Home-based Work: Voices of Women from Mumbai slums

Article by Sharvari Pawar (Guest Writer)

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Sample Imitation Jewelry

Mumbai is a city of dreams for hundreds of people who migrate to the city on a daily basis. As per the census 2011 data, the population of Mumbai was 12.4 million and since then the urban population has been increasing. Urbanization has resulted in slum proliferation in a megacity like Mumbai. Nearly 41.84% of people reside in slums in Mumbai (Mumbai City Census data, 2011). Most slum dwellers eke a living by working in the informal sector. Through the voices of women in Ambojwadi this article gives a glimpse into the lives of Mumbai’s home-based women workers.

Ambojwadi, located in Malad West is densely populated slum with a population of nearly 35000, majority of them belonging to Dalit, Muslim and Pasi Pardi community. There are migrants belonging to the Pasi Pardi community hailing from Solapur, the western belt of Maharashtra and others from Uttar Pradesh. History of the region reflects complex resettlement and rehabilitation policies of the state government. Around 728 project affected families were resettled in Ambojwadi in 1995. YUVA, a non-governmental organization has played an influential role in organizing the community for their basic rights. Daily expenditure on basic needs and resources such as water and sanitation ( shared toilets) are high. People’s movements, community-based organizations have also contributed towards the development of the slum community. The area has been declared as a non-development zone by the government authorities. Hence, it is not considered under the development plan of Mumbai ,according to a representative from YUVA organization).

Most people in the slum work in the informal sector. Males are working as daily wage workers, naka workers, labourers in the construction industry, street vendors, auto-rickshaw drivers and few are working in private companies. Women are engaged in home-based work and some are working as domestic workers in the neighbouring prime locations in Malad. In 2011-12, 80% of the urban workforce in India was informally employed, home-based work was the largest sector representing 14 percent of total urban employment and 17 percent of urban informal employment (Chen M, 2011).

“I am residing in Ambojwadi for 18 years, during my days of hardships this work has helped me survive bad days of life. Being a single parent to my 14 children, every day is a new challenge to sustain and survive. Every day I contribute my 4 hours to this work. We are paid as per the piece-rate which is Rs 3.50 per set of hair clips and imitation jewellery made”, said Mrs. Khan (name changed). Following neighbours’ footsteps, Mrs. Khan started working from home. The sub-contractor provides the raw materials to the Khan family. Raw materials include jewellery set, jewellery stones, glue stick, etc. The set is made and is then sold in the famous Natraj market of Malad. Patience and concentration are the most important factors required while working on imitation jewellery. Mrs. Khan said, “There are bruises on the hands of my daughter-in-law, we all suffer from irritation and pain in the eyes, sometimes we feel giddy too if we sit to work for long hours”. The glue used to stick the stones is corrosive in nature. Jewellery stones are usually fixed with bare hands without using hand gloves increasing direct contact and exposure to chemicals present in the glue. Further sitting for long hours in the same position creates a potential threat to their physical health.

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Other articles made through home-based work

Home-based work is easier for women as they can balance their family time and work accordingly. Mrs. Khan’s day starts with managing the household chores and afternoon free slot is being utilized for work. Her daughter after coming from school contributes four hours in preparing the sets. Urmi (name changed) said, “After coming from school every day, I have my lunch and help Ammi in preparing these sets”. When asked about studies, she said, “This doesn’t affect my studies as I manage my time and study in the evening”. Other family members also contribute their time to home-based work. Mrs. Khan said that her daughter and daughter-in-law were paid as per their contribution to the work. Family stressors often bring in the wave of responsibilities.

Demand and supply mechanism is followed wherein the materials are prepared as per the demand from the contractor. Usually prepared in gross, they are paid Rs 3.50 paise per piece. The product is rejected if there are any defects. Even minor defects such as over spilled glue, mismatched stones lower the quality of the product and is therefore rejected and the contractor deducts the amount as per the set rate. Mrs. Khan said, “ In case of any defect the product is rejected by the contractor and we are charged as per the rate of the jewellery set. Sometimes we have to bear the loss of the entire set which is two to three times higher than the actual amount ”.

Mrs. Khan also mentioned that when asked for a hike in gross rate the demands of the women are ignored despite having cordial relations with the sub-contractors, the contractors often cut ties in case of high demands of income.

Creating the best business from waste

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Preparing Buff Maal 

“What is this about?”, I asked Mrs. Ansari, as I was fascinated by the rags hanging Mrs. Ansari said, these are not rags, it is called as ‘buff maal’ , it is used in the stainless-steel polish industry. To gain insights about the nature of work I started probing about the processing and working mechanisms.

Mrs. Ansari said, “We have been running this business from past 8 years. We collect rags and old clothes from local vendors and factories and use this raw material in making the rag sheets. The raw materials include plastic rag sheets, old clothes (chindi), homemade glue (glue is made in a large container using refined wheat flour (maida), hot water, and flea and insect repellents). The glue prepared is organic in nature and non-hazardous. The process is easy wherein we just have to stick the rag sheets together with the glue barehanded and dry in the sunlight. The rags once dried are packed and exported to the companies. After ‘buff ka maal’ is made, it is handed over to the contractor or company which further stitches those materials, processes it and uses as stainless-steel polish.”.
The buff material made is sold as per piece made. They earn Rs.100 after selling 120 pieces. Rs 80 is given to the labourer hired and Rs 20 is their earnings. Mrs. Ansari shared that an old woman was hired as labourer. She was paid Rs 80 for 120 sets made in addition to the gifts given on special occasions.This kind of material is also made in other parts of Mumbai such as Goregaon, Malad East. Mrs. Ansari’s company was located in Kandivali earlier. But now they have shifted to Vasai Virar. When asked about how profitable it is Mrs.Ansari said, “The earnings made through this business has kept our economic status stable, I was able to pay hospital charges of my husband and fees of my daughter through the earnings made by this. Investment is very low where we have to invest in purchasing the old clothes which we purchase at Rs 1- 2 per kg from the nearby factories. The unique concept of starting a small business by reusing waste products is one of the best ways of utilizing resources.

Sumati Tai, a staff member of Yuva said, “Women working in the home-based work in Ambujwadi mainly prepare imitation jewellery. Long years back, metal work was done on a large scale. Income earned was much more. Those working in home-based work get very less amount for their work. Time spent, energy utilized versus the income earned is very less. Currently, few women are associated with the organization through self-help groups, mahila mandals and Astitva Mulbhut Sansadan Kendra”.

Another staff member of YUVA Mr. Amit said, “We have been organizing the women through our collective action groups. Recently we initiated an idea of quilt making with the women who are working on sewing machines. Women prepared a few quilts to understand the process and nature of work. Later they received orders from us and few sources. Small quilts were sold for Rs 150 each, we purchased from them as a way to encourage them to use their skills to the best of their knowledge”.

Women should be motivated and encouraged to learn and grow and use their capabilities to the fullest and the home-based work should be recognized. The income earned through home-based work in comparison to the efforts and time contributed is very less. Organizations like SEWA, WIEGO have contributed through their intervention towards home-based work for women. In order to support the home-based women workers, an integrated approach should be followed wherein initial steps should include organizing women, studying the nature of work, understanding the market dynamics and involve them in the huge chain of the informal economy. Community-based organizations can intervene in upscaling the health of home-based workers and work with the secondary target audience such as their children and family members. Formation of home-based workers association and board in each area can create a space for home-based workers to voice their opinions and contribute their views on organizing home-based work.

Sharwari Pawar is a Research Associate with the Centre for Environmental Health, School of Habitat Studies

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