People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 11, 2012



The World of the Woman Worker



Brinda Karat


SANTHARA, a 35 year old woman belonging to the Scheduled Caste Vadar community along with her old mother and teenaged daughter wait at a stop on the main road in Yeotmal district of Maharashtra. It is 5.30 in the morning and already the sun is up and it looks like it is going to be another hot summer day. After a short while a tractor drives up close to the women and unloads a heap of big stones. Santhara picks up a large iron hammer while her daughter and mother rush to separate the pile of stones, each stone weighing eight to ten kilos. Santhara lifts the hammer high swinging her body to the side and then brings the hammer down with all her strength. It makes a huge sound, but the stone merely cracks. She has to break the stone into eight mm sized pieces. On an average, it takes her fifty lifts and hits of the hammer for each stone. For the breaking of one brass of stones, a measurement which roughly means around 100 to 125 big stones, she will raise the heavy hammer more than five thousand times in a single day. The three women have two hammers between them, one of which is borrowed and for which they have to pay thirty rupees. They take turns at the work. It takes them anything between ten to twelve hours to break the stones into the size of the chips required. The heat is now unbearable but the women stop only for a frugal meal of rotis and chilli paste. The women earn three hundred rupees between them minus the payment for the hammer, less than a hundred rupees each a day. There is no other work available.  This is the Vidarbha area, the suicide belt of Maharashtra. With the decrease in the number of days of work available in agriculture, manual workers like Santhara have no alternative but this hard manual labour. In this area, NREGA has given an average of only 20 days of work a year. The sun has slipped over the horizon and darkness descends by the time the three tired women reach their home, a five km walk from the road. Santhara's body is wracked with pain every waking hour. At night to deal with the pain, she drinks at least two glasses of the local alcoholic brew and that enables her to sleep. She falls sick very often but if the road making, stone breaking work is available, she will be there again. When asked, the rural development official in the area speaks contemptuously of the women, “oh they are notorious,” he says, “I wouldn’t advise you to go to their village at night, you will find them all drunk.”


Switch to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. Three tempos drive up belching smoke. It is 7.30 in the morning. The tempos are packed with women of different ages, all adivasis. They jump down from the vehicles each paying the driver ten rupees. They are the first to arrive at the labour market. Soon the crowd increases; men and women some with shovels, some with pickaxes, the women with cloth wound tightly around their heads. The contractors and their men arrive. They walk up and down looking at the workers as though they are cattle. One contractor picks out twelve workers, the five women among them are all young. An older woman moves along with them. The contractor stops her, using abusive language. A younger woman speaks softly, we work as a pair, she is my mother. He laughs and nudges the older woman, “alright you can come too, but I will give you one third of what your daughter will earn.”  Two, for the price of one. These are Ranchi's construction workers. Bina, the daughter starts the work. She carries at least eight bricks at a time on her head. The building they are working on has reached the first floor so she balances as she walks up a sloping plank. Each brick weighs around two kilos, so she is carrying a weight of at least sixteen kilos a time. Her mother helps her to pile the bricks on and also carries the same number of bricks. On an average a woman construction worker on the site carries around 1500 bricks a day and even more depending on how high she has to climb. The minimum weight that she carries a day is 3000 kgs. For this, she is paid between 100 and 150 rupees a day at most and sometimes when there is less work available and the labour supply more, she could get as little as sixty or seventy rupees. Like Santhara, Bina too suffers from severe body ache. She says, “The pain has become an intrinsic part of my life. I don’t remember a single day without it.” She does not possess an identity card nor does she have access to any social security benefits. It takes too much time at the labour office, she says and adds, “My family eats when I work. How can I spend weeks trying to get the card?” She falls ill often, but nonetheless drags herself to work. On some days, she spends twenty rupees on transport but does not find work. On those days she often goes to the nearby forest and picks wood which she dries and sells.


Across the country, women like Santhara and Bina work their lives out in hard backbreaking work which should make any civilised country hang its head in shame. Frail women carrying loads of 3000 kilos a day or breaking stones, raising and hitting a heavy hammer 5000 times, to earn meagre amounts. The ILO definition of decent work becomes a mockery in the reality of the work that women do in India.


Two decades after the neo liberal policies were introduced in India, what is the impact on the lives of working women? If economic independence for women is a prerequisite though admittedly not a guarantee for their advancement, how do women fare?  The work women do can be broadly divided into three categories: (1) work for an income or wages (2) unpaid work linked to the market (3) unpaid domestic work. Have the present set of policies enhanced women's status in any of these three areas and if so to what extent and if not why not?




