Exploring the role of worksite(s) on migrant women’s labour market decisions in Delhi

By Sonal Sharma and Eesha Kunduri

This post was originally published on the SHRAM portal, which is a repository of information on migration in the South Asian context

Sitting by the doorstep of her one-room house in Ghazipur village in East Delhi, on a hot summer afternoon, Anju Sinha is busy putting threads into bookmarks for the online shopping portal flipkart. Beginning around ten in the morning, she continues to do this work till about five or six in the evening. While she is aware that the bookmarks are from one of the printing presses in the Patparganj industrial area nearby, she does not know from which factory exactly. A contractor comes to deliver the bookmarks and threads to her roughly around two to three times a month. She has neither visited the estate, nor has intentions of working there, as the work she is undertaking currently can be managed alongside her domestic responsibilities. More importantly, the work arrangement allows her to be around and take care of her adolescent daughter, who cannot be left alone in an ‘unsafe atmoshphere’ (‘kharab mahual’) like that of Delhi, she remarks. She hails from Nalanda district in the state of Bihar, and came to Delhi about seven years ago with her husband, since back in the village, income from agriculture was not enough to sustain the family. In the beginning, she worked in a tube light manufacturing factory nearby the settlement where she used to live earlier, but quit after a few months due to low wages. She started working as a home-based worker two years ago, and earlier undertook work that involved sewing on the sides of jeans to give them a particular design. She shares that she left that work, since she felt ‘uncomfortable’ going to the workshop to obtain the materials, as it was dominated by male workers. She acknowledges that while the income from her current work is not stable, and fluctuates depending on the work at the printing press, it allows her to sail through times of crisis, and not depend entirely on her husband for money.

Neena Jha, who lives in the same locality, migrated to Delhi about ten years ago with her husband, following a family fued back in the village. She currently works at an electrical wiring workshop within Ghazipur village. Even though the job entails eight to nine hours of work, the relative proximity of the workshop when compared to other factories in the Patparganj industrial estate renders working within the area the most feasible option for her. It allows her to come home during lunch break briefly to take care of her children as they return from school and feed them. She has been working in Delhi for the past seven years, as it is difficult to sustain a family of five on the single income of her husband. Till about a few months ago, like Anju, Neena also undertook home-based work after duty hours, which involved sewing on the sides of jeans. Even though she describes it as part-time work, the fact that she would work after duty hours, and get to sleep for only for three to four hours a day, made her extremely unwell, as a result of which she eventually quit this work. Neena also shares that since her children are very young, the youngest being only four years old, she has sometimes considered undertaking part-time domestic work in the nearby housing societies, however, since she hails from an upper caste background, dismisses the thought for fear of losing respect in her neighbourhood. Her struggle for survival in the city alongside her domestic responsibilities is further compounded by the apathy of her husband in looking after the family.

Such struggles are not unique to the individual lives of Anju and Neena Neena, but rather reflect a fundamental conflict that all women negotiate with throughout their lives- the burden of unpaid household work, childcare responsibilities and considerations of undertaking paid work. As Naila Kabeer (2000: 330) aptly observes, for women it is about ‘whether to take up paid work as well as when and what kind of work’. In a recent paper, we aim to contribute to this line of inquiry through means of a comparative analysis of women’s labour market decisions across three sites of work- industrial/ factory work, domestic work and home-based work (Sharma & Kunduri 2015). Drawing upon work/life history interviews with 30 women workers living in worker settlements around two industrial estates in the city of Delhi, we explore the spatiality and temporality of women’s entry into/ exit from these three forms of paid work. These three arrangements called for an examination in relation to each other because, a) they were largely representative of the work options that were available to migrant, working class women in the field areas, and b) women’s narratives about local networks of employment referred to them significantly. Our findings are three-fold.

1. Women’s decisions to choose certain worksites over the others is related to the nature of work and power relations

Firstly, we suggest that women’s decisions to take up one kind of work arrangement over another are ‘embedded’ in the power and control that is inherent in the nature of certain worksites. For instance, women prefer undertaking part-time work as cleaners in factories over working as part-time domestic helps in middle class households, due to the relatively well-defined nature of work in the former. We attribute this difference in the nature of the two worksites- the ‘private home as a public workplace’ (Morus 2008) when compared to a ‘conventional’ workplace such as ‘the office, factory or an institution’ (NCEUS, 2007). On the other hand, home-based workers emphasize the relative degree of control they gain over their working conditions by being able to work when they feel like, and not being under constant surveillance like in a factory. As Geeta, a home-based worker remarks, ‘It is a matter of our own choice. We work if we feel like, if we do not feel like then we can just sleep.

