New Delhi: The economic future of urban India has its foundation in a vast and amorphous force of informal labour.
In April, a McKinsey and Co. study estimated that by 2030, nearly 590 million Indians will live in the cities— roughly twice the population of the US. This urban boom is a combination of factors: a massive pull from development, construction projects and increased demand for domestic staff from a growing middle class.
Nuclear families with two working partners are becoming more common in the cities and, without the support of an extended family, domestic servants have become a necessity.
These trends have catalysed the mass movement of migrant workers to the cities in search of better job opportunities. Such workers, particularly the women, are becoming the driving force behind urbanization and the crutch that supports India’s economic expansion.
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A recent study of domestic workers in the slums of Delhi by the Indian Social Studies Trust found that nearly 80% of them were migrants, 41% of whom said they came to Delhi for jobs as domestic workers.
Yet they remain a largely invisible force, working in the informal economy as maids, cooks and nannies, unprotected by labour laws and frequently falling prey to social exclusion and financial, physical and sexual exploitation. Perhaps the most vulnerable are the single women who flock to the cities with spurious “placement agencies” to work as live-in maids and those who fall prey to traffickers. But there are positive outcomes too.
In Delhi, married women moving their families into urban slums have become the primary bread earners. In Bihar, village women who have all but lost their men to seasonal migration must figure out how to function as the de facto household heads.
In a three-part series starting today, Mint examines the issue of informal labour from the perspective of such women, whose traditional roles are changing in the face of India’s transformation.