In Indian cities, home-based workers since the lockdown
Migrant home-based women workers, who form the lowest rungs of India’s labour chain, are working for as little as Rs 10-Rs 15 for over eight hours a day during the pandemic, in the face of employers’ apathy and the lack of access to urban welfare schemes, a study by labour rights organization Aajeevika Bureau has found.
While public attention has remained focused on the worker exodus during the lockdown, the distress of migrant families that chose to remain in India’s cities remains undocumented. In Ahmedabad, one of India’s textiles hubs, women from many such families are employed as home-based workers by domestic and global businesses. Many of them told researchers they were struggling to survive because their wages had gone unpaid and debts were mounting.
Home-based workers, who usually perform subcontracted work on a piece-rate basis, are dealing with twin vulnerabilities – of being migrants and women, the study found. Homenet South Asia, a network of home-based workers across eight countries, defines these workers as “informal sector workers who carry out remunerative work from their own homes or adjacent grounds or premises”.
In the textiles and garments hub of Ahmedabad, for example, most home-based workers are employed to perform small but critical tasks – snip loose threads in embroideries, stick embellishments such as rhinestones and glitter on sarees and lehengas, sew collars and cuffs on outfits, and stitch cloth bags. A few are also employed by incense units to roll agarbattis.
Women workers now cannot find any home-based work except garland-making, said Aditi, 18, who hails from Sultanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and lives in Narol, Ahmedabad. “Ek din mushkil se do-teen maala bana sakte hain aur ek se paanch rupaye milenge. Pura din kaam karke bhi dus-pandrah rupaye hi Milenge [It is impossible to make more than two-three garlands a day and we are paid Rs 5 per piece. Even if we work an entire day, we will not make more than Rs 10-Rs 15],” she said.
The textile and garments industry, where most of these women were employed, contributes 2.3% to India’s gross domestic product, 7% to its manufacturing output and 13% to its export earnings. The contribution of home-based women workers to this sector and the national economy remains invisible and unrecognized. Without formal or standard employment contracts, working from home, and often described as “marriage migrants” – they usually move to urban areas with their husbands – and have no means to assert their rights as workers.
Several states, as well as the central government’s strategy for economic revival following the lockdown, are the proposed dilution of existing labour protection laws. Far from extending the scope of labour laws to include those in vulnerable employment, such as home-based workers, it has shrunk their scope, experts say.
“There is nothing in the offing that can help in reviving India’s economy in the next six months to a year,” said Ravi Srivastava, former professor of economics and chairperson, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, during a webinar in May 2020. “What it has put in place instead is a set of labour law changes… to attract investments through the lengthening of the labour day, and demolishing labour laws.” He added that the result would be sharply declining rates of female labour force participation, combined with severe impact on the wages and earnings of the bottom-most segment of women workers.
This was echoed by Renana Jhabvala from the Self Employed Women’s Association, who said that the desire to keep workers–particularly home-based workers–as an “unidentified mass” with low wages and poor conditions of work informs the proposed shifts in labour legislations.