No time to be a mom

For women working as domestic workers and in garment factories, their fight for survival comes in the way of them being mothers to their own children.

Citizen Matters did an article in March on the challenges of working mothers from the middle and upper middle class families. But what are the challenges faced by working mothers from the lower income group? Though on the face of it the challenges appear to be the same, these women have issues unique to their social setup.

With husbands’ incomes often not enough meet the expenses , women in low-income groups are compelled to work to support families. They juggle between managing work, home and motherhood, braving through social inequalities, chauvinism and glass ceilings to earn meager wages.

Lost motherhood

Nakalu Bande, a slum near Jayanagar 3rd Block is a colony of a few hundred houses is nestled in the midst of one of the most opulent localities in Bangalore and consists of mainly domestic workers.

In April of 2011, two boys aged six and eight died due to asphyxiation caused by an accidental fire in their home. They were locked and left alone by their parents Bhagyamma, a domestic worker and Raju, an auto rickshaw driver. Both parents were working, as they had to clear debts.

Ashwini, a mother of 16 year old daughter says she doesn’t feel like a mother. Pic: Yogaraj S Mudalgi

“We are scared for the lives of our children every moment that we leave them at home unattended but we have no other option,” says Jayamma, 31, who lives nearby. A mother of two. Jayamma’s problems are compounded by the fact that her two children aged 13 and 7 are suffering from Thalassaemia (a blood disorder) and Cenral pontine myelinolysis (a neurological disorder). They need special care which are lacking in Anganwadis. She works at six houses and her earning are spent in taking care of the medical expenses of her children.

V Lakshmi, 28, another domestic worker admitted her three year old son in a pre-nursery school so that he wouldn’t be alone. “I could not imagine the thought of living my son alone and concerned about his safety, I enrolled him in a pre-nursery even it was a little early for his age,” she says. It was easier when she had her first child, a daughter – now 8, as there was an Anganwadi nearby. Residents allege that the local area councillor closed it.

Clearly, working mothers in Nakalu Bande are rattled by the boys’ death yet are helpless in safeguarding their children.

Things have barely changed for working women of lower income groups, for decades now. Lakshmi’s mother, Kaliamma, 50, managed to look after her three children by herself and still work in absence of crèches or Anganwadis in her time. “I would tie one with a rope to the gate of the house I worked in, let another play nearby and carry the youngest with me while I worked,” she says. Her employers would constantly complain about children running about but Kaliamma had no choice.

Kaliamma, 50, had to take her children to work wherever she went. Pic: Yogaraj S Mudalgi

Even where the law mandates provision of crèches, the law is barely implemented. The Factories Act, 1948 requires that factories employing more than 30 women maintain “a suitable room or rooms for the use of children under the age of six years of such women”.

The Act mandates that the room be adequately spacious and ventilated and be sanitary. The crèche shall be under the charge of women trained in the care of children and infants. Of the more than 1000 garment factories in Bangalore, very few factories provide decent crèche facilities.

Ashwini, 32, a tailor in a garment factory and a mother of a 16-year old girl says that she has never been a mother. There is no pain in her voice when she says this, rather a matter-of-fact tone. The realisation of what she said overwhelms her and she goes silent.

Ashwini is among the lakhs of garment workers in Bangalore who have had to trade motherhood for livelihood.  A tailor at a garment factory for over 12 years, Ashwini sent her daughter, Shruthi, away to her mother’s place in Magadi when she was just a toddler so that she will be well taken care of while Ashwini goes to work. Years rolled by and her daughter grew up there. Now 16, her daughter who has come to live with her, does not feel much of a connection.

“Of the few factories that provide crèches, most of them are so poorly maintained that mothers would not want to bring their children there,” says Rukmini, 39, a former garment factory worker who now heads a garment factory workers’ union called, ‘Munnade’ that works towards welfare of garment factory workers.

Rukmini adds that employers rarely hire mothers with young children who are still being breastfed. Breastfeeding mothers will have to take breaks to feed their child and this means a slowdown in production which cannot stop at any rate so such mothers are asked to not come to work. “They are told to stay home until the children are a few years old and not breast-fed.”

“Crèches that do exist are usually located in dingy backspaces of the factories and sweepers double up as baby sitters. No nutrition, such as milk and biscuits are provided to the kids,” says Rukmini.

K C Vimala, 46, a garment factory worker living in Nayandahalli, too feels the same. A mother of two children -a girl of 18 and a boy of 14. She had to pack them off to Maddur, where her in-laws live. Her children live there now while Vimala works to manage her empty home in Bangalore. “There are very few Anganwadis in the city. A better support system is needed for working mothers with young children.”

Work hard, live poor

Kaliamma has been working as a domestic worker since the age of seven. She would earlier work in five to six houses in a day sweeping, washing clothes and utensils. Due to arthritis in her knees she now works at only one house. She recalls a time, till the nineties, when domestic workers were not paid but were only happy to work in exchange for food and clothes once a year. “We were grateful just for that – stale food and tattered clothes. Wages came much later.”

Conditions are not too different at present. “Although we receive a few hundred rupees now, it is negated by the rise in cost of living.”  Kaliamma adds,” We do not get any health benefits, pension, leaves or any other benefits which other employment sectors receive. When we become old, we are replaced by someone young.”

Conditions are no better for Vimala, a garment worker for close to 20 years, a veteran in her field. When asked about working conditions at their factories, most workers shrug the question off by saying, “Oh, it’s the usual torture”. 

On being probed further, Vimala says that being verbally abused is something they have to put up almost every day. Most garment factories run on a tight leash. Workers cannot lag behind in completing their quota of units because if they do, it might delay production on the assembly line. “Because of this, a lot of workers skip their meals or worse, not drink water when they are thirsty as they might have to use the loo and end up losing time. In some factories supervisors stand guard outside the bathrooms to monitor the time spent during loo breaks.”

Women are rarely promoted to supervising positions. The glass ceiling is impermeable and the women employees accept their fate without a second thought. “We can only move up from being a helper to a tailor,” says Yashodha, 36, a tailor for over ten years.

Unions for empowerment

Employee unions and support groups have gained impetus in the last few years, especially among the unorganised sector. They have come to realise that strength in numbers is key to better working conditions. These groups provide a platform for members to voice their grievances, concerns and collectively to fight for their rights.

Vimala (left) with her friends talks about working conditions in a garment factory. Pic: Yogaraj S Mudalgi

The greatest contribution these groups make is to arm its members with information. Members are made aware of laws, especially labour laws, fundamental rights and other rights that they are entitled to. Munnade, a registered union has a membership of close to 4000 garment workers. The union was formed last year by Rukmini, 38, a former garment worker.

“We were gullible and were taken advantage of by many employers. Now we are learning to stand up for ourselves,” says Mary. She along with 600 more domestic workers formed the Griha Karmikara Hakkina Union (Domestic Workers’ Rights’ Union) four years ago. They are now fighting for minimum wages to be set at Rs 800 per month for an hour’s work every day. “We are the backbone of the society and we want the Government to note of our plight,” she says.

A better tomorrow

In the course of this conversation at Lakshmi’s home, a male voice (her husband’s) from the next room questions this reporter. “Why are you even writing about such issues? Will it change anything? Anyway you are writing in English and none of the women here know the language. What use is it?”

The women Lakshmi, Kaliamma, Mary and Jayamma retort fiercely, “We cannot expect change overnight. More awareness is needed to highlight such issues and bring about awareness. It may not change the lives of this generation but will help the coming generations. We do not gain anything from reading our own stories. It is in the hands of those who read that can make a difference.”

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