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A lawless sector

By Susan Abraham

With the growing fragmentation of the labour force in India, employment without security has become the norm. Even as organised sector workers struggle to use whatever is left of labour laws and social security schemes, workers in the unorganised sector have very little legal protection in terms of job security, wages, or working conditions. As more and more women are forced to take up work in this sector, the real challenge is to ensure that the laws and schemes that exist (on paper) for the diminishing numbers of workers in the organised sector are extended to the vast majority of workers in the unorganised sector

In 2005, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) commissioned a study titled ‘Understanding the levels of women's empowerment in the workplace'. The report revealed a number of startling facts, including this: women constitute only 6% of the total workforce in corporate houses. At the time, Anu Aga, then director of Thermax, was the CII's chairperson of the National Committee on Women's Empowerment. While releasing the report, Aga deplored the fact that despite being nearly half of the country's population, the percentage of women in leading managerial positions is abysmally low.

For the vast majority of women workers in India though, the problem is not one of scarcity of numbers but of having to work in extremely exploitative conditions. The Report of the Working Group on Social Security, submitted in June 2006 to the Planning Commission for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, shows that a total of 39.7 crore workers are employed in the organised and unorganised sectors in India.

Only 7% of this huge labour force is in the organised sector, which includes workers on regular salaries in registered companies and firms. The remaining 93% work in the unorganised or informal sector. Almost 96% of women workers, an estimated 12.39 crore, work in the unorganised sector. Of these, 10.6 crore are in rural areas and the remaining women work in urban areas. The female work participation rate is reported to have increased from 19.7% in 1981 to 25.7% in 2000. This is one of the reasons for the theory that globalisation has brought about greater “feminisation” of the labour force.

Look at the areas where women workers are concentrated and the picture loses its shine. The policies of liberalisation have in fact had a deteriorating effect on women's employment. This is largely because women are being forced to take up jobs that offer very poor wages and little social security, in response to the employers' need for a more flexible labour force. Women's weaker bargaining power, vis-à-vis employers as well as male co-workers, is generally regarded as a prime reason for the employment of women in such large numbers in this sector.

Whether in export processing zones or in the garments industry, where more than 60% of workers are estimated to be women, most of the jobs for women have been created mainly at the lower end of the value chain. Women constitute the ranks of low-skilled labour, are generally paid lower wages than men, and are not unionised at all. Exceptions are few, such as call centres and BPO operations which pay higher wages.

The labour scenario has changed in drastic and sweeping ways after 1991, not just in India but the world over. The production process is now dispersed to small-sized enterprises. Outsourcing has spread so much that millions of workers are either employed in dispersed units of the main production centre or they are made to bring their work home to continue production for the factories. If 50 years ago production had become so mechanised that workers became cogs in a giant wheel, today they are caught in smaller wheels that have no visible linkage to the centres of production. With this fragmentation of the labour force has come the whittling down of labour law protection and social security benefits. When it comes to women, this means next to no protection.

It is strange that the very first change in labour laws to affect women workers, introduced by the UPA government in 2005, was an amendment to the Factories Act of 1948, which prohibits women from doing night shift. This was done purportedly to bring equality for women at the workplace, though other long-awaited reforms have remained on the backburner. While the law has been introduced essentially as a matter of making choice available to women workers, it could easily become a mandatory service condition for women. The first set of people to welcome this amendment was garment manufacturers, particularly export-oriented units. They welcomed it as being in line with their demands for greater relaxation in contract labour rules! The only safety stipulation in the amendment is that women working on night shift will get transportation to their residence. No provisions have been made for medical facilities, maternity benefits or protection from sexual harassment.

One of things the 2005 CII study on levels of women's empowerment revealed is that none of the specific benefits meant for women, such as maternity leave or crèche facilities for working mothers, are actually available. Nor have women employees been able to benefit from the policy against sexual harassment because, often, the perpetrator of the harassment is in the line of authority that she has to complain to .

