Chances are, whilst you read this article, there is somebody working quietly in the background, irrespective of your location. It could be your home, your workplace, your neighbourhood café, your gym or the airport lounge. The quiet somebody is “Bai”, a modestly-attired demure lady or one that is employed by a housekeeping organization; her bindi and necklace shining brightly as if to rebel against the dull uniform blues and greys.
Chances are, she hasn’t caught a break since the crack of dawn. If she’s lucky, she lives in a room with an attached toilet and bath. But again, chances are she’s had to leave her shanty early to queue up outside the solitary public lavatory in her locality or worse, find a secluded spot in a nearby open field to relieve herself, warding off a lurking evil eye.
She’s then had to rush back, fetch water from a common source, cook for the family, get the children ready for school, wash utensils, clothes, and finally; brace herself for the long (under)paid workday ahead. Meanwhile, if there is a spouse or partner in the picture, its likely he’s woken up from a drunken stupor, expected a hot breakfast, a packed tiffin if he’s employed, and cash to fund his day; money that he will claim, no matter the cost.
On foot, or sometimes by public transport, Bai reaches the first of likely several establishments that she works at – perhaps quietly hoping for, but never demanding, a small cup of tea and some biscuits. Refreshments, if provided, are usually served in discarded crockery for using a plate from which the employer eats is unimaginable to most. Water she will avoid for as long as possible because in many homes she isn’t permitted to use the bathroom facilities that she, ironically enough, cleans.
Her rough, chapped hands reflect the piles of dishes and clothes she’s washed, the several meals she has prepared, the countless rooms she’s swept, dusted and mopped, the caressing of brows of the numerous little ones she’s comforted and cared for. The thinning soles of her inexpensive footwear bear testimony to the endless miles she traverses as she moves on to the next workplace and the next and the next; day after day after day, year after year after year.
Bai is one of millions of Indian workers that comprise the informal unskilled sector whose share in the labour force is estimated at a staggering 90 per cent.
Their share in the national wealth is roughly only 10 per cent. Bai has no social safety net, nor can she avail any formal sector benefits such as paid / sick time off, maternity “leave”, travel allowance, provident fund. For the most part, she survives on her paltry earnings and on the uncertain and unpredictable generosity and goodwill of her employers.
As a member of the “urban poor” community, she is amongst the worse off in the country; without access to clean drinking water, sanitation, health care, a safe haven. Her only asset is perhaps her mobile handset, usually a dated model which she operates using a pre-paid card. A smartphone, if owned, almost certainly goes to the man of the house.
In India, it is nearly impossible to disintegrate the social from the economics. The two worlds are intricately inter-twined as is evident in the stark disparity between the disproportionately rich (mostly historically privileged, very small segment of the population) and the countless poor (vast majority). The lack of opportunity at birth leading to a class struggle, fuelled by a divisive, discriminatory yet widely practised caste system only serves to further diminish any real prospect of escaping a life beyond mere survival. This vicious cycle of ‘poverty and inequality’ repeats over generations irrespective of terrain.
Bai’s life story is probably no different from what we have already read or heard about - growing up as one of many children in a multi-generational, low-income family and under-developed neighbourhood. Likely born to uneducated, impoverished parents, who make ends meet by undertaking low-paying odd jobs, or working as farm hands / seasonal wage labourers in the villages. She would have been enrolled in school, but in all probability would have left mid-way to help out at home or because there was no money left for her school supplies after paying for the boys’ education.
Against this grim backdrop, she would have been “married off” in her teenage years, for she would be considered a burden, another mouth to feed. Uninformed of family planning options or too scared to use any birth control, she would have quickly experienced her first couple of pregnancies and low birth-weight deliveries without adequate ante-natal care or consequence. Does she dare to dream - of not letting her daughter go through what she did? Of equipping her daughter with tools to create an independent life for herself before giving birth to another? Of teaching her daughter to put her foot down?
The only possible equalisers across our vast, complex nation in this scenario are long-term education, quality skills training and ‘good jobs’ leading to a meaningful addition to the domestic income/savings/investments model and thereby contributing to the growth story. ‘Trickle down’ of a boom period is sluggish at best but during a slowdown or unprecedented shocks; the rural economy is hit the hardest, making recovery hopelessly difficult.
Women’s Day will come and go – but as employers of this cheap, exploited labour, we must commit to securing the future of our Bai and her family. In her progress alone lies ours, perhaps more importantly, that of our conscience and collective well-being.
Shilpa Phadke is a Working Mom, Consultant at the World Bank & Life Member of Pune International Centre.