People's Democracy

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

Vol. XXX

No. 17

April 23, 2006

Hazards Faced By Working Women In The Era Of Globalisation



OUT 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.

In 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.

The hazards faced by workingwomen can be categorised as:

In addition, women who actively participate in trade union activities also have to encounter many other problems, which their male counterparts do not face.


The 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.

On 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.

Piece 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.

Several 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.

Unemployment, 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.

It 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.

A 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.

Certain 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 position.


Majority 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.

Large 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.

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 the EPZs.

Sexual 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.

The 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.

Women 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.

The 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.


Though 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.

Even 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.

Because 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.


Working 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.



Attacks 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.

Trade 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.