COVID-19: What about women in informal sector?

From weavers in Manipur to domestic helps in metropolitan cities, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty to women workers’ lives 

By Sagari Sahu, Pooja Singh
Published: Thursday 18 June 2020

Manipur — with a mosaic of ancient traditions and rich cultural patterns and a unique industry of only women weavers — has been extensively affected by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. And yet, the COVID-19 impact on the informal sector comprising women in weaving, garland-making, domestic work or self-help group in the state has largely gone unrecognised.

Weaving is the backbone of rural women economy in Manipur. To know weaving is a primary qualification in women households. At least 84 per cent of handloom worker households in the state live in rural areas; nearly 16 per cent in urban areas.

The handloom sector in the state is predominantly a rural activity led by women. 
Manipur is famous for its special fabrics such as Pheingao, Raivat Kachon, Mareipan, Changkhom, Haopheisoi (sarong). Weaving here empowers women. But with supply chains and production of goods badly affected due to the pandemic, the women have been praying for a secure future.

Weaving has not been able to incorporate itself into the formal sector, prompting women to move towards an informal sector network. As a result, they have lost their jobs and with it, their savings. 

Another group of affected women workers are from a small city on the banks of the Panchganga river, Maharashtra’s Kolhapur, prominently known for its Mahalaxmi temple and Kolhapuri chappals. This place has a sense of youthful exuberance — all women workers are involved in activities — from selling garland to running a small restaurant. They serve meals introduced with the help of self-help group funds.

As the number of COVID-19 cases shows no signs of abating and relief from the state government is not enough, there is a need to resolve their plight.   

According to the International Labour Organization, every 25 women workers worldwide is a domestic worker. There are no legal regulations in the recruitment of domestic workers in India. While the central government announced a relief package for migrant workers in view of the lockdown, domestic migrant workers were largely left out. 

Ekta Parishad, a non-profit working for land and forest rights, is gauging the condition of migrant workers from across India to understand their plight. It is also helping them with food and transport to their native places. 

Around 29 per cent of women domestic migrant workers migrated from Odisha, Jharkhand and Manipur to major cities like Delhi. A few of them were supported by non-profits. The new ‘social restrictions’ imposed to their jobs and livelihood have resulted in psychological setbacks as well — the restrictions have led people to ostrasize them. 

Even after ‘Unlock 1.0’, restrictions have not been eased by many resident welfare associations (RWAs). These RWAs need to treat them in a dignified and sensitive manner. After all, it is not always about the money — it’s also about respect and support.  

Most daily wage workers or migrant labourers in India are undocumented or unregistered: Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1978, deals with workers who are under contract. It excludes workers who migrate on their own.

To bridge this gap, a draft bill has been proposed by National Commission for Women to discuss definitional keywords and other work-related issues. This is touted to help them work informally without exploitation.

All short- and long-term challenges need to be handled wisely and sensitively. Resources should be directed to the abandoned women weavers of Manipur, the workers at Kolhapur and migrant domestic workers.  It’s true that hunger and starvation are among major worries, but we also need to tread cautiously to bring the wheels of economy back on track.

Today, there is an urgency to reframe and rephrase the national and state women policy to recognise the identity and dignity of women workforce.

Until now, the absence of any specific established linkages between existing labour laws and labour institutions forced millions of women labourers into socio-economic insecurity. Any neglect and silence on the issues of women workforce has not only peddled economic inequality, but aggravated the historical injustice.

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