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Gender and Class: Women in Indian Industry, 1920-1990  


Samita Sen



The study of industrialisation and industrial labour has a long history in India.  Scholars began to research different aspects of these questions very soon after the inception of modern industry in the mid-nineteenth century.  After Independence in 1947, a considerable body of ‘working-class’ histories developed.  These endeavours were dominated by concerns of modernisation, national politics and working class consciousness. Little attention was paid to questions of gender.  The common (often stated) assumption was (and still is) that the low proportion of women workers in the modern industrial sector rendered them irrelevant to stories of ‘class’.  The few women who did work in industry, mining or plantations were subsumed within the general definition of class.  A more knotty question – that of the role of women in male industrial workers’ households who worked in agriculture or petty commodity production or trade or retail ‑has not been raised at all.  Were the men workers members of a working class in their individual capacity or as heads of ‘working class families’? How do we characterise the work of wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of male industrial workers?  These questions have not been given any consideration in the prolix debates about class around which Indian labour history has so far revolved.


Question of women’s work, their role in traditional or modern manufacturing has also had relatively little attention from practitioners of women’s studies.  In economics and sociological literature, poor women are almost always of rural and peasant groups.  There has arisen, however, in the last two decades, a new interest in women’s work leading to a corpus of information about contemporary developments. Much of this information remains sparse and scattered and unconnected to long term historical trends.  This latter problem is likely to persist as long as gender issues continue to be neglected in historical investigations of labour, a neglect that is compounded by scholars of women’s history. The historian in search of women’s ‘voices’ has been limited, necessarily, to middle class literate women who left some impress of their own in the form of autobiographies, novels, essays and a prolific didactic literature. The poor and working women, invariably unlettered, did not leave their own and authored traces in historical records.  As a result, women’s historians, persuaded by arguments of ‘lack of evidence’, have marginalised issues of work and workers.  Poor and working women have fallen between the two stools of labour and women’s history -- further silenced and divested of historical agency.


And yet, were these ‘subaltern’ women absent from elite discourses? Quite the contrary.  From the late nineteenth century and upto the 1930s, a variety of elite discourses focussed obsessively on poor urban women, their work, their visibility, their sexual and marital behaviour, their childbearing and mothering practices.  While the poor and working women did not write about themselves, they were most copiously and assiduously written about by officials, employers, reformers and philanthropists, journalists, publicists and labour activists.  If we cannot hear the women’s own voices, we hear a veritable clamour of other voices, some sympathetic and some censorious, which sought to speak for and about them.  The ‘problem’ then is not ‘lack’ of evidence, but as in the case of many other historical investigations, that of the nature, the volume and the often unexpected provenance of the evidence.  There is sufficient evidence, certainly, to suggest that women were a critical segment of the industrial labour force at its inception.  Janet Harvey Kelman who wrote one of the earliest and most remarkable accounts of Indian labour associated women with the ‘tragedy’ that surrounded the ‘first efforts to introduce modern mill industry into India’.  In 1818, she writes, a group of ‘Lancashire girls’ were brought to Bengal to ‘introduce factory methods of work’ at the old Bowreah mill in Hooghly.  ‘Heavy, white-washed tombs in the rank grass of a small cemetery near the mill compound still keep in remembrance the swift death to which many of them fell victims’.[1]


This tragedy notwithstanding, cotton textile industry in Western India and the jute industry of Bengal grew apace and by the end of the nineteenth century drew out British reformists, the Manchester and Dundee lobbies on the need to regulate factory conditions.  Mary Carpenter, celebrated educationist and prison reforms campaigner, on her return from a tour of India, argued for urgent legislative intervention on behalf of women and children workers, at that stage more than a fourth of the total textile factory workforce.  The first Factories Act came in 1881, at the teeth of the mill-owners’ opposition.  From this period and upto the outbreak of the first world war, state and public interest in labour conditions remained focused on women and children.  The long and laboured controversies among the employers, reformers (both British and Indian), the provincial governments, the Government of India and that of Britain produced a rich literature on women’s working conditions and on social and gender division of labour in that period.  Alongside, industrial employers, concerned about labour supply in a period of rapid expansion, generated a veritable archive on labour.  The planters -- of Assam tea-gardens and the overseas colonies -- were heavily dependent on the state for labour recruitment and control.  And they were among the few ‘modern’ sector employers who had special need for women -- for both reproductive and productive purposes.  Their practices and policies were the key points around which questions of women’s work were discussed and elaborated.


In all these areas, the concern was with the woman in her capacity as a worker.  At this stage, legislation sought to regulate the condition of women actually engaged in factory work -- the hours of work, periods of rest, the prohibition of night work and/or the handling of machinery. These laws were for workers who were ‘special’ because they were women.  And they were special in three ways: first, they also had to perform their reproductive roles as wives and mothers; second, their physical weakness limited the kind of work suitable for them; and third, they were unable to uphold their own interests and thus needed the ‘protection’ of the state.  Even those who opposed protective legislation usually agreed that women workers had ‘special’ characteristics. For instance, jute mill-owners agreed that women should not work long hours but argued that due to the multiple shift system they did not do so anyway and therefore legislation was not necessary.  They agreed that women workers had an important familial role to play, but pointed out that their earnings were crucial to household survival.  The men workers, however, were considered not only as not having the same ‘needs’ as women but also as free and able to negotiate mutually beneficial working conditions with employers.


In this early period, those directly concerned with controversies over labour -- employers and the state -- were the most prolific recorders of labour issues.  A few concerned Indian and British reformers wrote a few accounts accounts, the most remarkable being those of Dwarkanath Ganguly and Ramkumar Vidyaratna on labour in tea plantations of Assam.  It in the latter that we find glimpses of the kind of concern over women’s labour that was to hold centre-stage after the First World War.  The exigencies of women’s sexual and reproductive roles were in conflict, these writings seem to suggest, with their recruitment as wage labour .  They dwelt on two major consequences of women’s migration: first, the depredation of the family from which the women were recruited and second, the unsuitability of plantation employment for women given, especially, their vulnerability to sexual violence by European plantation bosses.


The 1920s witnessed the proliferation of a different kind of writing about working women.  While the state and employers continued to produce material about their women workers, a group of professionals -- academics and doctors, especially -- also focused on these women as a social ‘problem’.  Kelman’s book (1923) was followed by G.M. Broughton’s (an Inspectress of Factories) (1924), several by Margaret Read (1927, 1931 and 1934), and one by C.M. Matheson (1930).  These were women writers focusing on the concerns of women workers. R.K. Das wrote a long and well-researched essay on women workers in 1931.  Other general studies of labour contained long sections on women -- P.S. Lokanathan (1929), S.G. Panandikar (1933), B. Shiva Rao (1939) and Radhakamal Mukherjee (1947).  Three European women doctors -- Drs. Francis Barnes, Dagmar Curjel and Margaret Balfour -- did extensive research on fertility and mortality among working and working class women and published several tracts between 1923 and 1935.


These writings reflect a distinct shift in the nature of public concern about and state regulation of factory labour.  It was no longer accepted that the state should protect the ‘weaker’ sections of the workforce while adult male labour dealt with the ‘market’ without any external interference.  Faith in the paramountcy of free trade over the labour market waned and the newly instituted International Labour Organisation initiated long-term efforts to create a minimum standard for labour conditions and undertake its monitoring across the globe.  There were two clear differences from the earlier period.  First, there was a move to equalise women’s and men’s working conditions by adopting similar checks of hours of work and welfare measures that were, at least ostensibly, gender neutral.  Second, a set of reforms continued to address women in specific terms but in their reproductive capacity.  Factory women were increasingly regarded not as workers with particular problems calling for separate remedies but as special kinds of mothers and wives -- ones who also worked.  Alongside debates about whether they should work or not were questions about the adverse impact of work on housewifery, child bearing and rearing.  These were directed towards isolating, and if possible remedying, the specific problems of working wives and mothers.  This shift was in consonance with the growing state discourse about the ‘family’ and the public focus on alarming rates of maternal and infant mortality in India.  Various professional and social discourses converged in the 1920s and 30s on motherhood -- both as a problem and as a solution.  Working class women were included in these concerns to the devaluation of their work roles.  Eventually, industrial employers used working class motherhood as both a practical and an ideological instrument to reduce the (female) workforce during the depression of the 1930s.  In the Bengal jute industry, for instance, the proportion of women declined by about 2 per cent between 1930 and 1940.  A steeper decline was set in motion in the coal industry when women were banned from underground work in 1928.  In plantations, they retained their share (about half to start with) much longer because of the perceived ‘feminine’ skill involved in low-paid plucking jobs.  But elsewhere in India too (Bombay and Ahmedabad) women suffered job losses.


Similar attacks on women’s jobs became more pronounced in a new round of ‘rationalisation’ undertaken in industry in the 1950s.  According to the figures published in the Annual Reports of the Indian Jute Mills Association, there was a 5 per cent decline in the proportion of women in the jute workforce between 1950 and 1955, another 4.5 per cent decline between 1955 and 1960.  By 1971, women who had been almost a fourth of the jute workforce were decimated to a bare 2 per cent of the workforce.  The decline of female labour in industries coincided with the improvement of wages and working conditions. In the jute industry, for instance, the real wages increased most rapidly from the mid-1960s to be almost doubled by the end of the 1980s.[2]

From the 1940s, academic writing on labour began to concentrate on the twin aspects of modernisation-industrialisation problem and on the issue of progressive class consciousness as evinced through the rapid unionisation of labour.  The earlier prominence given to women workers as a special category eroded with the decline in their proportion within the workforce.  The greatly diminished visibility of women workers bolstered growing ideological commitment to the notion of a cohesive and solidaristic working class.  Radhakamal Mukherjee’s pioneering book, The Indian Working Class  (1947) included a chapter on ‘Women and Child Labour’, discussions of the adverse effect of exclusion of women from underground work in mines, the implication of ‘family budgets’ and the relevance of a national minimum wage for women and children.[3]  Subsequently, however, the history of the ‘working class’ became increasingly equated with that of strikes and unionisation.  The little of academic and professional writing which still chose to focus on women, for instance the studies conducted by M. N. Rao and H.C. Ganguly (1950-51), retained the earlier emphasis on sexuality and motherhood.[4]


