Rights of Women as Workers: Some Issues and Questions

A remarkable feature of the current phase of the labour movement in India is the increasing participation of women in trade unions. Female membership of trade unions rose dramatically from just 5,94,000 in 1991 to 18,71,000 in 2002. Particularly striking is the fact that this tripling of women members took place at a time when male membership actually fell from around 55,07,000 to 51,02,000. Surprisingly, such a substantive trend of increasing proportions of women in trade unions (from 9.7 per cent in 1991 to 26.8 per cent in 2002) has largely gone unnoticed by commentators even though activists have been commenting on the increasing visibility of women in mass mobilisations, whether of agricultural workers, public sector workers or any other section in which women have a sizable presence in the workforce. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before it can be said that recognition of the specific social location, concerns and potential of women workers has been fully incorporated in trade union thinking and practice. This is notwithstanding the fact that almost all major central trade unions now have internal cells or subcommittees for working women, directed at taking up the specific problems of women workers. The present momentum in trade union growth among women workers provides an exciting opportunity to evaluate both the generalised experiences that are propelling women workers into organisation, as well as to develop a more grounded understanding of some of women-specific issues involved.


The Struggle for Recognition and Rights as Workers

women-rightsPerhaps, foremost in the struggle of working women at an all-India level today stands the anganwadi worker. A workforce of some 14-lakh anganwadi workers and helpers employed by the government under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) has for many years been fighting an uphill battle for simple recognition as workers, for entitlement to at least minimum wages and some social security or protection. Under the central government`s ICDS programme, in operation since 1975, these workers (whose duties include daily distribution of supplementary nutrition among children of the poor, teaching of pre-school children, maintaining records of weight, immunisation, and other parameters of the health of babies and pregnant mothers, and also conducting several other surveys) have over the last 30 years been paid a so-called honorarium that has been, and continues to be, around one-third to half of the minimum wage for unskilled workers. Helpers are even more unfortunate in that their `honorarium` is half the teacher/worker`s and on average less than a fourth of the minimum wage. Such incredibly meagre wages, combined with the denial of health insurance, provident fund or any other social security benefits, have been given legalistic cover by the government arguing that these workers are swayamsewaks, that is, volunteers and, therefore, there is no employer-employee relationship. And yet, in matters of appointment, attendance, supervision, dismissal, retirement, etc., the government clearly establishes its position as an employer calling all the shots, without allowing for any participation of the workers in the decision-making process.


In a sense, the anganwadi workers` situation contains some of the concrete manifestations of the discriminations that mark out women workers` lives. Because they are an all-female workforce, they are not recognised as workers. Because they are women, they are socially considered to be ideal for the work of care of children. But again because they are women, their wages are pegged below the lowest of the low according to any standards. And finally, because they are subalterns, they are treated with contempt by the officials who command them, their sense of dignity thus undermined on a daily basis.


The issue of non-recognition as workers, upon which rests the present set of inequalities, deprivations, and denial of rights of anganwadi workers, is one that many other sections of women workers in the country also face. Despite a respectable quantum of policy discussion for at least two-and-a-half decades on the need to recognise women`s work and economic contribution, in the main, this has been confined to exercises in expanding data collection methodologies to make women workers visible in employment databases. The discussions have thus focused on netting a range of forms of female labour (primarily, in family or household-based agriculture, manufacturing and trade) in employment surveys and censuses.


In the consequent conceptual foregrounding of inequalities in intra-household relations between men and women, which is relatively easy to describe, the dense and multi-layered interconnectedness with relations of employment or production, that is, how value or surplus is extracted from female labour, and the targeting of those who accumulate and benefit from her non-recognition as a worker has not received due emphasis. In its stead, we are witnessing a strong policy focus on women as the most disciplined and effective agents of government `development` programmes. Most of these programmes are largely designed to generate what can, at best, be described as marginal- or poverty-level incomes for the workers themselves and are increasingly premised on women as sources more than beneficiaries of investment mobilisation. (An example of this may be found in the emphasis on loan recovery, that too at commercial interest rates, in the SHG-bank linkage programme for micro-credit.) In other words, it is more work for less pay, mostly at below subsistence levels, which is demanded and expected of women workers by moneylenders, merchants and industrial capital, as well as the government.


