Liberalization and women


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IT often seems difficult to articulate something sensible about the ongoing process of liberalization and globalization. There is a tendency to adopt ideological stances and quote macro data which supports one’s views; or else cite personal or micro experiences where the linkages with macro policies are unclear. SEWA has tried not to take an ideological stand, but to understand how these processes are affecting poor women and how they could affect them in the future. The objective of studying the changes in women’s lives is to adopt a proactive stance on programmes and policies in order to better the lives of women in the informal economy.

We have tried to understand these issues by starting from the lives of poor people, to discover how and why their lives are changing. Rather than enter the debate at the macro level, we observe the changes at the ground level and try and link them to macro changes and policies. SEWA itself is situated within the informal economy, working in a large number of sectors from agriculture to forestry, manufacturing to trade and services, and in many different locales from dense urban areas to dry and desert-like rural areas, in many different states. Women who are SEWA members or their neighbours and friends, can be seen as constituting a microcosm of the informal economy. In this way SEWA is fortunate to have at its doorstep, even right inside its house, a large and varied sample of women in the informal economy.

In the course of SEWA’s work, our members report many changes in their lives and work. Measuring the changes and linking them with globalization or economic reform policies is, however, another matter. In some cases it happens effortlessly. For example, we found that the income of rag pickers was declining. We were given two reasons for this. First, due to the closure of the textile mills, the number of women and children picking waste off the streets was increasing and enhanced competition implied that each person was able to collect less. Second, the price of waste paper was coming down due to large scale imports. This was directly related to trade liberalization.

Similarly, we found that women who were collecting gum in the forest experienced sudden declines in income and it was possible to link this to imports of gum from Sudan. Simultaneously, we also found that employment in garment work was increasing due to export orders.

In many cases, however, the linkages are difficult to establish. We find a rapid increase in mechanization of agriculture, but are unable to say why this is happening now. Similarly, the work available to women construction workers is decreasing. It is unclear whether this is because India has signed the WTO agreements and is mechanizing all construction works, or whether this is due to the post-earthquake recession in Gujarat, or the increase in number of construction workers after the textile mills shut down.



The linkages between macro and ground level changes emerge most clearly when we look at particular sectors. As part of the Group on Women Workers and Child Labour in the National Commission for Labour,1 one of our tasks was to comment on how liberalization had affected women workers. This group adopted a sectoral approach and commissioned a number of studies for all the sectors where women were concentrated.2

These studies show that there are major impacts in all sectors resulting from a variety of factors – technological change, flexiblization of the workforce, opening up of new markets, changing social norms, growing pressures on resources and so on. Reproduced below are some findings from a few studies.

Bidi rolling is a major source of employment for women which, however, remains low-paid, insecure and has health implications. It is estimated that there are 4.5 million bidi workers in India, of whom 80% are women. Globalization has affected this industry in two ways. First, the international anti-tobacco campaign is threatening to reduce the work in the industry even as bidis are finding a new international market. The main challenge here is to implement the existing legislation for protection and welfare of bidi workers as well as begin the search and retraining for new avenues of local employment.



The crafts sector is already closely linked to the international markets with export earnings of over Rs 8,000 crore. The sector witnessed a dramatic increase in number of craftspersons – from 48.25 lakh persons during 1991-92 to 81.05 lakh in 1997-98. The trend is that while male participation in crafts has gradually decreased over the years, female participation has risen, particularly in the rural home-based crafts sector. Women are concentrated in certain crafts like embroidery, weaving, cane, bamboo and grass products, costume jewellery, pottery and coir products, though in recent years, women have started entering male-dominated crafts like brassware. The market for crafts products is expanding both in India and abroad and artisans have already begun blending traditional skills with new technologies and designs. For women artisans in particular, there is a need to promote skill upgradation along with a more market-oriented approach to production.



The study on industrial subcontracting reveals the extent to which major private and even public sector companies have resorted to outwork, including home-based work, in recent years. Although this has increased work opportunities for women, the earnings remain low, well below the minimum wage. The average monthly earnings in technical trades like electricals is Rs 450 per month, no different from aggarbatti making or leaf plate making! Nor do workers have access to social security systems. Due to the low piece-rates in home-based work, women have to take the help of their children, and the incidence of child labour seems to be increasing in the home-based trades. The 2000-2001 round of the NSS indicates that there are over 28 million home-based workers in India.