Women workers, thus, were being marginalised on multiple fronts: in actual exclusion from rapidly improving organised sector employment, from the political space that unionised labour aspired to and eventually occupied and even from more general public and ‘social’ concerns of the earlier decades.  Overall, we see a diminution of women’s identity as workers. This paper will address a few facets of this process.  First, the ‘organisation’ of industry and labour is directly related to the decline in women’s employment.  On the one hand, employers became less interested in women as the progress of welfare legislation reduced their cost advantage.  On the other, the nature of the legislation helped to bring their reproductive roles into prominence and created a climate of public opinion against women’s employment in industry.  Employers could then target women for retrenchment as a means of ‘rationalising’ the workforce. Second, as the process of organisation created a relatively more secure enclave of employment approaching a ‘family wage’, working class family strategy changed.  In working class households where many members previously worked in industry, the trend turned towards a single male breadwinner. But this was a tiny enclave and the proportion of families who secured a foothold in this sector was on the decline. In the less advantaged agricultural and/or the ‘unorganised’ sectors, the participation of women and children remained steady and often increased during downturns in the economy when the ‘security’ of the ‘organised’ sector failed. Such adjustments within the family economy were made possible by the continuing authority of male heads of households who were able to command the deployment of women’s labour in consonance with ‘family needs’. The male workers over ‘their’ women’s productive/reproductive activities came to be reflected in trade union policies.  The unions were also participants in the emerging public and state emphasis on women’s reproductive roles.  The significance of such a convergence lay in the development of national-level federated trade unions by political parties, which contributed to the process of ‘organisation’ of registered industries.  Labour, thus ‘organised’ earned not an inconsiderable voice in labour conditions.  This voice, when just emerging in the 1930s, accepted female retrenchment as a necessary strategy in the face of spiraling male employment.  From the 1950s, the unions played an active role in eliminating existing women and hindering women’s recruitment.  Such policies were only in part due to the prejudices of the middle class leadership, reflecting, much more importantly, the adult male workers’ status aspirations and desire for maintaining family authority. 


The paper is arranged in three sections.  The first section discusses the increasing concern with women’s familial roles from the 1920s, the second examines women’s role in labour protests to show how their roles were represented and how their modes of action were sidelined by the growth of unionisation.  The long term consequences of these two phenomena is the focus of the third and final section. This section draws on the recent research, as mentioned earlier, on contemporary trends in women’s employment in manufacturing.


Migration, Morality and Motherhood


In 1888, Ramkumar Vidyaratna’s Kulikahini [Sketches from Cooly Life] was published.  It was a fictional recreation of experiences gathered while touring Assam tea plantations.  The major thrust of this series of stories was the highly exploitative labour regime in the tea plantations.  Questions of gender and labour were, however, inextricably linked in the delineation of the central character, Adarmani, a woman tea-garden worker.  The story begins with attempts by a garden manager to recruit peasant women from north India.  He instructs his chief agent, an arkathi, to employ female recruiters.

They must say, ‘We were in Assam... there was much comfort there.... You too must come with us and you will soon be as prosperous.  As it is you are losing weight working day and night at domestic chores without food, without clothes, without a single bangle on your arms.  To top it all you receive the husband’s curses and punches.  You women are fools to endure all this.’ [5](pp. 6-7)


The author then goes on to depict how two women recruiters, Ramuna and Jhamuna, successfully recruits Adarmani, the wife of a poor peasant, and her two daughters.  The recruiters found Adar in a particularly vulnerable state.  Her husband had gone away with their son in search of work becuase the rent was in arrears and interest had to be paid to the moneylender.  The recruiters chose this moment to ‘entice’ Adar.  They adopted the two-pronged startegy recommended by the manager.  First, they held out attractions of rich clothes, ornaments and a good life.  This was then contrasted with the misery and drudgery of Adar’s present existence as a mere ‘wife’.  One of the women said persuasively,’Your husband thinks that a little rice and a coarse cloth is enough to keep you tied to him for life.  And kicks and punches are all the ornaments you need.’  She also explicitly construed Adar’s decision to migrate to the tea plantation as a revocation of male authority, ‘Would your husband have let you go if he knew?’[6] Ramkumar Vidyaratna wishes to make the point that ‘a little rice and a cloth’ accompanied by the husband’s kicks and punches were indeed a better option for Adar than her inevitable fate in the teagardens.  In succumbing to the recruiters’ wiles, Adar was not only revoking male authority but was inviting its terrible consequences: hard work, poor pay and sexual exploitation in the gardens.  He laid out in graphic detail the conditions which led women to repudiate their home and husbands to go to distant Assam.  There was economic hardship, physical strain, battering and above all male control and subjugation.  He repeated these arguments when Ramuna persuaded a wavering Adarmani to take the final step towards Assam.  The author’s imaginative reconstruction of Adar’s hardships in the village and at home as expressed through Ramuna’s rather phony dialogues is laden with a heavy and obvious irony.  His foreknowledge that conditions in Assam were in every aspect worse than Adar’s present difficulties were meant to be read into Ramuna’s diatribe against ‘men’ (husbands): ‘Men in general are terrible.... They die of envy when they hear that you will be able to earn Rs. 5 or 6, that you will able to live like a queen’.[7]  There is a tension in the many long passages in this vein: on the one hand, the author quite evidently presumes that a kind of a declaration of war against the husband would, credibly, appeal to Adar; on the other, he condemns Adar’s susceptibility as ill-informed, ill-judged and illegitimate.


Adar’s story underlines and exemplifies women’s transition from traditional (male) familial authority to the new sites of colonial production where women were vulnerable to heightened labour and sexual exploitation.  Over time, the urban world appeared like a cauldron of vice, crime and disease while by contrast the rural world gained idyllic characteristics in increasingly nostalgic re-telling.  The sharpening contrast drawn between rural/urban and peasant/worker had pronounced gender overtones and poor urban woman became its concentrated focus.


From the 1920s, the condition of women in the factories and the mill towns began to provoke a variety of discussions.  Kelman explains,


In spite of the ignorance that prevails widely with regard to the conditions of women’s labour in India, a real public interest has been aroused.  This has been evident for a long time, but it has become much more conscious since the publication of the Convention of the Washington Conference and the consequent discussions with regard to the extent to which these can be applied to Indian conditions.  Outstanding instances of Welfare Work, Medical research and the rising of Trade Union Organization have each helped to spread the interest. [8]


The Washington Convention (1919) provided for compulsory maternity leave and benefit for women industrial workers.  The Government of India pleaded that such a law was unworkable in India and was requested by ILO to furnish information about the condition of women workers.  This prompted, for the first time, special and directed drives to generate knowledge about women workers in industries.  Three women, G.M. Broughton, Dr. Francis Barnes and Dr. Dagmar Curjel were designated to enquire into ‘conditions before and after childbirth’ of women workers in the North-west, Bombay cotton textile industry and the Bengal industries.  Ironically, these initiatives, prompted by the well-meaning effort to bring to Indian working women the benefits of maternity leave with compensation, nevertheless provided some of the most abiding and powerful negative images of Indian women workers.  Broughton’s report has not been traced. Doubtless some of her findings are recorded in her book mentioned earlier. Barnes in a small report gave a detailed description of the unhygienic and overcrowded conditions in which poor urban women gave birth.  This and her finding that ninety per cent working class children were fed opium have assumed the proportions of legend.  Dagmar Curjel left a report of several hundred pages including her filled-in questionnaires.  Her papers have become a major source of information about Bengal’s working women.


Her report was the first comprehensive statement, most oft-quoted, about the questionable and ‘non-family’ character of jute mill women.


Imported labour usually brings it womenfolk with them into jute and cotton mills but in the majority of cases are not the wives of the men with whom they live.  It is not possible for a women worker to live or in many cases work without male protection.... and practically all such Bengalee women found in the mills are degraded women or prostitutes.[9]


Curjel’s report also contained formidable evidence on appalling working conditions and a clear recommendation for a blanket application of maternity benefit legislation, but what was picked up and widely quoted was the alarming picture of female promiscuity and a breakdown of the family she had drawn.  It was from her report that the ‘non-family’ character of urban Indian labour was discovered and the image of the women ‘who were not the wives’ of the men with whom they lived was passed on to posterity. 


Indeed these were not far from Ramkumar Vidyaratna’s concerns about peasant women being lured into immoral conditions of waged work.  In the urban situation, however, there was a further ‘objective’ ballast to such characterisations: the low sex ratio in the mills and in the urban population.  The fact that fewer women migrated to the urban areas became both the cause and the consequence of poor urban women’s degradation. Janet Kelman gave perhaps the least morally laden descriptions of the phenomenon:


The most serious problems connected with the effect of labour conditions on moral standards arise from this division of families.  The breaking-up of home in a country where family life bulks so largely in the civilization cannot but bring evil results with it.  There are different moral standards in India from those acknowledged in Europe.  A woman may be a wife though she is not the only one, but the relations between men and women that are brought about by the influx into the cities of immense numbers of men are not in accordance with Indian standards of morality.... [10]


By the 1940s, however, such arguments, by force of repetition, had acquired more power.  Radhakamal Mukherjee said,

a serious disparity between the proportions of sexes is responsible for prostitution and spread of venereal diseases.... Such disparity is the largest in the mining towns but all industrial towns show the preponderance of single male workers who have left their families behind.... [11]

It was believed that social sanctions against women’s mobility and visibility were effective deterrents to family migration. Men, who migrated to the city to supplement their household income, would not risk their status which influenced their foothold in the village by bringing their wives to the city.  Dagmar Engels, in her study of women in Bengal, refered to these arguments.


Migrants did not bring their wife and family with them to the mill areas because of traditional Indian cultural values.  Men from Bihar and UP said that they would lose their status in the village if they dared to bring their wives to mill areas in Calcutta.[12]


Abdul Hakim told the Royal Commission in 1930, ‘People of my district do not bring family to industrial areas... if I brought my family people would laugh at me.’  Over decades, this statement has been widely quoted to ‘prove’ that respectable women did not migrate to the cities and therefore, by extension, that those who did migrate were prone to promiscuity.  To quote once again from Radhakamal Mukherjee’s masterly descriptions:

The ‘single’ man comes back to the village tainted and diseased, while the women workers lose their self-respect and virtue and are looked down by the village population.  In the thousand slums of the Indian industrial centres, manhood is, unquestionably, brutalized, womanhood dishonoured and childhood poisoned at its very source.  The village social code is repelled at this and discourages workers from bringing their wives with them into the industrial centre.[13]


Such arguments leave unexplained why better-paid workers (including those from Hakim’s district), especially the sardars, often brought their wives with them.


