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  • Chinese machinery threatens Lucknow's Chikankari

  • LEARN Mahila Kamghar Sanghtana pledges innocence for a woman domestic worker

  • Decline in work and wages of diamond workers

  • Workshop organized for Bidi Workers by the Labour Education Board

  • SEWA captures the effect of recession on different trades

  • SEWA Kerala: Domestic workers moving to Arab countries & their plight

No. 54 | October-November 2013
H2 Side Chinese machinery threatens Lucknow's Chikankari

The last decade has observed a significant rise in the Chinese products invading the Indian markets. From electronics or toys or household items to cheap fabrics, the made-in-China label is all pervasive. Chinese products reap more profits as they are cheap, and widely available. And it is making inroads into Chikankari- a form of intricate embroidery work which the city of Lucknow is famous for. Lucknow has gained great universal prominence for this meticulous art form.

With the invasion of the cheap machine-made Chinese variety with very similar embroidery, Lucknow's reputation as the number one in this craft is facing a stiff challenge.

Manufacturers employ close to 250,000 women from in and around the city of Lucknow - most of them poor illiterate home based Muslim workers. Majority workers earn close to Rs 42 to Rs 50 or even less for a day's work. In China, this embroidery is done with the use of machines hence it looks smooth and has a better finish. They can process thousands of meters of cloth quickly, in huge volumes and meet the market demand. However women workers in India work with their hands. So their work doesn't have that kind of finish. To the add to the agony is the fact that the customer cannot really differentiate between the hand and machine work and hence opt for Chinese made clothes since they are cheaper and give a better feel.

SEWA started organizing chikkankari women workers in the city of Lucknow back in the 80's with a major agenda of doing away with the middlemen and acting as a platform from where the artisans would address the market directly. SEWA Lucknow has organized 36,147 women chikkankari artisans.

Currently the burning issue before the embroidery workers is the devaluation of chikkankari work due to the invasion of Chinese machineries and their subsequent exploitation. To save the markets from Chinese chikkankari work it is important to raise awareness about it amongst the customers. A special logo recognizing the original work has been prepared but it's yet to be registered. Once it happens this logo shall be implemented on each product to help customers differentiate this unique art work.

The Indian Government should take some stringent action to control this invasion as well as patenting the embroidery form to ensure India doesn't lose out the craft to China. The union of SEWA Lucknow should be further strengthened to enable it to raise its voice against the exploitation of the middlemen, owners and contractors. This will enable women workers to get linked directly with the market helping them increase their livelihood and wages and passing the tradition of chikkankari work to the future generations.

H2 Side LEARN Mahila Kamghar Sanghatana pledges innocence for a woman domestic worker

This is the story of Narsimaben Begari a domestic worker working in Mahim area of Mumbai, India. She was arrested on the basis of a complaint lodged against her under section 154 of Criminal Procedure Code. The police not only arrested her but even beat her up to make her confess the crime.

In this case, the LEARN Mahila Kamghar Sanghatana joined in to support the domestic worker. LEARN Mahila Kamghar Sanghatana was formed in 2010 through SEWA's inspiration and it became an affiliate union of SEWA. Domestic workers, paper pickers, tiffin workers and small factory women workers from the city of Mumbai are associated with LEARN.

Narsimaben had been working for two and a half years as a domestic worker in Mahim area of Mumbai. Some six months back she was in urgent need of Rs 5000. She requested for a loan from her owner and agreed to repay the loan from her salary. Her salary amounted to Rs 1500 per month. The owner agreed to pay her the sum she requested but ended up exploiting her. Narsimaben without uttering a word did all the work allotted to her but made up her mind to discontinue the work once she had repaid the loan. Soon the day arrived when all her dues were cleared and she decided to discontinue the work. The owner with her egoistic nature could not absorb the fact that the domestic help was ready to leave her job. She threatened Narsimaben of prison and lodged a false complaint at the Mahim Police Station. The police not only arrested her but even beat her up in the confinement.

On learning about this episode the LEARN Mahila Kamghar Sanghatana studied the case, met up with the public prosecutor and formed a strategy. They protested along with 200 women workers in front of the Mahim Police Station and Bandra Court. A charge-sheet accusing her of stealing 9 lakh rupees was already kept ready by the police. In this entire case the local newspapers facilitated great help. Currently, Narsimaben has been released respectfully but SEWA questions as to why poor women workers are exploited to this extend?

H2 Side Decline in work and wages of diamond workers

In India with the introduction of high tech machines to cut and polish diamonds the need for labour to provide for the same services has drastically reduced. Women diamond polishing workers earned as much as Rs 200 per day while the men made around Rs 500. One machine has now replaced the work of at least five workers. Manually diamond polishing requires approximately fifteen minutes where as machines finish the work in less than 3 minutes. This is a direct blow on the work and wages of diamond workers. The spark of diamond has definitely increased due to the machines but it has brought along darkness in the lives of poor women workers.

