People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
April 23, 2006
Faced By Working Women In The Era Of
of the total 397 million workers in India, 123.9 million are women. Of these,
roughly 106 million women work in rural areas and the remaining 18 million work
in urban areas. Ninety six per cent of the women workers are in the unorganised
sector. Overall, the female work participation rate has increased from 19.7 per
cent in 1981 to 25.7 per cent in 2001. In the rural areas, it has increased from
23.1 per cent to 31 per cent and in the urban areas from 8.3 per cent to 11.6
per cent. Although more women seek work, a vast majority of them get only poorly
paid jobs in the informal sector, without any job security or social security.
This is because of the increasing unemployment and under employment among the
male members of the family and the increasing cost of living as a result of the
neo liberal economic policies.
addition to discrimination at the workplace, working women had to face several
hazards even before the era of globalisation; but these have increased several
times with the advent of the neo-liberal policies of globalisation,
liberalisation and privatisation. In the era of globalisation, working women
have become more vulnerable to intense exploitation; they are exposed to more
and more risks and are forced to endure more and more stress and strain, both
physical and mental.
hazards faced by workingwomen can be categorised as:
hazards, which working women face along with their male colleagues, i.e.
those common to all the workers, in the era of globalisation
hazards, which working women face as women, at the work place
hazards, which working women face in their families and in the society
addition, women who actively participate in trade union activities also have to
encounter many other problems, which their male counterparts do not face.
most serious hazard faced by the working class in the era of globalisation is
the increasing threat to job security. The informal sector is fast expanding,
while the organised sector is shrinking. Contract, casual, temporary, part-time,
piece-rated jobs and home based work etc are increasingly replacing permanent
jobs. To circumvent resistance to amendments to labour laws and to give the
employers the freedom to ‘hire and fire’ workers, the governments of the day
are resorting to various back door measures. The NDA government had introduced
‘fixed term’ employment through an administrative order, which continues
under the present UPA regime. Special Economic Zones, which are areas deemed to
be outside our territory, are being opened in large numbers throughout the
country. While there is no explicit provision that labour laws would not be
applied in these zones, in practice, even labour commissioners are not allowed
inside these zones and the workers are practically at the mercy of the
employers. Neither the central nor the state governments intervene to protect
the interests of the workers. Even in the public sector, the number of
contractor workers is increasing.
the pretext of abolishing ‘Inspector Raj’ attempts are being made to give a
free hand to the employers to flout all labour laws with impunity. The UPA
government has introduced bills giving exemption to small and medium enterprises
from maintaining several records and registers, which mostly relate to the
workers. It has also changed the definition of small enterprises by increasing
the number of workers. Due to the strong opposition from the Left parties and
trade unions, the government has agreed to remove the labour related clauses
from the bills, though the bills in the new form have not yet been introduced in
the parliament. All these have adverse impact not only on the working conditions
of the workers, but also on their health.
The workers in the informal sector, a large number of who are women, have no job security. Work is often unskilled or low skilled and low paid. Availability of work is irregular; when work is available, they have to work for long hours. Not just in the unorganised sector or in the small enterprises, but also in the modern sectors like the IT, automobile industry etc, workers are forced to work for 12 hours while the concerned governments choose to ignore this open flouting of the labour laws. The uncertainties in getting work and the dire need to keep it in the midst of intense competition and the necessity to evolve strategies for this, cause mental tension, strained social relationships, psychological problems and chronic fatigue, all of which are difficult to prove as work-related.
rated work contributes significantly to the level of fatigue felt by the
workers. The wages of piece rated workers depend on the speed with which they
work. Some studies indicate that out of the workers who suffer from
‘neurosis’, 71 per cent are piece rated workers as against 26.5 per cent who
receive daily or monthly wages.
traditional industries where women work in large numbers like coir, handloom,
food processing etc have undergone changes in the forms of production with the
introduction of machines, power looms etc, which result in the loss of
employment for large number of women. With the introduction of machines, women
in manufacturing are replaced by men.
underemployment and temporary work are more common among women than among men.
The workers do not have any social security or health care benefits. As a
result, the work-related illnesses, which they suffer from, remain hidden. As
per available research, unemployment is harmful to health and constitutes a
serious risk for the workers’ emotional stability, because it leads to
poverty, deteriorates self-image and self-esteem.
is generally believed that women prefer part-time, temporary or home-based work
because such jobs enable them to balance their job responsibilities with their
domestic responsibilities. But in fact, making working hours flexible as per the
requirement of the employers makes it more difficult for the women workers to
adjust their domestic responsibilities with the working hours at their workplace
and disrupts family life. Absence of clearly defined work schedule increases the
stress and impacts their health.
large number of women workers complain of frequent headaches, back pain,
circulatory disorders, fatigue, and emotional and mental disorders. Poor
nutritional status, anaemia due to poverty and the cultural practices where
women eat last and the increased workload due to domestic responsibilities, lead
to fatigue among women. Worry, responsibility, strong emotions, concentrated
attention or precision required by some jobs like embroidery, assembly of
electronic or electric appliances, gems, jewellery etc, and exhaustion caused by
intellectual or mental activities also produce fatigue. A large number of women
workers complain of symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, depression,
sadness and concentration problems. The exhausting conditions make it difficult
to recognise these states as ‘abnormal’. Fatigue is generally not considered
an illness, but if it is neglected, it can lead to a variety of illnesses.