2. Women’s choices of certain worksites reflect their negotiations against deeply entrenched notions of honour, respect and safety

Secondly, we suggest that a preference for home-based based work over work in the factories is determined by notions of honour and safety. For Anju, even going to a workshop (that is primarily dominated by men) to collect materials evokes discomfort. This discomfort can be located not just in women’s experiences of sexual harassment on the shop-floor, as the narratives of some other workers in our study reveal, but also a stigma surrounding work in the factories, which is often internalised by women themselves. Women’s decisions to undertake home-based work over factory work, we argue, are shaped by familial discourses of honour and respect, which often stigmatises women’s participation in public workplaces, and reproduces the ‘home’ as the site of respect and safety for women. This understanding permeates the accounts of several home-based workers in our study, who mention discouragement and lack of support from husbands as a prime factor that relegates them to work from home. Interestingly, the notion of honour in relation to factory workers is evoked in some accounts of domestic workers as well. Expressing her disdain for factor y work, citing cases of quid-pro-quo sexual harassment of women workers, a domestic worker explains her outright preference for domestic work arguing that “in the factories, the women are rendered helpless” (“factoriyon mein auraton ko itna majoboor kar dete hain”).

3. Women’s negotiations at the worksites and beyond underscore symbols of their agency

Lastly, we suggest that while all three forms represent informal and precarious forms of work organisation, women do not passively accept how the spaces present themselves in the light of the socio-economic and cultural factors. Accounts of factory workers underscore the element of socialisation and camaraderie among co-workers, and how meaning and identity is derived from the workplace. Similarly, the narratives of home-based workers represent the locality or settlement as the site for socialisation with other women, which could also be observed in our fieldwork, as home-based workers were very often found working together in groups of three to four people in places like a common courtyard in a tenement, or on cots or floor-mats laid out right outside one workers’ home. Through such everyday negotiations in both material and discursive terms, we suggest that women workers seek to reconfigure their workspaces in an attempt to change their social positions, and highlight their agency to do so.

By looking at the labour market decisions of migrant, working class women through a socio-spatial lens, we attempt to show that for women, taking up paid work involves more than the economic considerations, which is only one, however significant, aspect of the decision-making process. Narratives have spatial references which give us insights about the various forms of work and how for women the space(s) in which work takes place is important.

(This post draws upon the findings of a research paper as part of a larger project on migration, industrial work and worker identities in the city of Delhi, at the School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, directed by Dr. Sumangala Damodaran, with which the authors were associated as researchers. The paper entitled ”Working from home is better than going out to the factories’ (?): Spatial Embeddedness, Agency and Labour-Market Decisions of Women in the City of Delhi’ has been published by South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. The paper is accessible here. The authors are currently researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)


Kabeer, Naila (2000) The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in Dhaka and London, London: Verso.

Morus, Amanda (2008) ‘The Private Home as a Public Workplace: Employing Paid Domestic Labour’,Journal of Workplace Rights, 13(4), pp. 377–400.

NCEUS (2007) Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector,New Delhi: National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

Sharma, Sonal; Kunduri, Eesha (2015) ‘‘Working from home is better than going out to the factories’ (?): Spatial Embeddedness, Agency and Labour-Market Decisions of Women in the City of Delhi’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], Free-Standing Articles, Online since 07 September 2015, URL : http://samaj.revues.org/3977

Changing gears: Can the open defecation conversation move beyond subliminal patriarchal messaging?

By Mukta Naik and Kimberly Noronha, both Senior Researchers at CPR

In today’s fast paced, slogan-driven policy environment, the pressure by the political masters (and indeed, the polity) on the bureaucracy to deliver on promises is enormous. The Prime Minister’s declaration of a “Swachh Bharat” by October 2019, complete with the status of an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India is a commendable goal. But in a scenario of tight deadlines, the temptation is to pluck low hanging fruit, which in this case is women’s dignity and honour.

niti ayog
Photo: Creative Commons License

We live in a patriarchal society; we don’t have to like it, but that is a fact. Patriarchal values are structured around women’s position and identity in society relative to men – largely linked to control over women’s sexuality. The protection of women’s dignity is linked to the honour of the household in particular, and the community at large under patriarchy. So, the logic holds, if you want SMART results, use existing cultural values to, as UNICEF advertises it, “take the poo to the loo”.

Consequently, on 2nd October 2014, the Prime Minister thundered: “I feel most pained that even our mothers and sisters have to go in open. We have to remove this blot… We should do this much at least for the dignity of our mothers and sisters”. Following in his footsteps are the central ministries for Rural Development and, Drinking Water and Sanitation: Bahu betiyan bahar na jayein, Ghar mein hi shauchalay banvayein, [Daughters and Daughters-in-law shouldn’t go outside, build a toilet inside your house], declares Vidya Balan as the base message in a series of advertisements for Swachh Bharat.

Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem?
Access to a toilet is a real problem for women in India, especially the poor. Does framing this problem in a patriarchal manner alleviate or exacerbate the problem? Photo credit: Mukta Naik

This strategy seems to be working. During a field visit to a jhuggi in north-west Delhi, the Cities of Delhi research team at the Centre for Policy Research encountered a young mother whose pride about the toilet inside their home, the only one in the jhuggis of about 300 houses, is expressed along the lines of honour and caste. The honour of the women is very important in her Rajput household, she tells us, and no expense is too little to make sure that our daughters remain untainted.

In a Kanpur slum where open defecation is the only option, a mother seeks out the help of NGO Shramik Bharti, a local partner of WaterAid to build a toilet in her home, after her 14-year old daughter got attacked by a drunk man while answering nature’s call one morning. For this mother, the motivation was clear but the larger gains were achieving dignity and police consent (as opposed to harassment) for improving quality of life in the slum through fresh construction.

Researchers Nikhil Srivastav and Aashish Gupta from RICE, opine about how campaigns, like the one featuring Vidya Balan, are patriarchal and reinforce the idea of the ghoonghat or pardah in states like Rajasthan where 94% of women practice ghoonghat/pardah (98% in rural Rajasthan) as per Census 2011. Further, they point out that the idea that toilets will reduce violence against women is problematic considering much of this violence happens within the home, something Indian society remains in deep denial of.

They conclude by suggesting that campaigns for sanitation must advocate changed behaviour for men instead of being stuck on the issue of women’s honour, and recommend that Rajasthan can learn from rural Uttar Pradesh where they found a message on a wall that read: “Shriman khatron ke khiladi, jao shauchalay, chhodo jhaadi” [“Dear Mister Fearless Adventurer, Use a toilet, leave the bush”].

The graffiti is in the right spirit of course, but there is many a feminist who could read subliminal patriarchal reinforcement in “Mister Fearless Adventurer”. For example, this phrase could be seen to be praising men who defecate in the open by appealing to their sense of machismo, and may end up reinforcing the behaviour the campaign seeks to avoid. Although the article does not state when the graffiti went up, both UP and Rajasthan had comparable open defecation (OD) figures in 2011 (Rajasthan: 64% OD population; UP: 63%), so the impact of the graffiti in Uttar Pradesh vis-à-vis the Swachh Bharat messaging in Rajasthan is not immediately clear.

While the article makes the necessary intervention against reinforcing patriarchal norms, in the race to be gender-sensitive to sanitation service delivery, are we missing out on one fundamental Weberian truth – in context verstehen? Men and women live together in society. Targeting one group to the exclusion of others is always going to lead to fall-out. Additionally, attempting to completely ‘sanitise’ the delivery of messaging from the ‘germ’ of culture (including that of patriarchy), may adversely impact OD figures if local communities are unable to relate to the cultural contexts of the messaging,

In her rejoinder to Srivastav and Gupta’s piece, Somya Sethuraman says that the authors have latched onto just one message, taking it out of context. Somya points to other advertisements that feature Vidya Balan, for example, giving diarrhoea tablets to a mother because she has sent out her daughter to defecate in the open and will, inevitably fall sick, therefore making health and not patriarchy the central message. According to her, these kinds of advertisements, all taken together, have had a positive effect, not just on the elimination of open defecation, but also on the overall empowerment of women in rural Rajasthan where a number of them have actually given up the ghoonghat / pardah.

Instead of making it an either-or fight of targeting just men or just women, what other low-hanging fruit can we offer government away from subliminal patriarchal messaging towards the focus of ODF behaviour? Bangladesh has seen an impressive 31% reduction in OD figures from roughly 34% in 1990 to just 3% in 2012. In Bangladesh, the media was not used to shame communities into defecating in household toilets (as is being done in India), but rather to reinforce ODF behaviour by focusing attention on best practices and health related outcomes. The recent declaration of the Nadia district’s (West Bengal) ODF status (which was presented and intensely discussed at the 1st Niti Aayog – CPR Open Seminar on “ODF Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat”, held in May 2015; read report here) was accompanied by a significant reduction in adverse health impacts. In the implementation of their strategy, women and school-going children were the main change agents.

Can we find stronger reasons — like improved quality of life, health, independence, and the intangible pride in one’s village or city —to reinforce the message against OD? And can we work with local communities to re-examine the real issues they face, from within and without?

The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat" was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers.
The Niti Aayog – CPR 1st Open Seminar on “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat” was attended by about 100 experts, researchers, practitioners and policymakers. Photo credit: Kimberly Noronha