity and quality of life.
However, it is the lack of access to employment benefits, social security, credit facility and skill up-gradation opportunities that is the biggest blow of all. It renders them invisible in national and global data collection systems, one of the key reasons for them being overlooked in development agendas and programmes.
Most of the policy discussions on home-based workers in India have tended to focus more on social protection than on development. The Unorganized Workers Social Security Act does include home-based workers as a section of the informal sector but, unfortunately, the Act itself remains poorly implemented. One of the ways in which home-based workers have been reached is through sectoral and tripartite welfare funds of which the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund is the oldest example.
Firoza Mehrotra, Director of Programmes at HomeNet South Asia, a regional network of organisations of home-based workers that has a presence in eight countries of South Asia, laments this complete invisibility of home-based workers in the policy arena.
According to her, “Poverty reduction and women empowerment initiatives should specially target home-based workers, recognising the fact that the majority of home-based workers are women and their economic activities contribute significantly to their family income security.”
Nonetheless, home-based women workers remain largely invisible and unprotected as most planners and policymakers do not accept their existence.
Fortunately though, things are slowly changing, with home-based workers forming organisations to collectively bargain for better rights and protection.
Recently, more than 110 home-based workers, their organisations and supporters from across 24 countries came together to adopt a first-of-its-kind Global Declaration that gives them greater visibility and voice.
The Declaration urges national governments to acknowledge the contribution of home-based workers and to prioritise them within poverty reduction and women’s empowerment initiatives, to formulate and ensure implementation of national laws and policies for home-based workers, include them in the national statistics, facilitate more inclusive markets and, importantly, recognise home-based worker organisations and networks.
Additionally, the Declaration urges international development agencies and regional inter-governmental bodies to recognise the importance of home-based workers as contributors to national economies and to growth, and to address their concerns and give an impetus for their empowerment, which would substantially reduce poverty.
Given the large numbers of this labour force and its economic significance, it is vital that they emerge from the shadows. Fatima and millions of hardworking women like her do deserve a chance to live with dignity.
(The writer is the Home-Based Worker Sector Specialist for WIEGO [Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing], a global action-research-policy network.)