How does a nation participate in the digital creative economy centered on individual entrepreneurship while acknowledging its legacy in collectives of women producing crafts? This column explores the experience of Bangladesh, where despite the digitization of the craft industry, digital participation remains limited to a small number of entrepreneurs who already have an online presence. Strong and enforced labor laws, social security for workers, fair wages, competitive pricing, improving the skill of women workers, and robust inter-industry linkages are needed to support rural artisanal communities and build sustainable apps geared towards women working in the sector.
The touristic imagination of Hyderabad city is marked by a few dominant images: the aromatic and spicy biryani, the 15th century structure known as Charminar, the historic pearl trade, and the stone-studded bangles of Laad Bazaar. Even as many visitors to the city stop on their way to the airport to pick up a “flight pack” of the famous biryani, they might also have, nestled within their suitcases, a box of what poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu called those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.
Laad Bazaar, or Chudi (bangle) Bazaar, a narrow street snaking westward from Charminar in the old city of Hyderabad, is lined with hundreds of shops that sell their signature ware—lacquer bangles closely embedded with glass and semi-precious stones. Kurta-clad men stand at store fronts shouting invitations to passers-by to take a look at the many varieties they stock, ranging in price from under Rs 100 to Rs 5000 (around USD 1.50 to 70) for a set. Customers—mostly women—throng the shops, leaning over counters to point to what they want, haggling over prices and quickly comparing what’s on offer at the next store. But on the other side of the counter, women are mostly absent.
The bangle trade in Hyderabad is estimated to employ nearly 15,000 people, with around 4000 engaged in the craft of bangle making. Hyderabadi bangles are exported across India as well as globally, with the daily local trade estimated at Rs 300,000 (USD 4100). Women represent 60% of the artisanal workforce. In what is largely a family business, men make the basic structure of the bangle—welding the metal frame, making the lacquer and pressing it into the frames—while the women embed the stones. It’s a painstaking process, involving long hours bent over the work surface handling tiny stones, getting the intricate designs just right. The first part of the process—making the frame—is done in what are essentially small workshops, known as “kharkhanas”, while the second is done by the women inside their homes.
This arrangement suits the social and cultural geography of the old city perfectly, where women are discouraged from entering public spaces. Hyderabad’s old city has in some sense been “left behind” by development, its Muslim-majority population having suffered for long from poor access to education and civic amenities, and in previous decades experienced violent communal tensions. Women in this area therefore may be seen as doubly marginalized, by gender and religion. A 2014 unpublished report by Tanay Agrawal commissioned by the NGO Shaheen Women’s Welfare and Resource Organization (and made available to FemLab.Co by Shaheen), revealed that many of the women working in the bangle trade had very little or no schooling, and found this a conducive occupation as it allowed them to work within the boundaries of what was permitted by the community. In most cases, the women are part of a small family enterprise, but some also receive work from larger kharkhanas. Jameela Nishat, founder and director of Shaheen, tells me that they are paid anywhere from Rs 150 to 200 (USD 2 to 3) a day for their work (a newspaper report quantifies this as Rs 100 [USD 1.20] for a set of 14 bangles).
Based on his interviews with around 150 women from the old city, Agrawal notes that the women have no knowledge of the market process and rarely interact directly with the intermediaries, including those running larger kharkhanas, retailers, wholesale buyers, and independent agents who coordinate between the market and the makers. While women may work in small family groups, they do not interact with others in the trade.
Jameela Nishat notes that one of their objectives has been to collectivize women who work in various artisanal sectors in the old city, primarily bangle making, incense-stick rolling, and embroidery (the local craft known as zardozi). Their work has focused on educating the women about their legal rights, giving them a shared safe space within which they can talk about their lives and their challenges, and exploring ways to overcome these. “We’ve started a Mahila Mazdoor Sangham (women workers’ collective),” she says, “But it’s a collective with no money, and no bank account!” Still, the very sense of being part of a craft community—something that had been missing given the domestic location of their work—had given the women a sense of identity, and the space to also articulate more wide-ranging concerns. These include issues of access to education, occupational health and domestic violence—issues that were also reported in a study by social historian Rekha Pande, who found that the long working hours (9-10 hours a day) in poorly lit, cramped conditions led to chronic backache, migraines and eye strain.