The NSS divides workers into three employment status categories in urban and rural areas (1) in regular work, (2) in casual work, and (3) self-employed. In the latest survey which covers the years between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010, it is seen that among all women workers, (around 127 million out of a workforce of 485 million) the share of regular workers registered a small one per cent increase from nine per cent to 10.1 per cent. However, the share of casual workers registered a substantial increase of more than six per cent from 30 per cent to 36 per cent. The number of casual workers among men also increased by around five per cent. Thus the global trend of casualisation of the workforce, noted by the ILO in its 2012 report, is seen in India too. The largest employment status category for both men and women is self-employment, for women more than men. Here, there is a sharp decrease of eight per cent for women from 61 per cent to 53.3 per cent between 2004-05 and 2009-10. For men, the fall is less from 54.2 per cent to 50 per cent.  Thus, it would seem that a section of the self-employed had to shift to casual work for an income. This bursts the balloon floated by the government that self-employment was a viable alternative in the context of government policies of jobloss growth. Self-employment could cause even more distress than casual waged work which is why the shift may have occurred.


Another claim is how liberalisation has provided opportunities to women in many more avenues of work. This is true to the extent that a certain class of women have found increased employment in IT, the hospitality industry, aviation sector, communications. But these have been in relatively smaller numbers.  In urban India it is not these more high profile sections in the service sector, but work as domestic maids which has seen the largest growth in employment for women. While the visibility of young educated women in many fields of employment is far greater than it was earlier, as far as numbers are concerned, in urban India it is the number of domestic workers who have increased the most. This is a reflection also of the development of a middle class with incomes which can afford employment of domestic workers. Even while this is the reality, India has refused to sign the ILO convention that accords recognition to basic rights of workers to those in domestic service as maids.


Even while the period saw a slew of concessions to corporates for investment in manufacturing, as far as women’s work is concerned, the number of women in manufacturing has actually come down from 11.64 million to 10.75 million. Capital intensive industries as we see in India, do not provide jobs. Decrease in manufacturing also impacts on homebased outsourced work which will also automatically decrease. Thus women in homebased work, who make up a substantial section of the work force will find it difficult to get work and it will also tend to further drive down piece rates.


The biggest increase has been of women in construction work whose numbers have more than doubled from around 2.07 million to 6.50 million in 2009-2010. This reflects the real estate industry boom which was apparent in those years. But we have seen from the life experience of Bina in Jharkhand that while land sharks and promoters benefited, the workers in the construction industry did not. 


The government which was the main employer of women in the organised sector, has through its policy of disinvestment and “downsizing” restricted the recruitment of women. On the contrary, in the public sector the growth of the unorganised sector through contract, casual and outsourcing has grown phenomenally.  Over 60 lakh women are employed in various government schemes without being recognised as government workers with the right to government level wages. Flagship programmes like the ICDS, NRHM and the mid day meal scheme are dependent on these women workers like ASHAs, ICDS helpers and workers, Mid Day meal scheme workers and so on. But not only are they denied recognition as government employees, government exploits their services paying them a pittance.


In agriculture, mechanisation is an important factor in the decreasing workdays for agricultural workers. However, it is still the single largest sector where women find work with a reduction in workdays. Much has been made of the increase in agricultural women workers’ wages seen as a reflection of NREGA. If one considers the absolutely dismal level of wages of women earlier, even 100 per cent increase does not amount to much in real terms. But the fact is that agriculture is not providing sufficient number of workdays and with a poor national average of just around 50 days of work a year, NREGA is not an alternative, which is why female migration is increasing every year.


Thus, whereas in the earlier years of liberalisation there did seem to be an increase in work opportunities for women in some sectors, this has not only plateaued out, but in major sectors the situation has deteriorated.




There is an aspect of women’s work which requires more attention. This pertains to the unpaid work done by women. Among self-employed women, there is a sub-category defined as “helpers in family enterprises,” that is those involved in economic activity in the production of goods and services. It could be work on farms or in family businesses, but the critical factor here is that these family helpers are unpaid.   According to recent calculations (by Indrani Mazumdar and N Neetha at the CWDS) of the total 127.46 million strong female work force in India, 45.22 million, that is 35 per cent are unpaid. In rural areas, the percentage of the unpaid rural female workforce is over 40 per cent. It could be argued that since they are working in family enterprises they share in the family income and standard of living but given what we know about intra household dynamics and share of resources, this would be a superficial view. Moreover men working in the same enterprises who own those enterprises do not register themselves as “family helpers.” Women do not own land, have no assets except their own labour. The fact that such a large percentage of women are tied to unpaid work with no assets or independent incomes, shows the continuing domination of patriarchal practices. Globally according to the ILO, 45 per cent women, mainly in Asian and African countries are unpaid workers. These are the invisible work force whose productive work gains them no social recognition.




