Note: This blog was first published on Feminism in India on 13th January, 2021
In the Sabla block of the Dungarpur district of Southern Rajasthan is where we met a 16 year old Manja* for the first time. Poking the ground with a stick she picked up on the way to where we sat to have a conversation, Manja tells us her story. The eldest of 4 siblings, Manja was 12 when her father’s failing health led him to quit the cycle of migration that sustained the household, and return home for good. Soon after, Manja dropped out of school and began seeking work.
For 4 years now, Manja has been the sole earning member of her family, working on construction sites, farm-lands and MNREGA work sites. In the aftermath of the lockdown, work remains sporadic — barely enough to sustain her family, or repay the debts accumulated over the course of the months when she had no work. In the small village where Manja resides, her story is by no means unique. Regardless, it is not one told very often.
In March, as the world woke up to a hundred thousand migrant workers crossing state boundaries on foot to get back home in the aftermath of a rapidly imposed lockdown, the mainstream media and the general public’s eyes and ears had suddenly turned to the plight of workers in the informal sector, who make up more than 85% of the total workforce of the country (NSS, 61st round). Despite this push into mainstream public discourses, several segments within this broader group of informal sector workers continue to remain largely invisible. One such identity is that of the adolescent female worker in the labour market — The Kishori Shramik.
Kishori shramiks make for a significant proportion of the population in multiple districts falling within the tribal belt of Southern Rajasthan – a belt that also feeds the ravenous mouths of the labour markets of Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai and Bangalore. Encapsulated within stretches of fragmented farm lands and the dry and arid mountains of the Aravali range, are blocks and panchayats relying on migration to access job opportunities in the informal sector that bordering states like Gujrat offer.
Other than certain stretches, such as the Kushalgarh block of Banswara district, where extreme water shortage during the summer months enforces a pattern of family migration, in most other districts and blocks in the region, migration is exclusively the domain of the man. From the families left behind however, women and adolescent girls, largely excluded from the popular imagination around the identity of a labourer, typically enter the local labour market — an equally exploitative market that capitalises on the devaluation of women’s labour.
This blog explores the dynamics embedded in the kishori shramiks’ interactions with the labour market, drawing on insights and findings gathered over the course of Aajeevika Bureau’s years of sustained work with this population within the tribal belt of Southern Rajasthan, as well as a research carried out by the organization within the Salumbar block of Udaipur district, in the year 2017.
The Adolescent Girl’s Entry into the Labour Market
The adolescent girl’s entry into the labour market and the forging of her new identity as a ‘kishori shramik’ is reinforced by a set of inter-connected factors, the most obvious amongst them — the need to add to the meagre income of the household. The realisation of this need often either precedes or follows the act of dropping out of school. As a pattern, the former is largely visible within single mother households or households with stories like that of Manja’s – with an adult parent rendered unable to work due to health related challenges or more commonly, alcoholism.
The latter, on the other hand, is often the case with adolescent girls entering the labour market between the ages of 13-15, the ages around which the lines on graphs mapping school drop-out rates also become steeper. While the no-fail policy keeps children enrolled in schools till the 8th grade, failure rates in subsequent grades (high due to the meagre quality of education up until then), correlates with the drop out rates. When a girl fails, families perceive little incentive to sending her back to school. Instead, putting her to work at the earliest, in markets where wages are often dependent on the number of years of experience, is the more sensible thing to do. Closely tied to this pattern, a reinforcer essentially, is the aspect of community-wide normalisation of adolescent girls at work.
A factor slightly more difficult to perceive, is connected to a word that perhaps doesn’t find space within our single stories of child labour — the kishori shramiks’ desire for agency. For many of them in the region, going to work is an act that enables her to earn money of her own, spend it as she pleases (at least a portion of it), and also enter spaces that take her beyond the shackles of home.
But how does the kishori shramik actually enter the labour market? Through literal labour markets, popularly known as a ‘Naaka.’ At local naakas, those in search of work line up with hopes of getting hired by contractors. The Naaka however, operates differently for adolescent girls. The likelihood of finding work often rests on her relative attractiveness. For her male counterpart though, his skill, experience and bodily strength become key determining factors.
Sites of Exploitation – The Kishori Shramiks’ Work, Wages and Body
For the kishori shramik, the work site is also the site of harassment and rampant exploitation. In the construction sector, one of the largest employers of kishori shramiks in the region, male and female labourers are addressed differently — the female worker is a ‘coolie,’ and the male worker a ‘beldaar.’ While the terms may connote differences in the nature of work, this is rarely so, aside from the additional cleaning and serving tasks that are exclusively for women to do. Regardless, on average, her male counterpart earns about 20-40% more than she does — a wage gap that makes her the more in-demand segment of the labour force.
But few think to question this gap. For Manja, the difference of 50 rupees between her wage and that of her male counterpart is less of a problem than the complete non-payment of wages, a common form of exploitation at the hands of contractors and other middle men.
In the Ghati panchayat of Salumbar block, located on the banks of the majestic Jaisamand lake that often devours surrounding farm lands during the months of rain, live Kamla*, Priya*, Ritu*, Tara* and Manju* – 16 and 17 year old kishori shramiks still awaiting the payment of over ten thousand rupees each, for work they did before the lockdown. In a conversation, Tara tells us that she has since been hesitant to seek work, for fear of a similar experience repeating itself.
For the adolescent girl at work, harassment and exploitation is by no means limited to the domain of wages, but also extends to her body. At work, a kishori shramik’s body is the site of gazes, non-consensual touching and groping, and unwanted sexual advances. “Ekli kam umar ri mahila laare jyaada chhed-chhad ve, kyunki vana re lare koi aadmi bolva vaaro ni ve,” says Anita* (Translation – “Unmarried, young women are subjected to more harassment, since she has no man to speak for her”). Often perpetrated by contractors, harassment operates within a space of sharp power imbalances, leaving kishori shramiks with little ability to retaliate.
Lockdown and the Labour Market
For the kishori shramik, as for most others employed within the informal sector, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown meant a sudden shut-down of worksites and a loss of all sources of income. With the inflow of a sizeable number of male migrant workers back into rural source regions, once local work sites opened up, demand and competition for the limited opportunities for work rose, leaving the kishori shramik with a labour market that had little space for her.
Their narratives, following the lockdown indicate qualitative shifts in pattern of finding work. Post lockdown, the kishori shramik that once easily found work at construction sites, only briefly found work in the farm lands of local landowning, upper caste farmers during the harvest season.
The vulnerabilities of a kishori shramik’s household, that pushed her into the labour market, have only inflated in the aftermath of the lockdown, with families pushed into extreme financial distress and consequent cycles of indebtedness. Her entry into the labour market is the product of systemic failures in addressing these vulnerabilities. The kishori shramik of today, more in need of work than ever before, stands on a more shaky ground — with desperation making way for exploitation.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality.