Big strides on path for women migrant workers in eastern India

For a gender sensitive migration policy, it is crucial to gather gender segregated data of migrant workers, their engagements under various occupations, sectors, period of stay etc.

As per Census, marriage is the most common reason behind women's internal migration in India. (Representative image – PTI)

By Sonmani Choudhary and Dr Anamika Priyadarshini

Migrant labourers are one of the many factors that propel India’s economic growth and there have been renewed calls in the past as well to usher in reforms in the labour sector to fulfil their interest – especially of the migrant workers. e-SHRAM, the national portal for registering unorganized workers, and the National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW) emerged as promising initiatives by the central government. The portal registrations recently crossed 12 crore mark as notified by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. The achievement is indeed extraordinary as in just 3 months’ time about 25% of unorganised sector workers including migrant workers, construction workers, gig & platform workers, domestic workers, and street sellers have been on boarded to this platform. This development demonstrates government’s commitment for protection and welfare of unorganised sector workers, who constitute about 93% of the workforce. Also, it brightened prospects of migrant workers, including women, who migrate in search of better life and livelihood.

About two out of ten Indians are internal migrants and this fact is significant as it reflects the extent of migration in a country with over 1.2 billion people. As per Census 2011, over 453 million (37% of total population) people in India are migrant citizens. According to the Economic Survey 2016, total number of migrants in India is estimated to have exceeded 500 million. While migration related to better jobs is a pan India phenomenon, eastern India’s states have a long history of outmigration. Women migrants, who have been outnumbering men migrants in India since 1971, also comprise a significant proportion of migrants from these states.

As per Census, marriage is the most common reason behind women’s internal migration in India. However, scholars like S. Sundari have underscored Census data’s inability to capture the actual reasons of female migration in India. Many women migrate independently for better economic opportunities, education and also as household heads. While male outmigration is more common in Bihar and Odisha, states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are known for female labour’s outmigration. Apart from migrating brides, independent migration of women workers, students and professionals has been on rise in even Bihar and Odisha. This trend has been rapidly accentuating which is not unexpected given the fact migration is being increasingly feminized in developing countries like India. Because of the feminized nature of migration, informalization and exploitation of migrant workers has also increased many fold. Women migrant citizens are often subjected to gender-based and migration-induced discriminations.

Women Migrant Citizens Face Greater Challenges
As per Census 2011, out of total 86 million migrants from east Indian states, 76 million were women. Majority of them join informal sector, several of them are home based workers. It is difficult to ascertain their number as required data on migrant workers in informal sector is largely unavailable. Data on short-term migrants, who mostly work in informal sector, is also not available. Besides, ‘reason-for-migration’ statistic in Census misses to recognise women migrant workers. The report of the Working Group on Migration (2017) notes while women predominantly migrate for marriage, many of them end up into the workforce. Migrant women workers are mostly engaged in informal work like manufacturing, construction, domestic and care work. The informal work arrangements make them invisible in the workforce and exposes to coercive and exploitative work practices.

Many migrant women workers lost their jobs in destination states during the lockdowns. They are facing increased risk of violence and exploitation with far reaching consequences for themselves and their families. Work opportunities are further shrinking for them due to skill mismatches and rapidly changing and dwindling labour market. The pandemic has severally limited poor women’s prospects of working and earning. For instance, Rekha Gupta, a Bihari migrant worker, was operating a tiffin-service in Mandawali, New Delhi. She reached Delhi after marrying Deepak. From her home, Rekha was providing cooked meal to 10-12 people daily. But lockdown seized couple’s earning avenues and they were forced to return Bihar. Even paying the house-rent and managing daily expenses had become a challenge for the couple. Now Rekha is back to Delhi to restart. However, due to dwindling prospects of tiffin service, she is eagerly looking for wage-work near home.

With increasing urbanisation, many women and girls from eastern India, the country’s prime labour sending region, are moving to cities. They are looking for economic opportunities, pursuing higher education, taking-up skilling and coaching classes and so on. Some of them also migrate to escape oppression, violence and abuse. But cities often fail to provide them a safer and supportive environment. They face discrimination and oppression in almost all stages of migration. Most of them find cities unwelcoming as they are usually marginalised and excluded as poor-outsider-women/girls. COVID exacerbated gender inequalities and vulnerabilities for them despite government’s efforts of supporting through public distribution system, One Nation One Ration Card, Direct Benefit Transfer, and MGNREGA.

Many unorganised sector workers lack awareness on e-SHRAM card or labour card related benefits or registration process. Munni Devi, a domestic worker in Patna, was clueless that she can also register herself on the portal and avail labour card. Her friend Sunita Devi, who is a migrant domestic worker, shared that she is not eligible for registration as she doesn’t have a bank account. Further, more clarity on social security benefits from Universal Account Number (UAN) is needed. The portal should have information on unemployment allowance for registered unorganized sector workers. Registration related flexibilities and awareness generation initiatives are needed to increase women accessibility of e-SHRAM.

Possible Initiatives to Facilitate Women Migrant Citizens
Women are often advised not to migrate as the cities are considered more unsafe for women. It is crucial to address women migrant citizens’ and their family’s concern towards their safety by reducing risks associated with female migration; by addressing unique vulnerabilities of women migrants; and creating a supportive ecosystem for them. The national policy draft also misses to aptly recognise women migrants. Hopefully, the final draft will include measures to protect them.

For a gender sensitive migration policy, it is crucial to gather gender segregated data of migrant workers, their engagements under various occupations, sectors, period of stay etc. Many women migrant workers are engaged in sectors that lack substantial legal provision to safeguard workers’ rights. For instance, though laws governing commercial surrogacy in India was passed in 2018, several studies show exploitation of women surrogate has not been uncommon. Many of them represent poor migrant families from low income states like Bihar.

Apart from national database, specific data on reasons and patterns of internal migration among female migrant citizens is required for their mainstreaming and for creating an enabling environment at both source and destination. The recently initiated digital mega survey on migrant workers should gather required information on women migrant workers. Labour and migration legislation needs to be effectively implemented in sectors where women workers predominate. Hopefully, the e-SHRAM portal would track labour movement, protect labour’s interest and ensure that they benefit from social security schemes. Finally, the trade unions need to be revived and hold elections to have effective representation from various genders and sectors.

(The authors work for Centre for Catalyzing Change under its Sakshamaa initiative. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online)

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