Even during normal times, we do not see the travails faced by a women worker in informal sector; her struggles, her distress, and the discrimination she faces at every stage. We come across these women workers everyday - at construction sites, in farms, as street vendors, as domestic workers, as rag pickers and at many such jobs. Since the last three weeks, these workers have hardly been able to go out to earn a living. Although, government has allowed agriculture and allied sectors to be operational, it remains to be seen how this becomes operational in different states as the market has gone down and the buyers are not forthcoming. With little or no savings and uncertain work, these already indebted workers have no option but to depend on government doles for survival.
Miseries of these women workers compound if they have additional vulnerabilities; being single, aged, a person with physical or mental disability, critically ill, pregnant or women with small and lactating children. They require additional care and attention so that they can access various services provided by the government without facing discrimination and stigma from the community.
Take the case of a Domestic Worker, Laxmi Jena, who represents the plight of a single woman. 6-year-old Laxmi is a widow who stays alone in a small kutcha house of Jena sahi, Odisha. Her only source of income to meet her daily dietary needs is domestic work. She earns around Rs 3,000 per month from domestic work, gets 5 Kg rice through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and receives a Widow Pension of Rs 500 per month. Due to old age and health issues, she is not able to work for the entire month and thus, does not get the full pay.
60-year-old domestic help Laxmi Jena.
"Due to the Corona situation, the entire district is closed down and there is no option to go for daily wage work, I cannot even go for domestic work. This disease has hit hard on the livelihood of many others like me. If this situation continues, then I shall remain unfed. Whatever support government has given (advance pension and PDS rice for 3 months), including the hot cooked food, it is great relief for me. But government should also think about supporting us beyond the lockdown period,” says Laxmi.
While Laxmi represents the heart-breaking struggles of a single women form Balasore, Odisha, another women, Ambika, from Subarnapur, Odisha, signifies the struggles of a single woman to feed her children. Where should I go in this situation, she asks us. Ambika Banchoor was left alone with her two girl children when her husband passed away one year back. Ambika belongs to the Dalit community of GP Mayurudan village, located in Subarnapur district. She is landless and has no other means of livelihood. She has been feeding her children through wage work in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which is usually at a construction site, in agricultural fields or other household work. Getting work for the whole month is difficult task and when she does, she earns about Rs 3,000 to 4,000 per month.
Ambika Banchoor from Subarnapur, Odisha.
“Because of COVID-19 lockdown, I have not gone to work for the last 25 days,” Ambika says. She is sustaining her family through the PDS rice and advance widow pension of 4 months, Rs.2,000, and compensatory entitlement of Rs 1000. “But the lockdown period has been extended and I am uncertain as to how to meet the further requirements in a situation where I do not have many options left,” she says.
She lives in a dilapidated house, which is unsafe to stay in if a cyclone hits –not an uncommon occurrence in Odisha. She has not yet been included in any housing scheme by the state government.
The case of 35-year-old Pushpa Bhoi is that of a tribal woman, whose main livelihood is collection of NTFP (non-timber forest products) and daily wage work. Pushpa stays in Nuakota village of Dhenkanal, Odisha.
Most of the villagers depend on daily wage, farming and NTFP (Mahula, Tola, Kendu leaf and Gambhari fruits) from forest for their livelihood.
During these 3 months, from March to May, she used to collect NTFP and earn Rs.3000 per month. COVID-19 has put an end to this income source. She is collecting NTFPs but she does not know how, where, whom & when to sell them. Neither the middlemen, nor the forest department is now forthcoming for procurement of NTFP. “We, the poor tribes, are depending on forest products. I am collecting the NTFP, but I don’t know who will buy it this year due to this lockdown,” she says. The tribal village is reeling under the impact of COVID-19 lockdown.
Similar is the case of 45-year-old Snehalata Meher, a beedi worker. She lives alone with her two daughters at Colony Pada of Meghapal Gram Panchayat. Her husband deserted her two years ago. She earns around Rs 300 per week by making beedis. But due to the lockdown, she lost her livelihood as the Munsi (local buyer) is not coming to her village for the collection of beedis. Due to the loss of her beedi worker identity card, she is not getting any benefit from the labour department either.
45-year-old Beedi maker Snehalata Meher.
She has received PDS rice for three months from her Panchayat office, however, she is unable to procure her other daily needs including vegetables, pulses, salt, oil, soap, etc.
“I lost my livelihood because of COVID-19. If the beedi work resumes, I can earn some money for my family and my life will be better,’ Snehalata Meher says.
What Government Should Do for Most Vulnerable Sections
Firstly, government should immediately start MGNREGS work in villages so that people like Laxmi and Ambika can work and earn. But the most critical thing is to ensure daily payment so that these women have some money to buy essential goods.
To avoid losses, government should immediately make institutional arrangements to ensure the sale of forest products, vegetables and village produce. It should also regulate the prices of NTFP strictly, so that women like Pushpa can get a good price for their NTFPs.
Earning livelihood from domestic work after the lockdown will also be a challenge because people might have apprehensions about their domestic help. Hence, domestic workers like Laxmi should also be considered for entitlement of Rs, 1,500, which has been declared for construction workers.
Government should continue supporting the vulnerable families by giving them free dry ration beyond the lockdown period. Government should also consider providing first-aid and health care services like sanitary napkins, anti-natal services to pregnant and lactating women, and immunisation facilities for infants at quarantine centres.
In the long run, government and other agencies working in the area should link up single women like Ambika and Snehalata with housing and other social security schemes. Also, there should be some income generation support -- Financial or material -- for rearing of livestock (like poultry and Goats).
There should be enumeration and registration of domestic work and informal workers with labour department and they should get the same entitlement as other workers. There is a great need to streamline the NTFP procurement and payments.
The state Government should redesign the schemes for beedi workers and provide financial assistance to all the workers. The state Government should also organise training for beedi workers and unemployed youth belonging to families of beedi workers should be given alternative employment opportunities in sectors like Automobile Repair, Electronics Repair and so on.
It is essential that government and civil society organisations work hand in hand to combat the challenges faced by the most vulnerable women workers. We can isolate these vulnerable women so that they stay safe from COVID19, but we cannot abandon them.
(The author works with ActionAid. Additional inputs for the article were given by colleagues - BN Durga, Angoor Mishra from Dhenkanal, Pitabas from Subarnapur, Sachi from Sambalpur and Monika from Balasore.)