The minister for women and child development Krishna Tirath has reportedly asked her ministry to conduct a study to assess the value of women's domestic work. Predictably those defenders of patriarchal values and practices who peddle their retrograde theories under the broad cover of tradition, have questioned any such move as being westernised as according to them it undermines the values of the family, of motherhood of the tradition of women as home makers and home carers. Historically, the sexual division of labour which at a particular stage of human development gave prominence to women’s reproductive role in society and the tasks associated with it, continues in the most modern of contexts. Women’s work in the domestic sphere continues not as an area of enhancing status as it was at the dawn of civilization, but through the unrecognised and underestimated work in the domestic sphere. In 1995, at the time of the Beijing Global Conference for Women, the value of housework globally was estimated at 12 trillion dollars. In India, ten years after Beijing, the government’s Economic Survey made a specific commitment to put a value to women’s domestic work. However, no progress has been made. It is important to do so. Some people have made fun of this demand saying that now women will be demanding salaries from their husbands. While the demand for joint matrimonial property rights is premised on the invisible, undercounted and devalued work that women do for the family, but there is another much more important point to be made which goes beyond property rights and is a universal demand concerning all women, more importantly for the propertyless proletariat. The “care economy” concerns a range of tasks for women which are directly linked to government policies. With the government retreat from social sector responsibilities, the burden of the care economy increases on women. This is true all over the word. For example, the present so-called austerity measures in many of the Western countries hit by the global financial crisis has led to all the major capitalist countries cutting down on pensions, on health insurance, on child care, on crčches, on old age pensions and the like.  The care of the sick and elderly, tuitions for children, cutting down on own expenditure to balance budgets to compensate for cuts in pensions become an intrinsic part of a woman’s life. This represents a reverse subsidy that women give to the State and employers. Gender studies conducted by various UN bodies show the close connection between increase in women’s unpaid domestic work and family care on the one hand and decrease in government’s social spending on the other. The increase in the former is a direct result of the decrease in the latter. At the same time, high food inflation and the consequent food insecurities have a cascading impact on women who are charged, unfairly, in balancing family budgets and who often cut down on their own needs and food requirements. Many countries, like India have in the neo-liberal framework have replaced universal food systems with targeted ones, with disastrous effects. In India, there is talk of scaling back actual State involvement in delivery of basic needs and services. On a global scale and particularly in India, neo-liberal policies far from liberating women from the responsibilities of domestic work through the provision of public services have made her situation worse. Thus, in the current framework of neo-liberal policies, there is a manifold increase in the double burden on women workers.




The most startling figures brought out by the National Sample Survey of 2009-2010 is that there are 21 million less women workers in the labour force compared  to  2004-2005. The labour force by definition, includes employed, self-employed or unemployed women, all women who are looking for work. In other words, according to this survey, 21 million women workers are “missing” compared to the earlier survey in 2004-2005. The government claims that this has happened because many more young women over 15 who had been counted  as part of the labour force earlier have now registered education as their principal activity. While there has been a welcome increase in adolescents studying in secondary schools, this cannot explain the huge decrease of women in the labour force, which was low in any case. Either there is something drastically wrong with the surveys, or women have tried hard to find work and not having found it have withdrawn from the labour force. A large number of women take in homebased work but may not register themselves as workers. It is also possible that there has been an increase in women’s migration due to economic distress, making them truly invisible, which has not been captured. There may be undercounting on this score. But even from the rest of the figures, it is clear that the claims that liberalisation has helped Indian women in the economic sphere are from true. The large number of disappeared women from the labour force signifies distress and a much deeper analysis is required.



Although the experience in India differs from the countries which became the manufacturing hubs of multinational capital exploiting cheap female labour, in India the position of women as far as employment and wages is concerned has seen little advance and on the contrary, increasing unemployment among women, the trend of casualisation of work contracts, signals a deterioration in work standards and wages. Patriarchal notions and practices in the segregation of the workforce with women bearing a disproportionately larger share of unpaid work including in the domestic sphere, points to the hollowness of the claims made by the advocates of the neo-liberal framework. While we can be proud of the achievements of the younger generation of women who have shown tremendous courage and enterprise in breaking barriers in a myriad fields, these achievements are still restricted to far too small a segment of the population. Clearly as far as economic independence is concerned, neo-liberal policies in India have proved that it is only in policy reversal that women can advance.