It's Time We Paid Women Workers Their Due

While the women engaged in the informal sector feed the economic engine of our nation, their work and contributions largely go unrecognised.

I barely glanced at her when she unobtrusively pushed the cup of tea in front of me – just as I liked it, piping hot with no sugar. A few minutes later, it was my car keys even before I had started looking for them, and along with them, my office papers and lunch box. I looked at her then, and wondered if she realised how much easier my life was because of her efforts.

Sindhu, the domestic worker in my house, is a migrant from Bengal, where she has left behind a disabled and ailing husband and two young children. Now she lives in a slum, sharing a room with three others, with barely any furniture and few infrastructure facilities.

Besides working 12 hours in my house, she holds two other jobs for a little additional income. “What to do, ma’am, my needs are a little more – husband’s medicine are expensive.” Then she adds, “And I am really keen to educate my daughter – she is very bright and goes to a private school.” She looks at me with stars in her eyes, “I have come to this city for her. I want to make a better life for her – and also my old age.”

As I look around, I see many like her – the flower vendor outside the temple across the road, the lady who sweeps the road outside my home and the woman who makes homemade spices in the shanty town nearby. Each one of them works hard to earn a meagre living, and their work goes largely unnoticed, even while it improves our communities.

May Day celebrations rarely include workers like Sindhu, nor do they touch any part of her life. This is also true for many other women who work in different kinds of informal occupations in the city, despite the fact that their numbers are so large and their contributions so wide-ranging.

The vast majority of women who work in India are informal workers – 2012 figures indicate that 95% of women work in the informal sector. Additionally, within the informal economy, women are concentrated in more precarious and lower-earning forms of work as compared to men – they are less likely to be employers and more likely to be unpaid contributing family members or casual wage workers, for example. They are also quite often faced with assuming the vast majority of unpaid care work in their own homes, even if they also provide these services in the homes of others, like Sindhu.

Despite predictions that the informal economy in India would diminish in size as formal wage employment expanded, trends have shown that the opposite is occurring. While the total share of informal urban employment stood at 78% in 1999-00, it increased to 80% in 2011-12. Employment creation has lagged far behind high rates of economic growth in India. Although India is widely known as the “office of the world,” data from 2011-12 reveal that a small minority – only 13% – of urban workers were engaged in formal employment in the services sector.

Urban informal workers are the majority in cities. Although they feed the economic engine of our nation, their work and contributions largely go unrecognised. Consider four groups of urban informal workers in Indian cities: Home-based workers produce a wide variety of goods and services from their homes – from garments and textiles and prepared food, to electronic goods and automobile parts. Street vendors provide affordable, convenient access to a wide range of goods and services in public places – from fresh fruits and vegetables to building materials, from crafts to consumer electronics, from prepared food to auto repairs. Waste pickers provide a critical environmental service, extracting recyclable goods from the waste stream and preventing them from accumulating in landfills and dump sites. And domestic workers like Sindhu clean, cook and sometimes care for children or the elderly in private homes so that others – people like me – can go out and earn a living. These four groups of workers alone account for approximately a quarter of the total urban workforce in India.

Informal workers face a range of risks and barriers in their efforts to pursue their livelihoods, although these vary by group and are often especially pronounced for women. For example, waste pickers face occupational health and safety risks and are not integrated into solid waste management systems as service providers.

Street vendors are subject to arbitrary evictions or fines, and municipal officers often extract bribes from vendors to allow them to operate in public space. Home-based workers, who are predominantly women, are some of the most vulnerable informal workers as they are faced with assuming all of the costs and risks of production. They typically have very little bargaining power and are often exploited by middlemen who pay meagre piece-rates or delay or even withhold pay. All of these groups of informal workers typically earn little and do not enjoy legal or social protection as workers.

Informal workers face a range of risks and barriers in their efforts to pursue their livelihoods. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What the working poor women I’ve described need, most urgently, is recognition. And not on just on one day. Not just symbolically. These productive economic agents must be recognised in a way that means they are considered in urban and economic policies and plans – in the allocation of urban land, provision of basic infrastructure and transport services, in regulations on public space and local economic development.

Achieving this is not just necessary, it is possible. And it’s happening, though slowly. In several cities in India, home-based workers have received basic infrastructure support to improve their homes-cum-workplaces. Street vendors have been allocated vending sites by some local municipalities. And waste pickers, among the most maligned of informal workers, have received contracts from local municipalities to collect, sort and recycle waste as that is a much-needed service. 

What is also much needed is an approach to urban planning and local economic development that recognises the contributions of the informal economy and seeks to integrate the livelihood activities of informal workers. We need to promote “hybrid cities” – cities that are consciously designed to integrate and support both the informal and formal economies, both the largest and smallest enterprises.

This will require a radical reappraisal of urban planning to promote the equitable allocation of urban space, urban services and urban infrastructure in support of urban informal livelihoods. It will also require that the working poor in the informal economy, especially women, are organised and have sufficient voice and bargaining power to shape the development trajectories of the cities in which they live and work.

Decision makers in India must embrace an approach that creates inclusive urban planning by inviting organisations of urban informal workers, especially women, to have a seat at the policy table.

Because just as Sindhu knows precisely how I like my tea, she knows – and informal women workers like her know – precisely what they need to thrive. And what helps these women helps us all.

Shalini Sinha is the country representative of WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), a global research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.