A multitude of hazards at each step at an Ahmedabad construction site

By Nisha Bharti, Consultant, Aajeevika Bureau, Mumbai

When I went to Ahmedabad to visit a construction site and observe women’s working and living conditions there, I knew from the literature that construction sites do not provide basic facilities to their workers. While men answer nature’s call in open, women wake up early in the morning to get their basic needs met. Basic health and safety just doesn’t exist at these sites.

Women’s living conditions: the ever-present risk of death or injury

Construction informal settlement.jpg

(Seeta’s room – one of many informal settlements in the construction site)

There are two types of housing structures for construction workers at the construction site. Some of the workers are provided accommodation in semi-constructed buildings and some are staying in labour colonies, made up of tin and ply boards.

The average size of rooms under both types of housing structures is 10×10 feet. To reach the rooms in semi-structured buildings, workers and their children have to climb on the stairs, without any railings, and cross a heap of sand. If left alone, children could meet with an accident at any time. A two BHK semi-structured flat is shared by two different families. The kitchen and toilet of the flat is not functional – so the cooking is done inside the room, and a common toilet is constructed in the field- a few meters away from the building.

Seeta’s story

Construction worker .jpg

(Seeta at work)

Seeta, 16 years old, stays in the labour colony with her 3 year old brother Ajay. Their mother died 1.5 years ago after a snake bit her. Since then Seeta has looked after her brother. She came to this construction site with her relatives four months ago, while her father and three younger brothers remained in village. Seeta stays in a 7×7 foot room in the labour colony. She cooks on earthen stove by using waste woods from the construction site. In her room there is not enough space to move.

When I visited Seeta at 5:30 in the evening, she lit the kerosene stove and put water in a pan. She stood to take sugar and tea powder kept on the rack above the stove. While she was standing her stole hung over the stove, perilously close the fire. That was certainly a scary moment. I told her to take precaution while using the stove.

Though workers are provided with accommodation at the construction site, the site is hardly suitable for any human being. There are no toilets, basic drinking water, lighting or cooking facilities. How is it that a construction company that can sell their property for millions of crores cannot provide these basic essentials for its workers?

Women’s working conditions: dangerous paths

Seeta, along with another woman, carries stone pebbles and sand to the crushing and mixing machines. There is a boy in their group as well. His task is to fill the gamela (small tub in which stone pebbles and sand is carried) and load that on the women’s head. The machine and the place from where she carries the stone pebbles and sand is not very far from each other, but the path these women cover is highly dangerous. As they start walking with the 35 kilogram load, there is a water pipe and a platform made of cement bags. The women wear a pair of flimsy slippers, which at any point might get stuck in the water pipe or in the threads of the platform made by using cement bags.

The path another group of women walk is equally hazardous: carrying over 35 kilograms, they walk over an iron-made platform, where women’s slippers can easily get stuck in the gaps. The construction site supervisor should urgently provide these women with boots and other safety measures.

Gamela weighing 35 kgs.jpg

(A gamela which women carry on their heads, weighing 35 kg)

Women’s wages: a source of mystery

Most of the women at the construction site do not know what they earn from their daily toil. When I asked about her wage, Seeta said that her cousin knows what she makes. She also said that contractors pay every worker Rs. 500 per week for daily expenses, and the rest of the amount is paid by the end of the month. But she did not have any idea whether she gets the correct amount for her work.

These field notes are part of Aajeevika Bureau’s ongoing study on migrant women’s work, which will be published in full later in 2018.

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‘I only crave a peaceful life:’ stories of uncertainty and risk in rural Rajasthan

By Rupal Kulkarni, CEO of Shram Sarathi, a partner of Aajeevika Bureau.

Shram Sarathi is a pioneering financial services company working on financial inclusion of seasonal labour migrants and their families. For more information, please visit their website: www.shramsarathi.org and follow them on Twitter: @Shram_Sarathi

A few weeks ago, I spent two days in Sayra and Gogunda (in Udaipur district) meeting Shram Sarathi’s loan clients, both past and present. I wanted to hear their stories and better understand how financial services can help their families cope with sudden shocks and turn migration into a positive opportunity for them. In the process, we ended up meeting Nathu Gameti, a migrant who was once our client but failed to maintain a good credit history and never renewed his loan again. We also met the family of Moti Gameti, the very first client who availed a home completion loan from us, but had defaulted on his most recent installment after two years of perfect repayments.

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After learning their stories, I kept thinking about the normalcy of unpredictability in their lives. Nathu like many others, had borrowed money from multiple moneylenders to construct his house. He borrowed 30,000 rupees and was told that he would have to pay an interest of 2% per month. After a few months, the moneylenders amped up the interest to 10% per month. This was nearly 6 years ago. He estimates that he has already repaid around 80,000 rupees, but according to records with the moneylenders, he still owes around 1 lakh rupees in total. I had the uncomfortable realization that his interest liability was piling up as we spoke – 10,000 rupees per month; nearly 330 rupees a day; almost 14 rupees an hour! And how much did Nathu earn? Around 250-300 rupees a day, IF there was work.

Nathu then told us that he was eventually forced to send his two sons to work, one aged 14 and the other aged 17. They migrated to Rajkot and Mumbai respectively and began helping out with household expenses and interest repayments, whenever possible.

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A few hours later, we were at the home of Moti Gameti. While he wasn’t at home, we met his family who were apologetic about a missed repayment. Apparently, Moti’s 18 year old son was taken to Rajkot by a contractor and then without warning, abandoned there. His son had no money, no means to come home and no acquaintance to seek help from in Rajkot. Moti had to ride his motorcycle all the way to Rajkot to rescue his son. We also learnt that his son was recently engaged and the wedding date was a few months away. However, for some reason, his son’s fiancée had moved in before the actual wedding. As a result, Moti and his family had to pay a settlement to the girl’s family. This was why Moti had missed a payment.

When we heard both stories, nothing in their manner of narration or the expression on their faces seemed to suggest that these events were extra ordinary. It seemed to be a perfectly reasonable thing to happen in their lives – nothing strange or incredulous about it at all.  I was marveling at how such unpredictability was so internalized.

And this got me thinking if we can actually model for such idiosyncrasies when delivering financial services to such a vulnerable group. For one, it is my strong belief that microfinance needs to be non-judgmental. In popular discourses of microfinance today, there is a disproportionate emphasis on providing credit only for enterprises. People like Moti and Nathu fall in between these cracks in the absence of dignified finance. I wonder if we realize that our judgement on how the poor manage their finances has inter-generational effects. I wonder if life would be any different for Nathu’s two sons. When, if ever, will they be debt free? With limited skills and an early entry into physically demanding work, will their incomes ever be enough? For Moti’s son, will he ever have the courage to migrate again given his traumatizing experience? Would he have had a different experience if he had access to an emergency financial reserve?

As financial service providers, we have a responsibility to embrace all kinds of needs and peculiarities about clients like Nathu and Moti. For them, the freedom of financial choices today is just as valuable as future financial stability. After all, as Nathu put it “Lakhpati nahi vanno hai, bas shaanti chaave” (I don’t want to be a millionaire, I only crave a peaceful life”).

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“We operate boilers and boilers run the machines of Narol, but still we remain invisible”

By Goutam Mahanty, Executive, Migration Services, Aajeevika Bureau

Powering the engines of Narol, three women from the village of Chhasiya, Dahod, share their stories of working the boiler. 

Sunita Ben (25 Yrs.), from Chhasiya, Dahod, has been working in the industrial area of Narol, Ahmedabad since she got married. Soon after her wedding, she and her husband started working at a boiler of a well-known textile company in Narol.  Each and every factory in Narol has a boiler and they are critical to the functioning of the machines in the factories. The boiler consists of a furnace in which coal or wood is burned to produce steam, which then powers all the machines in the factory.  The boiler worker must continually load the furnace with more and more fuel to keep the machines working and cannot break the cycle of work for even a moment. Meanwhile the heat of the boiler and the steam it produces is intense – almost unbearable for just a few minutes.

Sunita Ben works around 12 hours non-stop, day and night. The Contractor doesn’t allow anyone to speak to boiler workers, as per the instructions given by the company owner. Nothing can distract from the task of continually loading the furnace with more fuel.


Sunita Ben’s life is completely restricted to the factory’s premises 24 X 7.  She lives in a make-shift home right outside the boiler.  “We are grateful to god for gifting us nights, otherwise how else could we have taken the much-needed rest” says Sunita ben. Her powerful words convey the kind of  hard work, she puts in during day and night carrying  the heavy coal ‘tagara’ or wood dust ‘tagara’ (full of coal more than 40Kg),  to fill the boiler that runs all the machines in the factory.  She is not provided with or trained in using any kind of safety gear or devices at the work place. During the intensive Ahmedabad summers, Sunita Ben must continue her work at the boiler, despite the unbearable heat.

We are grateful to god for gifting us nights, otherwise how else could we have taken the much-needed rest

Woman worker Boiler.jpgMangli Ben (35 years.) from the same village, has been working at the boiler in Karnavati Company in Narol for the last 12 years.  She says “I spent 12 years of my life working and living inside this factory, still I am not in the payroll of this factory or am I identified as a worker”. She started her work at the wage rate of Rs 180 , and now she is getting Rs 270.  Her wages have increased only marginally, and she is still not recognised as a factory worker even after spending over a decade, day and night,  inside the factory.

I spent 12 years of my life working and living inside this factory, still I am not in the payroll of this factory or am I identified as a worker”.

Narol factoryLalita Ben (22 years), another adivasi women from Dahod, is also a boiler worker in Narol. She and Sunita Ben are neighbours in the village. Although they both live in  Shahvadi of Narol, they have no time to meet. She says “Our shift keeps changing every week and night shifts are scary for us, as we feel extremely unsafe in the factory.  We have to take our kids along while we go for work and we keep them in a cradle made of clothes close to the chimney of the boiler where we work”. Her testimony speaks volumes about the kind of physical risk these workers and their children face at the factories.

Sunita Ben, Mangli Ben and Lalita Ben represent the unheard voices of thousands. These adivasi women migrant workers toil hard at the boilers in unsafe and vulnerable working and living conditions.

While these women are literally fueling the furnaces of Gujarat’s famous growth, they are off the books and off the grid of their own employers, and of the state.

Our shift keeps changing every week and night shifts are scary for us, as we feel extremely unsafe in the factory.  We have to take our kids along while we go for work and we keep them in a cradle made of clothes close to the chimney of the boiler where we work”.Blog Narol children.jpg

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Free cooking gas for the poor will deprive, not empower

Responding to the Union Budget announcement that 80 million poor families will benefit from free liquefied cooking gas, Krishnavatar Sharma, Co-Founder and Director of Programmes at Aajeevika Bureau, said:

“Our Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is right to recognise the ‘curse of smoke’ for the women of India. Women spend time and energy collecting firewood and plastic to cook with, and in turn suffer from lifelong health problems. The women and girls we speak to wake up at 3 am to collect firewood, often walking several kilometres to collect it, and taking longer to cook meals for the family. Having a small gas cylinder with which to cook transforms the lives of these migrant families.

“But the government’s new liquefied cooking gas scheme will deprive, not empower. Women will fall between the cracks, benefitting neither from the subsidised gas of the Public Distribution System, nor from the Government’s latest pledge. Our recent research finds that over half of those entitled to subsidisied rations under PDS are not receiving any rations at all, while a quarter are not receiving the kerosene they are entitled to.*

“We must get our existing social security schemes right before implementing any other schemes. Already the government has increased the price of subsidized kerosene, and reduced the amount available to ultra-poor households. If anything, the current government is making this basic good even more inaccessible to the poorest than ever.

 “Meanwhile PDS is plagued with petty thievery and corruption. The local sarpanch or ration dealer hoards the unused kerosene, and often sells it on the black market for a higher price, pocketing the profit in the meantime.

 “We must improve our existing social security schemes, accounting for over 2% of GDP, before implementing sticking plaster solutions. “

*Aajeevika Bureau surveyed 2,871 households entitled to the Public Distribution System, from 54 villages in fifteen panchayats in Southern Rajasthan. Interviews were conducted in May and June 2017.