The oral evidence collected by various labour commissions provides a different picture.  It appears that women who suffered impoverishment through inadequacy or loss of male earnings by desertion or barrenness or widowhood opted for migration since economic opportunities in the village were reduced.  The same applied to women who wished to physically escape oppressive fathers and husbands.  Such women figured prominently in the female workforce.  Except one, all the women interviewed by the commission of 1891 were widows who held that all their colleagues were widows too and that widowhood alone drove Bengali women into mill work.[14]  Even in the 1930s, the situation had not changed greatly.  Narsama Kurmi came to work in the jute mill because ‘after the death of her husband the witness found that she could not earn a living in her native place, and her brothers were not willing to receive her back into the family on account of the extra work it would give them to keep her’.  She had no children, she came to Calcutta alone and secured work in Howrah Jute Mill.  Others like Bochu Nilkantha came to Serampore with his mother when his father died.  Noor Mohammed’s mother ‘compelled him to join the mill’ when his father died.  Mangari came to Titagarh with her husband who ‘died of cholera’ and she subsequently found work in the preparing department of the mill.  Her ‘widowed mother’ worked in the same department.  Mangari’s sister was ‘a barren lady’ who worked in the same mill.[15]


Many of these women came to the city alone and set up house with one of the many ‘single’ men who worked in the mills; and some came to the mill towns ‘with men who were not their husbands’.  Since many of these women migrated outside the family context, they were construed as aberrant.  They became objects of elite derision and came to personify the breakdown of morality in the city’s overcrowded tenements.  The working class neighbourhoods became associated with the collapse of caste and gender hierarchies.  The Bengali women, especially, were often described as prostitutes.  Doubtless, some migrants sought refuge in the impersonality of urban life after transgressing kin or caste rules in the village.  In elite descriptions, these men and women acquired a particularly prominent profile.  G.M. Broughton, the Lady Inspector of Factories, explained


[A] man may be outcasted in the village, on account of having married a woman of lower caste than himself or he has given his daughter in marriage in this way.  Or again he may have broken either advertantly or inadevrtantly, any of the other caste observances rigidly enforced in his village.  In order to escape the social ostracism which is the inevitable consequence... the man has to leave.  In a factory or mine he will be able to mingle with men and women of various castes and creeds who will not look askance at him.[16]


S.G. Panandikar also elaborated the notion that the city was a hospitable refuge for those fleeing traditional social sanctions in the villages. 


[I]n the village standards of behaviour and morals are laid down by social and religious customs and are enforced by the village communities through their panchayats.... If a villager violates any of these standards he is not allowed to get water from the well, none gives him employment or sells him even the necessaries of life.... [W]hen he migrates to the town he discovers the absence of similar standards in the industrial community... even if some groups in the community have brought their standards with them they have no power to enforce them.... A substantial portion of the recruits consists of the reckless and adventurous elements of the village and they rebel against the customary standards and assert their own will.[17]


The evidence from official documents and independent researchers suggests that it were the ‘single women’ and some male migrants in ‘entaglements with local women’ who settled most readily in the mill towns.  These women could not return to their villages, according to Dagmar Curjel.[18] These women were more completely ‘proletarianised’ and their ‘rural link’ irrevocably broken.  There were also workers from the bottom of the social scale -- the Muchis and the Chamars -- who took more readily to permanent settlements around the mills.  The women of these castes were more readily de-linked from their villages: ‘[a] large proportion of their women came to stay’.  R.N. Gilchrist, the Labour Officer of the Government of Bengal, observed that second generation immigrants working in the jute mills were born in the mill lines or in the neighbourhoods.  They rarely returned to their native village.  They were the ‘illegitimate children of jute men and women workers... and a large number of these women and children, who are born of the [temporary] unions, never leave the areas where they work’.[19]


In the 1920s and 30s, argues Radha Kumar, the concept of the woman as mother gained ascendance. And the focus was on ‘the working class woman as mother of the second generation proletarian’. She argues, in the context of the Bombay textile industry, ‘the family assumed vital importance for administrators, planners and employers’. This importance is evident in the periodic family budget surveys, investigations into maternal and infant welfare. The preoccupation with the ‘non-family’ character of jute mill labour would then seem another expression of the ‘search for a family’ being undertaken in Bombay.  Kumar argues that the 1920s saw parallel efforts at ‘rationalising’ the labour process as well as the process of reproduction, i.e., the family.[20]  R.S. Chandavarkar is sceptical of the possibility of either mill owners or the colonial state being concerned about the ‘family’ or even about ‘motherhood’.[21] It is highly plausible, however, that the discourse on ‘motherhood’ came at a convenient juncture for mill-owners who were seeking ways of ‘rationalising’ (read downsizing) the workforce.  The concern with motherhood not only gave them a morally justifiable argument but also allowed them to operate within an ideological space that male workers and trade union leaders shared.


In Bengal, moralistic perceptions about working women were invoked by mill owners to postpone maternity benefit legislation for two decades. In the late 1920s, mills in Calcutta started their own voluntary schemes, partly as a means of staving off stiffer legal provision and partly in order to ensure closer control and supervision of women workers. When in the wake of the Royal Commission (1930-31) maternity benefit legislation became inevitable, Dr. Margaret Balfour confirmed the mill-owners’ argument that the main need of the hour was not statutory maternity leave with compensation but ‘welfare work’. Drawing on Curjel’s earlier statement, Balfour argued that because the men did not bring their own wives with them many of them... form temporary alliances with other women, whom after a time they may desert leaving the women to support any children that may be born. The women... may be said to fall into three classes.  There are the wives of male workers, some of whom work in the mills and of whom do not. There are the widows or women apart from their husbands led by necessity to seek for work and these are too often forced or persuaded into temporary alliances. Lastly, there are the prostitutes. It is the middle class who are struggling to support themselves honestly for whom great sympathy must be felt.... Welfare work among women would probably do more than anything else to improve the moral conditions.[22]


Neither Curjel nor Balfour were unsympathetic.  They repeatedly emphasised the need for maternity benefit legislation.  But their characterisation of women workers helped the employers to argue against legislation.  An employers’ association, the Bengal Mahajan Sabha, laid the failure of maternity benefit schemes on women workers themselves: ‘The peculiar type of female labour in the jute mills... does not conduce to the creation of schemes which presuppose normal family life’. Another, the Narayanganj Chamber of Commerce, argued that the ‘type of labour’ did not need maternity benefit since ‘normal family life was notoriously absent’. And also that, ‘child motherhood’, ‘indiscriminate procreation’ and ‘unmarried’ motherhood were ‘conditions that exist’ and had to be taken into account in framing legislation. [23]


While these arguments did not hold back maternity benefit legislation indefinitely, by the time it was passed in Bengal in 1939, the connection between working women and sexual immorality had assumed enormous proportions in public imagination.  It fed, on the one hand, the working class family’s desire to withdraw women from industrial employment when male wages improved; and, on the other hand, facilitated the employers’ strategy of eliminating women from the workforce.  The proportions of women had embarked on its declining trend already by 1939, but from the 1950s, managers, trade unionists and policy-makers shared the conviction that it was legislation that ‘caused’ this decline.

It is significant to note that the proportions of women workers in the total factory population dropped at a fast rate immediately after the Bengal Maternity Benefit Act, 1939, was put on the Statute Book and again when the provision for maintenance of a creche by the employer was incorporated... Women labour were previously employed and are still employed mostly for the reason that they are chepaer than their male counterpart.  Progressive labour legislation... has made women labour costlier these days.  Hence the general attitude of the factory management regarding employment of women is to ‘do away with the women labour with a view to avoid in future expenses on special welfare benefits for women’. [24]


Such categorical statements notwithstanding, most careful enquiry fails to establish a direct relationship between passing of benefit, ‘protective’ or other ‘welfare’ legislation and the decline in women workers.  Rather, it appears that such decline coincided with ‘rationalisation’ drives. It could be argued that these legislation were deployed as justification by employers in periods of labour squeeze rather than constituting the actual cause for retrenching women workers.


Women and working class politics


The factories, mills and mines, which undertook the first large-scale retrenchment of women in the 1930s, were also to be the nucleus of the ‘formal’ sector covered by state regulation. These comprised the ‘organised’ sector not only because they were subjected to record and registration, but because, by the 1960s, their labour grew to be almost fully unionised with considerable bargaining strength vis-a-vis employers and the state.  Historical accounts of this strongly assertive labour force has provided the obvious ground for demonstrating the ‘making’ of the Indian working class. Most historians have seen these developments as the flowering of ‘working class consciousness’. The underlying assumption is that these processes ‑ unionisation and successful collective bargaining– are gender neutral. Evidence suggests quite the contrary. The story of class formation is rendered gender neutral through a concentrated focus on successfully organised workers. The story is construed on a circular logic in which the gender identity of workers is left unmarked: (men) workers have worked in factories; factory workers have been unionised; and unionised workers have self-consciously asserted themselves as working class.  Yet, if it were male workers who constituted the ‘working class’, then, of course, one primary axis along which the ‘working class’ developed was gender. It were male workers who were successfully ‘organised’, unionised and brought within the purview of regulated wages and working conditions.  These men strengthened their stranglehold over prized jobs in the organised sector through various exclusionary strategies. The process of organisation went hand in hand with masculinisation. Indeed, it could be argued, women’s marginalisation was imbricated in the nature and development of organised working class politics.


It is not as though women were absent altogether from the formal sector. Indian factory workers were only predominantly male. In the early 1920s, women were about 15-20 per cent of the workforce in textile mills, nearly half and more than half of the workforces of mines and plantations. Their proportions began to decline from the 1930s. Even in the 1930s, women were not invariably ‘docile’ or compliant workers.  They also forged solidarities, sometimes with men workers and sometimes against them, and they undertook collective action, sometimes separately and sometimes in alliance with male-dominated trade unions. How then did women become so irrelevant to the increasingly powerful male-dominated unions within a period of about thirty years?


There is a history, though not much told, of women workers’ protests. There are also a variety of tense and uneasy representations of their militancy, both in contemporary and historical accounts. The researcher has to read them, as the cliche goes, ‘against the grain’, in order to see how women workers, as active historical agents, negotiated their gender and class identities.  The problem, in this case, is that the evidence points in opposite directions. In much of contemporary writing and from oral evidence, we get two diametrically different images.  On the one hand, women are described as ‘loyal’ workers, docile and manageable; on the other, in fragments and glimpses, frequent enough to attract attention, we come across the image of violent, aggressive and assertive women who took leading role in confrontations with the management and even the police. Both these images have to be considered in some detail in the specific context of their representation.


By and large, contemporary official and union records of working class political activities do not mention women at all.  Descriptions of meetings, demonstrations, strikes, or even violent crowds, rarely contain specific reference to women or to individuals as women.  Public meetings, in which women participated, were habitually described as if they were composed entirely of men, unless women were extremely prominent and therefore attracted attention. Strikes too were described without mention of women, though they must have been part of them. The term ‘men’ was presumed to include women, while other terms like ‘hands’ or ‘workers’ or even more commonly used notations like ‘mob’ or ‘crowd’ bypassed the question altogether.  Addresses in leaflets, for instance, presumed an entirely male readership. Appeals to solidarity were addressed to the fraternity of workers.  Trade unions imagined the working class as a homogeneous and solidaristic male population, an imagination inscribed in their very language.[25]  Women, when they were considered at all, were often expected to play a negative role in the labour movement.


The negative expectation from women found further amplification in both employers’ and unions’ stereotyping women as ‘docile’ and manageable workers.  In such a discourse, women’s militancy was usually displaced by victimhood. Thus they were portrayed as ‘victims’, in turns, of managerial, or state, or union violence.  In all these cases, the attempt was to tap the mobilising potential of the ‘woman wronged’.  Frequent references to atrocities by managers or the police were an easy and quick way to gain public sympathy and strengthen resistance.  Equally, managers talked about male workers inflicting violence on otherwise tractable and compliant women workers to delegitimise union activities. The ‘woman as victim’ was a powerful image because it personalised political resistance and often successfully harnessed public outrage and working class anger in support of strikes.  But these portrayals were also double-edged in that they contributed to the passive and powerless image of women.  Women’s agency in moments of protest could be and often was reduced to ‑or even erased by ‑effete images of sexual violation or suffering motherhood.  Thus even when women initiated strikes, newspaper and official reportage focused, not on their grievances and demands, but on the brutalities perpetrated on them.  In writing about women, the image of the victim and martyr came more readily to the scribe.  In such reports, the fate of victimhood loomed larger than the act of protest.  Let us take an instance from Bengal: the Ludlow Mill strike of 1928 came in two phases.  In the first stage, all the workers had gone on strike demanding the dismissal of two oppressive jamadars and asking for a wage raise.  While the men were out in a meeting, management agents came into the mill lines and persuaded the women to join work on a verbal agreement to meet their demands.  The strike was broken.  When the mill management did not fulfil its promise, the women, unilaterally, went on strike.  Before the men and the union had mobilised, the management, in a pre-emptive action, arrested some of the ring-leaders including six Telegu-speaking women of the preparing department.  A large contingent of women marched to the local thana  to demand their release.  The police attacked the women and a fracas ensued.  In reporting this incident, all the leading newspapers highlighted a single incident when a young child was separated from the mother who had carried the child at the demonstration.  Ananda Bazar Patrika screamed the headline, ‘The Infant torn from Mother’s Arms’ and went on to say, ‘after this, the other women workers were beaten up ruthlessly.  They were pulled by their hair and dragged up.... One 60-year-old woman was beaten to unconsciousness... a one-year-old baby was torn from his mother’s breast and flung to the ground.’ (11 and 13 June 1928)  The case became so emotive that the District Magistrate, Gurusaday Dutta, went to investigate the case.[26]


The imaging of women as victims of managerial violence became more effective when linked with the metaphor of sexual violation.  This is not to argue that women workers were not subjected to sexual molestation, as indeed the earlier description did not intend to underplay managerial and police brutalities.  There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that violence was frequently used against women.  But, particular incidents of such violence could acquire heightened political significance in different contexts.  The marking out men in authority like managers, supervisors, the police or even durwans and sardars as sexual predators afforded a potent and personalised symbol of exploitation. Accusations of sexual abuse against European managers and supervisors provided the basis for collective action, sometimes by women themselves, and often with the help and support of male workers.


In protesting against sexual abuse, women often invoked the notion of honour (izzat) which had enormous appeal for the working community.  Invoking potential anger against sexual abuse to muster working class solidarity, however, meant that women workers were acting in their capacity as workers to reinscribe their gender oppression.  The notion of honour, embedded in a cultural discourse that privileged above all women’s chastity and ‘purity’, was a particularly male conception.  Therein lay its power to tap men’s emotions and attract their support.  Thus, women workers sought to negotiate the contradiction within which they were situated vis-a-vis managers and working-class men.  The gains were obvious -- the support of fellow workers in their protests against sexual abuse.  However, they were drawing on a notion of honour in which they were a mere vehicle for assertion of male status and power. Women were incapable of agency in this discourse, which depicted them as passive and powerless.  Such a notion of honour invoked, inevitably, the ‘protection’ of male workers against threatening managers and their agents. 


But that such ‘protection’ was a fragile refuge and that honour like many other instruments was double-edged were proved repeatedly.  The male notion of honour was constructed, typically, in the context of the family.  But it was susceptible to extension from the corporate family to a wider community. And in the latter context, women became the sites on which communities traded insults, ‘honour’ assuming a highly symbolic and codified meaning in battles between workingmen.  Thus, women did often invoke ‘honour’ as a mode of resistance, but this same notion could be deployed by men workers with women as the passive sites on which imageries of ‘protection’ and ‘violation’ were played out.  Notably, the ‘community’ on which women’s ‘honour’ was inscribed was never static.  When women successfully invoked honour to rally support to their cause, this community was co-terminus with class.  But it was not always so.  The construction of community and the encapsulation of its honour could be defined by language, religion or habitat.  The boundaries of community, shifting continually across the interstices of these definitions were drawn and redrawn in moments of crisis and protest.  At times, ‘honour’ of women was subsumed within the community and grist to the mill of communal conflicts and rivalries.  The emphases on societal constructions of women’s honour that were essentially male reinforced the passive and powerless image of the working-class woman.  The role of the victim was extended, from subjection to state and managerial brutality in moments of class conflict to a comprehensive vulnerability within and outside shifting categories of community.[27]


The extreme vulnerability and oppressive situation of the working class woman can not be overstated.  Nevertheless, they acquired the reputation being excessively violent, aggressive and capable of leadership, collective action as well as individual intiative.  We find mention of such women from the beginning of the history of industrialisation, but they acquired a special edge and prominence in the 1920s.  Kelman said of the Bombay cotton mill women,

They have...  great power of co-operative action along lines that already appeal to them and can combine effectively.  This can be gathered from the frequency with which it is said that the women women must be humoured of their husbands are to be retained as workers in the mills.[28]


She cites a case where women workers collected the money and hung a clock in their room.  They refused to let the management pay for it or have anything to do with it.  They may have feared that the management would tamper with the time.  The attempt to reduce wages and workers in winding and reeling, which were women’s departments, led, in the twenties and thirties, to a series of strikes spearheaded by women.


In March 1926, women colour winders in the Rachel Sassoon Mill went on strike against being made to use cheese-winding machines and remained out for five days.  On 2 January 1928, women winders of the Jacob Sassoon Mill refused to work because the notice posted outside said that from 1 February their wage rates were to be reduced in order to bring them down to standard rates.  About 250 women stayed away from work.  In the afternoon of 2 January, the spinners joined them.  Next morning, all the workers went on strike.  This sparked off the general strike of 1928.  In reporting the strike, the Labour Gazette sought to distinguish between the women’s grievance and the causes of the general strike. The women’s original dispute was about the reduction of wages in the winding department but its extension to other mills, said the Gazette, was due to opposition to the Indian Textile Tariff Board’s recommended system of working.  On the one hand, women’s specific initiative is recorded, but subtly undermined by association with narrower interests vis-a-vis a more generalised ‘class’ issue.  But these strikes confirm the especially adverse impact of rationalisation on women’s departments as well as women’s ability to begin and sustain collective action on ‘economic’ issues.  In fact, as the crisis deepened, many mills had to close down and others rapidly reduced workers in winding and reeling.  Between August 1932 and 1933 there were twelve strikes by women against reduction in wages and retrenchment.  Women workers went on strike on 9 February 1935 in Jacob Sassoon Mill demanding an increase in wages and the dismissal of the winding master, who, they said, was harassing them.  It lasted two days and they resumed work ‘unconditionally’.  A week later they went on strike against the introduction of a nine hours’ day starting at 7.30 a.m.  While this accelerated frequency of strikes stemmed from a heightened sense of grievance, their greater effectiveness and sustainability was due to their ability to unionise.  Between late 1930 and 1932, unions intervened in all strikes by women.  The Girni Kamgar Union and the Bombay Textile Labour Union realised the potential of women’s collective action.  The Sassoon Alliance silk mill strike by women in 1932 was sustained over 5 months because the union played an active part in setting up a strike fund and distributing rations.[29]


Women in cotton textile industry in Bombay thus took collective initiative when the ‘women’s departments’ were threatened and they often won the support of the major textile workers’ union.  But women workers in other industrial centres did not share this experience.  The jute mill women suffered more than most male workers in the limited mechanisation planned and executed in the mid-thirties.  In 1941, in the Anglo-India (Middle) Jute Mill, Jagaddal, 118 women were retrenched from the preparing department.  Ninety-three roll formers and feeder-banks had been introduced between the breaker and the finisher cards and first drawings.  Women did the feeding and they were all dismissed.  These jobs were now associated with complex machinery and higher productivity and regarded as more skilled and better paid.  The manager employed 18 men in the place of the women: services of men are required’ because ‘heavier loads’ needed to be carried.  The net result of the changeover, succinctly expressed by the IJMA, was the retrenchment of 125 women and the employment of 22 men.[30]


The indifference to (and indeed complicity with) women’s retrenchment of trade unions in Bengal was in marked contrast to trade union practice in Bombay.  In both cases, however, women workers were associated with ‘spontaneous’ strikes at a time when the labour movement was moving towards ‘organisation’.  This was perhaps more marked in the case of jute mills where women resisted unionisation even in the sixties and even when formally unionised preferred to act outside it and on the basis of personalised relationships forged within the mills or in the neighbourhoods where they lived.  Prior to the growth of a strong trade union movement, which was delayed much longer in the case of Bengal compared to Bombay, all workers acted in manners more or less ‘spontaneous’.  They protested over immediate or relatively short-term issues like ad hoc demands over wage hikes, holidays, dismissals or restoration of allowances.  Also demands for dismissals of oppressive sardars or other mill staff who had ‘insulted’ workers’ sparked off sudden strikes. Some strikes broke out in respsonse to wage cuts, perceived interference in customs like the conduct of religious festivals.  These strikes were usually disorganised, sectional and prone to individual and group violence targeted at the state, the police, the management, and in some cases, against other workers.  The Bengalis targeted up-country men in the late 1890s when migrants were crowding into mills depressing wages.  The Hindus and Muslims were engaged in several riots in mill neighbourhoods since the late 1890s and especially in the 1920s.  Strikers and ‘loyal’ men were always prone to attack from each other at the picket lines, at the mill gates and in working class quarters and settlements.  These ‘protests’ followed no distinctive pattern and when women protested on or against much the same issues -- harassment, wage cuts, gate-passes or acts of managerial, supervisory or clerical staff -- they too adopted similar tactics.  Like other workers they were apt to reach for the broom or the stick, chase the supervisor or to walk out of the mill.


