economic dynamism in India over the past decade has
brought about all sorts of changes in labour markets,
especially in urban areas. But these changes have often
been quite different from what we would have expected.
Thus, wage employment (both regular and casual) accounts
for a smaller share of workers than before, as self-employment
has increased for both men and women. Among urban women
workers, there has been an increase in regular employment,
but most of that is accounted for by domestic service
(as cooks, housemaids, etc.) rather than the export-oriented
activities such as garments and IT-enabled services
that are the stuff of so much hyperbole.
In fact, the data on manufacturing employment provides
some surprises, especially with respect to women's work.
The share of women workers in manufacturing as their
primary activity has fluctuated sharply between 23 and
27 per cent for the past twenty years, and there is
no evidence of a clear trend. However, the share of
women working in manufacturing in a subsidiary capacity
has been increasing continuously since 1987-88. It now
accounts for 11 per cent of all women employed in manufacturing,
which is not a small proportion.
One important reason for this is the increase in "putting
out" home-based or other work as part of a subcontracting
system for export and domestic manufacturing. Such work
does not get incorporated in the employment statistics
which are based on employers' records, and this may
explain the paradox that even while women's share of
recorded employment in manufacturing has not increased
much, the dependence of the sector on the productive
contribution of women may well have increased. So home-based
subcontracting activities, or work in very small units
that do not even constitute manufactories, often on
piece rate basis and usually very poorly paid and without
any known non-wage benefits, have probably substituted
to some extent for the more standard form of regular
employment on a regular wage or salary basis. Very recent
evidence suggests that as export-based industries such
as garments are facing growing competitive pressure,
they pass this pressure on to home-based women workers
by reducing the effective rates for piece-rate work.
Both the general pressure of industrial capitalist production
and the particular external pressures faced by exporting
industries which have to respond to international competition,
operate to increase this tendency rather than to increase
a more regular and secure form of women's involvement
in manufacturing work.
This is confirmed by other data emerging from the NSSO
Survey for 2004-05. This suggested that there were just
under 15 million women workers in the unorganised sector,
and more than half of them were women involved in home-based
work for different types of industry, dominantly on
a piece-rate basis. This included zari, charkha, or
other handloom work, bindi sticking, stitching labels,
food processing, and also potentially hazardous work
involving acids and chemicals.
This suggests that the marginal utilisation of women
workers in manufacturing industry is at the lowest and
poorest paid parts of the production chain. Such women
workers are therefore effectively deprived of all the
benefits that may accrue from outside employment except
for the meagre nominal returns that they receive from
What is even more alarming is that the conditions of
such work appear to have deterioriated rather than improved
during the recent economic "boom". A convention
held in Delhi in mid-April on the rights of home-based
workers, which was attended by large numbers of women
workers from different parts of Delhi such as Mongolpuri,
Dakshinpuri, Ambedkar Nagar, Okhla and Rangpuri, provided
graphic evidence of deterioriating conditions of home-based
The most striking point that emerged was just how abysmally
low the piece rate wages for work are. And in some cases
they even appear to have fallen in nominal terms, not
to mention when deflated by the cost of living! Consider
Women doing fancy embroidery work on cloth cut pieces
in Dakshinpuri are paid at rates which bring them only
between Rs. 20 and Rs. 25 for more than 10 hours of
work. Woman workers who stuff cotton into quilts in
Kusumpur Pahari get around Rs. 20 for an eight-hour
In Mongolpuri, making a 60 inch long bead necklace with
around 700 beads fetches only one rupee per necklace.
Since each necklace takes about an hour to make, the
maximum possible earnings for a woman in one ten-hour
working day from this tedious activity is only ten rupees!
In the old walled city of Delhi, women are making string
rakhis at the unbelievable piece rate of 25 paise for
140 pieces, bringing in wages of only Rs. 4 or 5 per
day. Women who stick bindis into packets in Karol Bagh
are paid Rs. 3 for 140 packets of 10-25 bindis. Even
when a woman works all day and the children of the household
are also put to work in this activity in the evenings,
it is difficult to earn more than six rupees in a day.
In Bawana, the difficult and unpleasant job of making
and filling little packets of chuna to be supplied to
paanwalas is rewarded at the rate of Rs. 1.50 to Rs.
2 per kilo of chuna, which means around 1200 packets.
No more than 10 kilos can be done in a day, implying
a maximal wage of Rs. 20 for work that causes wounds
on the hands as the chuna burns the fingers. In Sonia
Vihar, the difficult and potentially dangerous work
of sorting of circular glass beads, which constantly
causes cuts on the fingers, is effectively paid less
than ten rupees per ten-hour day. Even fairly complex
and difficult "machine work" such as making
elements for ironing presses by hand gets only Rs. 5
for 100 pieces, and a full day's work generates not
more than 150 pieces, making the remuneration not more
than Rs. 7.50 per day.
No woman talked of receiving a wage higher than Rs.
25 per day, and many mentioned that conditions have
deteriorated. In a very stark example, women who make
coasters designed with small embedded beads revealed
that the piece rate for these has fallen from Rs. 5
per coaster five years ago to only one rupee per coaster
A common problem is delayed payment even for these pathetic
piece-rate wages – many women complained that they receive
wages after a lag of several months, and sometimes only
twice a year around the festivals of Holi and Diwali.
Several of them had left such work in disgust and because
of health problems such as eye strain, back pressure
and adverse chemical effects, only to take it up again
after some time because of the shortage of household
Recent increases in the prices of necessities have made
matters much worse for home-based workers. They are
increasingly forced to endure shockingly low wages and
terrible work conditions because of the absence of other
income opportunities and the need to find additional
money income just to meet basic needs of their families.
All this is happening in the capital city of Delhi and
in the National Capital Region, supposedly the richest
and most economically dynamic metropolis of India. This
is the situation after a decade of unprecedented economic
boom in the country as a whole and in this metro in
particular. It is seldom recognised that the recent
economic expansion has come about because of the contribution
of the mass of Indian workers rather than a few high-profile
corporate magnates. Yet this huge contribution remains
not only unsung, but unrewarded even in monetary terms.