Woman cooking.jpg

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Aajeevika Bureau Migrantscape: Supporting migrants, their families and communities

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Supporting migrants, their families and communities


Welcome to Aajeevika Bureau’s inaugural Migrantscape newsletter, where we reflect on our highlights from 2017 and look ahead to 2018. We are excited to be bringing you this first edition of Migrantscape, updating our partners, collaborators and supporters on our work.

Krishna photo  Reflecting on migrants’ lives and livelihoods

Our Co-Founder Krishnavatar Sharma reflects upon the rising danger and precariousness facing migrant workers, their families and communities. READ MORE

Pictured: Krishnavatar Sharma, Co-Founder and Programme Director, Aajeevika Bureau 

Did you know Quiz?

What proportion of Indians are seasonal, internal migrants, moving temporarily for work? (see below for the answer!)

12 Years of Impact: in numbers

  • We facilitated 460,000 linkages to identity, skills, social security, legal aid, health care and financial services, for migrant workers and their families
  • Migrant workers claimed back around 13 crore INR ($2 million) of hard-earned wages with the help of our legal team
  • Our legal team resolved an average of 110 wage disputes each month
  • Our LabourLine for migrant workers took an average of 130 calls a day
  • Our STEP Academy trained 7,623 young people
  • Our partner, financial services provider, Shram Sarathi received national recognition at the Inclusion Plus awards organized by Metlife Foundation
  • Shram Sarathi delivered loans to over 7,000 migrant families, with repayment rates of 99.5%
  • Since inception, our partner, Basic Healthcare Services (BHS), received 107,151 in footfall across its clinicscs and Primary Health Centre – providing affordable and high quality health care
  • BHS safely delivered 1,288 babies

Young worker

Honouring International Migrants Day

Aajeevika Bureau organised a series of events to celebrate International Migrants Day on 18 December 2017, including a drawing competition for children of migrants, and a photo competition for migrant workers. This resulted in press coverage in Scroll Your Story and Indian Express.

For an informative overview of the issue of internal migration in India, please read  Amrita Sharma’s blog on the occasion of International Migrants Day. 

Raising the voices of migrant workers in Ahmedabad

Aajeevika Bureau led a sustained campaign during the Gujarat Election, issuing migrant workers’  demands to Gujarat party candidates. Although tribal migrants constitute almost 15% of the state’s population they remain voiceless and invisible.

Our campaign resulted in official posters from the Election Commission, encouraging tribal migrant workers to vote, and informing them they had a right to take a day off and vote in their village. The campaign resulted in significant media coverage across Gujarati press and national press, alongside an Opinion Piece in  The Wire.

Migrant story photo.jpgKailash’s Journey

Armed with a few sets of clothes and innumerable aspirations, Kailash Umariya left his village in Ajmer, Rajasthan, as a teenager.

“From toothbrushes, shoes and toys, to pendrives, sweaters and clothes- I sold everything,” says Umariya, who spent the first few years on Delhi’s streets. It was the desire to “make it big”  in Mumbai, the “Sapnon ki Nagari” or land of dreams, which drew him to the city twelve years ago.

“I began my career as a helper on construction sites in Mumbai. While I ended up doing odd jobs at the beginning, I gradually picked up plumbing skills,” says the 35-year-old. Kailash now lives with his family in Mumbai and is gratified to report that he has work every day of the week.

Kailash Umariya is a founding member of Aajeevika Bureau’s Kamgaar Sahayta Samiti in Mumbai, a worker’s collective co-established with Aajeevika Bureau and employers, workers and other local stakeholders in Kurla. The committee negotiates and reflects upon issues related to labour, rights and demands, and takes collective decisions for workers’ well-being. 

Old migrant.jpgAddressing precarious, informal work and life in the cities

The events of 2017 brought into sharp focus how precarious migrant lives are in the cities they move to. While 12 migrant workers died in a preventable fire in Mumbai, a three-year-old child died in an informal settlement in Ahmedabad, falling off its cot into the flood waters of the Monsoon. These tragedies vastly underestimate the total number of migrants who died or were injured across India in 2017. Aajeevika Bureau was deeply saddened by these events, and believes that as a society we cannot accept such a loss of life.

Recognising that migrant workers face risk and danger in work and life, Aajeevika Bureau has strengthened its support for migrants at the destination. We opened a new office in Mumbai in December, and expanded our range of support services in Surat and Ahmedabad.

“This fire accident just shows how migrant workers live. They work in overcrowded, poorly ventilated spaces. Their work and living conditions are highly precarious. There is a complete void in enforcement of labour laws.”

– Amrita Sharma, Aajeevika Bureau, quoted in Thomson Reuters and in Gulf Times 

Building knowledge on migration and informality

Knowledge workshop.JPGAajeevika Bureau held its 4th knowledge symposium in Ahmedabad in July 2017. We shared six studies focusing on under studied dimensions of migrant communities to an eminent panel of nine leading scholars and discussants from across the country.  Themes included: informal housing arrangements; traditional financial institutions; occupational health of migrant communities; and labour of women and girls in rural wage markets.

Pictured: Prof. Ravi Srivastava and Prof. Pushpendra engaging with study presentations.

Protecting lives at work

Worker in dust pillarA key priority for Aajeevika Bureau is the health and safety of migrants at work. We are focusing on an industry that cuts stones to produce beautiful carvings for the temple construction market, but claims the lives of its workers through silicosis, the oldest known occupational disease.

In Pindwara, workers carve silica rich stones, releasing large volumes of dust. Inhalation leads to the fatal respiratory disease of silicosis, for which there is no known cure. Due to its unsafe production practices, nearly 2,000 workers are facing death from silicosis. Working with the local administration and Rajasthan’s Labour and Health departments, we are acting to reduce this threat to workers’ lives. So far, 763 stone carving workers from Pindwara have been certified as silicosis victims by the Pneumoconiosis Board.

Building state capacity to support migrants

Rajiv Kerala.jpgAajeevika Bureau’s Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions (CMLS) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) secured key commitments from the state governments of Kerala and Bihar. CMLS and the ILO co-hosted two policy roundtables, where both states committed to Migrant Resource Centres, and to prioritise migration as a key issue.

Pictured: Rajiv Khandelwal, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Aajeevika Bureau


Woman migrant.jpgLooking Ahead

In 2018, three key themes will dominate our work.

