Overcoming Precarity: How Informal Women Workers Coped During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns worsened the working conditions for women in the informal economy, resulting in loss of jobs, food insecurity, and reverse migration from cities to rural areas, more often than not along with their families. This article presents findings from an evaluation and looks at how informal women workers, such as domestic workers, beedi rollers and agricultural workers, fared in the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal during the pandemic. It looks at the impact of collectivisation efforts through SEWA’s programme to assuage the socio-economic challenges that emerged for these informal women workers.
The dominant narrative surrounding informal workers has not changed much for several decades—they remain marginalised, lack basic social protection and continue to live in precarity. Globally, six out of 10 workers are in the informal economy (ILO 2020).
Among developing and emerging economies, India’s informal sector is among the largest. It is estimated that informal workers make up nearly 90% of India’s labour force, and among women who work, more than 90% work in the informal economy (Bonnet et al 2019). They earn less than men on average, have inadequate access to markets, formal sources of credit, and have limited bargaining power to improve their working conditions and earnings. In India, these women belong primarily to socially disadvantaged castes and communities, which exacerbates inequities and pushes them towards a high risk of poverty.
In general, the informal sector comprises a diverse set of economic activities, enterprises, and jobs that are not regulated. Informal employment could be of various kinds—wage employment in informal establishments and households, self-employment, unpaid contribution to family work or informal wage employment in formal establishments (for example, front-line health and nutrition workers who are part of the Integrated Child Development Services [ICDS] scheme).
The situation of these informal workers is precarious because they are not adequately protected by the state or their employers. They work with low and fluctuating incomes, in difficult working conditions and lack legal protection. Several forms of employment in the informal sector, such as beedi rolling or construction work, are prone to workplace injuries and illnesses, and often workers do not receive adequate health coverage from their employers or even safety kits to prevent injuries.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, estimates released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) show that in the absence of any income support measures, informal economy workers across the world witnessed a decline of 60% in their wages in the first month of the lockdown (ILO 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns particularly worsened the working conditions for women in the informal economy, resulting in loss of jobs, food insecurity, and reverse migration from cities to rural areas, more often than not along with their families. With no support for childcare and limited social protection, women who worked in the informal economy bore a disproportionate burden of the pandemic.
While the union and state governments in India have started several initiatives to address the vulnerability of those in the informal economy, such as the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and workers’ welfare boards, very often informal workers are unaware or do not avail of these benefits due to information asymmetries and lack of proper documentation.
Evidence from India and other contexts shows that the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, need to organise themselves to overcome the structural disadvantages they face. In this regard, the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has a long-standing history in India of promoting collectivisation efforts of informal workers by organising them into trade unions that can act as platforms for advocating their rights and entitlements. It is through these unionising efforts that members are able to exercise their collective bargaining powers and claim their rights from the government and their employers.
SEWA also believes in nurturing grassroots leadership by building the capacity of local women and girls and encouraging them to take up the mantle of change. This is translated into their widely known network of aagewans or grassroot leaders. The aagewans are considered to be forerunners in the process of advocating for rights and entitlements of informal women workers, amplifying voices of members, and leading discussions with key decision makers for various trades and forms of informal work.
Data Collection during the Pandemic
In 2020, SEWA approached the Initiative of What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at LEAD to conduct an evaluation of its long running programme of working with women in the informal economy in West Bengal and Jharkhand. Within these states, the evaluation was carried out in four districts, including Malda, Murshidabad, Hazaribagh and Ranchi, where SEWA had implemented its programme.
The programme aims to improve women’s access to, and understanding of, basic services such as health, sanitation, and other community infrastructure, as well as their ability to demand local accountability. Since the timing of the study overlapped with the COVID-19 related lockdowns, the objective was also to understand the impact of the economic lockdown on informal women workers. Subsequently, IWWAGE conducted phone interviews in July–August 2020 with over 1,500 members, women grassroots mobilisers and adolescent girls in the two states to unpack the impact of SEWA’s collectivisation approach on the livelihoods of these women (who were mostly engaged in the beedi rolling, construction and agriculture sectors), their well-being, agency, financial and health-related outcomes and also the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. In addition to the phone survey, the study also comprised key informant interviews with local government officials, political representatives, frontline health workers and beedi company representatives.
