I was 17 when I first accompanied my aunt to work at a construction site in Bhubaneswar. Few days into the work, I understood that wages were different for men and women.
In fact, wages were different for different women. For example, my age group or younger were paid Rs 80 while women like my aunt were paid Rs 150. Few others in the group, like Laxmi and Savitri got Rs 180.
My work involved balancing stacks of bricks on my head and carrying them all the way to the third floor where the mason was erecting a wall. It was exhausting. My legs would ache all night.
Savitri used to work beside the mason preparing the concrete mixture used as fillers between bricks. They would exchange jokes and laugh out loud together.
One of those days I noticed the two whisper and giggle looking at me. Each time I reached the floor with the bricks, they would repeat the same. This continued for almost the entire day till at last I lost my cool and shouted at them.
I asked Savitri if she was being paid to mock at other women in order to entertain the mason. “Why should the ones doing the most difficult chores be paid the least while those whiling away their time be paid more?”, I questioned.
That evening the supervisor handed over the days wage to me and asked me to leave the worksite. I was left with no work.
Back home, my aunt reprimanded me for being childish. “Stop behaving like a Phoolan Devi or you will never find work anywhere”, she told me.
I had to continue to work in order to contribute to my family’s income and help my brother set up his grocery shop.
I taught myself to overlook the discrimination existing at worksites. Now and then, there were episodes where I wanted to protest and question, but I trained myself to ignore it.
At a particular worksite, where I had to climb up a wooden ladder with a plate of the concrete mixture on my head, the male labourers would gather at bottom of the ladder making it very uncomfortable for me to ascent.
Despite the requests, the men would not move aside forcing me to shout at them. This time too I was warned by the supervisor and told to control my short temper. Over the years, I have learnt the tricks of the trade. I have realised that whether I work or not, what matters is the relationship with the mason, supervisor and labour contractor.
However, this comes with a price. The supervisor calls me up in the middle of the night after getting drunk. He has promised to provide me with work at a construction site close to where I live. I have no choice but be nice to him because finding work close to my place means I can save the money spent on conveyance.
On some days, I carry curries for the mason to keep him in good humour. At the worksite, I fetch water for him after he has his food.
A contractor once gifted me a saree. I refused but he insisted that it was a special gift. I am terrified at what his intentions are and what he expects in return, nevertheless I have realised that this is how the world works.
Gossiping and laughing at the jokes of the mason means I can ask them for tasks which are comparatively easier and need less labour. These days I work with him on the same floor. Last week, he passed a comment at a female labourer’s petticoat and I did join him in laughing at the ridiculous joke.
Clearly, I am turning into another Savitri. I do miss the fearless me that I was long before the entry into this world of theatrics and masked faces.
While sexual harassment at work is all-pervasive, starting from the highest echelons of Hollywood, women like Banita, in the unorganised sector are possibly the most vulnerable.
A 2012 survey on sexual harassment at work by non-profit Oxfam India along with Social and Rural Research Institute found that labourers, domestic workers and women working in small-scale manufacturing were the most vulnerable.
By Priya Abraham
A firm believer in the power of words, Priya Abraham is a media professional with special interest in education, climate change and issues related to the unorganised sector.
She can be reached at email@example.com