  1. Reducing the burden on women and girls – We are seeing new forms of migration by women and girls into daily wage labour that is highly hazardous and precarious, such as in construction work. Women face a disproportionate burden of work, both paid and unpaid, which impacts their health and well-being. We are looking to increase women and girls’ access to basic facilities, such as sanitation, and make work less hazardous. This new area for Aajeevika Bureau will be a key focus in 2018.
  2. Preventing worker deaths – Aajeevika Bureau is seeing an alarming increase in able-bodied men and women suffering from early death due to silicosis, contracted at work.  We are launching a one of a kind initiative with the Labour Department and Human Rights Commission of Rajasthan, alongside leading occupational health experts and engineers, to create dust control technologies, designed to prevent the onset of silicosis.
    Please look out for our continuing work on this key issue, to ensure that more lives are not lost.
  3. Putting the last first – A key priority for 2018 is to adapt our range of services and interventions to the needs of the most vulnerable, high-migration families: those who live in remote, rural areas; who are subject to chronic illness; who suffer high and long-standing debt; whose children are
    participating in chid labour; and whose head of family is a single woman.
    We seek to provide for migrant family’s needs and vulnerabilities, and tailor our services to those life moments when our support is needed the most.

Smiling child.jpgDid you know Quiz? Answer

1 in 10 Indians is a seasonal, circular migrant.

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Migrant workers under threat in 2018

By Krishnavatar Sharma, Co-Founder and Programme Director, Aajeevika Bureau

As we move into 2018, it is an opportune time to reflect upon the lives of migrant workers. Our experience in the field indicates that just at the moment that India officially becomes the fastest-growing country in the world, workers, particularly those who migrate, face greater danger, precarity and informality than ever before.

2017 was a year of significant change in India. It marked the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, the one-year anniversary of demonetization, and sweeping tax changes. Reforms dramatically altered the business landscape, with effects felt even by daily wage labourers. Aadhaar became mandatory for all Indian citizens, linked to a range of benefits. The widely reported starvation death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari in Jharkhand highlighted how seemingly positive technological advances can produce tragic unintended consequences. 2017’s digital money drive increased the burden on illiterate or less literate workers, who lost out on hard-earned wages just because they didn’t have a bank account, or couldn’t read a cheque.

2017 saw the deaths of migrant workers, attacks to their person, and even fundraising campaigns to support their killers. The death of Mohammed Afrazul, a migrant labourer from West Bengal, felt hauntingly close to Aajeevika Bureau, headquartered in nearby Udaipur. In the areas where we work, 12 migrants died in a preventable fire in Khairani Road, Mumbai, while 6 workers died of asphyxiation after inhaling toxic gas in a factory in Ahmedabad. A three-year-old child drowned in the floods of an informal settlement near a factory in Ahmedabad, with no compensation or acknowledgement from the factory owners. These tragedies vastly underestimate the total number of migrants who died or were injured across India in 2017. Life appears to be cheap in the world’s largest democracy, and migrant life even cheaper.

Jobless growth in cities and key sectors

Migrant labourers working Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Surat report that they are getting less work than before. At the naka, or labour point, there are many workers left standing by around 9 or 10 am, when they can give up hope of earning a wage that day. Speaking to these workers, we find that many of them report there is less work in key industries, such as construction, textile, manufacturing and retail. The worksites’ scale of work declines, and workers with families are forced to give up on migration as a livelihood strategy and return to their homes in the rural villages. Power loom units are either closed completely, or run with only one shift. As development economist Jean Dreze and the Economic Times have recently pointed out, underemployment continues to plague the meta-narrative of India’s growth story.

Old migrant

Pictured: A migrant worker in Ahmedabad.

Exclusion in rural villages

Structural issues of social exclusion and caste-based discrimination are deepening within villages. We are seeing tightening controls on public entitlements like food rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the right to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Our recent Family Empowerment Programme research finds that over half of households entitled to subsidised food did not receive any rations over the past year. Meanwhile, families are getting an average of 38 days of work through MNREGA, out of the 100 days they are entitled to.* Online data management of these schemes has created new hurdles in getting core benefits. The networks of e-mitra and Grahak seva Kendra have become the new middle men, but without proper supervision and monitoring, they have the potential to deprive, rather than empower.

Women faces.JPGPictured: Ujala Samooh (women’s empowerment group) leaders and members. 

Our response

As migrant workers remain invisible and voiceless, Aajeevika Bureau has stepped into the void of the state, increasing its protection for migrant households. We have opened new Migrant Resource Centres in the cities, where migrants face the greatest risk, and where their work and lives become complex and diverse.

We are enhancing workers’ agency through unions and collective groups, so that workers make their own demands of the state. In Ahmedabad, we upped the ante in demanding that migrant workers’ voices are heard, calling for urgent action to support the Adivasi migrant population and ensure that migration is safe, secure and beneficial to migrant families. Meanwhile in Mumbai, Aajeevika Bureau was the first responder on the ground to the tragic fire in Khairani Road, which killed twelve migrant workers. We are holding a range of fire safety sessions and workshops with migrant workers living and working in the Khairani Road area. In Surat, we are identifying new power loom clusters to ensure dignified working conditions at these worksites. In Idar, our rural destination centre that works with share-croppers, our interventions have contributed to an important shift towards a daily wage market, that assures a higher, guaranteed return to workers.


In the rural villages, we are adapting our services so they meet each of a migrant family’s vulnerabilities and needs. Our field offices are reaching out to those areas that are most deprived, and have the highest rates of family migration. In a key victory for poor people living in remote, rural areas, our partner Basic Health Services (BHS) opened a new health Clinic in Morval. The clinic is the first to open in the area since independence, and covers over 14,000 people, most of whom belong to Scheduled Tribes. Meanwhile, the Primary Health Centre in Nithauwa, run by BHS with the support of Government, has quadrupled admissions, treating 134 patients each day. Addressing the widespread problem of malnutrition, AMRIT is teaching mothers new recipes and helping families to eat more nutritious food.

New birth AMRIT Clinic

Pictured: new birth at AMRIT Clinic, Morval. 

