Ahmedabad: Migrant home-based women workers, who form the lowest rungs of India’s labour chain, are working for as little as Rs 10-15 for over eight hours a day during the pandemic, in the face of employers’ apathy and the lack of access to urban welfare schemes, a study by labour rights organisation Aajeevika Bureau has found.

While public attention has remained focused on the worker exodus during the lockdown, the distress of migrant families that chose to remain in India’s cities remains undocumented. In Ahmedabad, one of India’s textiles hubs, women from many such families are employed as home-based workers by domestic and global businesses. Many of them told researchers they were struggling to survive because their wages had gone unpaid and debts were mounting.

Home-based workers, who usually perform subcontracted work on a piece-rate basis, are dealing with twin vulnerabilities--of being migrants and women, the study found. Homenet South Asia, a network of home-based workers across eight countries, defines these workers as “informal sector workers who carry out remunerative work from their own homes or adjacent grounds or premises”.

In the textiles and garments hub of Ahmedabad, for example, most home-based workers are employed to perform small but critical tasks--snip loose threads in embroideries, stick embellishments such as rhinestones and glitter on sarees and lehengas, sew collars and cuffs on outfits, and stitch cloth bags. A few are also employed by incense units to roll agarbattis.

Women workers now cannot find any home-based work except garland-making, said Aditi, 18, who hails from Sultanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and lives in Narol, Ahmedabad. “Ek din mushkil se do-teen maala bana sakte hain aur ek se paanch rupaye milenge. Pura din kaam karke bhi dus-pandrah rupaye hi milenge [It is impossible to make more than 2-3 garlands a day and we are paid Rs 5 per piece. Even if we work an entire day, we will not make more than Rs 10-15],” she said.

The textile and garments industry, where most of these women were employed, contributes 2.3% to India’s gross domestic product, 7% to its manufacturing output and 13% to its export earnings. The contribution of home-based women workers to this sector and the national economy remains invisible and unrecognised. Without formal or standard employment contracts, working from home, and often described as ‘marriage migrants’--they usually move to urban areas with their husbands--and have no means to assert their rights as workers.

India had 7.3 million women home-based workers in urban areas, as of 2012, as per the latest data available from Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing, a global network focused on women workers in the informal economy. Their numbers are steadily rising, with 20% of urban women workers being home-based workers.

Product outsourcing from large to small firms and home-based workers is increasing, stated the 2007 report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

In interviews with over 50 home-based women workers across the Narol and Vatva areas of Ahmedabad, the study found that the workers are not entitled to any public provisioning or basic labour rights, including food, shelter, wage, health and employment security. This is because they lack the identity and residence documents essential for accessing welfare schemes. Their rental and employment agreements are all informal. Over 95% of the households surveyed had no documents to be eligible for the public distribution system, pushing them to near-starvation during the lockdown.

The pandemic has pushed their families even further into the margins, they said. Until the disease hit the city, the women were earning an average daily wage of Rs 40-50. Then the industrial units shut down and now, few have resumed production though the lockdown has been lifted. Many women told the researchers they were waiting for pending wages; they had no means to pay rent or buy essentials and food even after the lockdown was lifted.

The preference for home-based work is rooted in the social preference for married women to work from home. But the survey found that many women are now seeking work in nearby factories and manufacturing units. The search is mostly futile because industries prefer to recruit from the regular pool of experienced male workers, they said.

Men from these households have also lost their jobs and wages, and mounting frustration and need are resulting in increasing cases of domestic violence, as we explain later.

No power to demand or negotiate wages

The industrial peripheries of Ahmedabad, one of the world’s fastest growing cities of the decade, is home to hundreds of thousands of home-based women workers. The work they do is central to the fashion and jewellery sector--they receive orders from agents who aggregate their products and then supply to export houses or retail brands for sale in national and international markets.

However, migrant home-based workers have no means to prove their employment links with their contractors or companies that outsource work to them. They have no power to negotiate wages, as prescribed by the Supreme Court in its recent ruling on recovering workers’ wages.

Women from the migrant households in the industrial area of Rangoli Nagar in Narol in eastern Ahmedabad come from the rural pockets of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Aajeevika Bureau’s engagement with migrant communities in Ahmedabad revealed. Most of them moved to Ahmedabad to join their husbands' families who have been living here for at least 15-20 years. Their husbands work as skilled workers in the manufacturing units as daily-wage or contractual workers.

These families largely belong to Other Backward Classes (OBC) or general caste categories. They visit their villages once a year, mostly during festivals, and their families have saved their marginal incomes to build a few assets and they are invested in social relationships and networks to access work and provisions.

In Janiyapir, another neighbourhood in eastern Ahmedabad, women home-based workers live in a settlement different from Rangoli Nagar due to its disputed land ownership. This semi-urban plot next to an industrial dumping yard in Vatva has chalis, settlements with low-ceiling tenements typical to shanty towns, occupied by migrant families from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They are worse off than the community in Rangoli Nagar, the survey found--they belong to oppressed caste groups and have not been able to build enough assets and social networks in the city. The men work as unskilled labour in chemical and dye factories where minimum daily wages are as low as Rs 300 and the women take on home-based jobs.

