Coronavirus Lockdown: Women in Unorganised Labour are Among the Worst-Hit

Amidst the nation-wide lockdown declared by the government till April 14, reports of migrant workers in metro cities returning to their home in villages have been rising.

Hundreds of daily-wage labourers are coming home, walking hundreds of kilometres due to lack of other transport options. Unfortunately, their plight has also led to rise in domestic violence against women in rural areas, who are also going through the same struggle.

For instance, in Rajasthan’s villages where women workforce is prominent in blue-collar jobs across textile factories, jewellery and handicrafts, as well as anganwadis, the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has caused unemployment at a large scale.

Shipra Bhutani, founder of Jaipur-based Capacita Connect, tells MAKERS India that this situation is worrisome. (Capacita Connect is a digital aggregator of skills ecosystem in India that helps students from counselling to skilling and placement/employment, and helps industries with the right manpower.) Shipra works with women on grass-roots level across villages.

Most of the labourers returning from cities to villages are men, who are now forced to stay at home without being able to generate income. “They are taking out their frustration through physical violence on the womenfolk at home, who are helpless now,” says Shipra.

An Indian woman pleads in front of a policeman to let her pass a check point hoping to walk to their home with her family, a few hundred kms away, as the city comes under lockdown in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Some of India's legions of poor and people suddenly thrown out of work by a nationwide stay-at-home order began receiving aid distribution Thursday, as both the public and private sector work to blunt the impact of efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Untold numbers of them are now out of work and many families have been left struggling to eat. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Since the export industry is in trouble due to the pandemic, women working in the sector are at now denied of their daily income. Shipra adds, “Even before the lockdown, most of these women were not willing to take a day off to go get tested, as they will be replaced, thus losing their income. Without public transport, they could not even go to work as they cannot afford Ola or Uber,” Shipra says, adding that she has urged many employers to give at least 15-day wages for these labourers to help them get through the difficult times. “I have given personal assurance to employers for letting women work from home in leather and hand embroidery, stitching school uniforms and quilts, etc.”

According to her, some women who were working as tele-callers in the area have also been provided with facilities to continue their job from home. “We can track how many calls they are making while working from home, and pay them accordingly. But this work-from-home option is not applicable to factory workers. They are struggling, especially with their children staying at home and not having enough food for them.

Shipra urges the government to provide medical kits and ration for the working class, and spread more awareness among them in order to avoid public gatherings, including at places of religious worship. She believes that this is the time for pharma/medical companies to rise to the occasion and distribute medical kits for free to the poorer sections of society.

“Many of the working-class women are reusing the masks between them to save money. Black market sales are rising for the essentials’, with basic ration being sold for twice the amount or more. Unfortunately, a large number of the working-class households don’t even have ration cards,” says Shipra.

(File photo) A woman collecting waste in the historic old town of Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

The women working in manual scavenging and waste-picking are among the worst-hit. Due to poor awareness and lack of access to help, they often use handkerchief for masks, which are not effective at all. Nalini Shekar, founder of HasiruDala – a Bengaluru-based NGO that works for the upliftment of waste-pickers – says that the situation is getting worse day by day.  “Most of them work every day, as their livelihood depends on waste-picking. Since most scrap shops and recycling centres have shut down, the waste pickers have very few options to sell what they have picked up,” she says.

Nalini, however, believes that the bigger problem is the waste collection from apartment complexes. She elaborates, “These women and men are the poorest of the poor. They have no personal protection equipment, and the waste they collect nowadays includes a lot of medical/sanitary waste, which are not segregated. Protective masks and sanitizers are thrown after use (with dry waste), and the women waste pickers who collect those are at high risk of contracting diseases.” The NGO is proactive in spreading awareness through videos in Kannada and Hindi on social media.

(file photo) Shipra urges the government to provide medical kits and ration for the working class, and spread more awareness among them in order to avoid public gatherings.

Pinky Chandran, founder of Bengaluru’s community radio service Radio Active, has also urged netizens via social media to ensure three-way segregation of waste at source. She advises citizens to rinse out their soiled plastic or beverage cans, take-away boxes and empty food packets before disposing them off. “Dispose the masks, gloves, and tissues that you are using in sanitary waste, wrapped in a newspaper bag and clearly specified so that the waste picker knows the contents of the bag,” Pinky has stated.

Nalini also recommends a simple solution: when the waste picker is at your door, give them hand sanitizers too, or at least water to wash their hands with. For a pandemic of this scale, it is essential that the authorities as well as the civilian society take an effort to help these women in need. On the women in unorganised workforce, who make up unseen force behind our daily lives, even such small actions can have a major impact.


(Edited by Varnika Gupta)


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