Since it first began, our legal practice has successfully claimed back around 12 crore  ($2 million) of migrant labourers’ hard-earned wages. Through LabourLine, a helpline available 24/7 to migrant workers, Aajeevika Bureau took an average of 130 calls a day and resolved around 110 wage disputes each month, winning back the wages which migrant workers deserve. The LabourLine has been recognised as a key, cost-effective strategy for tackling wage theft in the informal sector.

We are also stepping in ourselves where the state was absent, but we think an effective response is possible: for example, in dealing with early, preventable deaths from silicosis in Pindwara. Here there is an urgent need to make the production process safe for stone carving workers. Nearly 1 out of every 10 stone carvers has silicosis: over 700 workers have been certified as having silicosis, while a similar number have been diagnosed and are awaiting certification. The prevalence of silicosis is over 50 times higher in stone carving, compared to any other occupation in Pindwara.

We are addressing the precarious nature of life and work, through our evidence-based policy engagement. Our insights mean we can activate solutions on the ground. With the International Labour Organisation (ILO), we influenced the Kerala and Bihar state governments to integrate migrant sensitive solutions into state policy. Both states committed to Migrant Resource Centres and to prioritise migration.

Looking ahead

In 2018, we will continue to expand our geographical footprint through Aajeevika Bureau, and with like-minded civil society partners. We will support migrants with high levels of debt and distress, living at destination, and their families, remaining in rural villages at home.

We will step up our fight on three counts: demanding better workplace conditions for workers dying early deaths; enhancing protection for women and girl migrants working in the most hazardous jobs and adapting our suite of services to meet the needs of the most vulnerable families in rural villages.

We will use our current practice experience and research knowledge to impact the policies of both migrant-sending and receiving states and influence the practices of industry.

We look forward to standing up for migrant workers and their families at this turning point in India’s history, and to your support and partnership in this journey.

*Aajeevika Bureau surveyed 2,871 households entitled to the Public Distribution System, from 54 villages in fifteen panchayats in Southern Rajasthan. Interviews were conducted in May and June 2017.

Pictured: a young worker in Ahmedabad. 

Young worker

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Time to recognise India’s invisible migrants, this International Migrants’ Day

By Amrita Sharma, Director, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau

This International Migrants’ Day. the global community comes together to recognise the contribution of migrant workers in shaping vibrant economies worldwide and creating a colourful tapestry of multi-cultural societies, cutting across national boundaries. In India, we recognise the 100 million internal, seasonal migrants who move for work, in search of a better life for their families.

Sadly, in the early hours of this International Migrants Day, 12 migrant workers died in a fire in a Farsan Shop in Khairani Road, Mumbai, very near Aajeevika Bureau’s office in Kurla. Early reports indicate that around 20 workers were living in that shop. 10 died on the spot; others were taken to a nearby hospital. Just the day before we celebrated International Migrants Day with these same migrants, featuring their photos of what it’s like to be a migrant in Mumbai.

The tragic, preventable loss of these 12 lives makes us reflect upon just how urgent an issue it is to end the danger and hazard affecting migrants every day. We take International Migrants Day as an opportunity to reflect on our experiences of working with internal migrant communities in India. It is now well established that internal migration is much larger in magnitude – almost 3.5 times more compared to the size of international migration. Its contribution to sustaining livelihoods of the poor is also well documented. In India, for example, domestic remittances alone amount to $10 billion. Analysis of NSS data reveals that 41 per cent of consumption for migrant rural households comes from migration. The issue, however, remains on the fringes and the lack of any policy governing labour mobility and integration of workers in the city, leads to high degree of exclusion and precarity for the workers.

Lately, the policy landscape within India is increasingly cognizant of the need for better estimation of labour mobility and the need for a dedicated institutional response. It is the work of organizations such as Aajeevika Bureau which has brought notice to internal migration in a powerful manner. Much, however, remains to be done, as today’s events have made painfully clear.

  • Internal migration, World – 740 million
  • International migration, World – 214 million
  • Internal migration, India – 400 million
  • International migration, India – 11.4 million
  • Domestic remittances in India – $10 billion

Mobility is key

Labour mobility is key to the Indian economy and its dynamism – this is one of the biggest take-aways from the last 12 years of work done by Aajeevika. As we have engaged with a wide variety of migration contexts across India, we realize that the economy hinges on mobility of its work force. Several of the economically vibrant cities comprise of a large migrant population – Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Mumbai (43%), Delhi (43%)[1] and many more.  The industry shows a clear preference towards hiring migrants over local workers. In the last two decades, there has been an upsurge in remittances, primarily witnessed by Odisha, UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal – a good indicator for rising mobility from these states. Almost every few years we add large migration corridors to the migration map of the country – the movement of workers from north-east to Kerala is a latest example. Labour migration systems have made inroads into the remotest of villages across India, linking them with cities in a manner that is transformational for both.

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Map showing migration corridor from Assam to Kerala (Source: Indian Express)

Public policy design, however, has failed to keep up with this dynamism. It continues to suffer from what Arjan deHaan, the famed Dutch scholar studying migration in India, called the “sedentary bias of Indian policy making”. Our welfare delivery systems are dated: fixing subsidized food rations through PDS to one shop in the native location of a household. Meanwhile, banking systems insist on meeting thoughtless Know Your Customer norms, denying workers their bank accounts for lack of residential proof.

Our policy frameworks need an overhaul to account for the rising mobility of the workforce and allow for portability of entitlements. Programmes must be as mobile as workers themselves are. Migrant workers need to be able exercise their franchise and vote. Most importantly, the cities need to be inclusive of migrants: SMART city planning and design must reflect migrants’ presence and contribution to cities.

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Migrant workers came together to celebrate International Migrants Day at Aajeevika field office in Kurla, Mumbai

Remittances management: irrelevant to India, and to footloose internal migrants 

When we talk migration and policy, remittances – their size and their potential – assumes great importance. I guess, it’s a legacy that we have borrowed from the international migration discourse where remittances are hailed as a boon for developing economies, their size being almost 3 times the development aid. Remittance enthusiasts such as Lant Pritchett at one point argued that remittances could be MDG Plan B and Dilip Ratha advocated that remittances combined with migrant savings (~$500 billion) can improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.[2]

Not in India, and certainly not with the footloose internal migrants.