The balance, however, changes when unionisation made headway.  The male workers were progressively organised, especially after the general strike of 1937.  Strikes were less violent, better prepared, better led and often reached the negotiation table where the middle class leaders dealt directly with Government and mill authorities.  The nature of demands changed.  Trade unions bargained for industry-wide demands, long-term issues of welfare measures, insurance and labour legislation.  The leaders believed, sincerely, that these changes were in the long term interests of workers and achieved higher gains from collective action.  But women tended to remain outside the ambit of trade union organisation.


Even in the 1950s and 60s women tended to protest over immediate issues and without support of unions.  Their ‘irrationality’, which the unions failed to curb while they remained of some numerical importance in the industry, was in part a response to the union’s indifference to their specific interests.  But their activities have left an abiding impression in the collective memory of the jute industry.  Workers, union activists, managers and supervisors talk about strong and aggressive women who were apt to make quick use of the broom.  Such women rejected the discipline not only of the factory but its counterpart, the union, too.  There is much ambiguity in the way these women are represented.  At one level, there is considerable admiration for the courage women displayed and often a great deal of gratitude.  This was evident in Bejoy Hazra’s account of how women surrounded him and escorted him to and from the mill for days to protect him against arrest.[31]  Reports of strikes and ‘disturbances’, however, also dwelt on adversarial women in order to amplify female deviancy.  Women workers were regarded as sexually deviant and managers, the police and even union officials were discomfited by rough and disorderly women in the public space.  This was in strong and marked contrast to middle class urban women’s participation in picketing and demonstrations.  These women drew on the moral force of nationalism, especially through Gandhi’s encouragement in twenties and thirties. Factory women, however, were seen as ‘public women’ not only because they worked in the public world of production but also in their association with prostitution.  When women strikers violated gender norms by taking to the streets – a symbolically male space but also frequented by the prostitute –women’s labour militancy could be undermined by these derogatory associations.[32]


Over three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, women became increasingly marginal in working class politics.  With the growth of trade unionism, their ‘spontaneous’ modes of protest came under renewed attack, not only from determined employers but also from well-meaning union leaders.  But the unions did not espouse their special grievances nor did they make any effort to include women within the ambit of union activity.  Women’s inability to find a space within the powerful trade unions reduced their ability to resist directed and gendered retrenchment policies of employers.  Their share in formal sector employment was sharply reduced, increasing women’s dependence on male income and reinforcing male authority within the household.  This long-term trend became increasingly entrenched, even heightened, and values of female dependence were remarkably resilient in the face of pressures from the labour market.


Recent trends in women’s work: Identity and Autonomy


The ‘organised’ workforce has been reduced to less than ten percent in India in the last decade. The ‘formal’ sector is under considerable attack.  There is a great deal of concern regarding the impact of these developments on women.  At a National Seminar on Policies and Strategies for Working Women in the Context of Industrial Restructuring (New Delhi, 1997), Gita Sen emphasised that the new economic regime of the 1990s creates two simultaneous disadvantages for poor women in India.  On the one hand, they face increasing pressures to earn from petty self-employment, in the informal sector and in production for larger industries.  On the other hand, crumbling social security systems force women to revert to being primary care-givers and responsible for the well-being of their communities.  This coincides with a regeneration of so-called ‘Asian’ values, which glorify women’s multiple roles as mother, wives, contributors to the family economy and good citizens. ‘Globalisation’ thus ‘demands “squaring the circle” by making women “choose” to work within the home and in the informal sector’.[i]  In a study of the electronics industry which employs a substantive proportion of women, Amrita Chhacchi shows how the swiftly changing patterns in this industry have led to large-scale forced and illegal retrenchment.  She argues that the loss of better-paid and secure factory jobs impact more on women since they are less able to find alternative livelihood.  Self-employment, in particular, routinely offered as the panacea for industrial restructuring, is difficult for women even if they have skills and/or capital.[ii] Socially held and internalised values of gender division of labour prevent women from setting up repairing shops or driving auto-rickshaws which are men’s most preferred alternatives.[[iii]]


Such retrenchment, however, impacts directly on very few women.  The organised workforce is tiny, and women are a negligible proportion of it.  For the majority of women, the impact of the challenges to organised industry is indirect.  This indirect impact is two-fold and in opposing directions.  As members of male organised workers’ households, women are likely to be affected adversely by the losses of jobs, security and/or income in that sector.  Indeed some of them might be forced into the labour market themselves, which they perceive as a misfortune and on many counts.  Their work is likely to be in the informal sector -- poorly rewarded and not full compensation for the loss in male earnings; their ‘going out to work’ itself involves a loss of status; and undertaking paid work cuts into the reproductive work they earlier undertook towards improving the family’s standard of living. 


Many scholars have emphasised a different aspect of the liberalisation question. They argue that liberalisation has exacerbated existing negative trends in the economy and that many of the so-called effects of SAP represent the outcomes of processes which in place long before SAP was initiated.[iv]  The story of retrenchment and job loss thus needs qualification.  While secure and privileged workers, women and men, in the more traditional manufacturing sector are under threat, in some new non-traditional export-oriented industries, women’s employment opportunities have been expanding since the 1980s.  These opportunities are being availed by new categories of women, who are for the first time entering, in some significant numbers, the manufacturing labour force.  This seems to be the case in the ‘modern’ gem-cutting industry in Tamil Nadu.[v] Parents are delaying marriage of daughters and accepting their employment even when it involves long daily commuting or long-distance migration.  Though a highly restricted phenomena, a beginning is being made in the creation of a labour pool of unmarried young women.  These and other married women, it is feared, will undersell their labour and erode the bargaining advantage won by organised labour through over a century of struggle.  It is believed that MNCs and export-oriented industries are committed to ‘flexible’ working and will automatically gravitate towards the least organised, most vulnerable and most flexible element in the labour market, the women.


This is the context in which the term ‘feminisation’ has gained currency.  But it is used in relation to the labour force in two different ways.  It can indicate the employment of larger numbers of women so that the gender profile of the labour force, or a particular segment of it, actually changes in favour of women.  It can indicate, however, a very different process whereby the nature of jobs change.  From more secure and regular employment, the economy shifts to kinds of employment more associated with women, informalised, casualised, irregular, lower paid and insecure.  In the latter case, both women and men workers are forced into this ‘feminising’ pattern. 


The 1970s witnessed a clear case of the first phenomenon with the rise of the so-called New International Division of Labour.  In the advanced industrialised countries of the west, technological advance made steady inroads into male craft-skills and allowed fragmentation of production processes.  The rising transactional costs of labour in these countries led the MNCs to relocate their operations and to shift the labour-intensive parts of production to ‘Third world’ countries.  In the latter, women, especially young unmarried women, provided not only cheap labour, they also offered the crucial flexibility that mobile international capital required to serve their volatile markets.  Thus, in the seventies and eighties many East and South East Asian countries experienced a ‘feminisation’ of factory work. Employers depended heavily on the ‘cheap’ and ‘docile’ labour of young unmarried women. This has also been the case in the Bangladesh garment industry.  Women constitute some 60 per cent of the total workforce (while they are 7 per cent of the non-export-oriented industries’ labour force).  Researchers argue that a perceived traditional feminine skill in sewing, cheapness, flexibility and docility are the reasons why garment industry employers have shown a strong preference for a predominantly female workforce.[vi]


There was some sectoral expansion in women’s employment in the seventies and eighties.  First, there was some growth in non-agricultural employment (NAE) in the rural sector. Public sector spending in rural areas, both through development programmes and through a spread effect from spending by employees of the rural public sector, resulted in a wide range of NAE.  Economic liberalisation resulted in a significant cutback on rural public sector spending and low-income rural women were pushed back into low-paid casual agricultural work.