In such a context, the struggle of the anganwadi workers for legal worker status with its relatively more standardised and equalised wage and social security entitlements assumes a wider social significance for women workers and, indeed, for women in general. Further, the large-scale harnessing of women`s labour power in programmes such as the ICDS as well as other women-centric development programmes has facilitated the entry of many women into more direct relations of employment, that is, as workers themselves. The programmes themselves may be designed with the narrow political objective of maintaining a minimalist degree of order through social support (the famous social security net), whereas economic policy and processes continue to wreak the greater havoc of new extremities of poverty and wealth, agrarian crisis and jobless growth. Nevertheless, the massing together of women in these public programmes and their importance for the political power structures have created conditions for an enhanced level of assertive power of women as workers, most clearly visible in the rising tide of the anganwadi workers` struggles.


Women Workers, Labour Laws and the Economics of Discrimination

The biologically specific element of women`s role in reproduction is, of course, recognised in India`s labour law in terms of the right to maternity leave with full pay, whereas the social element has been recognised in the mandating of crèches for work sites where women employees are more than 30. But the non-application of labour laws at an increasing, rather than decreasing, rate has meant that for the majority of women workers in India, pregnancy and childbirth (and in many cases marriage itself), means either permanent loss of employment or suspension without pay, in the field, factory or even in services. From its early years, the crèche law fell by the wayside as the numbers and proportions of women workers in the older textile/jute mills and mines fell sharply (from the 1930s onwards). But the denial of maternity leave to ever increasing numbers of women workers has emerged as an important feature of the current process of deregulation. As is well known, the so-called `deregulation of the labour market` associated with neo-liberal economic reforms is not just a legislative agenda but operates also through administrative and judicial mechanisms. Administrative restrictions on inspections by the labour law enforcement machinery, the general sidelining of the labour departments, the regression in government labour policy perspectives towards perennialising rather than abolishing contract labour and, of course, the prevailing hostility to organised labour that marks particularly the higher judiciary have all fed the advance of neo-liberal policy and led to a curtailment of labour law enforcement. Among the principal casualties of such curtailment have been maternity leave and equal wage entitlements, rolling back earlier legislative advances designed to promote women`s equality in the sphere of employment and  protect their health and reproductive rights.


Equal, if not more influential, have been the processes through which capital (big, small, foreign or national) has been moving towards escaping any responsibilities in relation to its workers. Management gurus, financial market players and policy makers find common cause in promoting `flexibilisation` of labour, a seemingly non-value, loaded term to describe the stripping of protections for labour in favour of profiteers and their associates in the wealthy classes. Retrenchment, outsourcing (including to the unorganised sector) and replacement of secure and relatively permanent workers with contract and casual workers have been the methods adopted by large organised industry. Job works at piece rates, for work done at home or in workshops, are the more prevalent methods in the more small-scale, unorganised or informal industries from which large shares of profits are also drawn by several tiers of merchants and traders. In general, the move has been to dispense with workers the moment they are not of immediate use to employers (lean and mean management). Formal as well as informal employers thus get rid of their workers not only during market downturns but also when workers are sick, require leave for personal issues, pregnancy or childcare. As may be seen, new dimensions are being added to longstanding, discriminatory practices against women workers.


Inequality in wages between men and women is of course an old and useful instrument in keeping overall wage levels low, and has persisted as a feature of the traditional sectors of women`s participation in the wage economy  in village agriculture, plantations, construction, etc. Although the enactment of the Equal Remuneration Act (1975) [ERA] had brought an end to the overt practice of separate and lower wages for women in official minimum wage notifications, the law has proved to be ineffective as a levelling instrument in the broader wage economy. At one level, it is ineffective because it applies the equal remuneration principle only to same or similar work within an organisation (not industry, area or sector) and fails to recognise inequalities in wage rates based on sex segregation in labour processes, tasks, premises of work and forms of payment. At another level, inspection and enforcement have been confined, in the main, to paper formalities (filing forms) rather than substantive enquiries and proceedings by the labour departments. Perhaps, the most important lesson of our times is that if the market is allowed free reign to determine wages, inequality in wages will persist. This is true not only in times of economic slump but also as is the case today in India during times of high growth rates.