Internal migrants can’t be bearing the burden of financing development in India. Evidence from the migration corridor of Rajasthan and Gujarat shows that most migrants operate at the lowest niches of the urban labour markets, struggling with irregularity and insecurity of work, poor wages, and heavy extraction. The uncertainty of work at destination reflects in the remittances, which are small and irregular – unable to meet the survival needs of their families. Our own analysis of size of remittances in south Rajasthan region puts the figure around Rs. 60,000 in a year – less than $80 per month. Furthermore, the kind of back-breaking work internal migrants undertake in poor work conditions, puts their health and life under greater risks. We have observed migrants leaving the urban labour markets early, to return to their homes often with a debilitating disease such as Tuberculosis and with no savings or skills. The fascination with remittances, their formalization and attempts at “unlocking their potential” is highly misplaced in our context. It needs to end.

We need to fix the labour markets and working conditions of the migrant community first

If there is anything that needs urgent attention then it’s the conditions of work that migrant workers experience in the cities, in their informal, unregulated labour markets. Rising informalization has meant that workers are highly replaceable, changing hands as a commodity and that there is no legal worker-employer contract which ensures accountability. Production and recycling of any product is broken down to the smallest possible unit and outsourced to small, unregistered entities with limited or no regulatory oversight – again weakening the worker-principal employer connection. In these conditions there is no regulation of working hours – which go beyond 12 hours as a norm. Working conditions lack basic safety provisions leading to frequent accidents and injuries to workers. The Safe in India initiative (a rebuttal to Make in India) brought forth the high magnitude of crush injuries in the automobile industry of Delhi-NCR in a powerful manner. This abuse of labour safety considerations at work is rampant. Our own experience of providing legal aid to victims of crush injuries in Kurla, Mumbai points to a large void in labour governance in India. Existing structures are unable to comprehend the complexity of informal economies, lack adequate resources and are stuck in the era of formal, large factory based production. Labour inspectors are trying to find workers on company rolls and seeking written documentation when none exists.

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A picture of a worker facing a crush injury from Gurgaon’s automobile industry (Source: scroll.in)

Often, the hard-earned wages are also lost to contractors through delayed payments, wage frauds and withholding of wages. Migrant workers face frequent wage thefts and are unable to seek redress for lack of suitable platforms. The amount of over 12 Crores that Aajeevika has helped facilitate as wage payments to migrant workers in a limited geography of south Rajasthan and Ahmedabad is a telling statistic. Given India’s 29 states, the magnitude of wage thefts across the country is significant.

Some of the recent steps taken by the government are misplaced

There has been a spate of government initiatives in the last few years that seeks to engage with the informal labour economy. The skill development initiative and labour reforms (Shramev Jayate) are significant examples. The skills mission in particular has received keen attention across the board. It is touted as a panacea to the woes of the labour market and a stairway to a better life for poor youth. The intervention is fraught with serious limitations. DDUGKY – the large scale skilling initiative of the MoRD – struggles with a high rate of attrition of youth placed on jobs after Crores of public money have been spent on their training. Diagnosing the problem primarily as a supply side issue, the quick fix of skilling rural youth without addressing questions on living wages, work and living conditions has turned the initiative on its head.

Similarly, the Shrameva Jayate initiative which encompasses a series of far-reaching labour reform measures, exemplifies poor comprehension of the complexities surrounding the governance of a highly informal labour market. The whole initiative is based on this assumption that relaxation in labour laws would steer growth, encourage formalization of work and would in turn be good for the workers. This idea has been challenged by several scholars, and most powerfully by Pranab Bardhan in his article “the labour reform myth”[3] which argues that India’s labour administration has always been poor and similar steps in the past by several other state governments have only led to greater casualization of workforce, not formalization. Weakening of labour legislations in the name of clearing hurdles to economic growth do not make sense in a setting where the implementation machinery is already poor. One is afraid if the reforms would compromise the agenda of labour protection further.

The recent big-bang policy moves in the form of demonetization and the imposition of the new tax regime under GST has again destabilized the informal economy in a significant way, and internal migrants – the most precarious of all stakeholders, are bearing the biggest brunt, struggling to find work and sustaining themselves in the city.

The State does need to take a few steps back, acknowledge that the informal working poor account for the largest and the most vulnerable section of the population today. A hasty, ill-thought policy intervention can disturb the fine balance irreparably. The State needs to reconsider its technocratic quick fixes and approach the challenges related to safety and security of informal workers from a fresh and labour-friendly perspective.

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Migrant workers in Kurla, Mumbai participating in a photo voice competition encouraging workers to tell their own stories through pictures

Recognition for migrant workers

The burning to death of 12 migrant workers in Mumbai reminds us of just how invisible migrants in India’s megacities are. It’s difficult to identify the migrants’ charred bodies. They are off the books of any employer. How do we inform their families?  They are off the grid, off the radar, invisible and unknown to their employers, to the State.

Migrant list

Photo from Rajawadi hospital, Mumbai where the charred bodies of workers were taken. 12 of them were declared dead. We don’t know their identities yet.

Sadly, these tragedies are commonplace occurrences, wherever migrants live and work. As a society we allow poverty to persist. We accept that poor, vulnerable people die preventable, early deaths every day. This normalisation – of abuse, indignity and early death – must end.

The first step is for all of us to recognise migrants in our day to day lives, worlds and work: those who build our homes, stitch the clothes we wear, and clean our waste.

The aims of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in 2018– to protect the safety, dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants – must stand for India’s internal migrants too. These workers and their contribution can no longer be ignored.

[1] Based on Census of India, 2001, Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India report, UNESCO, 2013

[2] Dilip Ratha, Migration and Remittances Factbook, 2016, KNOMAD, World Bank

[3] http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/the-labour-reform-myth/


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Labour-Migrants: excluded from Universal Health Care in India

By Dr Pavitra Mohan, Secretary Basic Health Care Services & Director, Health Services, Aajeevika Bureau

“India is the only country trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force” – Amartya Sen

Following Universal Health Coverage Day yesterday, we reflect upon the state of affordable quality health care for every person, everywhere. In India, the health policy and programs exclude one of the most vulnerable groups from access to healthcare: that of labour migrants. While labour migrants have played a huge role in fuelling the Indian economy, the state and industry has failed them when it comes to providing them good health.