There was also some increase in women’s employment in other sectors.  Upto the eighties, the MNC had a restricted career in India: the emphasis on the diversification of economic activities, centralised planning and state control were inimical to the flexibilities desired by international capital.  But Nirmala Banerjee points out that while India’s economy, under the leadership of a strong national bourgeoisie, remained inwardly oriented and low in export earnings, there was a growing emphasis on export of non-traditional items like garments, leather, food products, toys and jewellery.  India’s labour laws compared well with advanced industrialised countries and the political power of organised labour was strong.  But the main workers in the new sectors were unorganised, often piece-rated female labour in sweat-shops or in home-based work.  In addition, the 1970s and 80s also witnessed an increase in women’s employment in non home-based manufacturing.[vii]


What effect did the new economic policies of the Government of India in the 1990s have on this kind of employment? In a few select industries like gem and jewellery, women were employed in lower paid and unskilled tasks since technological developments allowed reduction of skilled male workers.  In the electronics industry, which is highly mobile, there appears to be job rotation between men and women. Generally speaking, the nineties saw a halting of the process of expansion of women’s employment.  This was partly an effect of a general slow-down but there were also some cases of substitution of women by men workers. In the plastics industry, trade unions in large and medium scale units signed an agreement with the management negotiating the fixation of tasks and designations.  This has ensured that women are restricted to jobs in assembling and packing.  As a result, they were removed from the machines they were operating.[viii] Sujata Ghotosker shows how the expansion of women’s employment in pharmaceutical companies (like Glaxo) was reversed when they decided to ‘put out’ some of their production to smaller scale units.  These latter preferred to employ men.[ix] 


No one dominant trend emerges from the different case studies, though the tendency seems to be more towards loss rather than gain in women’s employment.  According to Nirmala Banerjee, there was not only no overall increase in women’s employment in the manufacturing sector, but a sharp fall in the period immediately following the initiation of new economic policies both in rural and urban areas.  Only in the urban tertiary sector there has been some discernible increase.  She argues that there has been no radical change in the behaviour of the Indian economy after SAP, the major parameters affecting women workers have remained steady between 1981 and 1996.  Earlier trends have been aggravated, however, leading to further deterioration in women’s economic position.[[x]]


Notably, there have always been some women, and in different industries at different points in time, who do not fit the stereotype of low-paid, irregular, casual workers.  The stereotype is true for the majority of women, but in some industries, unionisation and workers’ struggles have won better wages and security for women workers as well as the men.  It is also important to note that the link between higher wages and job security no longer holds in all cases.  Some women have found jobs in large units where employers invest in training and proffer higher wages and incentives but do not offer security.  It is the more lucrative and/or secure jobs from which women are pushed out in periods of change or crisis.  Such was the case in many industries across India (textiles and mining) in the 1920s and 30s, in the 1950s and 60s and is once again the case in the 1990s.  It is women workers from this privileged section who have lost their jobs as a result of restructuring to become either unemployed or move into the informal sector.


While men tend to monopolise the better paid jobs, when employment is tighter, they tend to take over the jobs women previously undertook, pushing the latter lower down the scale to even less desirable jobs.  This gender pattern of the labour market has shown a remarkable persistence in India.  A supposed stubborn ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ of exclusion of women from the wage labour is routinely trotted out to ‘explain’ the exceptional male dominance of industrial work.  Given the universality and the low age of marriage, there is no equivalent ‘pool’ of young unmarried women who have been the providers of labour in the South East Asian countries.  There has been no large-scale induction of women in factory industry, either under national or MNC auspices.


From the 1920s and 30s and upto the 90s, the formal manufacturing sector has continued to eliminate women from their workforce.[xi]  From a study I undertook in July 1997 comparing a rayon mill and a jute mill, it appears that while an older ‘crisis-ridden’ industry could undertake this elimination relatively gradually, a more dynamic rayon mill, which benefitted significantly from liberalisation was more hostile to employing women. [xii]


In the 1990s, with two decades-long uncertainties in the industry and periodic crises in individual mills, jute mill jobs are no longer as secure.  Nevertheless, in comparison to the ‘informal’ sector possibilities, mill employment is still lucrative.  As before, the most coveted are the smaller number of ‘permanent’ jobs but there are also a whole range of not-so-permanent jobs which are graded according to security of employment, number of days of work available and social security entitlements.  The permanent workers are also the best represented by the unions and tend to follow narrowly exclusionist strategies.  For instance, unions and management agree to reserve job ‘nominations’ to male heirs.  Only when such male heirs are not forthcoming, do female heirs qualify.  In new recruitment, as in case of the ‘zero record’ or ‘voucher’ workers (the most casualised section of the workforce), women are not entertained at all.  Women tend to cluster in the middle band of ‘badli’ workers.  And their numbers (as well as proportions) have declined further since 1970s.[xiii]


Women, it is often argued, are more adversely affected by economic liberalisation because they bear the brunt of the household’s poverty.  The argument relates to the second understanding of the ‘feminisation’ thesis outlined in the earlier section.  The assault on the organised sector, the undercutting of organised labour and the political weakening of trade unions will, together, it is feared, lead to a general squeeze on labour.  As more male workers are shunted into low paid jobs, household incomes will decline, more women will be forced into poorly paid work in the informal sector and total family welfare will decline.  Women will suffer more because when there is less to go round, their share of household resources declines more steeply.[xiv]


These consequences follow, however, from existing gender inequities in the household and the labour market.  Women will suffer more; they already do so; besides, not only will they suffer more than they do now, but also, presumably, more than men will suffer.  Existing, persistent and long-term patterns of gender disparity and discrimination are inscribed into economic change.  Economic actors, like the state and its agents, the employers and their agents, workers (male and female) and trade unions operate in this playing field which is far from level.


It is thus important to examine the gender characteristics of the market in the long term.  From a survey of garment industries in Delhi, garment and electronic industries in the Thane-Pune region of Maharashtra, the Coimbatore textile industry and five small industries (garment, leather, prawn processing, silk spinning and reeling) in Bengal, Banerjee offers a profile of the woman worker in the 1970s.  Most of the women were casual workers working, typically, with low capital investment in tools and technology.  There was lower familial investment in their education, health and nutrition.  Most women workers were married, burdened with exclusive responsibility for housework and childcare.[xv]


The labour market shows two clear gender characteristics.  First, women rarely take over men’s jobs by undercutting them.  Men, too, despite high unemployment, do not usually undercut women.  The terms of competition in this labour market are somewhat differently determined.  The gender composition of a workforce is primarily subject to male decision-making.  Male workers’ familial controls over women’s labour allow them to acquire the flexibility (usually associated with women) in jobs that are lucrative and where such flexibility is desired.


Employers’ preference for women workers, especially when male labour becomes overly demanding, cannot be expressed by a direct replacement of men by women (or vice versa).  Men resist ‘women’s jobs’ unless they are significantly redefined or relocated.  The most common situation in which this happens is when machinery is introduced for a previosuly manual job.  In periods of crisis, however, or if the terms of the jobs improve, men do lay claim to women’s jobs.  Both these tendencies were evident in the jute industry in different periods.  To undercut male workers with female or child labour, however, employers have to undertake job-differentiation (usually including wage cuts and casualisation) or even major reorganisation of production (usually involving a shift from factory/workshop to home-based).  This latter was the case in the biri-rolling industry.  Thus, women do undercut men, but usually not at their own instance and not without considerable entrepreneurial initiative.  There has to be an evident ‘preference’ on part of employers for them to adopt such strategies.


Over the years, there has been a marked tendency for men to move out of unremunerative traditional household activities like weaving. In West Bengal in the 1990s, for example, the family continues to be involved in handloom weaving by deploying women’s ‘spare time’.  The earlier taboo against women’s working at the loom has broken down and women now weave at home while the men join the new powerloom factories as wage workers.  The men moreover continue to handle the ‘business’ end of the household industry -- procuring orders and marketing finished goods.  As a result, women have no control over the earnings from this productive labour they undertake in addition to housework and their traditional task of yarn-processing.  The goods they produce are usually of poor quality since they have been given no opportunity to acquire the necessary skill or knowledge.[xvi]


Given these patterns, it is difficult to try and predict the impact of state policies on women’s employment.  Casualisation is not new in India and was never specific to women.  The standard conventions of large-scale industry, except for a brief fifty-years period,  have never been ‘rational’ in the Indian context and is breaking down elsewhere as well.  Employers preference for casualised male labour often coincides with male claims on ‘women’s jobs’, especially in periods of high unemployment.  These tendencies have contributed to a long term, often drastic, exclusion of women from more rewarding occupations like factory jobs.  Periodic exceptions are more due to supply bottlenecks than to changing entrepreneurial preference.  It may in fact be argued that neither national nor MNC employment strategies are likely to make any significant dent in the labour market in this regard.  Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the new spurt in export industries in the 1990s did not lead (as in the 1970s) to expansion in women’s employment.  In the case of Glaxo as cited above, desire for ‘flexibility’ in the 1990s led not to augmentation of the female workforce they had employed in the 1970s but to fragmentation of production and putting out to smaller enterprises.  The new employers have tended to prefer men workers who are more amenable to flexible working.


In India, women usually join the labour force after marriage when they already have children.  These women are constrained by their family roles as wives and mothers.  They are less mobile and unable to commit longer hours to paid work.  This is the largest and most vulnerable section of the female workforce, hampered by lack of education, mobility, opportunity to acquire or upgrade skills or find alternate livelihood.  They are most liable to be pushed into working more intensively as unpaid family labour or as cheap labour for uncertain work.  They do not offer the advantages that the factory girl in Thailand or Taiwan does to employers.  The married Indian women workers are less flexible than men.  Rather, the men acquire greater flexibility by abjuring housework and childcare responsibilities, but also by controlling women’s and children’ labour.  So women and children often enter and exit the labour market in response to the male breadwinner’s employment situation.  They enter the market when it is shrinking and terms for labour are unfavourable -- male earnings become more inconstant, inadequate or suspended.  They withdraw when the employment situation begins to improve and the men are able to ‘win the bread’.  Thus women are flexible workers -- but more for the family than for the employer.  The family’s particular requirements place limits on their flexibility in the labour market.


First, the non-negotiability of housework as women’s responsibility limit the time they can spend at work.  An important part of their worklife begins after they return from their workplace.  My 1997 survey reveals that there has been almost no change in the pattern of housework distribution.  When women get help with housework, it is from other women members of the household or at best a teenage son.  Adult men, even if unemployed, will not help with housework.  This means that women cannot do too much overtime; they prefer to limit the amount of physical strain at the workplace;[xvii] and they have to take more leave and holidays because they tend to allocate themselves lower quantity and quality of food and are, therefore, more prone to illness themselves [xviii] and/or because they are responsible for the sick and old in the family.  It is the most vulnerable women -- unmarried, deserted, divorced or widowed -- who offer flexibility from sheer compulsion.  In one study it has been found that married women put in long hour of overtime only when it is compulsory.[xix]


Second, training and gender link the workplace and the labour market with household hierarchy. On the one hand, young girls and women are denied scope and access to education and training by the family, long before they enter the labour market; on the other, machines and workplaces are gendered too.  A sexual division of labour is embedded in each social and technical division of labour.  Thus men and women tend to participate in different spaces, shops or sections of the factory when they usually operate or set up different ‘physical technologies’ that require skills or knowledge also defined as male or female.  This is justified as the ‘natural’ complementareity of their roles but is usually accompanied by a ‘vertical sexual division of labour’ -- accounting for discriminatory wage gaps, patterns of promotion and supervisory functions.[xx] 


