Bawana Fire: Why Women Are Cannon Fodder For the Informal Sector

“Women are preferred for packaging jobs because they rarely unionise, which makes it easier to exploit them, pay less.”

Relatives and locals outside the house of a Bawana fire victim in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Relatives and locals outside the house of a Bawana fire victim in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

New Delhi: Ten of the 17 people killed in a fire at a firecracker storage unit in Delhi’s Bawana industrial area on Saturday were women. Apart from the overall questions around workers’ rights and the negligence involved, the incident also raises questions on the pathetic working conditions of women who work in the informal sector and how they are often exploited even more than their male counterparts.

“Women are preferred for packaging jobs because they rarely unionise, which makes it easier to exploit them, pay less. They often don’t ask for too much money, and rarely agitate. Since the work doesn’t require too much physical effort, factory owners don’t want to hire men and pay Rs 9,000-plus,” International Federation of Trade Unions general secretary (Delhi) Rajesh Kumar told the Indian Express.

Approximately 91% of all women engaged in paid work in India work in the informal sector. Of these women, about 20% are based in urban areas. Not only can these women then not access government welfare schemes such as maternity entitlements, they are often paid less than their male counterparts and do not demand minimum wage, forced to work in harsh, unsafe conditions, and are seen by their employers as less likely to speak out or protest. A National Sample Survey Office report from 2012 estimated the gender pay gap in the informal sector to be 19.78% (this number takes into account all occupations except crop-based farming). According to the India Exclusion Report, 2015:

Informal employment, with lower likelihood of stability, earnings and legal protection accounts for a relatively larger share of female than male employment. Within employment, women’s earnings are lower than men’s, in part due to the segregation of women into jobs that are deemed of low value and therefore eligible for lower wages, for instance in construction work where they are largely involved in unskilled positions. This ‘vertical segregation’ manifests also in the health and rural education sectors where care roles are overwhelmingly carried out by women.

One of the women killed in the fire, 18-year-old Rita, was doing overtime after the end of her eight-hour shift, according to her brother. “She would have been home by 5:30 pm, but decided to do overtime. She earned Rs 5,000-6,000 (a month) for eight hours, and about Rs 3,000 more if she did overtime,” he told Indian Express.

Also read: The Skewed Way Indians Still Think About Gender and Caste

The Bawana factory blaze is also a stark reminder of the gross violation of labour rights across the country even as the government goes on an overdrive to push for more labour law ‘reforms’ to further improve its position in the World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ ranking in a bid to attract foreign investment.

“Look at the wages these people are talking about,” Indrani Mazumdar of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, who has worked extensively on women’s work in India, told The Wire. “It’s not even half of the minimum wage – that on its own says a lot about how these women were treated. But what this incident reflects on a larger scale is a total regulatory breakdown.”

Over 51% of work done by women in India is unpaid and not counted in national statistics, with some estimates even putting this proportion at 85-92%, said a report, ‘Leave No One Behind’, by the high-level panel set up by the UN Secretary General, released in 2017. Noting the 22% decline in female labour participation rate in India, the report called for concerted action by all stakeholders to remove systemic constraints, such as adverse social norms, gaps in legal protection, failure to recognise and redistribute unpaid work as well as gender gaps in digital access.

District magistrate (North) Sakshi Mittal had said on Saturday that the storage unit that caught fire was unauthorised and was operating without a licence. It had been registered, according to the Hindustan Times, as a plastic factory, even though it was being used as a unit to package and store firecrackers. This work started at the unit – with no evacuation plan and only two fire extinguishers – only 21 days, the newspaper reported. The unit was violating the Explosives Rules of 2008, which say that the manufacture, import, export, transport, possession, sale or use of any explosive without authorisation is prohibited.

Forensic experts leave after collecting samples from the Bawana firecracker storage unit. Credit: PTI

Forensic experts leave after collecting samples from the Bawana firecracker storage unit. Credit: PTI

Perhaps what was even more worrying is the fact that three women who worked in the unit told Indian Express that they did not know that their job involved handling explosives. These were the same three women who had complained just three hours before the fire that they were finding it difficult to breathe because of the smell of gunpowder in the air, and asked why the manager had not provided them with masks. When the manager refused to listen to them, they had walked out.

For two of these, women, Saturday was their first and last day at this unit. All three said they heard of the job through someone they knew, and were hired without having to provide any sort of identification. But even though they weren’t around for the fire, the hazardous conditions have left an impact. One of the women said she had yellow marks all over her body from handling the gunpowder. “Sometimes my spit, too, would be yellow,” she told the newspaper.

Also read: Why Indian Workplaces Are Losing Women

“Most of these women had only been at this unit for a day or two. They didn’t know that the work they were doing was illegal, nor did they have anyone to complain to about the horrible working condition and the hazard. These are poor women labourers who need the money, however little it is. Who are they going to turn to?” Farida, an activist with the Janwadi Mahila Samiti who lives in Bawana, told The Wire. “So far, (chief minister) Arvind Kejriwal has told the families of the deceased that they will be given Rs 5 lakh each, and the MCD has promised Rs 50,000. But how can that compensate for the kind of negligence that has happened? We are demanding at least Rs 10 lakh for each family.”

Apart from the very obvious hazards, the working conditions were far from perfect. There was only one toilet for all the workers to share, and no drinking water facility at all. The workers spent their days filling small packets with gunpowder, and the only protection they were given were a pair of gloves.

“This particular factory has made headlines because of the fire,” Farida said. “But there are so many more like it, where people continue to work because the authorities don’t care and they have nobody to turn to. They have to keep earning to eat. We are trying to get authorities to focus on these problems, now that we can all see what it can lead to.”

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