Migrant man worker.jpgMigrant populations are at high risk of ill health, death and disability:

In India, over 100 million people migrate, typically from rural to urban areas and mostly for work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Living in unhygienic and crowded conditions in the cities, and working in hazardous and physically demanding occupations, their bodies (their only source of livelihoods) are affected prematurely. Not a surprise then that they are highly vulnerable to life threatening injuries, as well as infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV infection, malaria and diarrheal diseases. In a study conducted by Safe in India, 1,000 workers in the automobile industry in Manesar, Haryana lose their fingers each year, while working in factories that produce parts of the glitzy automobiles.

Their occupation further predisposes them to dangerous and fatal conditions such as silicosis. Their vulnerability is compounded by poor nutrition status. We found that half of all migrant workers, working in the factories or at construction sites in Ahmedabad, are malnourished. Living and working in perpetual stressful conditions and poverty, with limited social networks, away from home, their minds are affected adversely as well.

Migrant populations are excluded from health services and policies

When faced with an injury or illness, migrants are unable to seek unfamiliar and unresponsive health services from the government. Most migrant workers will fail to seek care, or continue working until they can get care, returning home only if the disease reaches an advanced stage. Women workers are not able to access even simple preventive health services, such as care during pregnancy. In a survey we conducted among agricultural workers who migrate from southern Rajasthan to Idar tehsil of Banaskatha district of Gujarat, not a single pregnant woman had received antenatal care. None of the children were immunized.

When the disease gets advanced, migrant workers or their families finally seek care from an expensive private facility, selling or mortgaging their assets and getting indebted for life. Advanced disease or disability also makes them unable to work for prolonged periods, sometimes for life.

Since most migrants work in informal economy, they are not covered with any form of employees’ state insurance at the workplace. In India, of an estimated 423 million workers in the informal sector, only 20.3 million are insured persons, registered under the ESIC. While some of them are registered under state-specific health insurance schemes (such as Bhamashah Yojna in Rajasthan), that does not entitle them, as inter-state migrants, to seek healthcare in the destination state.

In such a scenario, formulation of the new National Health Policy in the year 2016 was a good opportunity to incorporate provisions and financing for the health care of migrants. However, this opportunity was lost since the policy remained silent on healthcare of migrants, and of those working in the informal sector. Meanwhile the urban health component of the National Health Mission, while acknowledging the need to serve migrant populations, does not come out with specific programs or interventions to reach this extremely difficult and vulnerable population group.

Health photo#HealthforAll: Call to Action for migrant friendly health services and policies

It is clear that healthcare in India does not reach the large and vulnerable population group of migrants, their families and communities; therefore, India cannot claim to advance towards universal healthcare, unless it has policies and programs in place to reach these populations. We call for formulation of a national health policy for migrants, similar to that in place in Sri Lanka.

On a short-term basis, the sending and receiving states should work out ways to provide migrant-friendly health services to populations in transition. Labour-migrant populations are not perpetrators or carriers of illnesses. They are unfortunate victims of an unjust system, which uses their bodies for economic growth, but abandons them once their bodies are weakened and spent.

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A Day in the Life of Health Waste Workers in Kurla, Mumbai

By Nisha Bharti, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

Following Human Rights Day, Nisha Bharti of our Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions considers human beings’ right to decent work, and reflects on the life of health waste workers in Mumbai.

All of us get stuck in traffic everyday. How does it feel when you realise that the vehicle beside yours is a garbage collecting van? Do you remember the stench of a sanitary napkin filled with menstruation blood? What smell do you encounter when you enter patients’ wards in hospitals?

Does not the act of recalling the smell coming out from the garbage collecting van, the stench of a used sanitary napkin and the smell of patients’ ward in hospital itself make you gag?

Nonetheless, there are people engaged in sorting varieties of stuff from garbage. The dumping yard and garbage sorting unit are their workplace. They work in this gut-wrenching environment for more than eight hours in a day.

I visited one of the units in Kurla, Mumbai, engaged in sorting wastes from a hospital with one of my colleagues, Deepak.  He asked the only male worker whether I could sit and observe the work being performed at the unit. The man indicated towards a table near entrance and said, “Yes, she can sit there.” As I entered the workspace, the gendered division of work was apparent. The male worker was charged with unpacking the waste bags, and four women workers were sorting out the garbage.

On seeing me one of the women workers invited me to sit with them. “Nothing happens, we have been working here for a long time, and nothing has happened to us”, she assured me. I sat on the stairs behind them, and asked a few questions, which were met with silence. I decided to remain a non-participant observer, but intermittently asked questions hoping that they would respond to some.

Women working, surrounded by health waste, including used sanitary napkins and diapers

Cramped, inhumane conditions

The size of the unit was approximately 400 sq. ft. Of this, only 100 sq. ft. was available as a working space, with the remaining space being used to store garbage. The waste keeps coming in every day, with each bag weighing around 5 to 10 kilograms. Women sit in groups of two, with six polythene bags beside them to sort out the waste. At a regular interval, the male worker unpacked the garbage bags in front of the women, making the strong stench in the room unbearable.

Waste and #HealthforAll?

The waste came from hospitals, and consisted tissue papers, newspapers, x-ray envelopes, medicine tubes, blood stained cottons, packaged food containers, hand gloves, surgical masks, plastic bottles used for different purposes (drinking water bottle, bottles used for giving saline, glucose and blood to patient), medicine covers, used sanitary napkins, used diapers etc.

The workers performed their tasks in a perfect rhythm. They kept tissue papers, used tea cups, snacks paper plates in one bag. Plastic bottles in another. Hand gloves and surgical masks in a different bags, sanitary napkins and diapers in another, medicine covers and the covers of packaged foods (hard papers), were all sorted into different bags. The bags were replaced with a set of empty ones as soon as they were full.

The male worker performed both tasks efficiently – unpacking the waste bags in front of workers and replacing the bags (after sorting) with another set of bags.

