Working

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Men and women working late, stitching night dresses, in one of several “fabricator” units in a basement in Delhi

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A story from Delhi’s industrial areas

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Workers say they are unsure if this political system works for them, and no governments are directly able to respond to their issues.

At 9 in the morning on Tuesday, instead of starting work at the assembly line, men stood in huddles outside several factories in Delhi’s Okhla industrial area. It was the first day of a two-day general strike called by 10 central trade unions, the largest industrial action planned just months before the Lok Sabha elections.

In the last such action in September 2016, trade unions claimed 15 crore workers had taken part, including in industrial areas in and around the National Capital Region.

But in the newspapers on Tuesday morning in Delhi, there was no news of the strike. Instead, front page headlines focused on the National Democratic Alliance government’s announcement of 10% reservation in educational institutions and state jobs for the economically backward among the upper castes, reversing the principle of affirmative action for Dalits and the historically marginalised.

Santosh Kesri, a migrant from Bihar’s Khagariya district from a low-income rural upper caste family, would be eligible for the 10% reservations, if it became policy. But he was not convinced it would benefit him.

“Just do the math. Of 125 crore, the general castes will be at least ten percent, or 12-15 crore,” he said, standing outside a courier factory closed for the strike. He works as a courier for IT support company in Okhla. “They will be further divided among the professional graduates, simple graduates, and those who did not attend college. The government will open jobs a handful of public jobs, while lakhs will apply. And then, there will be questions of who is well connected, or able to give bribes.”

Kesri’s skepticism is valid: the Indian economy is not generating enough formal jobs. Even the government is hiring workers on short-term contracts rather than as permanent staff.

One of the demands raised in the strike was, in fact, to end of the contractualisation of work. But many doubt the government will act.

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Durga Devi, who has sold biscuits and snacks outside factories in Okhla for more than 20 years, quipped: “When all political parties in government are employing everyone through thekedaari (labour contractual systems), will firms do any different?”

In fact, the strike itself received a tepid response in Okhla. Part of the reason, said union leaders, is the difficulty of mobilising contract workers caught in insecure jobs with long hours.

Neither reservations nor agitations seem to offer such workers any new possibilities.

Low wages and temporary work

India’s Gross Domestic Product has grown by 6%-7% in recent years but this has not created enough secure and remunerative employment.

The State of Working India report, an analysis of labour market trends by Centre for Sustainable Employment led by economist Amit Basole at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, shows that even a 10% increase in GDP now results in less than 1% increase in employment, and estimates the rate of open unemployment at a high 5%.

Even in manufacturing sectors like plastics and leather which generated more employment in last 10 years than before, the rise was in the form of short contracts and temporary jobs that paid lower than regular factory jobs.

Most households work in the unorganised sector and face a low earnings problem. In 2015, 92% women and 82% men earned less than Rs 10,000 a month, far lower than monthly salary recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission of Rs 18,000 as a living wage.

Even in organised manufacturing, an analysis by economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh shows, despite increased profits, workers’ wages accounted for only 10%-11% of value added in 2012, one of the lowest shares anywhere in the world.

“No government is with us”

In Delhi, the Aam Admi Party government had cited this failure of the “trickle down theory” when it had announced a 46% hike in wages in 2016, the only state in the country to announce such a significant wage hike.

After industry associations contested this with prolonged litigation, the Supreme Court on November 1 last year restored the government’s 2017 notification on the increased minimum wages.

Despite the AAP government’s move to correct for stagnant wages, without enforcement, the measure had failed to draw the workers to the government’s side.

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, a workers’ broadsheet published from the National Capital Region, in its January edition listed industrial firms in Okhla Industrial Estate where workers had successfully negotiated increased wages after the court order. The list was short: only five firms. In 14 others, workers were in advanced stages of negotiations.

But workers said most of the 4,000 factories in Okhla producing plastics, leather, engineering equipment, had not paid the new notified wages even after the Supreme Court order. As per the government notification, an unskilled labour was to get a wage of Rs 14,052, up from Rs 9,568. For semi-skilled labourers, it was revised from Rs 10,582 to Rs 15,471, while skilled workers were to get Rs 16,962, instead of the earlier Rs 11,622.