types of work, where the worker is subordinated to machines, which are boring
and do not require any personal initiative, also cause fatigue. The attitudes of
the employers or supervisors that tend to create feelings of inferiority,
uselessness or inability also result in mental fatigue. Various studies show
that fatigue and stress related illnesses are common in the sectors that employ
mostly women. A study on data entry operators indicated high levels of fatigue
and stress due to the intense pressure of their work, the high degree of job
dissatisfaction and the lack of initiative and creativity required by the
FACED BY WORKING WOMEN
of women working in the organised sector have been employed in the public
sector. But with restructuring and downsizing of workforce in the public sector
and government departments, as a part of the neo-liberal policies, women are the
first to be retrenched, because of the general perception that women’s income
is supplementary. Women have been forced to go on VRS in some banks, under
threat to transfer to far-off places; Coal India has formulated a special VRS
package for women.
numbers of women work in schools, hospitals, as sales persons in shops, in
plantations, in construction etc. It is found that even in many government
hospitals and schools, there are no separate toilets for women. Lack of such
basic facilities like toilets, rest rooms, dining spaces, etc at the workplace
cause a lot of physical discomfort and mental stress besides leading to several
urinary tract and other diseases, particularly among pregnant women.
working in the informal sector do not have any child-care facilities. Even in
the organised sector, crèches are not provided in most of the establishments.
Even where they do exist, they are either ill-equipped or are not maintained
properly, as a result of which women are reluctant to keep their children in
such crèches. Most often women workers, particularly in the informal sector,
are forced to leave their children at home, under the care of their elder
children, or old people or neighbours. This causes great anxiety and emotional
strain. Some studies indicate that this is a major problem for working women in
harassment is another serious hazard faced by working women. Whether in the
organised or unorganised sector, whether illiterate, low paid workers or highly
educated and highly paid executives, a large number of working women face sexual
harassment at the workplace. Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court judgement
in the Visakha case, the government is yet to bring legislation against sexual
harassment at workplace. Even the Supreme Court guidelines of constituting
complaints committees, amending standing orders, creating awareness etc have not
been implemented in most of the establishments.
government has decided to amend the Factories Act allowing women workers to work
in the night shift. Women have been working in hospitals, in the telecom
department and in the fish processing industry in the night shift. But in the
era of globalisation, the export oriented units in EPZs and call centres etc are
employing women in large numbers in the night shift, without providing proper
protection or transport facilities to them. The case of Pratibha working in the
multinational company HP in Bangalore, who was brutally raped and murdered, is
only an example of the serious hazard that women working in the night shifts
face. Besides, women who work in the night shift generally are not in a position
to take proper rest during the day because of their domestic responsibilities,
impacting their health.
working in some industries like construction, brick kilns, electronics industry
etc suffer from gynaecological problems, miscarriages, premature deliveries etc
and give birth to babies with low birth weight or birth defects. Given the
socio-economic conditions of these women, these often lead to tension and
strained relations in the family, along with the physical problems.
Factories Act, The Mines Act, The Dock Workers’ Act etc are some of the laws,
which contain provisions for regulating the health of the workers in an
establishment. The Employees’ State Insurance Act and the Workmen’s
Compensation Act provide health benefits and compensation to the workers in
cases of ill-health and injuries etc. But in the unorganised sector where the
majority of women workers are concentrated, no occupational safety and health
safeguards are in place. Even in the organised sector, where these are
applicable, safeguards are rarely provided for the workers, either male or
female. Usually the safety devises are designed keeping the male workers in view
and become unsuitable for women workers. Besides, the social aspects of work are
not considered risk factors. As a result, more emphasis is given to work related
accidents than to illnesses.
RELATED TO THE ATTITUDE OF
more and more women are coming out in search of paid employment and their
families also need their income, the attitude towards women and their role in
the family has not undergone much change. Women continue to be perceived as
weak, inferior, and second-class citizens. In capitalist society, this feudal
attitude is utilised by the capitalist classes to further exploit women and
increase their profits. For working women, this discrimination is extended to
the workplace also.
today, looking after the family and children is generally perceived to be the
primary responsibility of women. With the State retreating from its minimum
responsibilities of providing welfare measures and privatisation of basic
services like health, education etc, women are forced to spend more time and
energies on these responsibilities towards their children and other family
members. The unpaid labour of women in providing these services to the family
increases their burden while at the same time helping the employers in keeping
the wages low.
of this perception, which is prevalent even among most of the working women,
women have to shoulder the entire burden of domestic chores, which they try to
complete before leaving for work, with little help from the other, particularly
the male members of the family. Many women have reported not to have a proper
meal before leaving to work. Improper and insufficient dietary intake along with
the heavy workload result in nutritional disorders. In addition, this perception
that they alone are responsible for the domestic work, leads to a feeling of
guilt when they are not able to look after the children or the family due to
their official work, often resulting in emotional disorders.
FACED BY WOMEN
women face double burden due to their domestic and official responsibilities.
That is one of the important reasons for women not coming forward to take more
responsibilities in the trade unions. It is very rare to find family support for
women who play an active role in trade union activities. Besides the physical
burden, women trade union activists often become victims of character
assassination. There have been many instances where women trade union leaders
had to face physical and mental violence, including attempts to murder and
murder, from family members because of their trade union activities.
ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS
on the working and living conditions of the workers have increased in the
present era of neo-liberal globalisation. While all workers – men and women
– are subjected to increased physical and mental stress due to the attacks on
their job security and social security benefits, the impact of these is more on
the women workers because of slackening or complete withdrawal of inspections by
the labour department and lack of occupational safety and health measures. In
general, the trade unions do not pay the same attention to the issues of
occupational hazards and safety as to the economic issues of the workers. It is
necessary for the trade unions to pay more attention to the impact of the
neo-liberal polices on the health of the workers, paying specific attention to
those related to women. It is also necessary to pay more attention to study the
impact of the working conditions, including the rise in unemployment and
underemployment, on the social, mental and emotional aspects of women workers.
unions need also encourage their members, including the leaders and cadres to
share the domestic responsibilities of women workers and overcome the feudal
attitudes towards women that are widely prevalent today.