Into darker hearths

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Invisible effects Deprived women in the unorganised sector are hidden victims of recession
Photo: Anurag Singh

WHILE THE recession, stock-market fluctuations, job losses, stimulus packages to revive industry and efforts to pull the GDP growth back to 9 percent are making headlines, a crucial subtext stands ignored.

Studies at the ground level reveal crucial details of the impact of the global crisis on women, particularly from the working classes, both formal and informal. Many of these facts are invisible as they characterise the lives and livelihoods of the most deprived who are waging a battle to survive in this economy.

For example, one of the worst-hit sectors worldwide due to the current crisis is the waste recycling sector. In India, the waste collectors are usually from the oppressed sections, often women and children, who work long hours roaming the streets in hazardous and even dangerous conditions. Globally, prices have crashed by more than 50 percent in this sector. However, the condition of livelihoods has received little attention, although the number of people affected are huge and are spread all over India.

Ranjanben Parmar, member of Sewa, an NGO that works with poor working women, from Odhav cries, “Who sent this recession! Why did they send it?” She makes her living collecting scrap along with her small daughter. But the crash in prices has transformed her life: the price of waste (such as waste steel, soft plastic, newspapers and dry bones) in Ahmedabad has fallen by 60 percent.

Photo: AP

She compensates for these lower rates by spending more hours gathering the waste, increasing the volume collected, going out to work at 3am in the morning instead of the usual 5am for fear that “someone else will come early and pick it up.” Earlier, only the women in a family would go to pick up the waste but now they have to take more hands from the family, especially children, so that more waste is collected. Unable to pay the fees and other expenses for education, they have taken their children out of school and started to involve them in waste collection as well as sending them for other income-earning activities.

The women have also started to do other, low-paying, mainly home-based work, such as sticking bindis or cutting threads — but this has its own negative effect of flooding the labour market for such work and therefore bringing down the rates again — a vicious downward web affecting food, health and education. In a survey, home-based garment workers in Lucknow reported that whereas earlier they would get Rs 10 for a dress, now it is reduced to Rs 8. And for a good zardozi sari, they would get Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 for a month’s work, but now they could get only Rs 1,500.

Since this is a country-wide phenomenon, a worthy stimulus through a budgetary provision could be to initiate a special scheme to provide credit and technology for dispersed recycling right here in India. These materials can provide much alternative energy, building materials and handicrafts; these technologies are now available so that this waste could be processed and marketed with massive incentives — a gift for the SHGs, the construction companies — and a protection of livelihoods and education for women and children.

Much has been written about the effect of the economic crisis on the manufacturing sector. However, the focus of most of the media as well as the govern ment seems to be on large industry. In fact, the majority of workers work in small units around the country across a fascinating range of goods. They are the major employers of skilled workers, a high percentage of whom are women. They manufacture plastic, engage in win ding, power looms, spinning, making of wooden bobbins, tubelight starters, surgical items, food items etc.

Many are decreasing production or closing down, temporarily or in some cases permanently.

The reasons are lack of working capital, export orders and slowing down of domestic demand. This can be bailed out by product-specific credit, technology, marketing packages, accompanied by a more streamlined tax structure.

The 5,000 units operating out of the Peenya Industrial Estate at Bengaluru, are a glaring example of what is happening to small enterprises. Over five lakh workers, of whom about 40 percent are women, face an uncertain future. The entrepreneurs point to the total lack of interest by the fiscal managers in the tax structure that is bearing down on these units. Their interest clearly is limited to the big and the visible industry even though, as the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector points out, employment and output is coming out of these units in greater proportions than from the big units.

A paper prepared by the UN on women and the economic crisis at the global level underlines an important gendered aspect of the impact of the crisis. It shows why women are the first to be hit and worst hit by recession in multiple ways. Women often have no choice but to take employment that lacks long-term job security or involves dangerous working conditions — to work in unprotected home-based production or remain unemployed. Many women enter the labour market in under-remunerated and undervalued jobs seeking to improve their household income.

Many women have taken up underpaid and dangerous jobs to improve their household income

AS OBSERVED during other crises the main casualty is the ‘flexible’ labour force — low-skill, temporary, casual workers. Women constitute the majority of these workers in the Asia-Pacific region. Women in the informal sector, including agricultural labourers, home workers, traditional artisans, weavers and vendors, are the most affected, as the demand for the informal sector’s output decreases substantially. Low-skilled labour intensive manufacturing exports (the female-dominated industries) like apparel and clothing, footwear, and electronics are hit hardest. Other female-dominated sectors like tourism and related services are also affected.

There is a need for a public investment policy directed specifically at women’s engagement in the economy. There is need to give visibility in statistics to their engagement in those production processes that are hit by recession. This way, the picture of what hits them, what are the backward and forward linkages to those blows and how far they can be healed by import policies can be figured out. A variety of infrastructure projects need to be designed, such as newer kinds of ‘tech parks’, warehouses, technology packages, funds for organising, buy-back arrangements, and price maintenance arrangements. There is a need to protect workers of this kind from insecurity by strengthening the laws which fix wage price and contracts, and provide social infrastructure support for such workers since they are spread across production processes and sites.

This will not only protect the crucial income of women, as they do support the household critically, but also give the nation the benefit of their economic engagement.

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