Arun Singh, a middle aged worker, said he had worked at the same printing press for 11 years hired through a labour contractor who paid Rs 220 a day. He worked all days of the month, without a weekly off. At Rs 6,600 a month, this did not come to even half the minimum wage the AAP government had notified.

Women workers in garment units worked similar long hours for even lower rates at Rs 180 to 200 a day.

The workers saw the wage hike as a partial measure. “Ultimately, the government machinery is not with workers,” said Singh, the printing press worker.

“The department did organize a few raids, but what was the point when they announced in newspapers that they were about to do so? They ought to have conducted surprise raids,” Manu, a young garment worker, derided the AAP government’s public announcement of a 10-day drive of raids which it named “Operation Minimum Wage.”

Mrigank, the vice president of the Delhi unit of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, also criticised it as a half-hearted measure as it was not accompanied by enforcement.

“There are 74 posts for labour inspectors in Delhi, but only 11 are appointed,” he said. “The government had not even implemented the previous wage grade, when it announced the hike and then failed to get firms to comply.”

“Saare ekta rahe, tab kuch baat banei. Something will be done, only if workers unite,” said Suresh Kahar, a migrant who has worked as a tailor for part of the year in Okhla and rest of the year on a small farm in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh since ten years.

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Weakening organisation

While workers were skeptical of the adequacy of government measures, trade unions and traditional workers’ organizations had not made much headway in representing working class interests.

One of the key demands of the 12-point demands laid down by the central trade unions that are affiliated to political parties was that the government take back its proposed amendments to labour laws.

“The government is presenting this move as if it was codifying labour laws from 44 laws to four or five labour codes, but it is systematically undermining working class interests by removing protective measures,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

Sudhir Katiyar heads the Prayas Centre for Labour and Action that works among brick kiln and construction workers and had organised a protest in Ahmedabad of construction workers, one of the largest economic sectors that employs 10 percent of workers. He said it was difficult to organise workers around such demands.

“Majority of workers are completely out of the purview of these labour laws and codes, and the norms do not apply to them,” said Katiyar. “If we say, these laws are being changed and new norms are coming in, it has no effect on most segments of workers who are working on extremely short temporary work contracts, or without contracts since decades.”

“It is harder to respond to the needs of unorganised sector workers,” added Katiyar.

Mrigank of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions said that on the first day of the strike, 40% units had remained open for production in Okhla. “The temporary nature of jobs, long hours, and workers going from one factory to another in search of contractual work make it difficult to have a regular base of members for the union,” he said.

This story appeared in Scroll.in on the day of a national strike called by trade unions.

Radha Devi: Managing maladies in Bhuiantola

A path winding through paddy fields led to Bhuiantola, a hamlet where Bhuian Dalit families lived, on the outskirts of Tarwadih village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district.

That month, eight individuals in Tarwadih were on treatment for tuberculosis(TB), a serious bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. Four of them lived in Bhuiantola.

The previous night, Radha Devi, the village sahiya or frontline health worker, an Accredited Social Health Activist(ASHA) had finished helping a woman delivery a baby in the hamlet. Now, walking down the paved path, she called out to Ramavtar Ram who was working in the fields. “Nine number” medicine is over for you. You will be on “CP” from now on,” she told Ram, a farmer in his 50s who was afflicted with TB, and had grown leaner from the infection.

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Devi did not train as a doctor or a nurse, and studied till only class IV. As one of over 1,325 health activist appointed under the National Health Mission’s community health programme in Latehar, she had supervised Ram’s TB treatment and infection control for the last six months. “I am not fully literate, but I can recognize the medicines as a number or an alphabet in the drug’s name,” said Devi, explaining how she had memorized the long, complicated names in english, an unfamiliar language, of 13 drugs used in TB treatment.