H2 Side Workshop organized for Bidi Workers by the Labour Education Board

Recently SEWA organizers asked the Central Board of Workers' Education to conduct a workshop for bidi workers on how to obtain information on business and markets through the SEWA Union. Similarly the benefits of being associated with the organization were explained to the bidi workers. Sarojben a bidi worker and committee member at SEWA explained the strength of the Union by giving an example of the bidi workers provident fund case and its victory wherein 175 women workers received compensation worth Rs 15000 each.

H2 Side SEWA captures the effect of recession on different trades

SEWA has captured the effect of recession on the various trades and its consequence on the lives of poor workers. Some of the examples are illustrated below.

Home-based tailors are caught up in the clutches of global recession in the recent market scenario. Women tailors receive less than 1/4th percent of work in comparison to their previous work records. Businessmen/contractors are stuck with huge stocks in their warehouses with no rotation happening in the purchase sector.

Bidi workers witnessed stagnancy in work during the month of September as a result of recession. Contractors seized the supply of tendu leaves and tobacco to the women bidi rollers since there were hardly any orders in the pipeline.

Home-based incense stick workers lost out on work due to the introduction of machinery. Stock of goods have piled on and in absence of any demand for them majority of the stock has become obsolete.

Small factories too haven't been spared from this recession. Many small scale jeans producing factories have closed down. Steel factories involved in the work of making steel lids to have closed down completely.

Head loaders from the cloth market have been complaining about this season's negligible business. Laxmiben a head loader lamented on not receiving any work through the entire day.

For paper pickers the prices they received for waste collected has gone down drastically. Men, women and children have started entering the clinical research sector as a cure to their poverty problems. In majority of the cases they supply their own blood samples for research study. A gap of 90 days is required to pass before providing the next blood sample. However due to severe money crunch people change their identities and provide blood samples at different clinical research laboratories. Agents involved in this business take women across the country for clinical research study. It is horrifying to even imagine what these women go through in such research tests undertaken on them. Many a times in skin drafting cases women have to be admitted in the hospital for as long as two months for recuperation. The agent gets to make thick profits while the poor women get scarcely paid for the agony they undergo. Children too are not spared in this trade. Several agents move across slums and poor areas hunting children varying from the age group of 5 years to 15 years to perform research on them. In recent times, surrogacy and cancer research is conducted on women between the age group of 18 to 55 years.

It is nerve wrecking to even phantom the idea of how poverty and recession can be responsible for risking the lives of so many innocent women and children.

H2 Side SEWA Kerala: Domestic workers moving to Arab countries & their plight

Arab countries employ millions of migrant domestic workers from across the world. SEWA Kerala has witnessed a huge population of domestic workers migrating to Arab countries in search of a better life and future. Women domestic workers depend on local agents for their visas, employment letters, contracts and negotiations with the owners. These agents abstract huge sums of money from the women to process their files. Illiteracy amongst women leads to their exploitation by the agents. Many a times they are illegally send to foreign countries.

Domestic work hasn't received any legal recognition in Arab countries. Women domestic workers hence face severe exploitation right from the start. Agents provide primary information regarding their work in foreign countries which differs drastically upon arrival. As per a study conducted by SEWA Kerala 16% women receive information about their work in Arab countries with the help of close friends, 52% via agents and 68% through relatives. Through this entire scenario it was realized that women were unacquainted with the main agent and this entire business is operated by the middlemen. The true agony sets in when women land in these foreign countries. Around 96% women notified on how strangers received them at the airports and were taken directly to the place of work. Shockingly women workers are made to sign documents without their understanding of it. Around 12% women workers are again flown to other countries, as per 48% workers wages and holidays were given after two years of services and the rest 52% received lesser wages then committed. As per 92% workers, they were forced to accept whatever wages were given to them once they were in foreign land. The exploitation of domestic workers working in Arab countries goes to such extends where workers are threatened to police custody on disobeying orders given by the owners.

Women domestic workers often face physical and mental abuse at their work place. A women domestic worker expressed her grief by stating how she was physically harassed by a young man residing in the family where she worked. She went through the torture since her purpose was to make enough money to marry off her daughter who resided back home.

Women workers on returning home from Gulf countries are hesitant to talk about the physical abuse they go through. Agents push women into human trafficking business under pretext of sending them to foreign countries as domestic workers. Fifty year old Jamilaben reached foreign land to undertake work as a domestic worker. She was made to work from 5 in the morning till 11 in the night. She slogged like this for over a year. Once she fell sick and instead of providing her with medication the owner left her to suffer and recuperate on her own. Above all her pay was cut for the number of days she couldn't work. She not only attended to all the household work but also looked after an elderly person and a mentally weak child. During these tough times she was lucky enough to come in contact with another worker from Kerala who helped her escape the country.

Steps should be undertaken by the Government of India to put in place immigration laws and protect the interest and rights of its labourers migrating to Arab countries in search of work. SEWA Kerala has been undertaking several campaigns to improve the present situation of the migrant domestic workers. SEWA believes that the task at hand is to ensure visibility and recognition of domestic work not only in India but in foreign countries as well.

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