My home, my industry

Shalini Sinha | Updated on June 27, 2013


Photo: Paul Noronha   -  Business Line

Home-based women workers constitute a massive workforce, but they often toil under inhuman conditions.

Farida sits in a dimly-lit corner of her small two-room house in an East Delhi slum, doing embroidery for one of the largest retailers in the world. She gets a fraction of the final price at which the product is sold, but her earnings help sustain her family of four children and a plumber husband, whose monthly income is irregular. Her cramped home doubles as her workplace: She embroiders in the outer room while the inner space makes for the kitchen-cum-family room. Nearly eight to 10 hours of fine-embroidery work every day has taken a toll on her health — her eyes water due to the strain and her back pains from sitting crouched for long hours.

The country has countless home-based women workers in activities ranging from carpet weaving, food processing and garment stitching to assembling micro-electronics and automobile parts. In fact, 25 per cent of female urban workers and 12 per cent of all urban workers are home-based. In some industries such as beedi- and agarbatti-rolling, 60-90 per cent is home-based, and largely made up of women.

These women usually have meagre earnings, and little or no legal and social protection, or worker benefits. Moreover, working in isolation they are vulnerable to exploitation by contractors and sub-contractors.

Irregular work orders, arbitrary rejection of goods and delayed payments are also common. Unable to invest in new machinery or training, their productivity suffers.

As they work out of home, they are directly impacted by urban housing , health and environmental issues.

Urban neglect

Many like Farida toil in crowded homes with poor lighting. There is no space to store raw material or finished goods, the roof leaks, or the weak structure cannot withstand strong winds. There is no proper drainage or garbage disposal facility, so rodents and other pests abound. Poorly designed roads and drains result in backflow of dirty monsoon water, damaging goods and supplies and disrupting production. Poor housing thus not only affects the family’s health but also its income.

The lack of urban services such as affordable electricity, water supply, sanitation and transportation directly impacts the living environment and livelihood. Precious hours with income-generating potential are employed in collecting water; the cost of transporting raw material and/or finished goods cut into the already poor earnings.

Besides being expensive, electricity supply is often insufficient due to load-shedding. Many home-based workers primarily have illegal connections administered by vested-interest slum lords — electricity companies will not supply to slum-dwellers who lack ownership papers. So the bills are exorbitant. The worst cut is when commercial rates are imposed on the poor workers, further eating into their meagre resources.

Another serious concern is their occupational health and safety. Home-based workers are often overworked, exposed to dangerous chemicals, and forced to maintain unhealthy postures. But any injuries or health issues are difficult to track as they occur in the home and are rarely categorised as workplace incidents.

Zoned out

When cities turn a blind eye to slum dwellers’ need for basic infrastructure, or when they periodically clear slums, they end up destroying both their homes and workplaces. Sadly, most cities do not know much about their home-based workers; fewer still do anything for them. They lose entirely when cities prohibit work in homes under single-use zoning regulations.

Given the large numbers of this labour force and its economic significance, it is vital that they emerge from the shadows. Policymakers would do well to pay attention to home-based workers, who have a direct impact on poverty alleviation and employment generation. Home-made products such as handicrafts and textiles have significant export potential too. Mixed-use zoning regulations will facilitate home-based work.

Matt Nohn, a development economist and urban planning and policy expert, suggests an equitable approach to regulating land use and promotes a balanced mix of uses that fruitfully interact with each other. “Unless home-based production is zoned as a permissible use in residential areas, overly used zoning regulations would automatically stigmatise urban workers as informal, if not illegal, subjecting them to various forms of socio-economic exclusion and exploitation,” he says.

The critical need of the hour, then, is to reform the way cities are planned and built, and move towards a concept of inclusive cities — with space and livelihood opportunities for even the most marginalised workers.

Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a national labour union of informal women workers, has been a key partner with the city of Ahmedabad in implementing a slum upgrade programme for its members, many of whom are home-based workers.

Productive living spaces

Till a few years ago, Varshaben lived in a two-room house in a chawl (tenement) in Ahmedabad, along with her mother, husband and three school-going children. She ran a tailoring unit from the front room.

After participating in a slum upgrade programme, which gave her individual water and sanitation connection, she realised the importance of infrastructure in augmenting her livelihood. With less time spent in household chores, her productive work and income grew.

She took a small housing loan from a cooperative bank to upgrade her home — waterproof her roof, plaster the walls and tile the floor. Today, this industrious woman can keep her fabric supplies safe and dry during the monsoon, and is happy to host clients in a nicer environment. Her income has gone up four times, and she says joyfully, “We can now pay our children’s English-medium school fees and tuition.”

Her home is her prized productive asset.

(The writer is a specialist for the Women in Informal Employment: Globalising & Organising, a global action-research-policy network.)

© Women’s Feature Service

Published on June 27, 2013

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