TB is fully curable by antibiotics taken for six months. Yet, India accounts for a quarter of new cases of TB infection, and a fifth of TB deaths worldwide. In Jharkhand, nearly 40 people die of TB every day.The government recognizes those living in remote tribal districts who get poor nutrition and face difficulty in accessing treatment as a priority group for reducing TB transmission.

Crucial infrastructure is absent in Jharkhand’s Adivasi villages. Dr Rajabau Yole a World Health Organization TB consultant in Jharkhand said that though every community health center was supposed to have a X-ray machine for radiological examinations and a courier system to transport sputum samples that needed to be tested for TB, this was missing in most districts.

There is also a major shortfall of doctors. Dr Raksh Dayal, Jharkhand’s state TB officer, said that the state had only 2,200 of the 3,400 doctors and about half of other contractual health staff it needed, and this affected the TB treatment programme. In Latehar, where Tarwadih lies, for instance, in the district TB hospital, 13 of 23 posts were vacant, including the post of a medical officer for TB, which had not been filled since five years.

In such a situation, health workers like Radha Devi filled a vital gap.
Latehar, where Bhuiantola lies, is one of the poorest Adivasi regions in Jharkhand. The families here are especially vulnerable also because they migrate to work in brick kilns in Varanasi in UP, and Aurangabad in Bihar when the paddy produce is exhausted in a few months. Working in kilns, they are exposed to smoke which damages the lungs, and reduces immunity to infections such as TB.

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“Many migrant workers hide it if they develop TB, and often they take medicines for only 3 to 4 months and do not complete the treatment,” said Ramesh Chaubey, Latehar’s district welfare officer.

Radha Devi, who was chosen as the sahiya in 2007 by the village’s residents while she was in her late 40s, had worked in brick kilns most of her life. The labour contractors offered sums of Rs 10,000-12,000 as “advances”, she said, and this was a big draw, but later did not pay regular wages. “At the kiln sites, away from towns, there are no health facilities,” said Devi. “Many workers develop alcoholism at the kilns. Some do not like the taste of the medicines, and some worry about adverse side effects. All these are the reasons why they do not complete treatment.”

Of the eight TB patients in Tarwadih, whom Devi was administering treatment to, Bartu Oraon, an Oraon Adivasi, was undergoing treatment for a relapsed infection. Mohan Bhuian, a brick kiln worker, had developed Multi Drug Resistant(MDR) TB, a more deadly form of TB infection, that develops if a patient gets incomplete or inadequate treatment. In MDR-TB, two of the most powerful TB drugs stop working. Those with MDR-TB can transmit this deadlier form infection to others in close contact through air droplets in the same way as regular TB. MDR-TB is treated with highly toxic drugs over a protracted two years period.

Devi said to control the spread of infection, she had been trained by the staff at the TB hospital in Latehar to ask ask patients to spit in a pan and cover it with ash. “I ask them to take precautions, to use ash to cover their spit, or cough only into a gamcha and boil it in water to prevent further infection,” said Devi. “If they don’t like the aftertaste of the drugs, I even buy them small packets of namkeen with the drug,” she said, showing a small packet of snacks she had carried for a patient. She had also been counseling Neetu Devi, a young farm workers, who had recently delivered a boy, that while she had TB she had to cover her mouth while breastfeeding to prevent the infection from spreading to her baby.

Seeta Bhuian, whose husband Mohan Bhuian had the most serious infection in the village with MDR-TB, said Mohan had taking TB drugs irregularly for five years while migrating to work at the kilns and over time, he had got so sick that he could no longer stand. After he was diagnosed with MDR-TB last year, Bhuian had to take 13 medicines and an injection daily for six months and since the last three months, he had been on seven drugs daily.

“The sahiya came home to give him the medicines daily,” said Seeta Bhuian, Mohan’s wife. She added that Radha Devi had also traveled with Bhuian twice to Itki, 110 kilometers away. This is where the government ran a TB sanatorium, an indoor facility where Bhuian had been diagnosed with MDR-TB.

