The fire at Delhi’s Mundka, with a death toll of 27 persons so far— a majority of whom are women workers in informal manufacturing units — underscores yet again the invisibilities and insecurities of informal workers in the city. The fact that the antecedents of those who died are still unknown points to the invisibility and lack of identity of informal sector workers.
Reports on buildings catching fire leading to fatalities, followed by discussions on illegal constructions and unplanned infrastructural development in urban centres, have become a somewhat repetitive subject. With every such mishap, reports on how these buildings do not have required fire clearance and no-objection certificates from concerned authorities surface. Yet, such incidents keep on repeating; The harrowing stories of those who lost their dear ones are matters of public attention only for a few days, till the headlines shift.
Incidents of this sort are also opportunities for political leaders to display their concern for those who lost their dear ones with compensation and promises coming one after the other. Enquiry commissions and assurances of tightening procedures are all part of a larger script, with no substantial change at the ground level.
By now, it is understood that the root cause of the Mundka mishap is a serious lapse in following the norms in construction as the whole building had only one staircase. While this accident shares similarities with earlier incidents, the site and the victims this time deserve special mention. Of the 27 who lost their lives to this massive fire, 21 were women workers, employed in a company that manufactured and assembled CCTVs and WiFi routers. As per reports, the manufacturing unit at Mundka employed about 100 people, half of them women. Many of them are young women and the sole or primary earners in their households. The predicament of women workers here has similarities to those in the garment units of Bangladesh — including disturbing parallels with the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse.
There are thousands of unregistered/informal industrial units in cities like Delhi without any data on the number of workers employed and the conditions of their employment. These workplaces are known to violate all norms, including basic labor laws. Informality and precarity define such workplaces where the quality of jobs is not a concern for those who are looking for employment. Women’s work participation rates have declined sharply over time, with Delhi having one of the lowest (14.5 per cent for age 15 and above as compared to 28.7 per cent all-India in 2019-20). The pandemic has added to women’s difficulties in finding jobs and such workplaces reveal the conditions under which women workers get employed. The profile of workers shows that many are young in their 20s or 30s — the age categories that suffuse our discourse on women’s development and potential. They are forced to join the labor market in low-paid and highly-informal jobs because of their migrant status and poor economic conditions. There is often a clear separation of tasks for men and women. Women workers are mostly into packing or are helpers — categories that are the lowest skilled as per the job classifications in such units.
Owing to the perception that workers employed in packing or as helpers undertake jobs that do not require much skill, wages are kept very low while the labor pool remains massive. With the pandemic and the resultant decline in work opportunities and household income, women are compelled to join employment to compensate for the loss of employment or declined income of male household members. Many of the workers who died joined the factory after the pandemic, pointing to the desperation that many poor households are facing. Working conditions, in general, are not often defined in such units with low and varying wages, long working hours, absence of any leave, including maternity leave and a lack of other basic facilities. In a city where living expenses have soared, with a monthly wage of Rs 6,500-7,500, a dignified life is beyond imagination. It is important to note that many women workers are often the sole earners or primary earners of their households. Working in contested spaces in dusty, shady and stingy rooms, without any safety precautions, gloves or masks is a common scene in these sweatshops. Basic workplace requirements such as the provision of drinking water and toilet facilities are often denied to workers.
Exposure to such employment provides limited opportunities for personal or economic advancement, with monotonous repetitive work filling the day. The large turnover and women’s withdrawal from the labor market are signs of extremely poor working conditions that many women cannot sustain for long. Absence of leave, including maternity leave and long working hours, are important concerns for women workers who also have to shoulder the housework and care responsibilities of their families, forcing them to eventually leave such workplaces.
Poorly ventilated workplaces, operating from dilapidated buildings are aplenty in the city and even by basic norms of occupational safety requirements, these workplaces are not to be “operational”. Such workplaces are often a source of additional income for the enforcement machinery, with employers and the administration least bothered about the lives of workers. There are anxieties about how the new labor codes will add to the vulnerability of informal workers. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (OSHWC) would replace existing regulations soon and this would worsen the conditions of informal workers as many of these small units would be left to themselves to follow prescribed safety conditions and can go unaccountable.
These sweatshops, which are part of our understanding of economic development are traps for women workers. The fact that it offers some respite from poverty and also from cultural restrictions on women also needs to be understood. But without any accountability of employers and a lack of political will to improve working conditions, we might end up allowing many more such horrific accidents.
The writer is professor, Center for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi