By B. Sivaraman
Women’s movements and TUs in some major industrial centres in India focused on working women’s issues while observing Women’s Day this year. As the Women’s Day 2019 was observed close on the eve of the general elections, the All-Women Coordination, a collective of 40 women’s organisations comprising Leftist, Periyarist, Ambedkarite and minority women’s groups in Tamil Nadu, released a Women’s Manifesto on the occasion of Women’s Day rally in Chennai, held however on 12 March for some logistic reasons. A close scrutiny of the issues that figured in the Women’s Day programmes in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai clearly showed that the focus this time was on the employment crisis haunting Indian women.
The central issue causing all-round concern is the drastic decline of labour force participation of women. The world average for women’s participation in work is 50 per cent but in India it has come down from an already low level of 35 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent in 2018 July. In terms of absolute numbers this would mean that millions of women are out of jobs in just three years of Modi’s rule, especially in the years of demonetization and GST.
While talking to some leaders and organisers of working women in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore on the reasons for this, four basic problems came to the fore. One is that disproportionately greater share of care work falls on working women in the household and the provision of law for establishing crèches is observed more in the breach even in large industries. Secondly, the burden of domestic work, including cooking and washing, falls almost exclusively on women even if they happen to be working women. Thirdly, commuting to work every day has become a nightmare for women employees. And fourthly, working women hostels and paying guest facilities (PGs) are not available in adequate numbers in big cities and hence girls from small towns and rural areas are not able to find a secure place to stay and go for work.
Elaborating on these issues, Ms. R. Brinda, who is now Vice-President of All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Tamil Nadu and who was earlier the State Convenor of the Working Women’s Wing of AIDWA, says: “The jobs crisis for women is extremely severe. Earlier many women used to move into IT jobs but after the IT crisis of 2017 the average salary for new entrants in the numerous small IT units mushrooming in the IT Corridor on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) is around Rs.12,000.
But thanks to the Seventh Pay Commission, the salary for Class IV employees in government service is Rs.27,000 and hence you see a strange spectacle of women with BE degrees joining government service as Class IV employees. Even in banks, thanks to automation, only a few officer-level jobs are available for middle class women and the banks are recruiting youth on part-time job-work for opening Jan Dhan accounts or for canvassing for deposits or collecting recurring deposit instalments etc., and pay them pittance as allowances. Due to harassment, girls who take up such jobs quit soon”.
Ms. Brinda says that companies themselves do not provide crèches and though private crèches have mushroomed in the name of playschools, they charge anywhere between Rs.4000 to Rs.6000 per month, and for commuting in shared taxis also they have to shell out as much. As this is unaffordable even for many IT women, they prefer to stay at home for 3 to 4 years after childbirth. This is a major reason for women dropping out of the labour force. “Even unskilled women workers are forced to cook themselves as after GST a plate of idlis now costs Rs.27 instead of Rs.15,” says Ms. Brinda.
A woman leader of the IT workers’ union FITE points out that the Tamil Nadu government has passed the Tamil Nadu Hostels and Homes for Women and Children (Regulation) Act 2014 but this law is not being strictly enforced and women employees in IT are facing lots of problems including sexual harassment in their PG facilities. In fact, Ms. Brinda also points out that AIDWA caught a PG owner in Coimbatore who forced the girls staying there into prostitution after their monthly payments were delayed due to joblosses. Under the garb of running PGs a new type of trafficking is developing, she points out.
A labour leader of Lal Nishan Party (Leninist) leading domestic workers in Mumbai and Pune says that domestic workers coming from beyond Palgar, Kalyan or Borivili to work in households in downtown Mumbai will have to spend 2 to 3 hours travelling one way.
A key functionary of Asmita, a women’s research collective in Hyderabad, says there is no decent work for women, and shop assistants cannot afford private PGs. The government is not investing in working women’s hostels or affordable homes. Construction work is also dull and investment is flowing only into roads and over-bridges and women are unable to go and work in those projects in the Hyderabad summer heat. Demonetisation has sent thousands of women back home, this activist says.
An activist in Bangalore says that flexi hours could be a part solution to cope with commuting stress and work-from-home to attend to care work responsibilities and they are spreading in big IT companies in Bangalore but yet to catch up in small units and start-ups where women are forced to work even 12 hours.
The Hyderabad activist says that observing Women’s Day has become a ritual festival in recent years after it became “official” and the managements themselves used to arrange such events in a patronising manner giving gifts and sweets and even schools and colleges started organising song-and-dance shows instead of focusing on women’s rights. But this year the Women’s Day was observed in a subdued manner. The FITE leader also concurs that it was on a low key in Chennai IT Corridor and one reason could be that the patronising managements are now fearing any independent coming together of women even as a ritual after the MeToo wave. Women’s Day will be back to its rebellious spirit, she hopes. They are hoping to launch a campaign confronting all parties on a set of policy measures in favour of working women during the poll campaign. (IPA Service)