Saturday, December 29, 2018

No Recourse - A Symposium: Report

No Recourse - A Symposium Report
As part of the 2018 Prajnya 16 days Campaign against Gender violence in partnership with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung we organised No Recourse - A Symposium on Workplace Safety and Rights for Women Workers in the Informal and Unorganised Sectors on November 27th 2018 at ICSA Egmore. The objective of this day-long symposium was to bring together the spectrum of women workers’ experiences and challenges in accessing a safe work environment, notwithstanding the provisions of the law. It was designed as a day for sharing and learning, with a view to acquiring a clear understanding of pressing problems and preferred solutions.
The symposium was scheduled to have two sessions before lunch on the challenges faced by the women workers in the informal sector including street vendors, domestic workers, construction workers and garment sector workers. Post-lunch a brainstorming panel was scheduled to discuss the solutions and way forward. Due to the late arrival of the speakers, the morning session was adapted as open floor session where women were given 10 minutes and men were given 5 minutes to talk about their perspective on the issue.

First Session: Challenges faced by Women Working in Unorganised Sectors

Mr Maheshwaran the State Secretary of National Association of Street Vendors of India, opened the session by talking about the widows and destitute women who work as street vendors to make a living but are met with police atrocities every day. The police sexually and verbally abuse these women but nobody questions this illegal police harassment. He then narrated a story of a woman who was arrested under false prostitution case and who was later proved innocent by the union.
Dr Catherine Bansi, State Treasurer of NASVI added to Maheshwaran’s brief by talking about the organisational support in terms of entrepreneurship training given by NASVI to destitute women.
Muthulakshmi, another member of NASVI in her talk listed the challenges women street vendors face like unavailability of toilet facilities, police abuse in terms of expecting bribe or confiscation of goods. The city corporation also turns a deaf ear to the street vendors as proper permissions are not sanctioned.
Post this, Ms Sujata Mody, President of Penn Thozhilalar Sangam spoke about how 'The Committee on Status of Women' by Dr Vina Majumdar called "Towards Equality" in 1970 set the women movement in momentum. Sujata gave a brief rundown of the past and the present status of the women working in unorganized sectors stressing on the point that this unorganised work done by women is yet to be recognised as work. She insisted on the unions coming together and working towards establishing a framework as there are enough laws and policies to protect the unorganised workers but the lack of a framework on how to access it remains a hurdle.

Ms Puspa a domestic worker and a member of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement narrated her experience as a domestic worker and the problems she faces. Her main concern was job insecurity as domestic workers are known to be dismissed if they raise questions. The employees never give them a job description and keep adding to the work, but the wages do not match the work extracted from them. Another interesting point she made was the availability of low wage labourers who come from other states thus raising the competition.
Sister Valarmathi who is the state coordinator of National Domestic Workers’ Movement spoke about the activism work done by NDWM to get domestic workers their due recognition. Domestic work is not recognised as a profession due to the stigma associated with it but it is overlooked that domestic workers contribute to the country’s economy because many families cannot go to work if the domestic worker doesn’t contribute.
This stigma surrounding domestic workers is the reason behind these women facing sexual abuse. She talked about a girl in Virudhunagar who was sexually abused and murdered but as there are no witnesses inside a house, no proper action was taken. She gave a couple of more examples of the kind of harassment domestic workers face, like the case where a webcam was kept inside the bathroom where the domestic worker takes bath and she was blackmailed with the recorded video. There was a girl who had worked at a house for five years but just because she didn’t take proper care of the dog hot water was poured on her.
Sister Valarmathi said when the Sexual Harassment Bill was drafted, unorganized sectors were not included and later it was included due to the efforts of many activists and organisations. Minimum wage recognition is another ongoing battle. Rs. 75 for one hour is the minimum wage demanded by many associations but only Rs. 35 is recognized as the minimum wage. Another point she made was about International Labour Organization convention not ratified by the Government of India whereas if it were ratified it would benefit the unorganized sector workers.