After nine months of treatment, Bhuian had recovered enough strength to walk, and had taken the cattle grazing that afternoon. But his family was anxious and concerned because one of the medicines, Kanamycin, had had a severe adverse effect on him making him lose his hearing four months into the treatment.

Radha Devi with Mohan Bhuian who is on treatment for Multi drug resistant TB in Tarwadih in Latehar (1)
Radha Devi had traveled with Bhuian to Itki while he was in the most infectious state, accompanied by his younger relatives. “At the sanatorium, the doctor told us the medicines were so toxic that they could make Mohan depressed, paralyzed, or deaf,” she said. “Sadly, I have seen Mohan go through all of these stages this year.”

After getting Mohan Bhuian admitted, Radha Devi had traveled over a 100 kilometers from her village to Itki a second time to act as his counselor when he started developing side effects. “Mohan called me on the phone and said he felt he was going to go mad,” she said. “I was scared I may get lost while traveling alone from our village, but somehow I managed to get to the city. I felt like he was my son and was worried.” For her travel costs, Mohan Bhuian had later reimbursed her Rs 400, after the government hospital staff did not pay her anything for the trip.

As a sahiya or ASHA worker, Devi is supposed to get Rs 100 as “incentive” for each TB case that she reported, but she said she had not received any payments till now.

Devi added that she had heard that the government had promised to double the honorarium of ASHA workers and other ground health and nutrition staff this year. “I have heard ASHA will get paid high amounts of honorarium totaling Rs 3,500-5,000 a month for the work we do,” said Devi. But in the past 16 months, there had been delays in sanctioning sahiya payments, said Suranjeen Pallipamula, a health activist in Ranchi.

“For more than a year now, I have not got paid anything,” said Devi.

An edited version of the story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine here.

All photographs by Manob Chowdhury.

Reporting series on tuberculosis among workers

Choti Gujjar a farmer had discontinued TB treatment and this has caused her to get multi drug resistant TB She was at the Ajmer TB hospital with her son a mine worker

India has an enormous tuberculosis crisis, but the government still does not have an accurate estimate even of how many Indians suffer from the disease. A million cases are still not notified every year, and people remain undiagnosed, or inadequately diagnosed and struggle for accessing full treatment. While TB can be cured by a drug regimen of six months, the emergence and increase in antibiotics resistant TB is a concern.
These stories trace the effects of economic and health policies in on workers with TB and their experiences with drug resistant TB:

Stone-crushing workers in Ajmer suffer as the government’s ‘active case finding’ drive in the district is poorly managed and block levels hospitals lack basic infrastructure.

The government recognises miners as being occupationally vulnerable to TB. For thousands of miners in Rajasthan, however, an epidemic of silicosis is making that diagnosis even more difficult.

Chotu Ram Bhil a Adivasi migrant miner from Rajsamand was worried he was not better even after finishing TB drugs the previous year

Anti-biotics resistance is growing, and the poorest patients find it difficult to access care and counseling. Diagnosed with multi drug resistant-TB, a tailor in Beawar, Rajasthan narrates how he went through a painful medication regime without counselling support only to have his health worsen and dropped out of treatment despite knowing the risks.

Women miners toil over sandstone for export

India has one of the lowest rates of women’s work participation rate at 27%. The government has published a “pink-coloured” Economic Survey while doing on equal wages, equal work and health care.
Women miners in Rajasthan, many from the Dalit and Bhil communities work as a farm labourer for a part of the year, and in the sandstone mines seasonally that are a major source of sandstone exports to Europe and the US.
Interviews with women miners in Rajasthan show they are paid nearly 30 percent less than what men get paid for the same work. They spend long hours with their backs bent, lifting and throwing sandstone blocks and tiles with their bare hands, exposed to serious respiratory illnesses and of lower back and spinal injuries, accidents.

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In Bijolia, a mining town in India’s Rajasthan, sandstone slabs had been erected as a fence around a field to convert it into temporary work-site. In the center, Seema Regar, a tall young woman, her head covered with a black scarf, lifted and arranged grey-brown sandstone cobbles into large wooden crates.

