Working Women’s Workshop in West Bengal

Close on the heels of the working women's workshop held successfully in Hooghly on 9 November, a state level workshop was held jointly by AICCTU and AIPWA on Nov. 16 in Kolkata. This workshop was also aimed at concretizing women workers' specific demands to be raised during the upcoming united workers' rally and congregation organized by AICCTU on Rani Rashmani Road on the coming 8th December. Trade Union leaders as well as working women comrades from various sectors such as Asha, Anganwari, Mid-day Meal, Domestic Work etc. took part. Some salient points that came up in the workshop paper (presented by comrade Atanu Chakravarti) and the ensuing discussions are-

1. The demand for conducting an extensive 'labour census' of women workers in the state must be constantly raised and popularised.

2. Rights won on the question of sexual harrasment at the workplace, along with the current legal understanding of the 'workplace' as the 'world of work' (including not just the confines of the workplace but also all spaces involving commutes and travels related to the work) must be disseminated widely through awareness programmes.

3. Equal rights, Dignity, Equal wages, Social security are the overarching slogans for the massive contingent of women workers.

4. Social security (including rights to health, pension, children's education) is either completely absent or grossly inadequate. While 5 types of schemes exist for organised workers, there are 9 categories of schemes for unroganized workers – but these remain mostly on paper and the budgetory allocation for 95% of India's working population (employed in the unorganised sector) is a meagre breadcrumb of 1000 crores.

5. The Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (National Health Insurance Programme) was discussed at length, and demands for extending it to women workers of all sectors (for example Mid-day meal workers who are left out of its scope) came up as an immediate demand.

6. Three sectors where women are exclusively employed as workers – Asha, Anganwadi and Mid-day meal – were discussed at some length. It is important to note the different terminologies employed by the government in these three sectors. The Anganwadi workers are “honorary workers”, the Anganwadi workers are “cook-cum-helpers” whereas Asha workers are “honorary volunteers”! These terminologies imply that the government trivialises women working in these sectors as something “less than a worker”, and thus deserving less or no labour rights! A detailed assessment of the terminology and associated rights showed a direct correlation between the degree of trivialisation of terminology and rights denied! For example, for the Asha “volunteers”, there are no monthly salaries but performance-based incentives! There are no holidays nor are there PF rights! For Mid-day meal workers, the rights to 'permanent work' is eternally denied so is the acknowledgement as full-fledged workers. For Anganwadi workers, official salary is replaced by monthly honorariums! There exist no rules whatsoever for increments, employment or permanence of work!

7. The National Labour Conference has demanded women working in all the above three sectors to be acknowledged as workers by the government and to be brought under the scope of minimum wages, social security rights such as pension, gratuity, health and maternity rights.

8. At present India has 25.7 lakh Mid-day meal workers. Our mid-day meal union has submitted a charter of demands to the Rajya Sabha standing committee, demanding among other things, an 'Employment Standing Order' to be instituted (which should specify rules of recruiting, employment conditions, and implement safeguards against arbitrary firing). This demand should be made more popular.

9. Citing a recent MHRD Empowered Committee meeting minutes, the appalling discrepancy in the wages of Mid-day Meal workers was exposed. Whereas Kerala pays 4500-6000, Tamil Nadu 5500-7500, Puducherry 5000-9000, Lashadweep 6000, West Bengal pays its MDM workers a wage of 1500 per month! Budgetory allocations for the MDM sector over the years 2007-2014/15 was discussed to show the insensitivity of the government towards women in this sector.

10. The Domestic Worker sector, comprising presently of 1 crore workers, and 15 lakhs being added annually – the only women-dominated sector that's recognised as workers – is also fraught with gross violation of labour rights. Starting from the non-ratification of the ILO convention, no minimum wages, no mechanisms for redressal of sexual harassment complaints (and disputes not being treated as labour disputes), and no central labour law to cover the domestic workers, no regulation of the exploitative agancies, no check on trafficking the list is long. The 2010 draft of a law resulting from the central government's own task force report is still not passed as an act.

11. Demands in the Domestic Workers sectors must include specifying minimum wages (per hour, per day and per month) on a high priority. All Domestic workers must be covered by the RSBY health scheme. Weekly and annual leave rights must be ensured and ward-level grievance redressal mechanism for sexual harassment and labour disputes must be demanded. Here again, the examples of several states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Rajasthan, TN, Maharashtra were discussed – where minimum wages and/or social security acts for domestic workers have been put in work. But West Bengal has done neither.

12. Several key issues regarding women workers in the construction sector and Beedi sector were also discussed and demands charted out.

Several participants of the workshop – comrades Jahanara, Chaitali, Kajal, Archana, Jayashree, Sabita, Kasturi, Mamata, Swapna and others - chipped in with their concrete experiences and suggestions. Comrade Basudab Bose conducted and comrade Meena Pal summed up the discussions.