Table 1: Survey Response across Each State
|State||District||Number of Respondents|
Economic Impact of the Lockdown on Informal Women Workers
Both West Bengal and Jharkhand have significant proportions of their population engaged in the informal sector. In West Bengal, the relative size of the sector is estimated to be 84.19% while for Jharkhand it is 73.88% (MOSPI 2007).
Even within our sample, the women were engaged in various forms of informal work and trades which were primarily beedi rolling, agriculture, street vending, domestic and construction work. The majority of the sample in West Bengal comprised women who were engaged in rolling beedis and selling them to middlemen or Mahajans, who then sold them to beedi companies. In comparison, SEWA’s footprints in Jharkhand were fairly new with an emphasis on securing the socio-economic rights of street vendors, domestic workers, and farmers, who were the largest represented group in the study sample. Overall, most informal women workers included in the study were members of SEWA for an average of three years.
Figure 1: Primary Occupation of Women Workers in Jharkhand and West Bengal
Source: Authors’ own calculations based on primary data collected
In order to understand the economic profile of women workers, the phone survey asked them about the primary source of income in their households. Seventy-one percent of respondents reported relying mainly on casual labour and daily work. Although at the outset, they were apprehensive of disclosing the extent of their own income loss, most women indicated that they had encountered challenges that affected their livelihoods and work, at least in the initial months of the lockdown.
In the case of beedi workers, 71% of the women in the sample reported that their contractor or employer had either stopped, or was giving significantly fewer orders for rolling beedis. Domestic workers spoke of being denied payments or facing salary cuts, with around 33% lost jobs. This was also the case with construction workers among whom a significant number stated experiencing a complete halt in work as construction sites shut down during the lockdown months. These trends were particularly of concern in Jharkhand, where more than 80% of the state’s labour force is in the unorganised sector as agricultural wage labour, construction labour or as domestic workers (Government of Jharkhand 2016). Interviews with construction workers in the state revealed that the lockdown had severely impacted their ability to return to their job sites. Several women construction workers interviewed for the study reported not being registered for the building and other construction workers welfare board cards, which meant that they would not have had access to relief packages that they would have been eligible for. Hence, they were consequently more vulnerable to economic and health related shocks.
For women agricultural workers, the study found that 57% of them were unable to visit their fields due to the strict lockdown measures that were enforced, thus disrupting the supply chains. Fifty percent of agricultural workers also reported that their access to local markets and agricultural inputs was significantly hindered.
During our key informant interviews with local government officials and village panchayat members, job losses, wage cuts and the influx of returning migrants were challenges identified for both states. Data on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) showed that demand for work under the scheme (primarily by men) was almost 71% more in July 2020 compared to July 2019. This would have further hindered women’s ability to seek jobs under the programme due to the return of male migrant workers (MGNREGA 2020).
In addition to the direct loss of income and impact on mobility, the study assessed SEWA members’ access to and awareness about relief schemes and public provisions. It was found that although 88% of the sample had received COVID-19 related health advisory, only 64% were aware of the schemes the government was offering as a part of COVID-19 relief packages.
While only 14% of the sample reported facing problems while accessing their local ration shops. A higher proportion of 31% on the other hand, indicated that they had difficulty in availing local health services. The issue of access to ration shops and relief measures was more acute in Jharkhand which had a higher proportion of migrant workers. Here, many people had not received relief measures, while several were unaware of the entitlements that they were eligible for. In Lalgola, a district of West Bengal, food insecurity was also cited as a challenge despite efforts of local leaders and SEWA to provide ration to families.
One of the more humble findings of the study was the role played by aagewans, grassroot leaders, under the aegis of SEWA, who offered last-mile connectivity to members adversely affected by the pandemic. A separate questionnaire had been administered for them to understand their outreach efforts as well as the challenges associated with the same. Most of the aagewans interviewed for the study shared that they could not meet members regularly and therefore were unable to pass on information about the relevant schemes enacted on account of the pandemic. It also impacted their ability to assist women and girls in an event of domestic violence, which saw an upsurge during the lockdown. Yet, the aagewans proactively assisted ASHA and anganwadi workers in their health surveillance and monitoring efforts and played an important role in the outreach to SEWA members, which was cited by several stakeholders during our interviews with them. This corroborates findings from another SEWA study on the importance of the aagewan network and the role they played to facilitate the delivery of programmes and relief work during the pandemic (Sen and Atkins 2020).