Ms Renuka, founder of the Center for Women’s Development and Research focused on the lack of regulations in cases of sexual harassment faced by domestic workers. There is no Internal Complaints Committee and if the women report the sexual violence they will be blamed with theft and dismissed or worse get arrested. Another main point she made was that domestic workers should be included in the realm of #MeToo which is currently elitist.
Following this, women continued to come up to talk about their challenges and problems. One of the PTS members from the garment sector said how women are generally perceived as biologically weak and hence treated inferior. She talked about Penn Thozhilalar Sangam’s seven cases in the high court against sexual harassment in the garment sector.
Another domestic worker, Sheela, made a point that domestic workers don’t get systematic leaves thus leaving them with no time to spend with their families. One of the PTS members narrated a story of a 40-year-old woman who faced sexual abuse from her supervisor but didn’t want to file a complaint because she was scared of social stigma. When PTS dealt with the case the victim was transferred but her abuser continues to work at the same place. The garment employees face abuse at all levels said one of the PTS member, even complaints to the supervisor and HR doesn’t work. If such cases are reported to even Director he or she asks the employee to adjust.
Sister Valarmathi of Tamil Nadu Domestic Worker Association talked about labourers who go abroad for job depend on the agents who send them abroad. These agents sell domestic workers to the customers abroad and the workers are not given enough information about the salary, laws etc. The auction of domestic workers also happen and the auction rates are fixed depending on their complexion, beauty etc. These agents also sexually abuse them. Once they reach the other country, they will be locked in the apartment. They will be isolated so as to not let them approach the embassy and sometimes are forced to commit suicide. NDWM has demanded to set up a Rescue Committee but there is no step taken yet. They have also stressed that MOU between the two countries where the workers go for work and grievances cell should be formed.
The Way Forward
Post-lunch, the speakers and participants sat together to discuss the way forward. Ms Geetha Narayanan listed down areas to look into:
  • The countries should allocate more funds for social protection such as Health, Education etc;
  • As we all sell the land and water to the corporates there is no security circle for us.
  • At the WTO level, we should demand to stop online commercial platform and open up channels for small farmers and vendors' to sell their commodities;
  • We should bring awareness to the women about the Local Compliance Committee;
  • #Metoo should bring solidarity among all of us. 

Ms  Selvi, an advocate at Chennai High Court said:
  • Definition of Workplace should be broadened;
  • The ICC set up should also be strengthened in all workplaces;
  • Need to have a dialogue with the government and their accountability should be taken up seriously. There are many laws but there is no accountability;
  • #Metoo should catch up and expand enough to include more women;
  • Documentation should be necessary to approach the government, it will help challenge the government.

Areas of Improvement
The speakers and participants took part in a discussion where they decided on the following points as the areas to work on and improve:
  • Taking forward and creating a similar platform in the villages (awareness in the villages).
  • Documenting the experiences of women through the survey.
  • This meeting should be the seed for the future campaigning of Economic Justice and Gender Justice together.
  • Stigma related to the unorganized and informal sectors among the women workers need to be removed.
  • All basic needs such as Bus passes for the informal and unorganized women workers have to be met.
  • Campaigning such as #MeToo has to be brought down to the women of these sectors.
  • Memes can be positively portrayed in such a way to capture the related laws.
  • Life Skill training to girls on "How to say No?"
  • Tagging the related women organisation with the issues shared in the social media.
  • Shooting short movies related to the issues and laws.
  • Wall paintings about the Violence Against Women all over the public spaces.
  • Should be branched out to include more people into the stream.
  • Getting slot in the visual media exclusive for Women Trade Unions.
  • Having a digital Directory of the women organizations 
  • Making short video teaching modules on laws and made viral
  • Litigation to question the ways to utilize the unutilized Nirbhaya Fund.
  • Teach the children how to stand against the harassment boldly.

Future Agenda
  • Campaign once in three months by Sujata Mody
  • Law Literacy programmes by Advocate Selvi
  • Survey of the women worker's experiences by Sister Clara.
  • The area of work should be focussed - not generally VAW but Violence against Working Women
  • Formation of Working Group: Members are Muthulakshmi, Geetha Narayanan, Sister Clara, Renuka, Advocate Selvi, Sujata Mody, Sudaroli, Hemalatha.
  • We can work on one component once in three months

Ms Damyanty Sridharan of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung delivered the valedictory note in which she mentioned FES’s effort to include Gender as one of the agenda in all their programmes. She suggested that more men should be involved in the Gender Justice related conversations. Though we work on women issues, we should have discussions about other issues with various stakeholders to broaden our perspectives and knowledge in order to achieve Gender Justice.

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