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Women in the informal world of work – experiences of lockdown under COVID-19 in India

Annie Delaney

September 24, 2020

The experience of lockdown under Covid-19 has become familiar to many of us, but women’s voices from the global south are rarely heard over the din of the daily case count.  The effects of lockdown on an estimated 60% of the world’s informal workforce is harsh, demeaning and in many instances, impacting on mental health, livelihood and the sustainability of life, disproportionally experienced by women.

In the developing world, the effects of coronavirus on workers engaged in the formal sector are incredibly harsh, but devastating for informal workers. Women in India represent 88 per cent of the informal labour force, yet the government policies are mainly geared toward business and assisting those with the most resources, abandoning others. In India, the Covid-19 cases have reached 5 million, many of the poorest people are experiencing Covid-19 related health expenses, which creates are a further burden on women.

Emeritus professor Barbara Harris-White has called the lockdown on informal labour in India a ‘declaration of war’ linking government ‘policy inaction’ to threatening informal workers survival. Indian Prime Minister Mody announced with 4 hour’s notice a hard lockdown, including a shut down in public transport, but offered very little in relief. His critics have accused the State of imposing extreme suffering on the informal labour in India that account for about 90% of the labour force. A consequence of the lockdown notice employers and landlords cast out many informal labourers, could not collect wages and were forced to walk for days to return to homes few had visited in years, many dying on the way. 

In the meantime, women are disproportionally shouldering the responsibility to support families and communities to survive.  In a recent survey of Indian informal women workers across five sectors, home-based, domestic, waste pickers, street vending and construction work, many are not able to pay rent or know where their next meal would come from.  In another survey, homeworkers and domestic workers surveyed across 12 states of India, found that only 5% of the 300 women surveyed still had money coming into the household.  A small number had savings that they estimated could last only a short time, and others reported surviving by trying to etch out new forms of income generation linked to the health system or in rural areas by selling animal stock. Women faced with such harsh conditions are doing whatever they can for their family to survive. Households are turning to local money lenders to survive and are subject to high interest that they may spend many years working to pay off,

Women working in the informal sector are inevitably involved in some productive or reproductive work. Still, much of their work is invisible, and they are employed mainly in low skilled, low paid work often performed in their homes or other homes, with little or no social security. The invisibilisation of women’s productive and reproductive labour, which is undervalued as non-work, results in ‘invisibilising’ both work and workers. This pattern of inequality is replicated for informal homeworkers working in global supply chains. Before Covid-19, homeworkers working in global supply chains were already facing low piece rates, insecure work and not recognised by brands. Since Covid-19, suppliers and brands have not paid workers for the work they had completed before the lockdown, and since that time all work has ceased.  The conditions of Covid-19 lockdown have perpetuated the invisibilisation of informal women’s work by the State, employers and global brands. Covid-19 has highlighted the power asymmetries and gendered and racialised patterns of inequality. However, understanding the processes that construct informal women workers invisibility can help to identify alternatives.

What strategies can be used to reverse invisibility and bring about the recognition and rights that come with visibility?

Women working in the informal sector are used to performing the precarious, low paid, unsafe and invisible work that is undervalued.  The unpaid reproductive labour they contribute is central to care and support in their communities, which creates economic and social benefits taken for granted by government, employers.  Women workers have been deeply affected by state and corporate policies enacted under Covid-19; consequently, they need support to defy invisibility.

Collective organisation is the most important way that women informal workers can begin to defy the invisibilisation of their work.  Critical for informal women workers to become more visible is to encourage more unions and NGOs to back actions for women workers in the informal sector becoming leaders.   Informal women workers face many challenges to organise together, to become more visible and for their voices to be heard. There are many examples of this happening. You can also support women workers in the informal sector to organise by supporting initiatives that focus on developing workers as leaders and prioritising collective organisation over individualised development programs. 

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