Gender Employment and Empowerment:
Struggle for Rights at Work and After



A special series supported by FES





For the last three years the FES-WFS partnership has explored various facets of women's employment, in various sectors and in different locations in India. The present series will look at some key themes arising out of employment and post-retirement. It will look at some attempts to organise women to demand for their rights and fight sexual harassment at the work place. What happens when women become unemployed? What is the impact of job loss on their families? What is the state of security for women who take up jobs that involve night shifts? These will be some of the questions this series hopes to answer. It will also look at retirement, and its impact on the lives of women who once led professional lives.

INDIA:
Penalised For Pregnancy: Job Loss And Heartburn
By Sharmistha Choudhury

When Kolkata-based Reema Paul (name changed) switched jobs, lured by a better salary and brighter prospects, she happily signed the contract that set down certain terms and conditions for her first year at a branch of one of India's top electronic chain of stores. It was a mere formality, she thought, and with her experience and zest for success, she knew she would have few problems in her new job. Little did Soma know that very soon she would be on her way out, not because her work had been found unsatisfactory or because she had been guilty of some grave misconduct, but simply because she had 'dared' to get pregnant. When a heavily pregnant Reema applied for leave, she was asked to hand in her resignation letter as the contract stated she would not be granted leave in her first year at the company. Mothers and motherhood have been traditionally and, often patronisingly, glorified in our country. Yet, despite the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, pregnant women in employment continue to get a raw deal.

'My contract stated that I would not be allowed any leave for the first year but how was I to imagine I would be penalised for my pregnancy? I always thought that women employees in the organised sector were entitled to maternity leave.'


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INDIA:
Invisible Women Home-based Workers Slum It Out In Big Cities
By Shalini Sinha

Occupationally diverse, geographically dispersed and virtually invisible, home-based workers are usually an overlooked workforce even though addressing their needs is of vital economic importance, seeing as they are absolutely essential to a wide range of industries from carpets to micro-electronics. Regardless of whether they are self-employed or subcontracted industrial outworkers, they face enormous challenges – work orders are irregular, earnings are little and they have little or no legal and social protection or workers' benefits. Compounding all these employment challenges are urban housing issues. After all, when the home is the workplace, housing issues are definitely livelihood issues. Cramped rooms, leaking roof, poorly designed and maintained roads - all standard features of slum life - not only affect productivity but also make for unhealthy living.

* When cities turn a blind eye to the needs of slum dwellers for basic infrastructure services or when they periodically clear slums, these practices are like a double-edged sword for home-based workers, undermining or destroying both their homes and their workplaces.


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INDIA:
More Power To Domestic Workers
By Suchismita Pai

Thirty-five years ago, when an aging Lakshmi stopped coming in to do the odd jobs around Rupa Kulkarni's house, everyone just assumed that she had decided to give up working. No one gave her much thought until Kulkarni learnt that Lakshmi had died begging on the streets of Nagpur, Maharashtra. Shocked with Lakshmi's fate, Kulkarani decided to do something for domestic workers of the city. For starters, she got down to collecting the names and addresses of the women working in domestic work in her area and then helped them form an informal group. Kulkarani's initial efforts in 1980s - when no one had thought of unionising these informal workers - led to the formation of the all powerful Vidarbha Molkarin Sangathan that now has a presence across 14 cities in Maharashtra. Years of activism, which included concerted efforts for wage hiked, bonuses and health insurance, resulted in a new state law, the Domestic Workers Act, 2008, that recognised 'domestic help' as a 'worker'. Their fight for rights, of course, is far from over but at least Nagpur's Kanta or Pune's Yogita are now assured that they can live lives of dignity.

* The Sangathana does not limit its activities to professional issues. Pune, for instance, runs a counselling centre for domestic workers and even their employers. They do family counselling tackling issues like alcoholism.


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INDIA:
Redefining Women's Work - Lessons From SEWA
By Shalini Sinha

Women's work is increasingly taking centrestage in the development discourse in India, and yet in this rising crescendo, there is a silent note - that of their inclusion in the mainstream trade union movement in India. In this environment of invisibility and non recognition, Self-Employed Women's Association's (SEWA) 40 years of experience - born as a labour union in Gujarat, today it has more than 1.4 million dues-paying members across 10 states of India - reflects how poor women workers from the informal sector can be mobilised into a trade union to fight for their rights, and challenge the very notion of 'work', which excludes and overlooks their contribution.

* 'The first conceptual block we encountered was when we tried to register SEWA as a trade union under the Trade Union Act of India. We did not fit into their definition of "worker" or "trade union". The day we registered SEWA, we questioned the definition of work.'


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INDIA:
Working On TV? Beware of Devious Agents, Fake Producers
By Surekha Kadapa-Bose

In early 2000, Kamala Sahani (name changed) was working with a television director in Mumbai. Every Saturday, a well-known columnist from Delhi used to fly down to the city to give his "creative inputs" for the daily soap. He would stay at a posh south Mumbai hotel and expect one of the director’s creative assistants to meet him in his room to discuss the script. The discussions could go on till he flew away the next day! When an unsuspecting Kamala first went for one of these ‘meetings’, he started raining compliments on her – "he began by saying how beautiful I was and how the dress I was wearing was suiting me". She instantly walked out. While Kamala was able to save herself from a potentially difficult situation not many are as lucky. Today, scores of young, small town girls are keen to work in the TV industry to make it big in India’s entertainment capital. Not knowing what to expect, they are easy targets for devious casting agents, fake producers, ‘start-up’ production houses, who can sexually and financially exploit them on the pretext of making them a ‘star’.

* ‘Cons are a huge stumbling block in this profession. But after a couple of false starts a girl does come to know who is genuine. I have been through a couple of such encounters.’


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INDIA:
Women Waste Pickers Show There's Strength In A Union
By Suchismita Pai

As they sift through garbage, they have to fend off rodents and stray animals, their hands get wounded by shards of broken glass thrown carelessly in the rubbish, and harassment by the police is part of their daily routine. In India, it's hard to miss the large numbers of waste pickers, mostly poor and marginalised women, who, armed with large plastic sacks, scourge city streets for recyclable waste to earn a few bucks. While scrap collection is considered socially relevant, economically productive and environmentally beneficial "work", these self-employed women occupy the lowest rung in the informal economy and are generally treated with contempt. In Pune, however, 9,000 waste pickers, part of the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat union, are no longer defenseless or destitute. They have joined hands with the municipality for door-to-door waste collection that has not only improved their working conditions but their earnings, too. And with access to various state schemes, their children can now avail of a better education and other benefits.

* 'Things changed after 1993 when I joined the union. Now I work four hours and I get more money since I collect waste door-to-door. The quality and condition of waste is much better too.'


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INDIA:
Do Cities Treat Municipal Workers And Domestic Workers Right?
By Pushpa Achanta

Whether it is Dhanamma, the hard working 'pourakarmika' (municipal worker) or Chennamma, the invaluable domestic worker, a mega city like Bengaluru – Karnataka’s state capital – cannot survive without them. While the 'pourakarmikas' slog from 6 am, taking to the streets to sweep and collect garbage, the domestic maids visit home after home cleaning, preparing meals and even minding children, as working couples gear up for a hectic day ahead. But what do these women get for the long hours they spend serving people? The 'pourakarmikas' are underpaid contractual workers, who have to work overtime without incentives. They get no off days, no safety gear to protect them from hazards or facilities like restrooms to relieve themselves while on duty. Domestic workers, who are the lifelines of middle class homes, fare no better – they have no set pay scales, the number of tasks they have to discharge are invariably more than those agreed upon, and many even face physical abuse at the hands of their employers.

* "It is not easy for 'pourakarmikas' to organise because they are spread across the city. Moreover, being Dalit women who face constant exploitation, they have yet to learn to assert their rights."


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INDIA:
Social Welfare Workers Left Without Social Welfare
By Amrita Nandy

Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHAs) and mid-day meal workers are among the largest and fastest growing groups of working women in India. Their repeated protests signify the ruthless attitude the government adopts towards lakhs of these underpaid, overworked contractual workers who help deliver on prestigious ‘flagship’ interventions. Their experiences tell a story of widespread exploitation. For instance, when ASHAs accompany women in labour to hospitals at odd hours without any transport or allowance, they routinely get screamed at by doctors and nurses who do not even offer them a place to sit or a bathroom to use. A woman in Faridkot suffered 90 per cent burns while cooking mid-day meals at a school, but the government did not pay a paisa towards her treatment that cost nearly Rs 60,000 and left her debilitated for life. The government is the largest employer of female contractual workers. But surely there is an irony here when interventions meant to lift people out of poverty end up impoverishing the very workforce that keeps them going?

