Invisible Women Home-based Workers Slum It Out In Big Cities

By Shalini Sinha. Dated: 7/14/2013 12:32:13 AM

Farida sits in a dimly lit corner of her small two-room house in a slum in East Delhi doing embroidery work 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 go a long way in sustaining her family of four children and a plumber husband, whose monthly income is irregular. Her cramped home doubles up as her workplace: She works in the outer room while the inner space makes for the kitchen-cum-family room. Spending eight to ten hours everyday doing fine embroidery has taken a toll on her health - her eyes water due to the strain and her back pains because she sits crouched for long hours.
Farida's story is not uncommon. She is among the scores of women home-based workers across India, who are involved in a wide range of activities - from the traditional work of weaving carpets food processing, and stitching garments to the assemblage of micro-electronics and automobile parts. In fact, 25 per cent of female urban workers and 12 per cent of all urban workers in the country are home-based. In fact, in some industries, such as beedi and agarbatti rolling, home-based work accounts for a majority share - 60 to 90 per cent, a large part of them women.
Generally, women home-based workers have meagre earnings - though they end up paying for space, utilities and equipment - and they have little or no legal and social protection, or workers' benefits. Moreover, isolation from other workers makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by contractors and subcontractors. Irregular work orders, arbitrary rejection of goods and delayed payments are also common. And because remuneration is erratic and insufficient, it is difficult to save money to invest in new machinery or training, so productivity suffers.
Compounding all these employment challenges are urban housing issues. Unlike many other poor urban informal workers, those who work out of home do not leave during the day to come back to the slum only at night. So, housing, health and environmental problems are serious issues for them.
Fact is that housing issues are livelihood issues for home-based workers. Many of them are like Farida, toiling in crowded homes with bad lighting. They have little room for storage (of raw material or finished goods), the roof leaks, or the structure is too weak to withstand strong winds. There is no proper drainage of water or facilities for garbage disposal, but there are rodents and insects. Poorly designed and maintained roads or drains means a backflow of dirty monsoon water into homes damaging goods and supplies and disrupting production. Inadequate housing, therefore, has a deleterious effect on work ability, in addition to it being very unhealthy for the individual and the family.
The lack of urban services such as adequate and affordable supplies of electricity, water, sanitation and transportation, once again, not only impacts the living environment but the livelihood potential as well. Precious hours that could have been used for income generating work are employed in collecting water, or the cost of transporting raw materials and/or finished goods cut into the already poor earnings.
Electricity supply, particularly vital for home-based work, is often insufficient due to frequent load-shedding, or is expensive. Many home-based workers have primarily illegal connections administered by the vested interests, who control the slums - a situation that arises when electricity companies won't supply power to slum dwellers who lack ownership papers. Consequently, bills can vary tremendously, and be unnecessarily exorbitant. But the worst cut is when commercial rates are imposed on the poor workers, further eating into their meager resources.
Another serious concern is regarding occupational health and safety. Many home-based workers are overworked, exposed to dangerous chemicals, and even forced to maintain unhealthy postures. But it is difficult to track home-as-workplace health issues or injuries since incidents in the home are rarely categorised as workplace incidents.
When cities turn a blind eye to the need of slum dwellers for basic infrastructure services or when they periodically clear slums - these practices are like a double-edged sword for home-based workers, undermining or destroying both their homes and their workplaces. Sadly, most cities do not know much about its home-based workers; fewer still do anything for them. In fact, not many city planners acknowledge and respond to the existence of this workforce. Powerful stakeholders, who have a strong influence on urban public resources, such as corporations and real estate developers, further tilt the scales against them. For home-based workers, this takes the form of denying basic urban services - as cities decide the future of informal settlements - and prohibiting 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. There are good reasons for policymakers to pay attention to home-based workers - their work has a direct impact on poverty alleviation, and the organised sector is experiencing jobless growth. Most home-based products, such as handicrafts and textiles, have significant employment and export potential.
The home as a vital economic unit needs to be recognised by urban decision-makers. While mixed use zoning regulations should facilitate home-based work, accessible, reliable and affordable basic infrastructure services are critical, too. These workers also need a more efficient and equitable approach to regulating land use that provides for their inclusion within the formal policy framework.
Matt Nohn, a development economist and urban planning and policy expert suggests a more efficient and equitable approach to regulating land use and promotes a balanced mix of uses that fruitfully interact with each other. According to him, "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 form of socio-economic exclusion and exclusion and exploitation".
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, Gujarat, in implementing a slum upgrading programme for its members, many of whom are home-based workers.
Till a few years ago, Varshaben lived in a two-room house in a 'chawl' (tenements) in Ahmedabad, along with her mother, husband and three school-going children. This is also her workplace: She runs her own tailor shop full-time from the front room. After she participated in a slum upgrading 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 and care responsibilities, the hours spent doing productive work grew as did her income.
Varshaben then felt encouraged to take 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 is very happy with her repaired house - she can now keep her fabric supplies safe and dry during the monsoon, and even spend more time working. She also feels more motivated because not only can she keep the house clean easily she is happy to host clients in a nicer environment. Her income has gone up by almost four times, and she says joyfully, "We can pay our children's English-medium school fees and tuition now." Her home is her prized productive asset.
*(The writer is the Home-Based Worker Sector Specialist for WIEGO [Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing], a global action-research-policy network.)
(© Women's Feature Service)



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