Who Worries About Working Women In Corona Times

Who Worries About Working Women In Corona Times

“Corona has suddenly brought forth some tormenting issues before us” Arvind Shrouti spoke to me over phone. Arvind is an advisor to more than a hundred unions in Pune industrial belt, and he is known for his positive and humanistic approach to the employee relations issues. Arvind’s voice conveyed deep concern and a sense of urgency. He had returned from his meeting with a few women trade union officials. They had spoken to him about the plight of the working women who had young children of not more than six years of age. The discussion with them had made him restless and he called me. We decided to speak to three or four women workers to grasp the situation fully.

Arvind reached out to a lady trade union official. With her intervention, two working women agreed to speak to us. Three or four working women declined to speak to us because they were not ‘permitted’ by their husbands. We decided to make a call to them and they suggested the time slot of 6 to 7 pm – that was their time available before they got busy with preparing dinner and manage other chores.

“Three hundred women work in our factory. Many of them have young kids and they have a huge problem before them due to Corona.”

“We work in the first shift which started at 6.15 in the morning. It used to take almost two hours to reach the factory so the bus would arrive to pick us up at 4.15 am. So we used to get up at 3 in the morning, and leave the home at 4 am with our children, take the bus at 4.15 am. We used to keep the child at the crèche in the company. We were reconciled to the fact that we had to do the difficult balancing act of taking care of our children as well as working at the factory.”

“Then everything stopped due to Corona pandemic. And our factory restarted working from 21st May.”

“Yes, factory has started operations but the Government has issued an advisory that children must stay home. On the other hand, the company shut down the crèche. Now what should we do?”

“Isn’t there a private crèche in the vicinity?”

“Oh, there were a few, but we are afraid of the infection. Several private crèche have not opened at all since the pandemic struck. Even if private crèches open, they are unaffordable.”

“How much do they charge?”

“On an average Rs. Five thousand per month. And they will certainly step up the fees now. My monthly salary is Rs. Twenty-two Thousand. I pay a monthly rent of Rs. Seven Thousand for my one-room-kitchen block.”

“Many working women are the sole earning members in the family as their husbands do not have a job, or any source of regular income. Unemployment is at all time high level. Such women land up working in the factory as well as taking care of the child. That’s because the men go out daily in search of jobs and are not at home.”

“No support from your mother or mother in law?”

“Very few women have such support from family. I can’t ask my mother to come over and help me. Our relatives in villages are afraid of coming to Mumbai or Pune because of the pandemic.”

“Ask her. The landlord has warned her that no outsider, not even the relatives, should be brought in to stay at her home. He is afraid that they might spread infection.”

“So there is no hope of family support to most women, right?”

“And in many cases mother or mother in law can’t handle our children. If little ones are about two or three years old, they keep running all over the place and it is impossible for those old ladies nearing seventy, to run after and manage the kids.”

“I have a friend, my co-worker. Her son, an infant, is still being breast-fed. And nobody is at her home except her husband. He is also employed so he is not at home. If the company does not provide crèche, how will she go to work? She can’t leave the boy at home, the Government says you can’t take him out and the company has shut down the crèche.”

“This is so true. We spend eleven hours outside out home. We work for eight hours, and spend three hours in travel.”

“Our factory has been working in the ‘General shift’ since it reopened. So we have to leave home at 6.15 am. But still, it is eleven hours out of home.”

“We can’t leave our children at home, so our leave is treated as without pay leave. We are afraid of being on leave without pay. It will lead to losing our jobs.”

“We requested to the Management that we should be allowed one month leave without pay. Even if they had accepted there would have been problems – how to survive without income? But we thought it was a lesser evil than losing the job. Incidentally, the Management said that they will neither give one month without pay leave and nor provide the crèche.”

“Our crèche is a horrible facility! We hate it but we have no choice. There are forty to forty-five children in seven hundred square feet room called crèche! Only four ladies are employed to look after forty children, how can they manage? Four children sleep on one mattress. Four or five children are fed from one plate simultaneously. They feel that they have done us a huge favour by providing a crèche.”

“We are struggling to hold our job and on the other hand we wish not to fail in our duty of raising the children. This is difficult – we are getting torn between these two opposite pulls.”

“As if this was not enough some women workers have taken loan from the Employees’ Co-operative Credit Society or from banks. They must pay the loan instalment. So we have a salary of Rs. Twenty-two thousand, house rent of Rs. Seven thousand, and loan instalment of Rs. Seven thousand……”

“And now we are facing ‘Come to work or Lose your job’ situation. Proverbial devil and the deep sea! What a terrible situation we are in.”

“The issues faced by working women are very different, and nobody takes up our cause. What should we do?

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“What should we do?” They ask us with utter helplessness. The listener feels their helplessness instantly, it resonates. Corona times have raised complex issues to which there is no solution in any company’s HR manual. The situation cannot be handled by the first level HR managers, it’s beyond their reach. If responsible authorities, and it includes the Labour Commissioner too, not just Company’s big bosses, do not act proactively to hold dialogue with working women to find a solution, many families will suffer great and untold misery, because the industry has a large number of such working women. If they neglect this issue, women’s empowerment will be meaningless words. This is the test not just of the labour leaders and their unions, but also of the leaders in the industry and those in Labour Ministry.

Vivek S Patwardhan

​”What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

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