Shedding light on the invisible workforce

Shedding light on the invisible workforce

New Delhi: For long, the women of Sundar Nagari, a slum resettlement colony in east Delhi, have depended on the sewing needle to stitch a few extra bucks to their meagre family incomes.

Contractors would come to their homes to deliver cloth samples to embroider after collecting them from the scores of garment factories that have sprung up in New Delhi’s satellite towns of Gurgaon and Noida.

Click here to view images from SEWA’s embroidery centre

But these days, more and more of these women prefer trotting down the street to a small room that serves as the embroidery centre of the trade union Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA). Some go to pick up extra threads and beads to bring back home, others are here to collect their payments and return the garment pieces they have embellished with metallic sequins between household chores.

A chattering crowd is usually blocking the front desk. But there is a quieter group squatting in a corner, pushing needles up and down a pink chiffon blouse that is stretched out on a wooden frame, filling up the taut fabric with pearly bit-sized cut-pipes.

Many of the garment pieces these women embroider will hit stores worldwide next season. Four leading retail labels—Gap, Monsoon, New Look and Next—have agreed to farm out embroidery jobs to SEWA members through their suppliers in India.

And by knocking out contractors in the long and invisible supply chain of garment production, the trade union is hoping to increase the women’s wages.

Members such as Zahirunnisa Begum, wife of a fruit seller and a mother of four, got a pittance from contractors: for a piece that took three hours to finish, she’d be lucky to get Rs30. At the SEWA centre, she says, she earns anything from an extra Rs15 to double of what contractors would normally pay.

For finishing three pieces of garments a day, she could earn Rs135, or Rs4,000 a month. SEWA also provides her and other members access to pension and microfinance schemes.

The trade union was set up in 1972 to help women earn their own livelihood through labour or small businesses. Today, it has nearly one million members all over the country—including some 500 women who have enrolled with its embroidery project, run from four neighbourhoods in the capital.

“Our USP (unique selling proposition) is to maximize income. We want transparency. Many times, the brands themselves don’t know about their supply chain," says Sanjay Kumar, managing trustee of SEWA Delhi.

While employment has grown in tandem with India’s industrial expansion, most of the jobs have been created in the informal sector—particularly for women. Around 90% of India’s 146.89 million working women are employed in the informal economy, mostly in low-paying jobs, according to a study that will soon be published by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Undercounted, underpaid

“India is creating opportunities, but there are many losers in the game," says Nirmala Bannerji, former professor of economics at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, who has carried out extensive studies on female employment.

“Most employment is happening in the informal sector, which means fewer women are getting jobs in registered undertakings. And as traditional occupations, such as sericulture and handlooms, become obsolete, women who lack qualifications and have restrictions on their mobility are now getting jobs as maids in private households." she adds.

Poor women in rural areas mostly take up agriculture-related work, while women in urban slums rely on an assortment of activities, including making hairbands, folding envelopes, sticking labels on toys and embroidery, to top up the family income.

Women officially contribute 23% of India’s gross domestic product. But their actual contribution is much larger, and goes unnoticed, says the ILO study authored by G. Raveendran, former additional director general of Central Statistical Organisation and consultant to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.

Traditional occupations such as sewing, embroidering and even grinding and de-husking of rice—defined as economic activities by the United Nations System of National Accounts—do not figure in official records, it adds. The work of nearly 85 million women is not counted, and the incorrect data hobbles policy decisions, says Raveendran.

The more immediate concern for the women themselves, however, is the low wages they are paid for such work. For instance, the rate for packing 144 key rings is just 80 paise, while assembling 100 pieces of television parts would fetch Rs5, according to a 2008 survey of 363 workers around Delhi, carried out by All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Activist groups such as SEWA are demanding that home-based workers be paid according to the number of hours spent working.

Ethical practices

But even that may not help much. A survey of 150 home-based workers in New Delhi shows that the individual hourly wage is as low as Rs2.13, which works out to less than Rs500 a month, taking an eight-hour work day into account. The survey was conducted by Indrani Mazumdar, researcher at New Delhi’s Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

Mazumdar’s book, Women Workers and Globalization, which was reprinted this year, points to violation of minimum wage regulations among home-based workers in New Delhi. “On the top end, we are investing in technology to stay competitive. At the lower end, we are outsourcing production to save costs and stay competitive," she says.

After much struggle, SEWA found favour from international brands seeking to promote fair trade practices.

“We are committed to increasing orders going to SEWA and are working with them to develop capacity," Olivia Lankester, head of corporate social responsibility at Monsoon’s London office, said in an email.

Monsoon sources 40-50% of its total products from India every year, she wrote. “Our customers want to feel confident that they are buying a garment that is made ethically."

Kumar of SEWA said executives of the British merchandising chain Tesco also visited the SEWA centre recently.

But even such support has its limitations. The supply of work from overseas firms is erratic, and even SEWA workers are forced to return to contractors out of desperation.

“We’d die if there was no work," says Farida Begum, a SEWA worker married to a daily wage labourer who took to embroidering at the age of 12 to support her large family of nine while growing up at Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh.

As foreign brands seek tighter production control to curb child labour, a larger number of home-based workers in garment production have moved closer to Delhi.

At least one overseas firm has said its production operations should not go beyond 100km of its factory, according to a member of the National Homeworkers’ Group, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The group, comprising workers of seven international clothing brands, 22 suppliers, non-profit organizations and a trade union, seeks to improve wages and working conditions.

As the number of home-based workers hunting for work grows in the cities, Kumar says SEWA will continue trying to link informal workers to the organized economy. This year, the union plans to add 500 more women to its embroidery project. It also plans to set up a company to expand the programme into a profitable venture.

“Women," says Kumar, “will be self-reliant only when they get regular employment."