Employment without security has become the order of the day rather than the exception. While organised workers try to remain on their feet by attempting to use whatever is left of protective labour laws and social security schemes, they are getting weaker in strength and numbers. As for workers in the unorganised sector, they do not get protection in terms of job security, wages, working conditions and welfare due to various factors. These include casual and seasonal employment, scattered places of work, poor working conditions, lack of a concrete employer-employee relationship, irregular working hours, and a complete lack of legal protection or government support.

For women workers, the picture is bleaker. While the number of women in the unorganised sector and child workers has increased rapidly, their working hours have become “flexible”, and labour laws or any form of protective legislation have gone further out of their reach. Even when employed in the organised sector, job security for many women was tenuous and most benefits remained on paper. Now, full-time, regular employment for many has been replaced by part-time, temporary, and precarious work.

Existing labour laws provide scant protection for the vast majority of women workers in the country. The Factories Act of 1948 covers working conditions, health and safety, basic amenities like toilets, crèches, working hours, etc, but does not apply to workplaces with fewer than 10 workers using power-driven machinery or to those with less than 20 workers without power. The Employees State Insurance Act, 1948, meant to provide for sickness, accident and maternity benefits, has not been extended to the vast majority of women workers from the unorganised sector.

Ever since the enactment of the Contract Labour Act, 1971, employers have found it a convenient means to deprive workers of benefits, because by sub-contracting production or by dividing it into small units employers are able to evade all the existing laws. The government happens to be the biggest employer of contract workers and it also turns out to be the biggest violator of all contractor labour rules. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Contract Labour Act has been the biggest cause of the dwindling number of workers in the organised sector in general, and in pushing women workers out of the social security safety net in particular.

India has a plethora of labour laws, but laws which specifically relate to women can be counted on the fingers of one hand: the Maternity Benefit Act, the Equal Remuneration for Equal Work Act, or the recently enacted Protection from Sexual Harassment Act. Despite ILO guidelines, these are the least implemented of all the labour laws in the country.

The problems of women workers revolve around issues such as unequal wages, lack of maternity benefits and childcare facilities and discrimination at the workplace. Barring a few, erstwhile trade unions were disinclined to take up issues concerning women union members in the days when they had sizeable strength. Today, there are few women workers left to mobilise into unions.

Other methods of organising have been tried in different parts of the country, through associations of self-employed women such as SEWA in Gujarat or organisations formed by women workers themselves, such as anganwadi workers or domestic workers in Maharashtra , and construction workers in Tamil Nadu. Women in these groups have even taken their demands up to Parliament.

Great hopes have been pinned on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) enacted on August 23, 2005. T he Act is meant to guarantee employment for a minimum of 100 days a year to one member of a BPL (below the poverty line) family, who has to be paid a third of the minimum wage. Its predecessor in Maharashtra was the Employment Guarantee Act, under which the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) has been a source of rural employment. It was possible for rural women workers to benefit from its provisions because rural-based parties and unions made a point of organising them for this purpose. In the post-liberalisation scenario, not many efforts are being made to organise rural women. It is not going to be easy to bring the large number of rural women workers under the cover of the NREGA, and it remains to be seen when and how they will benefit from this legislation.

It is important to recognise that women workers who are forced to work in the unorganised sector are often from the poorest sections. Poverty traps them into working in the least protected and most low paid jobs. Maternity benefits and childcare, which are crucial for their mental and physical wellbeing, are denied, because of which they often lose their jobs. Pension and a minimum insurance cover for unorganised sector workers remain pipedreams. The real challenge is to ensure that the labour laws and social security schemes that exist (on paper) for the diminishing number of workers in the organised sector are extended to the 90% workers in the unorganised sector -- and then actually implemented. We urgently need social policy to protect the rights of women workers in the newer as well as older forms of work in the unorganised sector.

(Susan Abraham is a practising lawyer and writer who has worked extensively for workers rights, particularly in the unorganised sector)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007