Nishat also tells me about one young woman who escaped from a “sheikh marriage” (the practice of ‘selling’ young women as brides to older men from the Gulf region) and with the Shaheen’s support, was able to set up her own bangle kharkhana, and promises to take me there once we are past the pandemic restrictions.
The bangle trade was also affected adversely by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown, which closed the bazaars for several months. A devastating flood in August 2020 inundated several of the kharkhanas and cost many women their livelihoods. Nishat says the area is still recovering from these shocks, and it was relief efforts by Shaheen and other NGOs, along with some government aid, that has helped the community stay afloat.
Becoming part of an artisanal community, recognizing that concerns are shared, and identifying as women who have valuable skills, might be the first steps towards bringing some glitter back into the lives of the bangle makers. Today, the bangle trade is seen as a boutique activity that is attracting young, university-educated entrepreneurs who want to streamline the supply chain and reach new markets. Organizations like SEWA in Gujarat have productively engaged with women artisans to not only expand markets but ensure fair compensation and social security, apart from fostering a strong sense of shared identity. Shaheen is also working to build digital literacy among the women who are part of their collective, allowing for lateral communication, and in time, possibly open up ways to reaching the market directly. There is a slow but growing market for ethically produced jewelry and an interest in heritage crafts, sustained by a committed minority, and the challenge is for these women to connect with such markets—and the digital could be the pathway to that.
Along with the kind of women’s entrepreneurship that Jameela Nishat recounts—these might be opportunities for collectivized women to demand better wages and some social security—and more important, bring recognition to their role in crafting those “rainbow tinted circles of light”.
The two women walk down my street at around 7 a.m. every morning, noticeable in the navy-blue knee-length coats they wear over their sarees, and the colourful bandannas that cover their heads. Bhagya (name changed to maintain anonymity) has large kaajal-rimmed eyes and she flashes a bright smile if she happens to see me on the terrace. There’s a man with them, and the three form the team that sweeps and gathers the street rubbish every day in my part of Hyderabad city. Their blue coveralls are printed with the letters signifying the municipal authority that employs them.
Well…if the relationship they have with that authority can be termed “employment.” Bhagya and her companions are contracted by the municipality through a third party. They are perhaps somewhat more fortunate than many others who are hired on and off on daily wages, but less so than the 37 % or so that are estimated to be on the permanent rolls of any urban municipal corporation in India. They are part of the crew that is responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the city—an activity that was elevated to mission mode under the Central Government’s highly publicized “Swacch Bharath” (Clean India) scheme launched in 2014. While the building of toilets and eliminating open defecation were seen as top priorities under the scheme, the cleanliness of public spaces and ensuring safe and efficient waste disposal were also important goals. The scheme was dismissed by many as populist, and failing to tackle the real issues of caste-based inequity and deep-rooted social stigma faced by sanitation workers, but it did open up the discursive space around these issues.
The mission also succeeded in bringing more attention to the condition of workers like Bhagya—women and men working under precarious conditions of employment, subject to often unfair and nebulous contractual terms, and no safety net in case of health or other emergencies. An in-depth qualitative study by Dahlberg Advisors in 2017 categorized sanitation work into nine different types, ranging from cleaning latrines and drains to sweeping streets, each with its own challenges and vulnerabilities. More recently, a study by the NGO PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) Network points to four “predispositions” that are the reasons for the persistent marginalization of sanitation workers—gender, caste, geography and education.
One does not need to look deep into the fine print of such studies to perceive the challenges that women in sanitation work face, being doubly marginalized by caste and gender. The PRIA study also pointed to the lack of empathetic supervision and little consideration given to the specific issues of safety and protection that women workers might require. These issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with all categories of sanitation workers becoming part of an invisible frontline in the fight against the pandemic. A phone-based survey of 214 sanitation workers in three north Indian cities during this pandemic, of whom 30 % were women, revealed that they had received no instructions or training related to safety during the pandemic, nor had any special arrangements been made for them at work. Bhagya, for instance, told me that she was issued one set of gloves when she started working for the municipality three years ago, which have since torn and have not been replaced. When I asked her about face masks and hand sanitizer, she shook her head: “We have to get them ourselves if we want.” A simple cloth scarf was wound around her face in lieu of a mask.
Worker protections exist—in theory, and to varying extent—across all sectors; however, there are gaps at the level of making these protections, and knowledge about them, available to workers. When I ask Bhagya whether her contractor is supposed to give her protective gear, she shrugs, and says “Who knows?” While one might see this as apathy or complacence, it’s more likely to be a simple lack of awareness of what one is due and how to demand it. Of course, there is also the possibility that the exercise of voice might just put her job at risk.