‘We can ensure that rents are paid’

In both these neighbourhoods, women do not get to relax after their husbands, sons or younger children set off for work or school. In Rangoli Nagar, their homes double up as workplaces--they sit by the only window in their one-room-kitchen apartments, working for six to eight hours. They make as little as Rs 40 to 50 a day, they said, in non-lockdown times.

Women workers in Janiyapir are only able to access cheaper work--they make maalas and bags, while the children engage in small tasks such as sorting of disposable cutlery. They have to work longer hours to make Rs 40 to 50 daily at rates as low as Rs 2 per piece. When the 8x10 feet homes feel too cramped, the women move to the grounds outside. Limited mobility and lack of networks outside Janiyapir forces women to settle for these poorly paid options where the contractor brings the raw material to their doorsteps.

Since the piece-rate system forces the women to work long hours, bent over their tasks and eyes straining, we also heard complaints of poor health. This work is considered menial, underpaid and taxing, but the women said they take it on because the jobs held by the men are often insecure and poorly paid. Quite often their wages ensure that their families do not lose their rented accommodation. “Kam se kam, bhaada toh ho jaata hai [At least our rent gets paid with these earnings],” was a common reasoning across interviews.

Often, women are forced to involve their children to complete their orders on time or produce enough to meet their daily earnings targets. In festival season, such as Navratri or Diwali, work is plenty and even friends and neighbours are called in to help for a share of the earnings. For the retailer, the cost of production remains the same but for the home-based workers, incomes are further depleted despite the long working hours.

Maaya* and her 15-year-old daughter take turns between cooking and cleaning to finish as many pieces as they can so they can procure more work. A few weeks before the lockdown, they were working on an elaborate ghagra-choli, sticking stones and glitter to it. The 10-12 hours of labour spent on the skirt would fetch them Rs 40.

Classified as ‘self employed’

Home-based workers’ earnings are so low that buying raw material leaves them with little for their households. The consequent absence of savings has hit their families hard during the days of no work, the women said.

Atmaben*, who sews cloth bags for a popular ‘ethical’ retailer in the city, receives Rs 10 per bag. She has to spend on material and the maintenance of her sewing machine to be ready for the next order. Nirbharaben*, who lives in the same building, sews together pre-cut pieces of women’s kurtis and nightgowns at Rs 15 a piece. Though she has been working for 10 years, her earnings and her value in the labour market have remained stagnant. She is now teaching her daughter-in-law to stitch so that the household earnings can improve.

Most home-based workers are employed by the garments industry to perform a range of critical tasks--snip loose threads in embroidery, stick embellishments such as rhinestones and glitter on sarees and lehengas, sew collars and cuffs on outfits, stitch cloth bags and so on.

Maaya, Atmaben and Nirbharaben are categorised as ‘subcontracted workers’, a sub-group within ‘self-employed home-based workers’, but not as ‘employees’ with standard employment relations or rights, according to the National Sample Survey Office. As per their work arrangements, many of these women are expected to bear the risk and cost of production--invest in the purchase and upkeep of sewing machines, buy raw material such as fabric, needle, thread, glue, beads and so on, and pay for the electricity used while working.

The contractor provides the design and instructions and since these vary, the women cannot reuse all the material they invest in. Over and above their work hours, they also spend time organising production. Some of the women receive raw materials from their contractors, and are much closer to the category of ‘employees’ than ‘self-employed’, but they still do not have access to this status or associated rights.

Work availability in the garments and other fast-fashion supply chains is heavily dependent on seasonal demand, and workers said they were constantly anxious about the loss of compensation or work. They are expected to absorb the costs for the entire product or piece in case of any flaws. They are also responsible for protecting their raw material and finished goods so that they are not stained or damaged in the cramped tenements where they live.

No bargaining power, ‘gratitude’ for work

We found that women owning sewing machines, especially electric ones, had better standards of income, earning upto Rs 100-150 daily. However, investing in a machine is not easy for women given the income capacity of their households.

Methods of distribution and collection, and the mode and frequency of payments differ from contractor to contractor--some collect finished products at workers’ doorsteps and others at a designated collection point. The payments are mostly in cash and on a weekly or monthly basis.

Surveyed workers said they did not have any bargaining power, and often spoke in terms of “respect and gratitude” for the contractor for “giving” them work. This means that rather than asking for more wages, they rely on requesting the contractors for more work or extending their work hours even as payment remains poor. The contractors themselves are marginal players in long and opaque supply chains with little power to negotiate with their employers--their strength lies in remaining competitive and offering the cheapest options in the market. They have limited information about where their product would be sold, and no means to hold the retailer accountable.

Work, wages during the pandemic

Many of the surveyed women said they were dealing with the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic. Men in their families are stressed and enraged by the loss of income, mobility and access to alcohol and tobacco. Cases of domestic violence in Narol have been rising since the lockdown, they said. Arguments over dowry have increased in almost all homes, said Aditi.