Third, the dominance of personalised and informal channels of recruitment allows male workers to influence the gender composition of the workforce. Since inception, large scale industry has depended on recruitment through myriad social networks based on kin, caste and regional affiliations.  Such a ‘system’ became staple in large-scale industries by the end of the nineteenth century.  Over time the ‘informal’ channels have been institutionalised.[xxi]  Given the slow growth rate of organised sector and the tight labour market, recruitment itself is fairly sluggish.  There is almost no direct recruitment now.  Recruitment takes place either through union channels or by nomination.  The latter indicates the right of retiring workers to ‘nominate’ a successor.  If a worker dies while in service, their ‘heirs’ replace them.  This ‘nomination’ is sometimes auctioned by retiring workers to non-kin candidates on the basis of the highest bid.  Attempts to prevent such practices have led to the re-entrenchment of the ‘family’ in recruitment considerations.  In some units, union and employers have agreed to restrict nomination to a ‘son’ or a ‘son-in-law’.  Clearly closing off women’s access to jobs by nomination, which is the channel through which many ‘widows’ had earlier entered factory jobs.  Thus factory jobs become ‘property’ and women’s inheritance disabilities in the larger social field are reflected in their access to factory employment.[xxii]


There are many fall-outs of these gender characteristics inscribed in the workplace and the labour market.  Male supervisors’ notions of what kind of work is appropriate for women influence the pattern of their employment. Male values of segregation and male workers’ interest in retaining control and use of women’s sexuality and labour are written into hiring practices.  Moreover, the supervisors and other clerical staff can extract sexual favours from women in return for access to jobs which increases the opprobrium of factory work for women and ensures their withdrawal from such jobs when higher male earnings allow them to do so.   Often, women move from highly paid factory work to most ill-paid home-based work. On the basis of a study of beedi-workers’ attempts at organisation in Hyderabad, Rohini Hensman argues that husbands and employers have a common interest in keeping women confined in the house while at the same time earning an income.  And husbands have the social sanction to use violence to enforce their wishes.[xxiii]


The better paid male workers use the recruitment system to effectively exclude women from the more prized jobs (within the factory or from the factory altogether).  Possibly they fear that women’s induction will threaten their ability to maintain high wage levels.  But why do some of them not use their personal and family channels to recruit their own mothers, wives, daughters or sisters in high paying jobs thereby augmenting their household resources?  Obviously, the few who might desire better incomes for their women relatives are unable to contravene established rules of gender segregation.  So, the more lucrative jobs go to male protegees while wives and daughters may be given the lower paid jobs where women tend to cluster.  In part this also reflects a preference for male rather than female earners in the family.  The better paid workers are better able to maintain non-earning adult female relatives, and often do so.  To have wives living in various modified forms of seclusion and domesticity in the city signals higher social status.  Such practices further contribute to ghettoising women at the lower rungs of job ladders.  Since their ‘own’ women do not work, the better paid and more influential workers (often also active union activists) have no obvious interest in promoting women for better jobs. 


Thus, male decision-making in the family and the workplace impact on women’s job decisions. In the situation of a tight labour market, competition among workers may run along gender lines too.  A striking example of this is quoted by Rohini Hensman Banaji from an interview of workers at Hoechst:


Dissident worker: In contrast to the women, who are getting very good pay including a lot of overtime, and who don’t need it so much since they are married to husbands who are also earning well, they [young men] feel that they themselves are suffering due to the D.A. ceiling.

Interviewer: Is there discrimination against men in the allocation of overtime?

Dissident worker: No...

Interviewer: And do you think women should get less pay than men because they have husbands who are earning as well?  If they get the same pay, does that mean there is discrimination against the men?

Dissident worker: No.  But there is a difference between the objective situation and the way it is seen, and these young [men] workers feel they are being discriminated against.

Older leaders felt, on the contrary, that:

In comparing their pay with that of much more senior women employees, they [the young men] ignore the fact that by the rime they reach the same level of seniority their own pay will be very much higher.... One of them [young men workers] used threats of assault against a woman worker to get her to reduce production, and got himself suspended.[xxiv]


 Discussions on women’s work address two levels of concern: first, the obvious and immediate questions of livelihood and survival in the case of the poor; and second, more broadly, an engagement with the Engelsian question of the autonomy women may (or may not) derive from access to waged work.  The question of women’s employment and autonomy must, however, also address the family which is the critical site for the construction of female dependence.  Hilary Standing concludes from her study of women workers in Calcutta, 


The meaning of employment for women must be sought in the context of the ways in which women’s lives are bounded by the family.... The family is the critical site in the construction of female dependency.  The ways in which this dependency is structured have implications, first for which women enter the labour market and which are withdrawn from it at particular historical moments, and second, for women’s capacity to secure their short- and long-term material circumstances.  Structures of dependency are related [[xxv]] to, but do not reflect mechanically, the changing demands for female labour, or class position.  The family is an arena of intense ideological mediation and women’s access to paid work is constrained by historically and culturally specific concepts of familial dependency and what are considered appropriate behaviours and occupation for women.[xxvi]


In her analysis, there appear four structures of familial dependency: economic, implying financial dependence on male kin; legal, through regulation imposing gender assymetrical marriage, domicile and inheritance; ideologies of domesticity which constitute women as dependents and men as ‘breadwinners’; and psychic and social construction of feminine identity which subjects women to male (sometimes older female) authority figures. Access to employment may challenge some of these, rarely all of these.  More importantly, the terms on which the access is gained, and the ability to continue to maintain this access is very often determined by these structures themselves.  Thus, the kind of women who work and the kind of work they do are very often contingent on male decision-making in the family, euphemised as ‘family decision-making’ or ‘household strategy’ for livelihood or survival.


Importantly, patriarchal construction of female dependence is not uniform.  Rather, ‘class’ (previously ‘caste’) differences are based on differential constructions of femininity.  Multiple patriarchies constitute women of different caste/class status in different ways, which bear erratic and quasi-functional relations to each other.  The visibility of lower caste women -- in workplaces and streets -- denigrate their men.  The economic and sexual exploitation of lower caste/class women marks out the upper caste/class men’s ability to ensure the security of their own women.  Men of subordinate castes and classes struggle, in turn, to reverse the conspicuous denial to them of exclusive access to and control over their women’s sexuality and labour power.[xxvii] Thus upward caste/class mobility gets easily fixated on visible and ensurable symbols of familial control over women: withdrawal from paid work; dowry and arranged early marriages; deployment in status-raising housework.


So far as the women themselves are concerned, there are varied and sometimes contradictory responses.  Poor women are less able to stretch the given norms of feminine identity than urban middle class women.  And they find themselves trapped between their understanding of discrimination and their aspirations for higher socio-economic status.  In female workers’ own telling, they realise the actual similarity in the content of male and female work and point out that these are obscured by constructions of skill.  Equally, they themselves often echo managerial and union distinctions of male and female tasks, especially on the grounds of physical strength and strain.  These distinctions are sometimes integral to the expression of feminine identity. Given the hard manual labour that is routine to their lives, a public statement of physical weakness is a means of claiming feminine frailty.  They also accept the management’s arguments about protective legislation being the main reason for denying women jobs in the organised sector -- these constitute a public recognition of say, motherhood and sexual protection.  But this is usually accompanied by an understanding that ‘protection’ applies to better-paid jobs. They also tacitly accept that for most men, their job is crucial to their identity. In their own cases, familial roles are more defining, publicly and privately.  Women in insecure and heavy work in the informal sector also share the primacy of familial identities, but they often have no choice but to submerge these in the face of the demands of employers at great cost to their family lives, their health and their leisure time.  The double shift looms very large in women workers’ day-to-day experience of work.  They recognise and accept the non-negotiability of domestic work and its responsibilities (the primary defining feature of their feminine identity) and are, therefore, more ambiguous about their role as workers and commitment to the workplace.[xxviii]


The ideology of domestic femininity has a special attractions for poor women.  Paid work is usually monotonous, always physically demanding and carries the danger of sexual harassment.  They are thus more susceptible to being pushed further into the family but simultaneously always vulnerable to being pulled out of it and into paid work during household exigencies.  Paradoxically, this trend is reinforced by the difference in the earning potential between husband and wife, but also results in furthering this difference by directing women towards even lower paid home-based work.  The 1970s survey of a jute mill found that an overwhelming majority of women (all from lower castes) believed factory work to be unsuitable for women. They would prefer ‘home-based self-employment’ drawing on traditional skills like sewing despite its low earnings.  This response did not vary by level of income.[xxix]


For all these women, aspirations for a daughter or daughter-in-law specifically excluded jute mill employment.  Rather, marriage to a man who could afford to keep them out of the mills was more desirable.  In the organised sector the withdrawal of women from ‘outside’ work became evident from the 1930s and 1940s. With yet more improvement in wages and working conditions since the 1970s, factory workers aspired to upward social mobility -- education for their sons and dowry marriages for (non-productive) daughters.  The withdrawal of the wife from paid labour outside the house is usually the first step in such a progression.  These confirmations of the domestic ideal create more difficulties for women who do work in factories.  In many jute mills, patterns of women’s employment have held over a century. In 1891, Taroni told the Commission then that women who work in the mills are all widows.  Only widows in unfortunate circumstances work in factories.[xxx]  Throughout the 1920s and 30s observers commented on the predominance of ‘single’ women in jute mills.[xxxi]  In 1970 in the National Jute Mill, more than half the women workers were the sole earners in their family.  The other half had been ‘forced’ into mill work by the husband’s loss of employment.[xxxii]  In Wellington jute mill in 1997, women workers were also almost entirely composed of widows and deserted women.[xxxiii]


It is not surprising that women workers do not consider mill work ‘suitable’ for women and endorse the role of the ‘housewife’ as most desirable for their daughters, even though the price of such desired marriages often cripple poor families.  The spiralling dowry demands among the urban poor was noted by K.P. Chattopadhyay in his comprehensive survey in the 1940s.[xxxiv]  It is now so obvious as to render ‘survey’ irrelevant.


