Infinite work, indefinite pay - some facts from the informal economy

International Women's Day, 2010 – the centenary of the idea’s evolution. The words “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition” make me wonder: should women seek a distinct identity or basic acceptance as human beings? Incidents that I have been seeing and hearing over the years are convincing me that the former may be possible only with the latter. And one that I witnessed on 8th March this year is horrifying yet hopeful. Read more

The venue: Bangalore Press Club. The speaker - Usha Thopna, a twenty year old girl who had recently escaped two years of physical torture and hard labour, the shocking reality of many domestic workers. Narrating how a young, well healed Bangalore based couple, Sandeep and Roski Vats abused and harassed her, Usha seemed confused and scared. The Vats' had allegedly paid Rs. 10000 as advance to a placement agency in Delhi (where Usha had gone to find domestic work for a temporary period) to hire her. Slogging everyday from 5 am to 10 pm on household tasks such as cleaning, cooking and childcare with minimal returns, Usha was attacked with scissors, hot irons and knives. Further, Roski Vats constantly watched her preventing any external interactions. New to Bangalore and knowing no one else, Usha felt completely helpless and vulnerable.

However, on 4th March, the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU) and the NGO's Stree Jagruti Samiti and the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM) helped Usha escape her bondage. The police arrested the couple but released them on bail, later. Usha is currently undergoing counselling from Stree Jagruti Samiti which is helping her trace her poverty stricken parents in Assam and plan her next steps.

As we know, very few women, especially in the unorganized sector, are as courageous as Usha has been. They are engaged as contract labour in garment, electronic, chemical or other factories, or as janitors, security staff, etc., in the private sector, or as sweepers, garbage collectors/disposers, cleaners/manual scavengers in government departments/offices, hospitals, banks, etc. Toiling in inhuman conditions, they often face health hazards, sexual discrimination and abuse and are grossly overworked and underpaid. Additionally, they experience violence in their parental and marital families although they contribute to or are the sole income earners. And they are not safe in public places like parks, roads or buses either, undergoing rape, acid attacks and other horrendous gender specific crimes. Some like Ammu or Renuka (garment workers in Bangalore) even die or disappear mysteriously at home, the workplace or elsewhere.

Most such cases are rarely registered, investigated or solved by our overloaded and insensitive police and courts, encouraging the perpetrators to continue and others to indulge in such heinous deeds. And many news media organizations prioritizing sensationalism and commerce, forget these hapless women after initial 'breaking' reports. While non-profit groups, social activists, etal strive to help such women, their reach is sometimes limited.

Amidst all these challenges, workers collectivized under the Garment and Textile Workers' Union (GATWU), DWRU, Karnataka Domestic Workers’ Union (KDWU), Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union (KSWU) have succeeded in registering themselves and getting identity cards, even as they struggle relentlessly for  fair wages and benefits (as per the Minimum Wages Act), safe work environment, paid leave, etc. These are inspiring and significant developments in the tough and endless journey of the working woman’s movement…

Pushpa Achanta
(The author is a freelance writer, a Fellow of Citizen News Service (CNS) Writers' Bureau, and a community volunteer based in Bangalore, India)