Seeing these by-products of health care delivery, I struggled to reconcile waste workers’ abject working conditions with the aim of #HealthforAll. How could affordable, high-quality health care for everyone ever be achieved, if workers continued to work in unhealthy, unsafe, degrading conditions, sorting through other people’s health waste? How could we claim we are nearing goals of human rights and universal health coverage when workers continue to put their health at risk in search of a regular wage?

Health and safety?

I asked the women why they did not use masks or hand-gloves. One of them informed me, “Nothing happens even if we do not use them. We (pointing towards another lady) are working in this unit since fifteen years. Nothing has happened to us till now”. The man added defensively, “We have no dearth of gloves and masks, but by using gloves they get boils in their hands and masks make them feel suffocated.”

These women work from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening, with an hour of break in the afternoon. Women workers go their houses for having lunch. I asked them whether they get paid on a fixed rate basis or daily basis. They reported that until 5-6 years ago, they were paid on a daily basis. They were receiving Rs. 120 per day. Now they receive payment of Rs. 6,000 every month. They further added that they are ok with the low salary. “For us it is good that we got work in our own locality. We do not have to run for bus or for local train. We do not encounter the rush in the local train.”

Suddenly, a man entered the unit and began shouting at the women workers. He said, “You should continue working here only if you are going to work properly. Some of you take leave for a day but disappear for a week. The seth incurs loss and he scolds me. I am warning all of you!” He added, “You people asked for tea and we arranged it twice in a day. Some of you ask money instead but this cannot be done. If you want to drink tea, then drink it! Money will not be given!”

One of the women workers attempted to pacify him, “You have said it all. Now onwards, no mistake will be made. Please convey this to seth”.

After sometime, I left the workspace and walked towards the supervisor. He told me that the sorted waste would be sent to other units in nearby locality where they will be pulled apart into small pieces, before being sent to Vapi for recycling.  All the paper will be recycled into tissue, the used medicine covers would become new medicine covers.

I left the unit with a heavy heart. How could a population engaged in crucial recycling have to work in such pathetic conditions, in the absence of even basic facilities?

A right to decent work

The world celebrated Human Rights Day this past Sunday. A fundamental human right is the right to work – but not to just any work. All human beings have the right to work with dignity and humanity. It is not enough to simply generate jobs, create employment and spur economic growth. The jobs which India creates must be dignified jobs that protect workers from harm and ill-health, and guarantee their basic human rights.

As the fastest growing nation in the world, it’s time that India took the lead in treating workers with respect. We cannot allow such perverse consequences to arise from basic health care provision to our citizens. We cannot permit people to endanger their health by shifting through other people’s health waste. India’s Clean India initiative, Swaach Bharat, must recognise the wider objectives of decent work, and raise working standards for waste workers across the country.


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‘Leave no one behind’ must include the unseen, unheard women and girls of India’s vast informal sector

By Clare Murphy-McGreevey, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

This International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we face a starker situation than ever before. One in three women face violence – equivalent to a public health crisis.

This crisis is not limited to so-called ‘developing’ countries. Across Western nations, powerful men, working in industries as wide-ranging as politics to entertainment to academia, have been outed as sexual predators. The depth and breadth of the MeToo campaign has revealed just how many abusers are lurking in our homes and workplaces. If this doesn’t make the case for ‘universal’ development, where aims like the total elimination of violence against women apply to all countries, then I don’t know what does.

The sprawling informal sector

In India, over 90% of the labour force works in the informal sector. Unregistered, unregulated, unorganised labour exists right under our noses, but the lived experience of workers remains invisible.

Harassment in these workplaces happens under the radar. Casual, migrant female workers rarely raise their voices, or receive media attention. They tend to be the most defenceless of Indian society: they belong to Scheduled Tribes and Schedules Castes, and are considered to be the lowest of the low in the social hierarchy. Seemingly, these women are worlds apart from female Hollywood celebrities outing Harvey Weinstein, or the contestants of the Miss Peru pageant, highlighting the endemic nature of harassment and violence.

Violent spaces

Rural abuses

In the rural construction sector, the hiring process itself is a form of sexual harassment, while the naka or labour point is a site of abuse. Our ongoing research in the Salumbar block (Udaipur district) indicates that adolescent girls of 14 to 17 years of age have become the dominant workforce in the rural construction sector.[1] Girls are recruited as day labourers because of their vulnerability: labour contractors and supervisors know they will be powerless against any abuse or ill treatment.

Girls report being recruited on the basis of their appearance, while observation of nakas reveals that girls have to slather on makeup and show off their youthful good looks to attract prospective employers. Once hired, they must play by men’s rules, entertaining male advances to keep their jobs and gain future work.

Girls and women report that verbal abuse is constant, and that they are regularly addressed with gaalis, not their own names. This sort of behaviour is heavily normalized, so it is near-impossible for girls to challenge it, especially because there is no guarantee that other sites would be better. Given this treatment, it is little wonder that girls of 14-17 living in rural areas are fleeing the workplace: the greatest decline in female labour participation is happening here.

Urban harassment

Urban construction sites are also spaces of insecurity and violence. Of all the spaces in the city, women report they feel most unsafe at the construction site where they work. Even women who sleep on the street every night say they feel less safe at the construction site, because they face the hourly prospect of harassment from their supervisor.[2] Male family members may know abuse is happening, but they dare not take action and risk their jobs.

Vana, a construction worker in Ahmedabad The contractor sometimes abuses or complains if I frequently go to the washroom. Because of this, I go to the washroom only 3 times a day. . .sometimes we don’t even get a break for having tea. We have to have it as quickly as possible while the work goes on.[3]

Construction workers.jpg

Public spaces should be safe places

Worksite harassment in the informal sector will take a long time to correct: it will involve structural change to the patriarchy engrained in the informal sector. But right now, the government can ensure that its public service delivery spaces are safe spaces. The abuse and name calling which regularly happens at the ration shop and the MNREGA worksite must end. Pet schemes like Swacch Bharat, most recently used to publicly shame those who defecate in the open, must return to its original aims, and stop humiliating citizens if they cannot afford to build a toilet.

[1] Study conducted by Aajeevika Bureau’s Salumbar field team, including Vikas Pathak, Prema Dhurve, Parashram Lohar and Payal Gandhi.

[2] Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions’ ongoing housing study, Ahmedabad.

[3] Ibid.

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