In West Bengal, SEWA also works towards building the capacities of adolescent girls as future leaders and advancing their rights, aspirations and knowledge on key issues such as health and hygiene. During the lockdown months, while almost all SEWA members reported no change in the average time spent on household work, the same was not true for the adolescent girls in West Bengal. Half of the surveyed girls, most of whom were enrolled in schools, had, in fact, experienced an increase in the hours spent on household work. For most of them, their schools had not provided any support like conducting classes on phones or the television.
Moving Informal Women Workers Away From Precarity
The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures have worsened the economic, social and mental well-being of informal workers. Relative poverty for informal workers and their families could increase by 34 percentage points globally (ILO 2020). Women who are already at the bottom of the informal economy hierarchy have borne the brunt of this economic crisis. In the study, when asked about what they needed the most support with, at a time when their socio-economic well-being was affected, a majority of respondents reported that finding a job was a top priority for them. This was not surprising given the reported loss in wages and income since the onset of the lockdowns.
Almost 55% of the world’s population, or more than 4 billion people, are not, or are only partially covered, by social protection (Otobe 2017). Overwhelmingly, several women in Jharkhand and West Bengal also stated that they needed support with accessing benefits and schemes offered by the government. During stakeholder interviews in West Bengal, a government official cited the important role that SEWA played in enrolling women and their household members for the Samajik Suraksha Yojana (social security scheme for unorganised workers). They emphasised that beneficiaries often do not know how to navigate the process, or are unable to fill up the forms, and do not know whom to approach.
Since the onset of the pandemic aagewans played an important role in the communities by tracking, tracing and identifying community members and returning migrants, providing access to ration and food supplies, and being a critical part in the delivery of health and relief measures in their communities. However, it emerged that they could also play a role going forward in strengthening local health governance and health service delivery systems, particularly in times when being local, they were best placed to extend their outreach to their communities. By strengthening the cadre of aagewans and establishing their credibility within communities, these local leaders can become a critical part of the referral networks and provide the support needed by women and girls to access and avail services at local health centres and hospitals.
When assessing other impacts of SEWA’s interventions, a critical trend that was observed was that SEWA members who attended meetings frequently (once a month or once in two or three months), regardless of how long they had been SEWA members, had more positive outcomes. At a time when social security and income support for informal workers remains a challenge, these group meetings offer women the platform to voice their concerns, collectively advocate for their rights, and feel a sense of solidarity. Evidence from the study also suggested that members who were frequently attending these group meetings (around health or financial literacy) offered by SEWA were far more aware of their labour rights, and were more confident in negotiating for wages and their entitlements with their employers. Emphasising to women that they need to attend training more regularly is key.
In terms of financial inclusion, the study highlighted that while a majority of women workers had a bank account, less than 40% reported having a Jan Dhan account. Those who did, said the account was primarily used for the monthly cash transfers of ₹500 during the lockdown. Here, efforts could be made to encourage more women to enrol for Jan Dhan accounts since the government has been using them for direct benefit transfers and providing cash support to affected households.
As a result of the social distancing norms that were enforced to reduce the spread of COVID-19, SEWA, like other organisations, developed strategies to engage its member base remotely and offered digital solutions to organise meetings and provide other key interventions. While a significant proportion of the surveyed sample owned phones, the study was unable to reach out to the original population envisaged due to bad connectivity, particularly in remote areas of Jharkhand. A move to digitisation, therefore, should be carefully considered within this context, as inequities exist in phone and internet access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the life trajectories of millions of informal workers across India. Those hoping to transition out of poverty prior to the pandemic have now had to respond to the immediate health and economic shocks that they suffered. Collectivisation holds the promise for transforming socio-economic rights of informal workers, particularly women workers who are further marginalised within the informal economy. It can serve as a platform for not only availing the rights and entitlements that they are eligible for, but also for advocating and demanding additional state support in matters of social security, labour rights and community-level infrastructure. This, in the wake of a pandemic or any other external shock, can strengthen the response and reduce vulnerability at the individual, household and community level.
- Posted In:
- Latest Blogs