When we talk of communication rights, it is often limited to access to means of communication and the freedom of expression. But within a human rights framework, communication becomes the means by which we access a whole range of other rights—including the right to fair work.
As India imposed a near-complete lockdown in March, accompanied by social distancing recommendations, things began to fall apart for the millions engaged in daily wage labour across multiple sectors. To them, the sudden absence of work meant the inability to pay for shelter and food, the barest needs to sustain oneself in a monetized economy. The central government and many state governments began announcing relief measures but alongside, civil society began to step up with small community led efforts. The emerging discourse of shared responsibility among the privileged classes holds promise for a wider appreciation of the rights of those in the unorganized sector, and a greater appreciation of the precarious nature of such work.
Writing in the Peoples Archive of Rural India the day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, journalist P Sainath remarked: “Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practice social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us.”
The economic distress he was referring to was, of course, the distress of the millions of daily wage earners, a majority of them migrants from the poorest states in the country—Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand. Soon the mainstream media purveyed hundreds of images of migrants stranded without shelter and food in cities that had turned hostile to them. Even as many began to exit cities in the thousands, in the hope of finding some succor in their native villages, many others, who had made a more permanent home in the city, were left with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. Photographs in newspapers and videos circulating on social media told heart-rending stories of fear, confusion and hunger, whole families walking with their few belongings and being harangued by the police, whose job ironically was to ensure that citizens were protected from the disease. While the government’s hastily cobbled together relief measures—reactive rather than proactive and strategic—began to be implemented, many other groups swung into action. Moved by the stories of sudden displacement and deprivation, civil society groups, both organized and spontaneously formed, stepped into the vacuum caused by the loss of jobs and the absence of social security of any kind.
An analysis by IT4Change team members Sohel Sarkar and Deepthi Bharthur put it, the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has given us “a universal teachable moment”. While the cynical may point out that not all teachable moments lead to learning, one can discern in this moment the potential to refashion our imagination and understanding of what an equitable and just society should look like.
While precarity has been a recurrent theme in conversations about the future of work, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief what this could mean, not only for those in the shadow of automation and the network economy, but also for those engaged in, quite literally, the “brick and mortar” sectors of construction, sanitation, and the numerous other jobs that turn the wheels of the city’s machinery. Journalist Rukmini S writes that close to 12 percent of urban households rely on casual labour for their income, while many more may be classified as “self-employed” such as petty vendors, providers of low-skill services such as cobblers, dhobis (clothes washers) and workers contracted through platforms.
The Covid-19 conversation has brought new eyes and ears to attention. Middle class India is forced to see what life looks like for those who do not have the privileges that come with assured salaries, stable living arrangements, and for a few, the continuity provided by the means to work from home. This is not a new realization, but never before has the story been so consistently in the headlines and presented in such detail over and over again to the Indian middle-class media consumer. It is in this context that the “teachable moment” holds potential. From being a concern for a few do-gooders who advocate for workers’ rights, precarity has acquired the sharp contours of materiality—it leads to loss of shelter and food, and the inaccessibility to [what should be] the most ordinary of services like health and education and ultimately, dignity. Even for those who have been in the thick of the battle for workers’ rights, this moment pushes even further the need to demand not only fairness in wages and working conditions in the present, but also a security net that envisions precarity in the broadest way possible.
Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, refer to the need for us to recognize the deep inequities that have persisted and made newly visible due to the Covid-19 lockdown: “Those who benefited most from this growth see this workforce in utilitarian, rather than human terms. The privileged must understand that if they do not want to be affected by impoverishment and insecurity that has afflicted these workers, a minimal level of livelihood security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector.” This also calls for responses that go beyond charity and lead to structural and policy reforms that can build a more caring society, not just a more efficient one driven by narrow notions of economic productivity.
Our work in FemLab.Co attempts to understand what livelihood security could look like from the bottom up, for women workers in the selected sectors of the informal economy, and fill out the notion of precarity in real, experiential ways. These months under lock down will have, hopefully, engendered greater empathy among those who provide employment and those who have taken the city’s labour for granted, while possibly giving advocates a keener sense of how demands must be articulated.
Those whose lives are lived on the edge have always had a sense of precarity. The rest of us have now, second hand, had a glimpse of it.