In Demand in a Globalised World: Women home Based Workers

Abstract: There is an increase in women’s labour force participation in urban and rural areas of India, especially, the non-farm or non- agricultural activities. The increase in women workers is also seen in the manufacturing sector, especially manufacturing for export. The purpose of this paper is to focus on the characteristics of the labour process in home-based production in India using the example of women workers in a rural non-farm industry: the beedi industry in south Tamil Nadu. In doing so, the argument underlines the aspect about home-based production processes that is attractive for employers, who wish to succeed in global manufacture. The discussion will also explore the complexities of the labour process situated within the home, where despite economic returns into the household, the ideology of ‘a non- worker, spare-time earner, and that of supplementary income continues to prevail. Further, it highlights the dynamics of the labour process where the burden of production is passed onto others, and w omen take on more work that is detrimental to their health.

Keywords: women’s labour force dynamics, Women’s Work Participation, home-based production, agricultural/ non-agricultural activitiy, sub contractors, economic reforms, beedi industry

The Scenario of New Economic Policies

In the last two decades in India, there has been a gradual shift leading to policies for a more open economy. These have gone by different names: structural adjustment programmes or SAP, stabilisation measures, economic reforms, liberalisation policies, globalisation policies, pro-market economic reforms, and measures encouraging privatisation. Some of these have to do with fiscal measures, capital and trade policies, import and export policies, institutional reforms, etc. A part from these macro-economic areas, policies of adjustment have also affected health, education, labour and other sectors of the economy and society. These are hardly given any import. (Kurien 1994; Vaidyanathan 1995). These sectors, as a consequence of adjustment and reform, have received less support and resources as measures of ‘austerity’ are implemented. There is sufficient evidence now that despite the safety nets provided to protect the interests of the most vulnerable sections of society; there are several cutbacks in resource provision in these social sectors (Qadeer 2001, Poonacha, 2004, 225-37) Supporters of the reform processes say that there will be dislocations that occur during the phase of adjustment but in the long run the condition of every section of society will improve. In the long run, the poor will benefit even if they carry the burden of reform on their shoulders.

Within nations the measures for fiscal, monetary and capital policies receive impetus, as it benefits industry. Big industrialists form the major component of those who support the finance view of reforms. They feel that being attractive to global finance is to their advantage. However, even as there is a globalisation of capital, there is no concomitant globalisation of labour. Globalisation of capital and foreign investment, on the contrary, was seen as improving local employment prospects. However, there is now sufficient data to support that fact that multi-national companies have done less to improve the working conditions in the countries they invest in. (Ghosh 2002,17-60) Not only that even as economic reforms have led to higher growth, it has failed to generate employment. In India, the growth of employment actually dipped from 2.7 per cent during the period 1983-1994 to 1.07 per cent during 1994-2000, whereas the GDP accelerated from 5.2 per cent to 6.7 per cent. (Economic Times 2004)

In the current economic dispensation, a significant development is that more and more women are entering the paid labour force. There is an increase in women’s labour force participation in urban and rural areas, especially, the non-farm or non-agricultural activities. The increase in women workers is also seen in the manufacturing sector, especially manufacturing for export. (Ghosh, 1999, 318-50)

The question that begs an answer is that, even as women’s employment opportunities are increasing, are the tennis of employment and the working conditions better? And further do they in the final analysis prove that women’s participation in paid employment contributes to their overall empowerment end control over their lives.

Trends in Women’s Work Participation in the Era of Economic Reform

Current evidence on the sectors in India that employ women show that in the 1990s the overall work participation rate of women in urban India has undergone a slight decline. It does not however capture the entire range of informal activities that women are involved in. In fact, both in urban and rural Atlas, the gap between the skilled, educated, and trained workforce and the semi-skilled, semi-literate, and untrained workers is getting further sharpened. Large numbers of workers are being edged out of agriculture and ending up in low-productivity, non-agricultural activities. As far as women workers are concerned the official recording of their status as a worker (usual or not) and the type of contract (principal or subsidiary) they are employed in, are extremely important in determining their employment participation. For instance, in certain types of labour arrangements, women are employed in the manufacturing sector in a subsidiary status. And there is an increase in women’s work participation in regular work in this sector in a subsidiary capacity. The types of work that women do are domestic service, which is a regular activity, and home-based or putting out work in a subcontracting form for export or domestic manufacture. Most of this work is not often recorded in the employers’ statistics. (Papola T.S, 1999, 229-317, 2003, 89- 122) Thus both in rural and urban areas there is an increasing casualisation and informalisation of the female workforce.

In rural areas, this trend results from shifts from the self-employed to the wage labour force, while in urban areas this is due to the reduction in the regular salaried category to the casual labour group. It has been emphatically argued that home-based sub-contracting activity or sub-contracted work in small units, mostly through piece-rates, and without any benefits as workers is the major component of this casual and informal category.Even in East Asia when the crisis struck, there was movement towards labour processes that were less secure, based in small units, or home-based and which employed women workers in production chains that depended on outsourcing through large final distributors. This feature of global production of multi-national companies (MNCs), has become an important characteristic of globalisation and the period of reforms. These MNCs are represented by international suppliers of goods who depend less and less on direct production at a specific location instead, they rely more on sub-contracting out a substantial part of their production processes. The sub-contracted producers vary in size and capacity from medium .sised factories to pure middlemen who collect the output from home-based walkers. A large part of such sub-contracted work falls within the domain of home-based work and women form the backbone of this home- based labour process. (Ghosh, 2002 17-60)

Women in Home-Based Work: Beedi Industry in Tirunelveli District

The purpose of this paper is to focus on the characteristics of the labour process in home-based production in India, using the example of women workers in a rural non-farm industry: the beedi industry in South Tamil Nadu. (Gopal 1997; 1999, 12-20) In doing so, the argument underlines what it is that is attractive about home-based production processes for employers who wish to succeed in global manufacture. The discussion will also explore the complexities of the labour process situated within the home, where despite economic returns into the household, the ideology of a non-worker, spare- time earner, and that of supplementary income continues to prevail. Further, it highlights the dynamics of the labour process where the burden of production is passed onto others, and women take on more work that is detrimental to their health.

The beedi industry in Tirunelveli is nearly 80 years old, and in the initial phases of its growth, it was closely linked in the urban areas with the growth of petty manufacture for the local market. In the rural hinterlands, however, it was associated with the crisis within agriculture and the loss of work in the famine starved countryside, thus extending the putting out system into rural industry. In Tirunelveli, the beedi industry employs house-based workers via a system of contracting and sub-contracting. Melappalayam area of Tirunelveli town, comprising of mostly Muslim weaver families, and Mukkudal in Ambasamudram taluk, were the oldest centres of beedi production in the district. Melappalayam is one of the classic instances of the growth of petty manufacturing industry proliferating in the urban sector. The beedi industry here took advantage of the reserve of cheap female labour, mostly Muslims, who fit easily into the house-based system of beedi production. At Mukkudal, T.P.Sokkalal Ram Sait, known as a king in the industry later, established his production headquarters, primarily relying on the export markets of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Sokkalal set up beedi ‘factories’, which were little shops that attracted the cheap female agricultural labour, who were languishing from the drought in the countryside. Sokkalal and his men taught the skill of rolling beedis to women who were either temporarily jobless during the slack season affected by drought. At the ‘factory’, they were taught how the beedis were rolled and bundled, after the tendu leaves were wet and cut into neat pieces. Later they were given the raw material necessary to do the required quota at me and bring back the finished product. This would go on for a few months till the company’s specification was mastered. It was like an initiation into craft with a great future. It is part of the mythology of the success of the beedi business that Sokkalal Ram Sait had amassed such wealth so that he could even feed his pet elephants ‘halwa’.

Today, there are numerous players in the beedi business, many of whom come and set up base from the neighbouring states, such as Karnataka, Kerala, and even Gujarat. There is consensus among employers that decentralisation, a euphemism for sub-contracting, is the most efficient organisational form for manufacturing beedis. Some of the prominent manufacturers admit that the sub-contracting system came to prevail because of the stringent labour laws, echoing the situation today, where labour flexibility is encouraged through (policies to attract investment, especially foreign investment. The beedi proprietor elaborated: prosecution was initiated if the registers pertaining to various welfare measures were not maintained. If a person owned five branches, different prosecutions were conducted. A second offence meant imprisonment. Therefore, all these responsibilities were put on the contractor or sub-contractor.

By employing a system of production using contractors and sub contractors, the beedi companies are able to gain tremendous profits with very little inputs in terms of infrastructure for work and comprehensive benefits to labour. These profit making features of the beedi manufacturers are hardly evident in the interface between the contractors and sub-contractors, and the workers. It is at that level of the sub-contractor and the worker that manipulation by the employers becomes visible.

Sub-Contracting and Relations of Production in the Beedi Industry

In the system of contracting out the production there are two main forms: company shops and commission shops. In the company shops, the trade-mark holding company operates by issuing pass books to the home-based women workers in their names, giving them raw material and collecting the beedis after paying them wages for the same. They also deposit provident fund amounts, in their names and 8 per cent of their total wages obtained in a month as leave wages. This provision exists in the Beedi and Cigar Workers Act. The leave wages and the bonus are given to workers twice a year during the festivals of Pongal and Deepavali. Several companies, of course, defaulted in this practice. Despite the fact that the Maternity Benefit Act covered the women workers, it had not been implemented till 1988 due to the efforts of a dynamic and sensitive Inspectress of Labour appointed in the district. Even here only the company shops were willing to give women their maternity benefit dues. In addition to passbook holders, there were on the rolls of the company shops, workers in a ‘joint’status. These women did not have separate passbooks but rolled along with passbook holders, and got only wages and no benefits.

In the commission shops, sub-contractors, called commission agents, operate with the brand name of a company. These sub-contractors obtain a commission of Rs. 1-1.20 per 1000 beedis collected and sold. In addition, they collect front the women one extra bundle called ‘podu bundle’ for every 10 bundles rolled as their commission from the women. While pass books were issued to the workers and a few workers also retained as joint workers, some sub-contractors did not issue pass-books in women’s names, but in the names of men in their families. This they do in order to avoid providing maternity benefit. Further, young girls, who are just beginning to roll beedis or older women whose beedi quality may not match the best of quality are also given raw material to roll, accounted informally in a little notebook called “chittai”, without the recognition of a passbook. Thus the commission agents and the company keep women workers in different relations of production, thus prc- empting any unity among the workers.

In addition there are traders who set up shops without possessing a brand name. They operate on a small scale with a declaration of an annual production of 20,000 beedis, for which there is a Central Excise exemption. These fly-by-night shops issue raw material and collect beedis at an appointed hour during day or night, may or may not be regular in paying wages, but will suddenly remove their shops from its place and vanish with the beedis, money, et al leaving the workers in the lurch. While they operate, they may pay good wages without the pass book and hence no other benefits, and even issue good law material which is appreciated by women who roll for these shops, and obey sell their beedis in an unauthorised manner across the border in retail Outlets in Kerala.

Besides women workers, the shops also have a beedi checker, who inspects the quality of beedis delivered, a ‘tandoor’, who weighs and disburses the raw material of tendu leaves and tobacco dust to the women, and one or two other men who work as stackers and bundlers of beedis. All company shops have regular and separate timings for the women to report at shops to deliver the rolled beedis and collecting raw material. A worker hardly spends 15 to 20 minutes in the shop everyday to submit her quota. Hence at one time, there would be 20 to 30 women reporting at the shop, who are sent off in half an hour because the next lot comes in. Thus it is men employed in the shops who interact with women who come from their homes, and presents a strange patriarchal relation of hierarchy rather than any relations of production.

The company shops insist that women come well-dressed to the shops with their hair oiled and combed, and in an overall neat demeanour. The shop owners draw parallel with women in towns that go dressed well to offices. They even tell women to instruct the unkempt looking women of their village to well-dressed. During the 15-20 minutes that women spend in the shops, hardly get to know the intricacies of the going-ons in the shop. On the tray, their attention is focussed on the saris the other women wear, the jewellery bought or worn, and how some women had adorned themselves with flowers or trinkets. Thus their dealings restrain extremely individualistic and remains no opportunity for any collective bargaining. In payment of wages, arbitrariness was evident. While some shop owners paid it on a Saturday, others paid it on a Friday, while some even asked women to come on a Sunday. They thus exercised control over the women by making them come on a holiday to receive their wages or in arbitrarily shifting the date of payment.

The actual labour process of producing the beedis takes place within the homes of the women workers. Cutting the wet tendu leaves is a skilled task and is done by the beedi worker herself. She does the main task of actually rolling the leaves placing the tobacco dust inside and binding it with a thread. The final action consists of folding the top end of the beedi using a metal stick. This action is often the first task that is assigned to young girls, when they are initiated into beedi work. Sometimes, women sublet part of this work so that older and handicapped women earn a few rupees as livelihood. Beedi work thus involve women integrating their lives with their work. These include women and girls folding beedis and assisting other workers, alone or with other labour, or rolling beedis for others, all of which constitute the informal beedi work that also goes on outside the shop sector. The disparity in worker status between and sometimes even within a shop, is often a reflection of their families’position in the social structure, as well as their own status within the households, which becomes a fertile area for further manipulation and exploitation in the working of the industry.

The Dynamics of the Home Based Work and Women’s Lives

The opportunities for women to opt for beedi work exist both in the company shops and the commission shops, or even in the fly-by-night shops. Women’s choice of shops is dictated by their place within their families and their social roles, and how important beedi work is for their survival. For instance, many women preferred to roll for the commission shops because of certain advantages they gained from it, compared to the company shops such as flexibility, where women can submit less beedis leaving some balance in raw material that could be adjusted later. Regularity of production was not a strict feature. The shop owner will also issue more raw material if the woman can produce more beedis. Further, timings are not strictly adhered to and women can go late, but within the reporting phase which is a big concession. Women can also loan out beedis from other women in huge quantities, which may compromise on quality, something not tolerated in company shops. Another feature of survival are the differing working relations women have with other women workers, from whom they borrow or lend beedis daily, and seek continual help. However, what happens in effect is that as the workplace enters the homes, where each woman is literally on her own, managing the work of her household as well as her beedi work, a situation is created where women are isolated in their struggle for survival. The resentment, jealousy, and the unsympathetic attitudes that these atomised conditions of work generate gets reflected in the shop-level relations which work against the women themselves. Being unaware of the workings of the industry and the real reasons why certain terms and conditions are imposed on them, they try to compete with each other also. Thus their own labour process exercises divisiveness.