Minestone Exports, a firm in the state capital Jaipur 250 kilometers away, had ordered the delivery of the sandstone cobbles for export to the United Kingdom, where it would be used in laying streets and sea-faces.

Employed through a labour contractor on piece-rate wages, Regar did not know of the firm that employed her. She had reached the worksite at 8 in the morning, after cooking and cleaning for her family. Now, in peak afternoon heat, she was still lifting the stones and filling the crates. Her thumb was bandaged from recurring cuts from the stone slabs and scraping injuries. She would be paid Rs 60 (97 cents) per for each crate she filled.

Regar is from a Scheduled caste, a landless Dalit at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, and has worked as a casual labourer in Bijolia’s sandstone mines since she was still in her late teens.

After 11 years of working, Regar possessed no records of employment, no health cover or social security. She is one of thousands of lower caste women labouring on the margins of India’s mining exports industry.

RESTRICTIVE LAWS
Despite enjoying one of the world’s highest growth rates in recent years, India has one of the lowest rates of female work participation in the world. Only 27 percent of its women are in the workforce. This is the lowest ever recorded in Independent India, and is half the levels of women workers in China (64 percent) and Bangladesh (58 percent).

Mining is often viewed as a “masculine” profession, associated with the dominant image of male miners going deep underground into mines and quarries.

But women constitute 8 percent of full-time workers in non-coal mines and quarries as per India’s 2011 census. The actual numbers may be higher, say experts.

Most women miners are concentrated on the margins, in informal and small-scale mining. Over 33 percent of mine workers in the category of “marginal workers”, defined as those who worked less than six months in a year, were women. These are usually landless women labourers, and marginal farmers who seek temporary work in quarries in non-farm months. A large number are concentrated in the stone industry. Both their gender and caste makes them vulnerable, pushing them into precarious work.

India’s mining laws too reinforce gendered notions around work.

The Mines Act of 1952 provides that women cannot be employed in underground mines. It restricts their hours of work above the ground between 6 am and 7 pm. The central government may vary the hours of employment of woman above ground in mines. But no employment of women workers is permitted in night shifts.

These restrictions result in a concentration of women only in lower level, manual, less safe and more insecure jobs.

“Better paid or technical jobs in mines do not usually go to women nor do women receive training in mineral sciences or engineering,” noted academic Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, an expert on women miners.
Recently, the National Democratic Alliance government proposed various amendments to India’s labour laws to simplify them and improve ease of business. But the proposals ignore the gendered nature of India’s employment crisis.

The new draft “Labour Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions” retains the same restrictions on women’s hours and work-sites. It is silent on extremely low wages, and denial of recognition as workers that women miners face.

Economists say this reveals the indifference to workers’ real conditions.“Despite a great deal of rhetoric regarding ’empowerment’ of women, the super-exploitative conditions of employment that the majority of women workers are located in, is not a matter of public concern or debate in government circles, or the media,” said Indrani Mazumdar, a senior researcher at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, who has analyzed gender and employment trends.

Mazumdar pointed out that though this year’s Economic Survey, a government report on the state of the economy presented as a budget document, was published pink in colour to show government’s commitment to gender equality https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/economic-survey-2018-pink-theme-emphasise-women-empowerment-gender-inequality/story/269078.html there was “utter indifference” to the enormous hardships women faced in working even where they could take up paid-work.

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Rajasthan’s stone mining sector offers troubling insights into of how women workers continue to be treated as peripheral workers, and denied equal wages and benefits.

UNEQUAL WORKERS
Rajasthan contributes 10 percent of the world’s production of sandstone. Sandstone from here meets the highest international standards and is exported to the UK, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Bijolia in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara is one of its top three centers of production. Despite the international links of production, the production takes place in rudimentary ways, with low use of technology, and the stone is processed manually using hammers and chisels.

The jobs are segregated by gender. Men are engaged to excavate the sandstone, and in blasting, drilling, processing. Women are assigned to work as casual labourers to transport the material, carrying head-loads, and to sweep and clean debris inside mines, in the lowest paying jobs.