The quinquennial employment surveys of the NSSO, covering the neo-liberal reform years in India (1993-94, 1999-00, 2004-05), reveal at least three striking features: a) sharp fluctuations in work participation rates of women, b) a steadily rising female unemployment rate, and c) evidence of an increasing gender gap in wages. Further, the nature of employment itself has shown signs of instability. In the first half of the decade, when women`s work participation rates fell quite sharply, the overall proportions of the self-employed declined. In contrast, in the second half of the decade, accompanying a sharp increase in the share of the self employed, women`s work participation rates recovered their earlier levels. The reasons for this instability may be located in the general inability of the economy to provide regular or stable employment for the self-employed as well as wage workers. Since the last few years (particularly after 2002) are considered to be a period of great boom, virtually defined by soaring corporate investment and profits and declining income shares of the self-employed, it might appear surprising that this was accompanied by a marked increase in the numbers and proportions of the self-employed rather than wage workers. It becomes less surprising if one realises that the high growth rate is almost entirely based on the profits of a narrow and low employment segment of the economy whereas the larger segments including agriculture and small-scale industry are in deep crisis and face declining incomes. This boom/crisis is propelling large numbers of men and women into looking for additional sources of income, which are at best short term and, at worst, end in the net losses of assets and incomes.


Since the number of jobs available are far outstripped by the number who need them (both men and women), since socially speaking women`s wages are considered to be just `supplementary` to the male breadwinner`s, since the employment openings for women remain limited by stereotyping of feminine occupations, it has become increasingly clear that without enforcement of equality through active state intervention, wider definitions and applications of equal wage and opportunity laws, unequal wages will remain the norm. For example, even in the garment industry (the modernised factory segment of which is generally considered inclined to employ women), data from the Labour Bureau`s occupational wage surveys show that the higher share of women workers in the industry can be directly correlated to greater disparities in wages between male and female workers. The same reports maintain that such disparities are not violative of the ERA. Clearly both the law and its enforcers ignore the fact that certainly the choice offered by employers to most women is to accept lower wages or forgo employment. On one side, the ab initio lower status coupled with the burdens of domestic responsibilities and the generally higher level of desperation that marks women`s entry into the `labour market` propels an initial acceptance of the unequal wage by women. On the other side, the perennial volatility that has become a generalised feature of employment and capital labour relations under the deregulation (flexible labour) regime reinforces such inequalities. Further, insecure employment acts as a deterrent to pushing the equality agenda for which stable, regulated and more organised forms of employment obviously provide more conducive conditions and allow for greater bargaining power for workers.


One of the important mechanisms through which unequal wages are institutionalised is through the selective use of piece rates. In tea plantations, where women constitute the bulk of the workforce, the norm is piece rates for women`s work and time rates for men`s. The net result has been a disparity in incomes between male and female workers to the order of 7:10.  A similar process may be seen among home workers. Although the areas of home work by women at piece rates have been geographically expanding, several studies and ground experience show that the actual per capita quantum of work available is shrinking. Whatever be the industry, the general experience is of a distinct tendency of reduced availability of work per person. In such a context, it would not be surprising to find that there have been falls not only in real wages and incomes but also in nominal wage rates (that this happens has been demonstrated in at least two micro-surveys, one in Ahmedabad and one in Delhi). A study of home workers in Delhi (Indrani Majumdar, Women Workers and Globalisation, Emergent Contradiction in India, Stree Kolkotta 2007) showed that the average wages for an hour of labour was as low as Rs 2.13. This would work out to Rs 443 per month if the worker had enough work for 8 hours per day 26 days a month. All studies of piece rate home workers in different parts of India, whatever their provenance, show that actually monthly incomes vary between Rs 200 to 300.


Piece wages lower the average wage and serve as a lever for lengthening the working day even though, on a short-term level, it might appear to raise individual wages above the average (either through the involvement of greater numbers of unpaid family labour or through above average speed and skill of the individual worker). Marx had long ago pointed out that piece wages lay the foundation of modern `domestic labour`, which Lenin referred to as `the most “liberal” form of capitalist exploitation…[where] the isolation of the home workers and the abundance of middle-men naturally lead to widespread bondage, to all kinds of personal dependence, which usually accompany “patriarchal” relationships.` Clearly the neo-liberal era of late capitalism has added to this.
Indrani Mazumdar, a women`s activist and is associated with Centre for Women`s Development Studies, New Delhi.