At home, beedi work spills into all the working hours, beginning quite early in the morning and continuing late into the night. Women’s routines are tension-filled as they race to submit their quota for the day and various adjustments are made and losses incurred with respect to their food intake, sleep, rest, household work, leisure, cleanliness of the household, care of their own and family’s health. etc. It is by making all these adjustments that women bring valuable income into the household.

Beedi Work and its Relationship to Women’s Empowerment

There are diverse perceptions of the economic value of the beedi work that women do. In the better-off households it is considered as profitable for women and girls to roll beedis. Girls in these households even earn their dowry by doing beedi work. But women from other households that solely depend on beedi work say agricultural work, which is now unavailable, is definitely better as there, one does not have to suffer this fear, aches and pains, loss of sleep, even though by rolling beedis one is assured of an income.Younger girls in these households are goaded and controlled by their mothers or aunts to be consistent and efficient in rolling beedis, as their beedi earnings contribute to the household kitty. Most of these middle income and poorer families thrive on an economy of credit, settling their expenses on a weekly on receipt of wages. Moneylending is also a thriving practice and the moneylenders lend to women who get an assured weekly wage. Despite all economic contribution, women perceive their work efforts as insignificant. This has to do with the social perception of women’s work.

A comprehensive understanding of women’s work can be gained by placing beedi work in the context of household relations, social norms prevalent in the village, and the ideology of women’s work prevalent in the community. Within the households, women’s relations with men is based on dependence and they have less authority for themselves in the management of household affairs, deciding the future of girls, managing household finances, having a claim on the beedi wages, and other important decisions of the household. This, in turn, reflects in a low self-image of women, which makes them unquestioningly accept attitudes about their work. The context of social norms in the village defines women as weak and powerless. They are ignorant, and hence vulnerable beings, who have to be protected and taken care of.

It is within this normative existence of their lives that becdi work plays a complimentary role in extracting the most from women, while simultaneously keeping them entrenched within the traditional social structure. Employers claim that beedi work for women situated within the household, is spare time work or work done in free time. But women’s tension-strained routines demonstrate how this concept is totally baseless. Not only this, the manner in which women manage their food requirements, make adjustments with their time, work and leisure demolishes the ‘myth of convenience’ that is not only propagated by the employers but also supported by the men in the households who urge their women into beedi work. Men believe that becdi work is ‘women‘s work’ which they will not do. Women, however, are unable to resist these dominant perceptions because of their atomised conditions of work, where there is no common place of work for all women to come together and share aspects of their work. Each woman working within her own home cannot realise the unity required for the collective efforts to resist these perceptions and practices.

Securing the Rights of Homeworkers

Considering the above characteristics of home-based industry that work against advantaging women workers, it is helpful to be informed about the efforts at mobilising for the rights of home-workers. It was the Shramshakti Report of 1988 which gave much needed recognition to home-workers and had suggested the introduction of a specific law to secure the rights of home-workers. In 1991, the National Commission on Rural Labour also suggested that wherever possible, they should be organised into co-operatives. The state’s policies of liberalisation, export promotion, and employment generation are supporting informal work as development. Across the world, there are home-workers who are producing auto parts, clothing, electronic goods, knitwear, and they work on embroidery, weaving, making toys, leather, word processing, crafting bamboo, etc. Everywhere the majority are women, and in many cases, they are the main earners of their households. In India, the Self-Employed ‘Women’s Association (SEWA) first initiated the idea and need for an International standard for home-workers in the form of an ILO convention. In 1996, there was a second reading of the convention on home-work at the end the 83rd meeting of the ILO. At the convention there was still much resistance from employers. (Mukul 1998 758-62) Given the above exploration into the Vulnerability of women who work in the home-based sector, our efforts ought be behind those who put pressure on the state to secure the rights of these workers, whom the new international players of industry and capital, find increasingly attractive as labour.


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MEENA GOPAL. Lecturer at the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. Her research and academic interests relate to Development Studies, specifically in the areas of women’s work; public health and gedner and sexuality. She is also active with FAOW (Forum Against Oppression of Women), a women’s organisation based in Mumbai.

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Lecturer at the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. Her research and academic interests relate to Development Studies, specifically in the areas of women’s work; public health and gedner and sexuality. She is also active with FAOW (Forum Against Oppression of Women), a women’s organisation based in Mumbai.

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