Even where women and men do the same work, they are paid vastly different rates.

Kailashi Bai, had started working as a “hamaal” worker, loading stones for Rs 30 (44 cents) a day when she first came to Bijolia as a child bride. Now 30 years on, she earned Rs 200 ($2.9) a day loading stones, less than the minimum wage.

The amount is a third less than what male helpers and coolies got paid for the same work.

“The labour contractor argues that men pick heavier loads than women,” said Kailashi. “But this is not true.”
She added: “The mine supervisor keeps a watch, even he can see we work with equally heavy loads continuously. They pay us less because they simply do not want to treat us equally.”

Prem Devi Daroga who started working as after her husband, a miner, was diagnosed with silicosis, a fatal respiratory disease, two years back, said that if mixed gender group of men and women worked together, they were paid equally – Rs 300 ($4.4) per trolley they filled, which they split. “But if it is an all-women group doing the loading, then the mine owners slash the payments by one-third or half,” she said.

There are no trade unions active among Bijolia’s mine workers, who fall in India’s vast informal sector sector with extremely low levels of unionization.

Sugna Regar, one of the Dalit miners, explained that in the absence of a union, the women miners tried to negotiate better wage rates, but often found it difficult to get heard. “Usually, three-four of us will go to approach the employers and contractors collectively, asking them to increase wages to at least Rs 200 ($2.9), or close to the minimum wage,” she said. “But they are dismissive, they will tell us: “You are women, and you ought to stay at home then”.

Gendi Bai Bhil, in her mid-50s, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe, an indigenous community, said the mine owners frequently offered wage advances of up to Rs 5000 ($73) to male miners and stone carvers, which they later deducted from the wages. But they denied loans or wage advances to women.

“Even in case of accidents in the mine, the owners will help only the men financially,” said Bhil. “If women workers get injured if the slab fall on them, or if our fingers bleed from loading stones, the employers do not offer even casual assistance, or any monetary help.”

Govindram Gehlot, an advisor with Gramin and Samajik Vikas Sanstha, a Non Governmental Organisation that works for miners’ rights, who earlier worked as a labour inspection officer in the government, said women workers got paid lower wages and faced greater difficulties. “The mine owners hire only men to process the stone tiles and work as masons, and assign the women to carry head loads, as “helpers”,” he said. “Carrying and loading sandstone in open-cast mines is equally arduous. Under the law, both should be paid same. But the employers believe, or like to portray that women’s work is easy, and get away with paying them less.”

LACK OF WELLNESS
The women workers who spent long hours with their backs bent and lift and throw the sandstone blocks and tiles with their bare hands, were exposed to the risks of lower back and spinal injuries, and accidents.

In interviews, many workers reported living with chronic musculoskeletal pain, and having contracted respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis.

A large number of workers in the stone industry are afflicted with serious respiratory diseases. Between 2013 and August 2017, 9,278 workers in Rajasthan’s mines, largely males, were diagnosed with silicosis – a fatal respiratory illness caused by inhaling fine silica dust through prolonged exposure in the quarries. The government has been organising medical camps to screen patients regularly.

In Bijolia too, medical camps for screening workers have been organised, though the staff said they found it difficult to cope with the large number of patients.

Dinesh Dhakad, a medical official supervising tuberculosis camps at Bijolia health sub center stated that usually over 100 to 200 people often landed up for health screening, when the ambulance had a capacity to do X-Ray exams for only 40 to 50 patients in one day.

In the first instances of work pressure on government staff, women workers were given the short shrift.

Dhakad claimed that women workers landed for the medical camps, even when “they were not at risk of respiratory disease.”

“Women work only as “helpers”, lifting and loading using spades or by hand. They do not work in blasting the stone or processing,” said Dhakad. “But they still land up at the our camps wanting to be tested,” he complained that women workers reaching medical camps added unfairly to the government hospital’s staff work-load.