Within the food processing sector, the last decade has seen increasing marginalization of the small scale and unorganized sector. A large proportion of food processing in the unorganized sector is carried out by women using the traditional skills in many primary food processing areas. Extensive technological modernization in the organized sector has displaced not only large numbers of unskilled workers (mostly women), but also many skilled ones whose skills have become obsolete for handling new technologies. Whereas government is investing heavily in the organized food processing sector, practically no attention has been paid to the unorganized sector.

Street vending constitutes another major employment area for women in both urban and rural areas. There are close to 10 million urban and rural vendors in the country. In the last five years there has been a major pressure on vendors, which can certainly be traced to globalization. In the urban areas, there is a tremendous increase of vehicular traffic due to the opening of the automobile markets. Indian cities are now being planned and built like western ones with multistorey complexes and separate commercial centres, creating extra pressure on existing infrastructure and demanding large investment and rebuilding. The street vendor is now perceived as a ‘nuisance’ in the way of infrastructure modernization, and is being removed wholesale. The Indian middle class too perceives Singapore and Dubai as model cities, with no place for the street vendor. In the rural areas, there is an increasing pressure on the rural haats as the space that was traditionally reserved for them is now being privatized and deployed for other purposes.



It is well known that our service sector is rapidly expanding. However, it is less appreciated that the informal or unorganized service sector is expanding too, generating large scale opening of opportunities for women. The largest increase in employment opportunities come from domestic service, education, including home-tuition and child care, and health services. Unfortunately, these women workers have received little attention with the result that their earnings remain low and their employment insecure.

The health sector is also expanding. There are between two to three million midwives in the country and most of the births in rural areas are still attended by them. Unfortunately, insufficient attention has been paid to integrating these practitioners within the growing health system, in increasing their skills and helping them to attain the status of professional health providers. There are approximately 500,000 nurses of various categories in the country. Although there is a perceived shortage of nurses, the incomes of qualified nurses remains low at an average of Rs 60 per day in the rural areas and Rs 84 in the urban areas. Many nurses are looking for opportunities to emigrate, particularly to western countries. There is a demand for Indian nurses in the Gulf countries, but on the whole Indian nurses have been replaced by migrants from the Philippines. And due to the stringent visa and degree requirements, few nurses are able to access the more attractive western countries.



The evidence suggests that there are three main problem areas that emerge as a result of the impact of global and national forces on women in the informal economy: (i) a lag in the productivity and wages of the unskilled as a result of global and national technical progress; (ii) an increased vulnerability and insecurity in the new market and trade-oriented world, despite significant benefits of these same trends; and (iii) a decrease in bargaining power of unskilled workers.3 Action at the ground level and macro policies then need to be directed towards building up skills, setting up systems of security, and increasing the bargaining power of the workers in the informal economy.

In India, perhaps more than in most countries, there is a division of workers in highly unequal ‘skill’ levels. At the upper end are workers with a range of sophisticated skills who, especially after liberalization, have many new opportunities. At the lower end, workers tend to learn their skills from each other or from within their families, and have a level and type of education which permits them little leeway in terms of learning and almost nothing in terms of employment. Women workers tend to be crowded into the lowest rungs of the ‘unskilled’ workers.



However, many of these women are not really without skills. Skills need not be identified only with education or only as those presently certified by professional agencies and training institutes. Some examples of skills, which are not recognised but which exist with local populations are:

women in forest areas with skills of recognising and using herbal plants; people with a mix of traditional and modern medical skills; skills relating to water storage, purification and usage; agricultural skills including seed preservation, storage, intercropping, use of natural pesticides; and artisanal and crafts skills, both traditional such as in embroidery or bamboo work, or modern such as plumbers or auto mechanics. Many of these skills are a mix of modern and traditional as traditional craftspeople adapt to modern technologies and markets.

It is now well accepted that the service sector in India is growing more rapidly than any other major sector. This is as true for the informal or unorganized sector as for the formal one. There is a growing demand, especially in the urban areas, for domestic services, cooking and catering, cleaning services, health services, child care and care of the elderly, educational services like tuition, beauty treatment, repair services and many others.

The construction sector is expanding rapidly. We have seen earlier that due to growing mechanization there is a decreased demand for manual labour. However, the demand for skilled workers viz. machine operators, carpenters, machine operators, glaziers, masons, blacksmiths and so on is going up.

Management and accounting skills are becoming more important as the forms of organizations are changing fast. Current production systems rely on small, flexible organizations. The management of such organizations calls for new skills of communication, interlinking and updating knowledge.

In India today, there is a growing expenditure on religious functions, festivals and social events which provide employment to many skilled craftspersons, artists, musicians and priests using traditional skills like making of rakhis, tazias, Ganpati statues and so on. These traditional skills are being adapted to modern themes and tastes in innovative ways, such as reflected in new types of scenes/pandals during the Puja festival.



The crucial need in a globalizing world is to match the demand for skills with the available supply and to build systems of skill training all over the country. In the Indian training system, the main emphasis is placed on the training of the young student. Thereafter, she is expected to acquire skills at her own initiative and in her own way. However, given the fast changing technology and markets that the workers face, she should have the opportunity to change, upgrade and refresh her skill from time to time. There is also a need to build ‘tiers’ of trained workers.

The present infrastructure and resources for training is mainly geared to the formal sector and to higher levels of skills. To reach the mass of people, especially women, we need to create a new physical and human infrastructure. Although infrastructure is often thought of as buildings, equipment and other physical infrastructure, the most important part is the human resource, i.e. the teachers. In the informal sector, skills are imparted by co-workers, neighbours and family members. The methods of teaching and the institutions for these courses need to combine both formal and informal traditions. Teachers in formal institutions need to adapt their knowledge and teaching methods, at the same time the skilled workers in the informal sector can learn some formal methods of teaching. The guru-shishya or ustad-shagird methods too need to be explored as pedagogy and introduced into teaching methods as they are more practical and a means to ‘learn while you earn’.

Most women learn skills from their mothers or other female relatives. Here, the methods of teaching are even less formal than the guru-shishya or ustad-shagird which are mainly for boys. Mothers teach their skills as part of a whole philosophy of life. The particular skills the girl learns are seen as part of her future to serve her family, be it a skill to earn her an income or feed the family.



At the same time as identifying and upgrading the ‘informal’ teachers, it is necessary to reorient and retrain the formal teachers. Our teachers in technical training institutes are at best equipped to teach educated boys and men. However, if they change their teaching methods and simplify their language, they can also teach illiterate women. For example, SEWA found that training for cattle care, including artificial insemination, was taught mainly to men through written materials, whereas it is mainly the women who look after the cattle. Once the teachers were reoriented, they were able to teach the women through pictures and practical experiments. In Pakistan, AURAT Foundation, a women’s organization, found that information on improved agricultural techniques was available mainly to men through agricultural extension services. They developed a radio programme aimed at transferring agricultural skills to women with great success.



The increasing work insecurity can be traced to a number of factors including changes in skills and technology in the market, lack of access to capital, to direct access to markets and lack of information and knowledge about markets. We have already dealt with issues of skills and technology. Access to capital is another major area which has been dealt within the literature on micro-finance. The experience of SEWA Bank has shown that access to financial products – savings and credit – increases the security of women. First, it releases them from debt involving high interest payment. Second, it allows them to take advantage of market opportunities by buying at wholesale rates and entering into businesses which are lucrative at the time. Third, it increases their work security by allowing them and their families to diversify into new types of work. Therefore, it is important to promote microfinance as an instrument for promoting work security.

Another area is direct access to markets. Most women in the informal economy have no direct access to markets and work as casual workers, as piece-rate workers for traders, or sell their products to middlemen. It is almost impossible for poor women workers to directly reach markets that are further away and hence more lucrative, even more to compete with better endowed businessmen.

There have been many attempts to organize these women to directly reach markets. One example is of the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre (STFC). A significant number of SEWA members are embroidery workers, mainly in rural areas. In the last 10 years they have been hit by repeated disasters such as drought and cyclone; at such times embroidery is the only livelihood they can sustain. The objectives of SFTC are to link artisan rural micro-enterprises with the national, international, global and virtual marketplace, thereby offering access to both domestic and external trade opportunities and increased sustainable employment opportunities for the disaster-affected poor artisans. In order to meet its goals, STFC uses the latest management tools and information technology to realize the true potential of the products produced by the artisans and to connect them with the targeted market arenas and segments across the globe.



Social security still eludes most workers, especially women workers in the informal economy. Existing schemes remain restricted to the organized sector, barely 10% of the Indian workforce where employer-employee relationships can be clearly established. For the millions in the unorganized sector or informal economy, social security continues to be a missing link in their struggle for survival. And yet, it is these unorganized workers who are the poorest of workers, and are most exposed to shocks and multiple risks that threaten their very survival.

The three main areas identified as vulnerabilities or insecurities in the lives of poor women (National Commission on Labour)4 are access to healthcare, childcare and vulnerability during old age.



The following possible measures were suggested to extend social security to the women in the unorganized sector:

1. Health insurance. Recently, the insurance sector has been opened up to private companies. It is recommended that both public and private sector companies be required to extend a certain percentage of their insurance coverage to the workers in the unorganized sector. The government may set up a special fund to support this.

2. Promote micro-insurance models in India. These models are being newly tried and can be linked to the developing micro-finance organizations. SEWA has an integrated insurance programme which covers nearly 150,000 members against a variety of risks including illness and disasters resulting in damage to house and work tools.

3. Child care is an important need for security for women. It needs to be made the responsibility not only of the woman worker, but of the family and society. The National Commission on Labour recommended a child care fund of Rs 2160 crore per year.

4. The workers welfare funds and boards such as the Bidi Workers Welfare Fund, the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Welfare Fund, the Maharashtra Mathadi Workers Board and so on, have been successful in reaching the unorganized sector as they are not based on an employer-employee relationship but can cover all workers in a particular sector at the same time by raising the funds from the sector in the form of cess, tax or contributions.

Informal women workers often belong to socially marginalized sections and their bargaining power is weak. With recent changes their position has got even weaker. What is needed is some form of empowerment through organizing. Demands voiced through an organization, whether of individuals, professions or industry, are relatively strong. The organization is not merely an apt medium to resolve problems but an effective means to build the awareness of the economically weak and backward and help them join the mainstream.



First, there are the trade unions. In India, the trade union movement has developed through the struggles of the workers mainly in the industrial sector. However, they cover only 1.7 crore workers and only 4% of the women workers, most of whom are in the organized sector. Furthermore with liberalization, the power and effectiveness of the trade unions has drastically declined. At the same time there are a large number of trade unions working exclusively with the unorganized sector – SEWA, the National Alliance of Construction Workers, the National Fishworkers Federation, the National Alliance of Street Vendors among others. These unions, however, are isolated and divided and have only been able to reach a small number of workers.

There are also a large number of cooperatives in the country. Cooperatives are people’s organizations which promote and generate women’s employment for those who do not have bargaining power in the labour market and are at a lower level of economic hierarchy. They help the poor to gain control of their resources and manage their own organizations. They help members to enter the markets from which they are usually excluded as individual participants and help them bargain for better economic conditions. Though organizing poor women workers into cooperatives is clearly a viable alternative there are very few women cooperatives. It is often not possible for an unorganized group of women workers to register itself as a cooperative under the Cooperative Act as the legal/procedural requirements are too cumbersome. Women also find it difficult due to attitudinal and cultural constraints and lack of free time.

In the last two decades there has been a considerable proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of whom work with women in many different sectors which affect the poor women. There are also many small organizations who work at the local level. These may be unregistered mandals or local associations. In recent years government policies have actively promoted the growth of self-help groups.



Despite a rich tradition of organizing in India, women in the informal economy seem to have little voice at policy levels. It seems that there are few forums where they can speak for themselves, and not many organizations which represent them. In 2001, I travelled extensively around Madhya Pradesh as the Chair of the Task Force on Unorganized Labour5 and was forcibly struck by the degree of organization of the more powerful groups and the lack of voice of the workers. I quote below from my field notes:6

‘In our tours in different areas, one of the main findings is the lack of voice of these workers. In many cases their conditions are quite pitiable, but they have no one to speak for them, and nowhere that they can speak themselves. On the other hand, other interest groups, such as employers have very strong and articulate lobbies. We generally held meetings of all interest groups in the districts we visited. Wherever we went, we found that no one wanted to tell us about the real conditions of the workers, although everyone was very articulate about the problems of the industry. In Katni we visited workers in the limestone factories. They do hard manual work but have weak and emaciated bodies; more than half of them are women. They are covered in lime dust and work in conditions where they are breathing in lime dust at least eight hours a day. Many of the women bring their children along. They were extremely scared and ran away when we came. There is an obvious need for health and safety measures. Their earnings are also very low.

‘However, after our field visits we met employers and workers in the circuit house. The employers were there in full force. They gave us a list of their problems, about lack of coal etc. There was one person from a national trade union. He listed the same problems that the employers had identified, even excusing employers from paying minimum wages because of the many problems they faced! There were representatives from various government departments, including the labour department. No one in the meeting wanted to tell us about the problems of the workers and possible solutions.

‘Similarly, in Damoh, we found that the bidi workers earned less than Rs 15 per day. However, when we met the employers and trade unions, we received many complaints against the Bidi Welfare Fund, as well about the quality of leaves, the state government’s forest policy and other grievances which more concerned the employer such as taxes and cases registered against them under the Child Labour Act. No one mentioned that the workers were receiving such low earnings.

‘Workers, in every place, were very articulate about their problems and had many suggestions and solutions. But there did not seem to be any organization or associations which would brings these issues to the notice of the relevant people.’



1. The Government of India set up the Second National Commission on Labour in 2000. The tasks of the Commission, as per the terms of reference, was to suggest rationalization of existing labour laws in the organized sector and to suggest an ‘umbrella’ legislation for ensuring an optimum level of protection to the workers in the unorganized sector. The Commission examined a number of issues for which it set up five study groups. The Group on Women Workers and Child Labour was set up to examine the issues relating to women workers and child labour. The Commission submitted its report in 2002.

2. These studies were later widened and made more systematic for a seminar on Globalization and its Impact on Women Workers in the Informal Economy, sponsored by UNIFEM. For a listing of the sector studies, please see references at the end of the paper.

3. See Jhabvala and Kanbur, in K. Basu (ed), India’s Emerging Economy, MIT Press, USA (forthcoming).

4. Report of the National Commission on Labour, Government of India, 2002.

5. The Government of Madhya Pradesh set up a Task Force on the Unorganized Sector Workers in 2001.

6. Report of the Taskforce on Unorganized Sector, Government of Madhya Pradesh, 2002.



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Ela Bhatt (1997), ‘SEWA as a Movement’, in Ruddar Datt (ed.), Organising the Unorganised Workers, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi.

Prabir Bhattacharya (1998), ‘The Informal Sector and Rural to Urban Migration: Some Indian Evidence’, Economic and Political Weekly 33(21), 23-29 May, 1255-62.

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S.K. Das (2001), A Better Deal for Beedi Workers, New Delhi, ILO.

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Papers Commissioned by NCL and later revised for UNIFEM

1. Relocating Space For Women Workers in the Construction Industry by Ashok Raj and Rakesh Kapoor.

2. Globalising Handicrafts Market and Marginalisation of Women Crafts-Workers by Ashok Raj and Rakesh Kapoor.

3. Globalisation and its Impact on Women Workers in the Indian Food Processing Industry by Vibha Puri.

4. The Impact of Globalization on the Forestry Sector in India With Special Reference to Women’s Employment by Manjul Bajaj.

5. Productive Linkages of Indian Industry With Home-Based and Other Women Workers Through Subcontracting Systems in the Manufacturing Sector by Ashok Raj and Rakesh Kapoor.

6. Globalisation and Women’s Employment in the Livestock Sector by Rupinder Kaur.

7. Globalisation and Women’s Employment in the Readymade Garments Industry in India by Navsharan Singh.

8. Informal Sector Health Workers by Pavitra Mohan.

9. Cities for All: Globalisation and the Women Street Vendors by Arbind Singh.

10. Designing a Model for Social Protection: The Worker’s Welfare Boards by S. Vijay Kumar.

11. Organizing Women Workers: A Comparative Study by Piush Antony.

12. Skills and Technology with Special Reference to Women Workers in India by Ratna Sudarshan.

13. Child Care and Maternity Benefits by Shalini Sinha and Renana Jhabvala.