Home-based workers also bear gender-based responsibilities--of feeding their families, organising milk, vegetables and arranging for rations that cost at least Rs 50 daily. Even during times of severe income shock, women are expected to manage these costs and they do this by reaching out to each other or using up their meagre savings. Many of them have ended up mortgaging small amounts of gold jewelry, their only assets, for which they will have to pay an interest of Rs 400 to 500 every month until they repay the principal amount.

One of the main reasons they are willing to work for as little as Rs 10-15 per day following the lockdown, the women said, is the fear of backlash from the men in their households for not fulfilling their gendered role of putting food on the table.

No state support

While these migrant families are believed to have better access to cities compared to the more temporary migrant groups such as tribal construction workers, their urban experience during the lockdown has proved otherwise. The families here are dependent on the local kirana stores where the shopkeepers know that they have no option but to buy provisions at even exorbitant prices.

Migrant families are dependent on rental settlements in disputed, informal lands that appear blurred in maps of urban governance, with extractive rental arrangements. Homeowners in Rangoli Nagar belong to similar socio-economic backgrounds and live in the same building or neighbourhood. Despite being equally vulnerable during the pandemic, many of them have allowed their tenants to defer payments, the surveyed women said.

With growing debts and rent arrears, and forced to sell their few assets--mostly household appliances and goods that reduce the time spent on domestic labour--the workers are now back to where they began, the survey showed.

Home-based work in Janiyapir in Ahmedabad caters to the demand for low-quality, inexpensive products.

“I called a government helpline for free rations--but I was asked to walk 6 km with my two young children to the homeless shelter for each meal,” said Pushpa, a home-based worker. There were no government facilities for provisioning in their neighbourhood. Hemlata Maheriya, a community leader in Narol and Vatva argues that, despite this, government workers arrive to conduct fumigation and vaccinations because migrant workers are perceived as threats to public health.

The families of home-based workers have no landholding or assets in the village and are now losing their grip on the city as well. Ration card aur voting card paisewallon ko hi milenge...sarkari suvidhayen bhi. Gaon me bhi hamare liye kuch nahin hai. Wahan ja ke bhookhe marne se achha hai idhar rehna [Only those with money get ration cards and voter IDs and government services too. We have no assets in the village. It is better to stay here than to die of hunger in the village],” said Aditi.

Citizenship and labour rights

Home-based workers and their families are forced to remain ‘migrants’ in the city because they are unable to procure city-based domicile documents that would allow them to vote or access the benefits available to urban residents. The city administration does not enumerate nor recognise their settlements for public provisioning, because they do not have city-based domicile documents to make claims of urban authorities.

The Affordable Rental Housing Scheme approved by the Union cabinet under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana promises to resolve migrant workers’ housing crisis in urban areas. The Rs 600 crore approved for the scheme focuses on developing vacant, government-owned housing complexes into rental housing complexes through private developers. However, the announcement does not acknowledge the large number of migrant women for whom informal rental housing acts as workplaces as well. The overwhelming response by the women we interviewed to the proposed scheme was on its lack of relevance to them. Relocating from their existing neighbourhoods to access affordable rental accommodation would cut them off from the connections and networks they use to access work, they said.

“Labour is brought by industry, let them provide for them,” said a senior official in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation who chose to remain anonymous when asked about the local bodies’ responsibility towards the migrant workers. “We only serve tax-paying, voting residents, these are labour,” said a local elected representative who did not wish to be named. These responses are part of face-to-face interviews conducted by Aajeevika Bureau’s research team during October-November 2019.

However, the industry and the employers cannot be held legally responsible for the conditions of home-based workers either--they do not have formal work contracts and are not covered by labour protective legislations.

Several states as well as the central government’s strategy for economic revival following the lockdown is the proposed dilution of existing labour protection laws. Far from extending the scope of labour laws to include those in vulnerable employment, such as home-based workers, it has shrunk their scope, experts say.

“There is nothing in the offing that can help in reviving India’s economy in the next six months to a year,” said Ravi Srivastava, former professor of economics and chairperson, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, during a webinar in May 2020. “What it has put in place instead is a set of labour law changes… to attract investments through lengthening of the labour day, and demolishing labour laws.” He added that the result would be sharply declining rates of female labour force participation, combined with severe impact on the wages and earnings of the bottom-most segment of women workers.

This was echoed by Renana Jhabvala from the Self Employed Women’s Association, who said that the desire to keep workers--particularly home-based workers--as an “unidentified mass” with low wages and poor conditions of work informs the proposed shifts in labour legislations.

*Names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identity.

(Thomas and Jayaram work with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organisation that provides services to migrant and informal workers, and conducts research, policy advocacy and grassroots mobilisation for improving the lives and livelihoods of labour dependent communities.)

The authors wish to thank Hemlata Maheriya, Geeta Parmar, Mukesh Parmar and Durgaram for their insights and assistance with interviews.

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