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Sick and tired

By Padma Deosthali

Women from Mumbai's slum colonies are increasingly working in industrial and sub-contracting units that lack any safety mechanisms or even facilities like separate enclosed toilets. Workplace conditions, an overall deterioration in living conditions in the city, and the load of housework and home-based paid work that often entails handling hazardous material is affecting women's health

Major changes in the economy have increased the participation of women in paid employment outside home, in places that are characterised by low wages, poor working conditions, a lack of safety mechanisms, and repetitive work. This is directly causing health problems and contributing to general debility amongst women.

The gradual withdrawal of the State from the social sector has also severely affected women. The overall deterioration in living conditions in the slum colonies of Mumbai has increased their burden of housework, childcare and care for the elderly and sick in the family.

The increased load of paid work and long hours of housework adversely affect women's health. They keep substituting the work hazards of one workplace with another. Consequently, the effects of 'work' (domestic and non-domestic) on women's health are difficult to record separately. Women themselves are unable to pinpoint the exact causes of their ill health. The tiredness and fatigue they speak of is indicative of the tremendous pressure of their work and living conditions. Many of the women we talked to reported weakness, aches and pains, and anaemia.

It is important to understand that the concept of 'work' has undergone a change in the last two decades due to economic restructuring. Fragmentation of the production process has led to the creation of innumerable small units with a handful of workers in each who are physically separated from each other. Sub-contracting has become the norm in almost all the industries in which women from slum colonies seek employment in Mumbai. For example, garment-making, light metallurgy, consumer goods and food processing. An extension of sub-contracting is giving work on a piece-rate basis to women working from home.

Industrial work entails packaging, assorting, cleaning, sorting, and cutting threads. Each unit we encountered in our study does only one kind of job, which does not require skilled workers. The units are numerous and in competition to get contracts from large companies. The availability of work is irregular and uncertain. The units provide no protection to the workers in terms of employment benefits or occupational safety.

Almost none of these units have been designed to fulfil the specific needs of women. Only one unit that we visited had an enclosed toilet. All workers had to use common toilets, which are filthy and in a state of perpetual disrepair. The units did not have a separate eating or resting area. Some women reported that they even had to sweep and clean the units and the adjoining offices. They also had to wash the lunch boxes and utensils of the owners. There was no payment for this work.

Home-based work must be seen as an extension of industrial work. Home-based work is generally found in the finishing and recycling stages of production. The processes which the women we met were engaged in were tailoring, sorting white paper from cardboard paper, pulling out rubber from threads used in tyre-manufacturing, attaching rubber tops to medicine droppers, and cutting extra threads from stitched garments. They work continuously for five to eight hours every day after cooking the morning meal. Home-based work is so poorly paid that to earn any significant amount, all the members of the family who are usually at home -- the aged, small children and young girls -- must contribute to the work.

The home environment, already located in slum colonies with lack of services such as drainage, is further polluted by the presence of the work material. Dust from the mounds of paper waste, fumes from melting rubber, and the sharp ends of broken glass medicine droppers make the house unhealthier and pose additional dangers.

Child-bearing and childcare are the most common reasons for women to stop doing paid work. The work units where a majority of the women we interviewed are employed do not provide any maternity benefits or welfare, which could enable them to not quit work when they are pregnant. The cost of bearing a child is thus borne by the women in two ways: they lose their income from paid work, and they suffer the resultant deprivation during a crucial period of their life.

The period of rest after delivery has also shortened due to the breakdown of the social support structure. The women have to fend for themselves immediately after delivery. Women resume paid work in some other form (home-based, part-time, domestic work) as soon as possible. This has serious implications for their health, which is reflected in their perception of their morbidity.

It is important for the State to invest in basic infrastructure. Home and work environments must be made safe and sustaining. There is a pressing need to comprehensively document the impact of women's work, paid and unpaid, on their health. The data thus generated would support advocacy for making work and living environments safe and healthy for women.

A time use survey done in 1998-99 by the Central Statistical Organisation, covering 18,600 men and women all over India came up with these facts about women's 'invisible' work.

  • Women sleep on average two hours less than men.
  • Women spend 10 times more time on household work than men. This is true even in families where women work full time.
  • Men have over two hours a day for leisure; women have only five minutes.
  • Men spend less than one hour per week on cooking; women spend 15 hours per week.

(Padma Deosthali is coordinator of CEHAT (Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes), a research centre of Anusandhan Trust, Mumbai. This article is based on a study titled 'In These Uncertain Times: The Impact of Industrial Decline on the Lives and Health of Women Living in a Slum in Mumbai', written by her and Neha Madhiwalla for CEHAT )

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007