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women and work in the informal sector in India

Women’s empowerment has become a buzzword in the lexicon of politicians and bureaucrats in India after the official pronouncements on the status of women and the enactment of the constitutional amendments. The 73rd and 74th amendments have added new dimensions to the issue of women’s empowerment by making provisions for the compulsory participation of women in local governing bodies and involvement in development activities. The amendments make provisions for reservation of not less than one-third of the total number of seats in panchayats and municipalities for women. The amendments have resulted in about three million elected representatives in panchayats and municipalities and out of this, one million are women.
How far have these amendments helped women in the informal sector? Women contribute largely to the country’s development but their needs are not addressed adequately or at the right time and place. Their lives are still characterized by low income, ill health, low nutrition and high level of exploitation.
Informal sector -- background
The informal sector was 'discovered' in the 1970s when Keith Hart first used the term. The International Labour Organization (ILO) then embraced this. This view largely saw the informal sector as "covering marginal livelihoods and survival activity outside the regulatory reach of state and not yet able to be absorbed by industry (and) emphasized the role (or failure) of formal sector employment in defining the informal sector." The 1980s, however, saw the emergence of a more textured understanding of informality. Informal activity was then considered as much a rural or ‘rurban’ phenomenon as it was an urban one.
Nearly a decade back, the ILO 1998 World Employment Report characterized the informal sector in the following words: "Informal units comprise small enterprises with hired workers, household enterprises using mostly family labour, and the self-employed. Production processes involve relatively high levels of working capital as against fixed capital, which in turn reflects the relatively low level of technology and skills involved".
Current research on informality underscores the inherently ambivalent nature of informality, focussing on the ‘partial’ or strategic informalisation across and within enterprises. For example, firms may be registered as ‘formal’ in some records and not registered at all in others. As there is no system of tallying these records, firms can maximize their set of advantages by avoiding taxes and yet acquiring state-subsidized finance.
The informal economy either lies beyond the scope of state regulation, or is officially subject to state regulation but does not function in keeping with the rules that state regulation officially prescribes. If it lies outside the scope of state regulations, it is generally known as ‘unregistered’ firm and defined as consisting of firms with electricity but with less than 10 workers or without electricity but with over 20 workers. If it lies within the scope of state regulation, in practice, most firms with labour force exceeding the threshold for registration employ a substantial number of casual labour, mainly women, and this is undeclared under the Factories Act. They did this even for registered workers by cleverly skirting rules instead of breaking them. For example, textile mills in Mumbai were expected to support young nursing mothers and mothers with small children with a crèche if the mill employed 50 or more women workers on the rolls. Many mills and factories cleverly skirted this regulation by employing less than 50 women. Many mills and factories and work units in the organized sector preclude unionization in the same way – by employing workers less than the number that would permit unionization on a legal and official basis.

Women and Work in the Informal Sector
Amongst those who are left out of any social protection system in India, and amongst those who are poor, women form a major group. Women dominate those forms of work that are unregulated and unregistered, found most in the so-called ‘informal economy. According to Visaria (1966), the informal economy in India employs about 90 per cent of the country’s work force and 97 per cent of its women workers. Many of these women workers are primary earners for their families. Their earnings are necessary for sheer survival. With economic reforms in full sway in India, many believe that informal work, characterized by low earnings, irregular employment and unsafe working conditions with intensify in the coming years.

Low-income women workers - specially in the informal sector - form one of the most vulnerable groups in the Indian economy. The reasons for their vulnerability are – (a) irregular work, (b) low economic status, (c) little or no bargaining power, (d) lack of control over earnings, (e) need to balance paid work with care for children and homework, (f) little or no access to institutional credit, training and information, and (g) lack of assets. Unequal gender relations assume a very important role in defining their insecurities. In fact, according to the National Council of Labour, “the forces which control and sustain the vulnerability of women are institutionalized in society and in the economy.”

Given their vulnerable status at home and at work, income generation alone may not improve the socio-economic status of women attached to the informal sector. Their economic empowerment needs to go along with political empowerment, which could improve their bargaining power both in the household and at work. This means that organizing women workers in the informal economy could have beneficial impacts on their work and their life if such organization combines voices representation along with access to resources such as credit and information – a holistic strategy that provides political empowerment allied with economic empowerment.