* “An ASHA worker in Punjab earns up to Rs 700 to 800 a month. This is neither the statutory minimum wage of Punjab - which is Rs 5,200 - nor a fixed amount, but a performance-based compensation. Now imagine how much they make her work for this measly sum.”


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INDIA:
Spin And Stitch: Lives of Textile and Garment Workers
By Pushpa Achanta

Big spenders, who pay humongous amounts of money for branded clothing, hardly realise the struggles of those who produce them. India is the world's third largest textile exporter and has a turnover of around USD 55 billion. Yet, the people who make this possible, many of whom are women, toil in terrible working environments with minimal benefits. They have to be on their feet for nearly 12 hours a day, in dark, overcrowded spaces; suffer from backaches, respiratory infections and failing eyesight, and are often exploited by their supervisors. A graphic look at the experiences of women workers in the Garden City of Bengaluru, one of the major hubs of textile and garment production.

* "I stitched around sixty pieces an hour previously. Now, we produce nearly 150 pieces. Any gap or error means that we have to work extra without pay."


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INDIA:
Home Grown Businesses:Meet These Entrepreneurial Homemakers
By Azera Parveen Rahman

Varanasi-based Sangya Pandey, a homemaker and mother-of-three, is a very busy woman. Like many of her ilk, it's the hours preceding meal times that are the most hectic. The kitchen is the epicentre of furious activity, as she chops the veggies, constantly stirs the pot of spicy curry, while taking hot 'rotis' off the 'tawa' (skillet), all of which will soon be ready to be served to eager and hungry… family members. No, here's the twist - she prepares this home-cooked fare daily, not for her family, but for guests at a five-star hotel. Be it cooking simple meals or making gourmet chocolates or teaching crafts like glass painting and candle making or expertly designing clothes, homemakers today are upscaling what they enjoy doing in everyday life and making it their part-time vocation. In the process, these talented women are gaining financial independence while they ride high on a new wave of confidence and self worth.

* "I am a housewife and make chocolates when someone places an order. This work makes me feel good about myself. The fact that strangers call me up to ask for my homemade chocolates means that I am good at it."


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INDIA:
A Goodbye To Work…And Retirement Blues
By Shwetha E. George

How does one suddenly put a stop to the 9-to-5 schedule of 30 years and live a life free from the hectic conferences and endless meetings that had once been part of the daily routine? Speak to professional women and most of them unanimously render advice borrowed from the Girl Scouts: 'Be prepared' - for retirement, emotionally and physically. Today, Dr Achamma Thomas, 72, a retired gynaecologist, has moved on from the pressures of the operation theatre to the serene environs of her personally tended garden; Susan Varghese, 74, a former professor of sociology keeps herself blissfully busy as the member of her local Senior Citizens Association and a Sunday school teacher. There's also Bala, another retired professor, who is happy to finally reconnect with her friends and family. But retired life is not all about fun and relaxation, warns Daisy Mathew, 60, who took VRS from her State Bank of Travancore job of 29 years to pursue her passion for counselling. Her word of caution: 'The sudden transition from being an earning member to a dormant one can be a difficult reality to deal with emotionally.'

* "As long as you work, your job gives you an identity, a financial role and prestige. But post-retirement life is not about any of these things - it's about self-actualisation and satisfaction."


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INDIA:
Toilet Revolution: When Women Mill Workers Demand Sanitation
By Sharmistha Choudhury

Today, when nearly half of India's 1.2 billion people have no access to a toilet, feisty women rice mill workers in West Bengal are demanding their right to sanitation in the workplace. While the facility has been available to male workers for years, the women were asked to go out in the fields to relieve themselves. This, of course, was a huge problem. To add to their woes, if they were even a little late in returning to their work, wages were deducted. With no unionisation and little knowledge of the law, hundreds of women workers across the 42 rice mills in South Dinajpur district would have continued to work under these unfair conditions if 30 female workers of the Joardar Rice Mill had not taken up this fight. Young Shukla Oraon, a leading voice of that campaign, and her co-workers compelled the management to construct a separate toilet for them. Following the Joardar movement, 10 mills in the district now have separate toilets for women.

* "We gheraoed the manager, Mansoor Ali. There were some 30 of us. We shouted slogans and told him in no uncertain terms that we would not settle for anything less than a separate toilet for women."


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