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Holding up more than half the sky

By Sharmila Joshi

As more than one writer in this issue has emphasised, the unorganised sector in India is huge -- at least 395 million people. That is, about 85% of India 's workforce is engaged in this sector. Work in India then primarily means work in a sector that is "unorganised", but only to the extent that it implies uncertain and exploitative work conditions. It is, however, highly "organised" in the sense that it is the systemic, structural exclusion of a majority of the country's working population from stable and safe employment, incremental wages that can at least meet minimum living standards, access to basic services and welfare measures, and the protection of labour laws.

A recent report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) says that 79% of the 395 million workers in this sector live on an income of less than Rs 20 a day -- and that the total number of Indians living with this amount is 836 million. Approximately 28 million people who work in the organised sector work as informal workers, with the same uncertainties of employment as the unorganised sector. This means a total of about 423 million, or at least 90% of India 's workers. The report speaks of the "utterly deplorable" conditions in this sector, where workers have "extremely few livelihood options".

A dual process is underway. On the one hand, the Indian government appointed the NCEUS, and it has introduced important schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. On the other hand, with the ongoing changes in economic and social policy in India , an even greater number of people are being pushed into the folds of this unregulated sector, where they must manage as best they can, without any substantive guarantees from the State.

The great majority of women in India work in the unorganised sector. They do home-based work, are self-employed, employed in household enterprises, small units, on land as agricultural workers, as labourers on construction sites, as domestic workers, and in many other forms of temporary employment, in rural as well as urban areas. As some of the writers in this issue have pointed out, liberalisation has ensured that when employment becomes sub-contractual or piecemeal, an even greater number of women join the ranks of the unorganised.

As women in a vulnerable and impoverished sector, they face the additional inequalities of gender. These translate into many tangibles -- unequal wages, no maternity benefits, sexual harassment, and poor nutrition and ill health. Women in the unorganised sector as well as countless other women invariably also do a wide variety of "invisible" work, and often shoulder the dual burden of paid and unpaid labour. The unpaid contribution of many of the activities associated with household maintenance, provisioning and reproduction -- which are typically performed by women or female children -- tends to be ignored in calculations of labour.

When caste or adivasi status intersects with poverty and gender, the status of workers in the labour hierarchy drops even more sharply. On the one hand, the pernicious "traditions" of caste ensure that women as well as men in India continue to be forced to work in dehumanising caste-based occupations; on the other hand, "development" projects such as big dams or policies that are changing the agrarian economy are taking away from women the space and opportunity to work with their traditional skills and knowledge.

The articles and papers in this dossier cover these as well as other issues associated with women working in the unorganised sector. Some of the articles are, variously, overviews, conceptual, or ideological pieces. They cover issues such as the nature of the unorganised sector, of unpaid work, of labour laws, of globalisation and the "feminisation" of the workforce, and the very idea of work in the Indian tradition. Some other pertinent issues, such as attempts at unionising in the unorganised sector, are covered in the online version of Agenda .

Other articles are reports from the field. These are by no means intended as a comprehensive typology of women at work in India -- very many types of women's work are not included in this issue. The complex and multi-layered nature of women's work can perhaps only be described through a few representative accounts. These include stories of women migrating for work, working on the land, selling firewood, carrying human excreta, doing domestic work, working on construction sites, on plantations, as waste-pickers, as sex workers, and as water collectors. In addition, this issue contains articles on micro-credit "self-help" groups and commuting on "ladies special" trains.

At times, readers ask for "positive" or "success" stories. Success however need not only be manifest in measurable results or in vivid transformations. Success is inherent in the daily struggles of the women workers of India , in their constant confrontations with survival, in the sheer effort of their labour. To say this obviously does not amount to a validation of the unorganised sector or an argument for the status quo. It is, instead, an attempt to look at another dimension of success, to recognise women's negotiations with seemingly insurmountable odds and their role in holding up more than half of the sky.

(This issue of InfoChange Agenda has been guest-edited by Sharmila Joshi. S harmila is an independent journalist and researcher based in Mumbai, India . She has written extensively about issues related to gender; her research interests include problems of development, globalisation and labour)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007