NEW DELHI: : Through the day, 35-year-old Urmila, a single mother, keeps her sewing machine busy. She sits between the cooking area and the bed stitching gota on to a chunni or scarf. Her children have learnt to sleep through the noise. Since her husband died 2 years ago, this is the family’s only source of income. Urmila is paid Rs 4 for every scarf she makes by the contractor and earns between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day. This is less than half the minimum wage in Delhi.
Urmila says contractors don’t increase payments. She says, “If I were to stop doing the work, there will be 10 others who will be ready to do it at the same rates. There is no other work available here. It would be very good if we were to get some work from the government. I want to be able to raise my children well.”
42-year-old Sunita, who has two young sons, starts her day at 4 am, often working late into the night. Her husband is an alcoholic and does not earn. Sunita’s earnings of about Rs 3,500 a month goes towards paying the bills.
“The problem now is that I find it difficult to work. Sometimes my eyes hurt, sometimes my legs. I can’t sit down for long at a time. I went to a doctor once. He told me that I needed glasses. It would have cost about Rs 1,000. I never went back,” she says.
There are nearly 35 million home-based workers in India, most of them women. They are a vital part of the country’s Make in India programme and are spread across different industry sectors. Yet, they are never counted as part of the workforce, resulting in lack of opportunities and exploitation.
Home-based workers exist across 22 industry sectors identified for the government’s flagship Make In India programme, from pharmaceuticals, electronics to automobile parts.
The workers produce under subcontracts for global and domestic value chains.
They usually do the most drudgery type of work and are at the base of the pyramid.
Mala makes tassels and does embroidery for global brands like Top Shop, Concept Art and Vegani. Her earnings do not exceed Rs 4,000 rupees despite the hard work and long hours she puts in. Her husband works as a driver. With their joint income they are unable to meet their aspirations of a good English medium education for their children. She says contractors are exploitative.
“If we get about Rs 10 from the company, only three rupees will be given to us,” she says.
Experts say the first step towards their economic empowerment is their recognition as a workforce. According to Renana Jhabvala, national coordinator of the trade union Self Employed Women’s Association, “There are approximately 35 million homebased workers now and they are working in their homes stitching garments, making bidis, papads and all types of things, either selling it or giving to a contractor and they are not counted and there’s is no benefits for them at all. So the first thing is how do you raise their productivity, their incomes, how do you raise their skills? Policies have to change to bring in finance, to bring in technology, to bring in skills.”
Ms Jhabvala, who will represent India this week, at the UN’s first ever high level panel on women’s economic empowerment, says a national policy needs to be framed for homebased workers.
It would close the gender gap in economic opportunities and outcomes for women. In India, 51% of all women workers are homebased compared to 11% of all male workers who are homebased.
This year is also the 20th year of the ILO Convention on Home Work to protect as well as increase their skills and social security. India has so far not ratified the convention. With the numbers of home-based workers increasing because of globalisation and the growth of the informal sector, experts say the launch of the Make In India programme should make the government take a relook at the convention.