And yet, these attitudes were not universal.[xxxv]  In the 1990s, there has been more change.  Older women who had worked in the mills many years were not happy to relinquish their jobs and were not so particular about daughters and daughters-in-law abjuring factory work. However, they acquiesced with ‘family’ decisions to maintain non-working young adult women ascribing such decisions to the men in the family.  Some women were more positive: questioning managerial and employment policy regarding the exclusion of women.  In the case of the rayon mill, women had a more uniformly positive approach to factory work.  However, their desire for factory work was limited to the areas and tasks within which they were limited by managerial and union decision-making.[xxxvi]


The experience of female garment workers in Bangladesh point in a completely different direction.  An active preference for docile workers has resulted in a predominantly female workforce. But such women have not complied with managerial expectancy of docility, their active involvement with unions has led to a decrease in women’s employment in the industry. Predictably, employers prefer unmarried or single women who constitute over 60 per cent of the workforce (whereas they are about forty per cent in the total female workforce).  Despite lack of security, considerable gender discrimination in wages, long hours and deplorable work conditions, women have a positive attitude to wage employment in the industry.  They have benefitted, not only in intangibles like autonomy, self-confidence, improved conjugal lives, matrimonial relationship but also in decreased fertility, increased age of marriage and reduction in dowry demands.  While wider societal attitudes remain negative towards these women’s ‘public’ activity, they themselves retain a positive self-image.[xxxvii]  One of the surprising findings of a recent survey is that 35 per cent of the sample were women who had left their husbands in the village to search for jobs in garment factories.[xxxviii] 


Amrita Chhacchi’s survey of retrenched workers in the electronics industry in Delhi focuses attention on how much the women value their status and identity as skilled workers.  These women resisted entering the unorganised sector and felt the loss of physical mobility and economic independence acutely. Many of the younger women, married and unmarried, were forced to undertake low paid or home-based jobs which they saw as demeaning.[xxxix] In some cases thus wage employment has led women towards some forms of ‘autonomy’: self-confidence, assertiveness and new values of self-worth.  In the Indian scenario, however, most working women are already wife and mother and familial dependency continues to mediate their access to and experience of wage work.  As a result, in certain historical circumstances, the improvement in male working conditions (as in organised industry) has promoted and fostered poor women’s withdrawal into domestic roles which have been the primary means through which they seek opportunities of self-improvement and status-raising.


Recent economic policies may undercut the ‘domestic’ aspirations of the women of hitherto more secure and upwardly mobile working classes. Women’s own access to such employment has always been very restricted and is likely to be more elusive.  At the same time, other groups of women are being able to access employment before marriage -- though poorer women’s access to such employment, which emerged significantly in the 1970s, may now be under some threat.  For a vast majority of poor women, their work remains in the most vulnerable and insecure sectors.  A majority of women continue to respond to ‘family’ imperatives as to when and where they work.  It is likely that the recent changes in the labour market will reinforce rather than erode the pervasive value of dependence, which continues to inhere in definitions of Indian femininity.


[1] J.H. Kelman, Labour in India.  A Study of the Conditions of Indian Women in Modern Industry, London, 1923, p. 55.

[2] Arjan de Haan, Towards a Single Male Breadwinner: The Decline of Child and Female Labour in an Indian Industry, Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 6, 1994.

[3] Radhakamal Mukherjee, Indian Working Class

[4] M.N. Rao and H.C. Ganguly, ‘Women Labour in Jute Industry of Bengal – A Medico-Social Study’, Indian Journal of Social Work, 2, 1950-51, pp. 181-91; ‘VD in the Industrial Worker’ Indian Journal of Social Work, 2, 1950-5, pp. 122-34.

[5] Ramkumar Vidyaratna, Kulikahini [Sketches from Cooly Life], Calcutta, 1888, pp. 6-7.

[6] Ibid., p. 30

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kelman, Labour in India, p. 14.

[9] Report of Dr. Dagmar Curjel on the conditions of Employment of women before and after childbirth, 1923, unpublished.  West Bengal State Archives, Calcutta, Commerce Department, Commerce Branch, April 1923, B77 (herafter Curjel Report), Main Report, pp.1-2.

[10] Kelman, Labour in India, pp. 91-92.

[11] Mukherjee, Indian Working Class, pp. 261-262.

[12] D.A.E. Engels, Beyond Purdah, Oxford University Press

[13]Mukherjee, Indian Working Class, pp. 262-63.

[14] Indian Factory Commission, 1891.

[15] Report of the Royal Commission of Labour in India, London, 1931,5,2

[16] G.M. Broughton, Labour in Indian Industries, London, 1924

[17] S.G. Panandikar, Industrial Labour in India, 1933, p.219.

[18] Curjel Report, Main Report.

[19] R.N. Gilchrist, Labour and Land, Calcutta, 1931, p. 10.

[20] Radha Kumar, 1989.“Family and Factory: Women in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry, 1919-1939” in J. Krishnamurty (ed.) Women in Colonial India, Essays on Survival, Work and the State, Indian Economic and Social History Review, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

[21] R.S. Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India.  Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940, Cambridge, 1994.

[22] Annual Report of the Working of the Indian Factories Act in Bengal, Calcutta, 1931.

[23] For more details see Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.  The Bengal Jute Industry, Cambridge, 1999, p. 172.

[24] Annual Report of Factories Act, 1953, p. 10 quoted in Arjan de Haan, ‘Towards a Single Male Earner: The decline of Child and Female Employment in an Indian Industry’, Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 6, 1994, p. 156.

[25] ‘Bhai’, ‘bhaishab’, ‘bhaiyon’ were the most common address in meetings and leaflets.

[26] For more details see Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.

[27] Samita Sen, ‘Honour and Resistance: Gender, Community and Class in Bengal, 1920-40’, in Sekhar Bandopadhyay et al. (eds.) Bengal: Communities, Development and States, Manohar, New Delhi, 1994, pp. 231-43.

[28] Kelman, Labour in India.

[29] Kumar, ‘Family and Factory’.

[30] Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.

[31] Interview, November 1989, Bauria.  Also see Renu Chakrabarty, Communists in India’s Women’s Movement, 1940-50, New Delhi 1980.

[32] Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.

[i] A Report, National Seminar on Policies and Strategies for Working Women in the Context of Industrial Restructuring, (22-25 September 1997), The Institute of Social Studies (The Hague) and Front for Rapid Economic Advancement (Mumbai, India). Quotation from p. 2

[ii]Amrita Chhacchi, ‘The Experience of Job Loss in the Electronics Industry’, Paper presented at the workshop on ‘The World of Indian Industrial Labour’, Amsterdam, 10-13 December 1997.

[iii]Nirmala Banerjee, ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed...The Electronics industry in Calcutta in S. Mitter, and S. Rowbotham (eds) Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World, UNU-INTECH, Routledge, London, 1995.

[iv]Ibid., p. 13-14.

[v]Karin Kapadia,

[vi]See for instance, Debapriya Bhattacharya, Women and Industrial Employment in Bangladesh: Challenges and Opportunities in the Era of New Technologies, A Research Report, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, 1997; and Debapriya Bhattacharya and Mustafizur Rahaman, Female Employment under Export-propelled Industrialisation: Prospect for Internalising Global Opportunities in Bangladesh Apparel Sector, 1998.

[vii]Nirmala Banerjee, Indian Women in a Changing Industrial Scenario, New Delhi, 1991.

[viii]Policies and Strategies for Working Women, p. 12.

[ix] Nandita Shah, Sujata Ghotoskar, Nandita Gandhi and Amrita Chhachhi, ‘Structural Adjustment, Feminisation of Labour Force and Organisational Struggles’, EPW, 30 April 1994. 

[x]Policies and Strategies for Working Women, p. 6.

[xi] Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.  For the later period see my ‘Gendered Exclusion: Domesticity and Dependence in Bengal’ in International Review of Social History, 42, 1997, pp. 65-86. Also see, Arjan de Haan, ‘Towards a Single Male Earner: the Decline of Child and Female Employment in an Indian Industry’ in Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 6, 1994, pp. 145-67.

[xii] Sachetana, A Report.  Structural Adjustment Programmes.  Impact on Women’s Work, mimeo, Calcutta, October 1997.  See Section III: Wives and Workers.  The Organised Factory System.  Case Studies: Keshoram Rayon Mill and Wellington Jute Mill. 

[xiii] Sachetana, 1997.

[xiv] Jayati Ghose, ‘Gender Concerns in Macro-Economic Policy’, EPW, 30 April 1994.

[xv] Banerjee, Women in a Changing Industrial Scenario.

[xvi]Sachetana, 1997, Section II.

[xvii] Ibid., Section III.

[xviii] Vina Satrughana, panel presentation, IAWS, Pune, 1998.

[xix]Policies and Strategies for Working Women, p. 10-11.

[xx]Sujata Ghotoskar, ‘Women, Work and Health: An Interconnected Web.  Case of Drugs and Cosmetics Industries, EPW, 25 October 1997, WS45-52.

[xxi] Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India.

[xxii] Sachetana, 1997.

[xxiii]Policies and Strategies for Working Women, p. 21.

[xxiv]Rohini Hensman Banaji, ‘Workplace Unionism in Bombay: Problems of Democracy and Responsibility’, Paper submitted to the workshop on ‘The World of Indian Industrial Labour’, Amsterdam, 10-13 December 1997.


[xxvi]Ibid., p. 142-3.

[xxvii] Also see Kumkum Sangari, ‘Politics of Diversity: Religious Communities and Multiple Patriarchies’,  Economic and Political Weekly,  23 and 30 December 1995, pp. 3287-3310 and 3381-9.

[xxviii] Ghotosker, ‘Women, Work and Health’  and Sachetana, 1997.

[xxix] Mitra, ‘The Jute Workers’.

[xxx] Indian Factory Commission, Government of India, 1891.

[xxxi]  Dagmar Curjel, Condition of Women Workers Before and After Childbirth (in Bengal Industries); A Report.  Commerce Department Commerce Branch, 1921; J.H. Kelman, Labour in India, London, 1923;  Report of the Royal Commission on Labour, Vols 1, 5, and 11, London, 1931.

[xxxii] Mitra, ‘The Jute Workers’.

[xxxiii] Sachetana, 1997.

[xxxiv] K.P. Chattopadhyay, A Socio-Economic Survey of Jute Labour, Department of Social Work, Calcutta University, 1952.

[xxxv]Sen, ‘Gendered Exclusion’. 

[xxxvi] Ibid.  Also see, Sen, ‘Gendered Exclusion’ and Sachetana, 1997.

[xxxvii]See fn 7 above.  Also see Pratima Paul Majumdar and Anwara Begum, ‘The Gender Impacts of Growth of Export Oriented Manufacturing: A Case Study of the Ready Made Garment Industry in Bangladesh, Workshop on Policy Research Report on Gender and Development, World Bank, Oslo, 23-25 June 1999.


[xxxix]Chhachhi, ‘The Experience of Job Loss’.