The importance of organization in empowerment
Given their vulnerable status at home and at work, income generation alone may not improve the socio-economic status of women attached to the informal sector. Their economic empowerment needs to go along with political empowerment, which could improve their bargaining power both in the household and at work. This means that organizing women workers in the informal economy could have beneficial impacts on their work and their life if such organization combines voices representation along with access to resources such as credit and information – a holistic strategy that provides political empowerment allied with economic empowerment.

In order to confront these institutional forces, people need to come together to combat and confront the forces as a group instead of as an individual. Here is where the function of NGOs and Self Help Groups assumes importance. This coming together of women in the informal sector gives a voice to the voiceless. It can help pool resources, both financial and emotional. It can empower women workers both in a political sense as well as in an economic sense. Organizing provides workers with representation and security – the security of a collective voice in the labour market, a voice that allows them to express their views about their work and their working conditions and empowers them to bargain over their rights at work.

There are areas in which women workers in the informal economy who are organized are better off than their non-organized counterparts mostly in terms of (i) access to credit, (b) access to training at work, (c) access to loans for housing that enables these women to buy their own homes and have health insurance.

Conclusion
Organization is necessary for empowerment. It is the first step towards voice representation. But it is not enough to be organized unless such organization is effective, one that is truly representational of its members and their work, one that acquires bargaining powers for its members. An organization must also inform and educate its members of their rights and duties on the one hand and the changes taking place within their scheme of work, on the other. Sometimes, members of a NGO may not even understand what a NGO stands for. SEWA Self-Employed Women’s Organization) in Gujarat for instance, shows that only 60% of its members are aware that they belong to an organization that represents their interests while only 23.3% have heard of ‘unions.’

Models of economic empowerment may not be enough to empower women. Besides, empowerment per se may not be liberating for women unless these women are able to exercise control over the proceeds from their employment. In fact, it is necessary for economic and political empowerment to work together if any real material or non-material change is to come about in the lives of women working in the informal economy.

Religious factors, socio-economic conditioning (predisposing women to set roles) and class-caste differences (determining traditional division of labour within society) are some of the sensitive and not-so-obvious factors which influence people's motivations – or the lack of them, behind skill development and entrepreneurship. Therefore, interventions, either at the governmental level, at the NGO level or at the level of local self-governing bodies is necessary to tap the unrealized potential of women workers in the informal sector who, mostly, are not even aware of the level of their competence and skills. They are often not aware of their cultural and technical limitations. Any sensible development initiative must start by addressing these basics.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009
Note: This is a shorter version of a long paper presented by the author at The International Conference on Women in the Emerging Indian Economy – Silence to Voice, Problems and Possibilities, at Christ College, Bangalore held on November 26 and 27, 2007. This paper was presented at the session titled Changing Nature of Work-A Gender Perspective.

Comments

From May 22 to May 31, I was away at the ten-day workshop on a fellowship I won from the Jadavpur University's Department of Women's Studies. The theme of the workshop was CULTURE AND DEVELOPMENT IN A GLOBALIZED WORLD - FEMINIST CROSSIINGS. My presentation was on POSMODERN ELEMENTS IN CELLULOID REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN INDIAN MAINSTREAM CINEMA 2000-2009. My presentation went off very well because I was the only person who chose cinema as my subject so no one knew what questions to ask or why after my session was over.

I learnt a lot during the ten days through plenary sessions by experts who functioned as resource persons, through group discussions on papers we had to study the night before on different aspects of Freud's Theory of Psycho Analysis, on Gender-Friendly and Gender-Neutral approaches to sex and gender, on the "Capabilities Approach' by Amartya Sen's colleague Martha Nussbaum who I had never even heard of before the workshop, and so on. But it was a bit heavy on the brain. This was relieved by one wonderful night safari, one day trip to Jaldhaka Power Project and one day drip to Gorumara Wild Life Sanctuary where we saw many peacocks, some bisons far away and pet elephants used in guarding the forests. There were singing and dancing and drinking on three wild nights but I do not drink though I enjoyed dancing with the Santhals - the local tribes there.

Back home, there is a backlog I hate to even look at but life as they say, must go on and change is the only thing that remains constant.

ShomaChatterjee

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