WORKING IN PAIN
Besides the lack of adequate facilities for respiratory disease, there was also little acknowledgement and no measures to help the women workers cope with frequent injuries, and living in chronic pain.

Regar, who had been lifted and placing the stone cobbles on the Minestone export consignment said the stones frequently scraped her fingers making them bleed. This took almost 7 to 10 days to heal, she said. The recurring injuries made it difficult to work more than 10 or 15 days in a month, Regar added.

Most women workers reported suffering recurring joints pain, and also stomachache, both from enteric infections from the lack of access to clean water and food, and musculoskeletal pain they had developed while lifting and carrying heavy weights regularly. Their long hours at work were compounded as they spent more hours after work in the house, fetching drinking water for their families, and cooking and cleaning.

Kanika Sharma, a research scholar at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, said women workers and women agricultural labourers remained particularly vulnerable to lack of wellness and pain. “Research shows that women in India experience physical pain more severely and for longer duration than men,” she said. “Unequal distribution of labour in homes, undernutrition, and physical violence contribute to this.”

Their health was worsened by the poor access to food and nutrition. All women workers interviewed stated that they had not had egg, or milk even once the previous week. Several workers faced domestic violence.

Seeta Regar, who was in her late 30s, had started accompanying other women workers to the mines when her husband died seven months back. She did not receive a widow pension, that she is eligible for from the state. “My husband worked in the mines and got tuberculosis,” she recounted. “He was an alcoholic and he would hit me. My limbs still hurt from the beatings.”

In case of a disability or on reaching old age, these women are entitled to a measly Rs 500 ($7.4) monthly pension from the government.

Gendi Bai Bhil, a 55-year old worker from a Scheduled Tribe with a frail frame, had recurring pain in her back and her joints after working 32 years as a “helper” cleaning debris in the mines.

In exhaustion, she threw punches at her knees and elbows to express the pain she experienced regularly. Lacking any health cover, Bhil said she visited both the local government health center and an unregistered medical practitioner every two weeks to buy painkillers for relief. “The government health centers often remain shut, or they turn us away,” said Bhil. “Even unregistered medical practitioners charge Rs 170($2.5)on one visit, it is more than my daly wages, and I can barely afford it.”

Delhi-economist Mazumdar said that “without ensuring need-based minimum and equal wages, and without ensuring access to health benefits to women workers”, there was no way India’s female work participation rates could increase.

An edited version of this news story appeared in The Guardian here.

Lunch break atop bauxite hill

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Bijolia begins again every October

Every year, the mines slows down and stops at the onset of monsoon, and then resume after harvest. Right now, the stone pits are still full of green water from the rains.
The work is on pause for everyone to return from home after Diwali. Many young men, a few women whose homes are nearby, who did not leave, sit around tea shops, and in the common spaces waiting. But it feels strange. When they speak, it is as if not like the mood of a break or rest, as they wait for the full mine operation to start in another fifteen days. Over and over, it is a: What, but this. This sucks, this kills but this, if they will just increased our wage but this. Maybe I was missing something, but they seemed to be saying, this work seems to ruin everyone’s lives when it exists, and yet even the last resort is ruined if our work is replaced by machines. In the evening, returning from the conversations at tea shops and squares, it seemed like I had been talking to pools of distressed, tied down to stones, in pain people over and over.
Though in late afternoon sun, slumped by the temple wall, Nand Lal Bhil and Ratan ji Bhil cracked one joke after another about Nand Lal’s impending death. “I almost left the house, then I got stuck in the hedges and came back,” Nand Lal grinned. “But I have a ticket (Silicosis certificate) from the Government. At any point, I may have to leave again..”
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Nand Lal had worked in the mines breaking stones for the same contractor forty years, since he was ten, till he fell too ill to work. He was treated for tuberculosis for five years. A year and a half back, the hospital diagnosed him with silicosis. “I had energy, enthusiasm, health, everything. Then one day life took it all, like grime from skin.”
“This is how disease, death befalls.” he said.
“It strikes you, like lightening.”
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