Souvenir 1988

Participation in Society through work of recognised value is integral for women’s gain in status. At present, there are millions of workers, a large percentage of them being women and children, who are engaged in essential labour for the society, yet are not even granted the status of ‘worker’ by our government. According to a recent report, as many as 50 percent of the urban occupations and 25 percent of the rural occupations are not recognised as such. However, our society’s attitude to women’s labour is best reflected in the complete negation of house work-that essential labour performed by women and girl children throughout their lives, non-stop, day after day.

The variety of work and occupations encompassing the unorganised sector is tremendous. A walk through a basti will reveal women engaged in rag picking, envelope making, stringing garlands, filling capsules or making bindis. Every day we encounter people carrying loads, pushing carts, breaking stones, working in road gangs, pulling rickshaws, polishing shoes-the list can go on and on.

The unorganised sector, which technically encompasses all this labour force, has a few special characteristics: temporary work, low skill, extremely low remuneration, long hours of work, health hazards and no protective legislation whatsoever. The exploitation of these workers is extreme, as work is given out through a series of middlemen. Often work is done on a piece-rate basis, supposedly in the spare time of a woman, whereas in reality, it means intensive labour along with back breaking housework just to help the family survive. Young children often pitch in. To a large extent these conditions are a result of the invisibility of these workers, for unions as well as for the government.

The economic polices being pursued by the government are contributing to an alarming increase of workers in this sector. On the one hand, extreme poverty in the villages is leading to migration to the cities and a desperate search for employment of any kind. On the other, mechanisation and retrenchment of workers from the organised labour force is pushing people to swell the ranks of this sector. The newer industries contribute to this tide by increasingly adopting the putting-out system whereby assembly of parts of specific operations are performed by people outside the factory for extremely low wages. Needless to say, these factory owners do not have to bear any responsibility for these workers since they have no unions or legislation to protect them.

The efforts so far made to alleviate the conditions of these workers have been piecemeal and scattered. Employers find it easy to circumvent any measures to protect workers by simply shifting work to a new location, be it another basti or another State. There are also enormous difficulties in unionising these workers, specially on a national level.

The experience of working with this sector raises some important issues. Firstly, change for a majority of workers in this sector can come about only if we understand the links between this sector of the economy and the organised sector. We need to halt the steady marginalisation of the work force. Attempts to alleviate the conditions of workers occupation by occupation, may help some workers in the short term, but is unlikely to touch the majority. Secondly, the conceptual framework used for workers in the organised sector is clearly inappropriate when applied to the unorganised sector. It seems futile to make these workers fit the model of the organised sector, be it in terms of hours of work, job descriptions, training or an assessment of occupational hazards. Until we are able to broaden our framework, we are unlikely to come to grips with the problems of these workers. Perhaps what is really required is a redefinition of the concept of work itself and the values we attach to different kinds of work.


This basti is in the heart of New Delhi, adjacent to a posh colony. Women living here work in several occupations-domestic work, envelope making, rag picking, scavenging, petty trade and prostitution. Most families live in single room jhuggies made of mud and rags. There is no sewage or drainage facility. Drained water and garbage from the houses generally collects outside the houses and makes a good breeding ground for flies and rats. During the monsoons, the entire area is flooded and water leaks into the jhuggies, which often collapse.

Lack of toilet facilities means that women become more prone to urinary tract infections, which are easily transmitted to the reproductive tract. As they cannot maintain basic hygiene during menstruation, due to lack of privacy and clean water, they suffer from increased incidence of monaliasis, leucorrhoea and other infections.

Most of the women work between 10- 16 hours outside the house. The work is extremely monotonous and invariably pays a pittance.

Aside from constant threats of eviction from their jhuggies, the slum dwellers also face harassment from the police. Since resources such as water taps are controlled by a few, taps and water pumps are often the source of fights. The constant struggle of making both ends meet, social isolation and a poor work environment, adds to the mental stress of women workers. The major manifestations of this stress are a highly aggressive posture and violent behaviour towards children and adults. Child-battering is very common, as is verbal and physical violence among adults.

Since present government policies are creating ‘push’ factors—poverty, landlessness, indebtedness—people are forced to migrate to cities and settle in slums like the Barapullah basti. The government must allocate more resources for providing basic amenities to these slums (proper housing, sanitation and clean drinking water). The current cholera epidemic in Delhi’s resettlement colonies, is a tragic reminder of the neglect of millions of slum dwellers in the country.