Chennai, June 20: Tokens to access toilets, tongue-lashing for frequent use, work thrust during a half-hour lunch break, forced overtime, as well as sexual harassment…
Sounds like an 18th century sweatshop in post-industrial revolution England. But this is life for hundreds of women working today in the units of the Madras Export Processing Zone, about 25 km from here.
“We cannot go to the bathroom without the token. They look at the register and check how many entries are made against which person…. We should not go to the bathroom often. If we do that, they shout at us. They do not care about the workers,” said a 38-year-old worker at a shoe-making unit.
The humiliation and coercion reach unique levels. “There are 12 toilets. Every evening at 5 pm, they stop the water. The reason: workers go to the toilet around that time to wash their faces, apply make-up. Their work apparently suffers and so sometimes the toilets are locked,” said a young employee of a garment unit.
“Aren’t you given tea and lunch breaks' That is when you should go to the toilet. If you go often, I will tear your chit, remember that,” the supervisors say.
These are snatches from a monograph, The Trauma of Wage Employment and the Burden of Work for Women in India: Evidences and Experiences, by Padmini Swaminathan, senior professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The narratives bring out how accessing toilets “for as basic a human function as urination was converted into a humiliating experience”.
This is the price of better pay — in comparison to units outside the zone. The “degree of harshness is greater” in the zone with “compulsory overtime, immediate retrenchment if a worker refuses overtime, impossible targets, restricted use of toilets, preference for unmarried girls and the pervasive practice of sexual harassment”, said Swaminathan.
The professor noted that almost all the women could not take a proper meal before leaving for work for want of time. And work inevitably infringes on the lunch break.
“In the afternoon, we have a half-hour lunch break. But in that half-hour we cannot eat properly because the stitching material pieces have to be counted and stacked,” said a 25-year-old woman.
The monograph also shows that the relationship between women workers and male supervisors or colleagues generates enormous stress.
“All women workers, the younger and unmarried ones in particular, spoke of the constant verbal and physical abuse they suffered at the hands of male supervisors,” says Swaminathan.
For married woman, discrimination takes another form. “I told them that I am not married and that is why I was recruited. The employers feel that unmarried women work fast and briskly; they do not take leave often; work sincerely,” said a woman separated from her husband.
She infers that while employment has improved the “self worth of women” — particularly Dalits in Chengalpattu district — and improved the quality of food, the burden of housework has increased.
The conditions in which women work in factories, besides the pressure at home, has “rendered their lives extremely stressful”, says Swaminathan.