A day for every woman
She cleans our homes
Or roads, offices or parks
She stitches clothes
Or sells fruits or flowers
Jamuna the domestic worker
Mary the janitor
Zeenat the garment worker
Ratnamma the street vendor
Do they count
At least on 8th March
When we celebrate
What such women started?
As we approach the anniversary of International Women's Day (IWD), I salute those women working in the informal economy who toil to keep the lives of many others in order. They often do this in spite of low compensation which is below the minimum wage. Most of them do not get fundamental entitlements such as paid vacation, health insurance or pension. Ironically, the last may not be applicable to them as they never retire! (This is probably true of women who are home makers although that is a different but relevant topic to think about and act on).
However, women similar to those above continue to work in their jobs as they find rarely find alternative occupations. This is often because they lack necessary skills. Further, they are unable to have time, money and awareness to acquire different qualifications (academic or otherwise). Small wonder that they are known as “unskilled” or “semi skilled” labour.
Some people from middle and high income families may argue that this is not entirely true. But how many of them treat their household helpers with basic dignity, pay them sufficiently and give them time off? In fact, there are employers who overload their 'maids' and cooks with chores or abuse the workers orally and physically particularly if they are children.
Members of the Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU) based in Bangalore and their supporters have been campaigning for fair wages and additional benefits like social security, weekly holiday et al. They have been partly successful in bringing their needs to the notice of lawmakers, news media, young students and the general public. In 2011, during a public meeting outside Bangalore's Town Hall, these people raised another crucial issue. It was about the impact of inflation on their daily lives. “Pay rise must be proportionate to price rise”, said Geeta Menon, a co-founder of Stree Jagruti Samiti and DWRU.
Other women who work in the “unorganized” sector usually slog for long hours in dark, crowded rooms for a poor pay. They are subject to threats and sexual harassment and are too scared to fight back or complain. This is true especially of workers in private garment, electronic or chemical factories.
We must bear in mind that despite their financial challenges, these women are forced to buy food grain at almost the same prices as the wealthy. This is because they are unable to obtain family ration cards (required to procure groceries through the Indian public distribution system) due to the lack of necessary documents such as proof of residential address as some have no permanent home or land titles. Even if they have ration cards, the quality and quantity of groceries available at 'fair' price (ration) shops is anybody's guess!
In addition to these problems, many of these women face domestic violence from drunken husbands. They hardly have the support of their parents or extended families. Yet, they keep working in their houses and ours with a smile so that their children may end up better than them. Remembering such women is essential as we commemorate IWD now and later!