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.

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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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Oldest mountain

Bijolia Khurd khaan. Sandstone quarries in Bhilwara, Rajasthan.
Bijolia in Bhilwara and Dhabi in Boondi have some of the oldest and largest stone quarries on the Aravalli, India’s oldest mountain ranges, now eroded to stubs. Workers who live by the quarries and mines work with their hands, using chisels and hammers to cut stone into slabs, which contractors measure at the end of the work day. They earn Rs 3 for each foot of stone they cut, in eight hours, today, Subhash Mehr, Rajesh Yadav, Keshu Ram Jogi cut 70-80 feet stone at Sukhpura khaan.