In a case from 2019, a woman migrant labourer who was trafficked to Telangana along with her husband and children to work at a brick kiln in another State was pregnant when she arrived. She gave birth to her child at the brick kiln. Even during the later stages of her pregnancy, she was forced to work, and she did not have access to antenatal and post-natal care. Her malnourishment was not detected as a result. As authorities conducted a raid at the brick kiln and were deciding to shift labourers to a safe place, the lady collapsed and died. Although she was taken to the nearby hospital, it was a little too late. She was survived by her husband and four children. Such an incident could have been avoided if the employers took responsibility for taking her for health check-ups as mandated by the law, provided her with nutritious food and breaks during back breaking work in the sun which extended late into the night. She along with her husband and other labourers were kept in bondage which led to lack of freedom of movement on their own outside the work site, even if she wanted to visit a doctor. She is not alone as many women in the brick kiln industry face such difficulties.
Women at worksites are also given additional responsibilities like preparing food for the family, drawing water for the family, and taking care of the children. In one such case from Tamil Nadu, a female migrant labourer was given the responsibility to take care of the children. The work site was located near a forest and wild elephants would visit the worksite frequently. It being hard to gauge how the elephants might behave, the migrant labourers at the site dug a hole in the ground so the children could hide in the event of an elephant visit. The lady also jumped into this pit with the children. When rescued she talked about how scared and vulnerable she felt during those times and how it affected her mental and physical health. She said she would never want to work in such conditions again, even if it meant she did not have access to basic needs in her village.
These are just some of the many unfortunate incidents that women migrant workers face. Even in a world which is gradually becoming sensitized towards the issues faced by women in society, there are still several places where oppression against women continues. The bonded labour community is one of these dark places where the violence faced by women labourers goes unnoticed and is often ignored due to their socio-economic status. Stories of the problems faced by women migrant labourers that have come out in the past can’t be ignored, especially since these are issues of life and death.
The issues of migrant workers came to light during the lockdown in 2020 where thousands were forced to return to their homes. Considering the magnitude of this situation, the people of this country started to take notice of the plight of migrant labourers. But even with the many issues of bonded labourers that came to light during this incident, the plight of women migrant workers seemed to be ignored, though they were the most affected a lot. One can even read the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court where it took suo moto cognizance of the mass exodus of migrant workers during the lockdown and did not properly address the concerns that many women who are migrant workers share. Thus, in a conversation on the violence faced by migrant workers, it is imperative that these stories of migrant women workers be considered, and a comprehensive understanding is provided on the problems they face and what can be done to create a better world for them.
Women who are part of the migrant worker community are usually married (which in most cases they are forced into) and move with their husbands or are dependents in the family. These women usually do not have agency in such households and are involuntarily made to be a part of the nomadic lifestyle that occupies many bonded laborers in this country. Therefore, its apparent that women’s decisions to migrate are mediated by their location within homes, individual and household-level socioeconomic conditions, as well as gender-based discriminatory practices. Further, migrant women often have limited control over earnings and long working hours. They also regularly work in unsafe conditions and face various forms of gender-based violence. The fact remains that women who migrate for employment are subsequently brought into forced labour face conditions that are contrary to basic human rights. For example, many of these women do not have access to provisions of food and their health needs are not taken into account. It gets worse for pregnant women who are not given the needed care and attention and are made to work immediately post-pregnancy. Basic facilities such as toilets are not provided for women, forcing them to find someplace in the open which inevitably leads to incidents of sexual harassment and abuse.
Several of these women are subject to rampant incidents of sexual exploitation and are pressured or threatened to keep silent about it. Due to this, a lot of cases go unheard, and the woman is forced to live a life of unimaginable silent trauma. Besides, most of these women are migrants who return to their home state and do not report the cases due to social stigmatization or are not provided with provided legal aid and counselling which further encourages the perpetrator.
One of the identifying factors of the bonded labor system that migrant workers are forced into is the issue of payment of wages (or the lack of it). In this regard, women migrant workers are not given their due and even if they are paid some wages, it is usually found to be less than what a man would earn. Wage gap between men and women and the abject lack of maternity benefits or days of leave, despite being made a legal mandate, is an issue that continues to be unaddressed. Not much has been done on a policy level as well for women migrant workers since the majority of migrant workers has so far been men.
In conclusion, this century has seen a significant rise of women migrating for work, be it in the organized or the unorganized sector. It is time to step away from creating legislation and policies which benefit only the menfolk, to create a robust system with a strong will to tackle structural and visibility challenges and recognition as vital contributors to the Indian workforce and economy. It is encouraging to see that according to an official note by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, there are certain provisions that must be available for women in the workforce, even to those in the unorganized sector. Some of these provisions are regarding safety and health measures, provisions for creches, prohibition of night work and sub-terrain work, accommodating separate urinals and latrines for women, etc. A few policies that address women migrant workers especially in the context of social welfare schemes have been implemented, such as the Centrally Sponsored Schemes for poverty alleviation where women were first brought in as a separately defined social group. Under the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), the SHG’s have been of aid for some women groups.
On the matter of maternity leave as well, it has been extended from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. However, this is applicable only for the organized sector. For the unorganized sector, the maternity leave benefits remain in the form of cash assistance under the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), which promotes childbirth by providing financial assistance and social support by health workers for women below poverty line (BPL). Additionally, the JSY scheme also provides a cash assistance of Rs 700 or Rs. 1400 to these women.
Some important points to consider-
- It is crucial to address women migrant citizens’ and the concern of their families towards their safety by reducing risks associated with female migration by addressing unique vulnerabilities of women migrants and creating a supportive ecosystem for them.
- For a gender sensitive migration policy, it is imperative to gather gender segregated data of migrant workers, their engagements under various occupations, sectors, period of stay etc. Many women migrant workers are engaged in sectors that lack substantial legal provision to safeguard workers’ rights. For instance, though laws governing commercial surrogacy in India were passed in 2018, several studies show exploitation of women surrogates has not been uncommon. Many of them represent poor migrant families from low-income states like Bihar.
- Specific data on reasons and patterns of internal migration among female migrant citizens is required for their mainstreaming and for creating an enabling environment at both source and destination.
Therefore, quoting the words of the National Commission of Women- it is extremely pertinent to respect the dignity and fundamental rights of all migrant women and girls by ensuring food, safety, shelter, equal wages and healthcare. India is established as a welfare state by the Constitution and is responsible for the social security of its citizens. The keepers of the Constitution are dedicated to ensuring social security including appropriate healthcare, food, shelter and safety for its citizens, especially migrant workers. Since women are the most adversely affected in situations of crisis, it becomes extremely pivotal that safety and security of women migrants is ensured.
Written by a group of passionate writers
This article is from a set of submissions made during a Writeathon that was organised and is a group effort.