In Bhilwara district, in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, sandstone slabs form a makeshift fence around a field, marking the boundaries of a temporary worksite. In the centre, *Seema, a tall young woman, lifts sandstone cobbles into large wooden crates.
A firm in Jaipur, the state capital, has ordered the stones for export to Britain, where they will be used to pave streets and build sea defences.
Employed by a contractor on piece-rate wages, Seema has no idea where the stones will end up. She arrives for work at 8am, after cooking and cleaning for her family, and works through the peak afternoon heat, her thumb bandaged from recurring cuts. She will be paid 60 rupees (66p) for each crate she fills.
Seema is a Dalit at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, and has been a casual labourer in Bhilwara’s sandstone mines for 11 years. She has no employment record and no health cover. She is one of thousands of lower-caste women labouring on the margins of the mining industry.
Despite one of the world’s highest growth rates, India has one of the lowest female work participation rates, with just in employment. Accurate figures are hard to find, but in 2011 women constituted in the mining sector, and today’s numbers are likely to be higher.
India’s mining laws effectively ensure that women are confined to less safe, insecure, manual work. They are not legally allowed to work in underground mines or on night shifts.
“Better-paid or technical jobs in mines do not usually go to women, nor do women receive training in mineral sciences or engineering,” says academic Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt.
Recently the National Democratic Alliance proposed amendments to simplify India’s labour laws, but the new draft retains the same restrictions on when and where women can work. It says nothing about the low wages and the discrimination female mine workers face.
“Despite a great deal of rhetoric regarding ‘empowerment’ of women, the super-exploitative conditions of employment the majority of women workers are in is not a matter of public concern or debate in government circles, or the media,” says Indrani Mazumdar, a senior researcher at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi, who has analysed gender and employment trends.
Mazumdar notes that although this year’s was published in pink to show a commitment to gender equality, there was “utter indifference” to the enormous hardships women face.
Female labourers work in a brick field north of Kolkata, eastern India. Many women in the Indian workforce are employed in the stone industry.
Rajasthan produces 10% of the world’s sandstone, exporting to the UK, US, Canada, Australia and United Arab Emirates.
In Bhilwara, one of the top three centres of production, stone is processed manually using hammers and chisels. Men excavate the sandstone, and are employed in blasting, drilling and processing. Women work as labourers to transport the stone, usually on their heads, and to sweep and clean inside mines – the lowest-paid jobs.
Kailashi has worked in mining for 30 years. She started out as a hamal, loading stones, when she first came to Bhilwara as a child bride. She earns 200 rupees a day, a third less than men are paid for the same work.
“The labour contractor argues that men pick heavier loads than women, but this is not true,” says Kailashi. “The mine supervisor keeps a watch – even he can see we work with equally heavy loads, continuously. They pay us less because they simply do not want to treat us equally.”
Prem started working after her husband was diagnosed with silicosis two years ago. She says that when men and women work together, they are paid equally – 300 rupees for each trolley they fill. “But if it is an all-women group, then the mine owners slash the payments by one third or half,” she says.
Miner Sugna says women try to negotiate better wages, but find it difficult to get their voices heard. “Usually, three or four of us will go to approach the employers and contractors collectively, asking them to increase wages to at least 200 rupees, close to the minimum wage,” she says. “But they are dismissive, they will tell us: ‘You are women, and you ought to stay at home.’”
Govindram Gehlot, from the rights group Gramin and Samajik Vikas Sansthan, says the mine owners hire men to work as masons, and women to carry head loads, as helpers. “Carrying and loading sandstone in opencast mines is equally arduous,” he says. “Under the law, both should be paid the same. But the employers believe – or like to portray – that women’s work is easy, and get away with paying them less.”
As well as entailing long, hard days, work in the mine can lead to serious illness. According to the Rajasthan state human rights commission, between 2013 and August 2017, 9,278 miners in Rajasthan were diagnosed with fatal silicosis – caused by inhaling fine dust in the quarries. The government has begun organising screening programmes.
Sugna says the stone cobbles make her fingers bleed so badly that she cannot work more than 10 or 15 days in a month. Most female workers report recurring joint pain, as well as stomach ache from the lack of access to clean water and food. Their long hours continue at home where they are expected to cook and clean.
Gendi, a frail-looking 55-year-old, has cleared debris in the mines for 32 years. Her knees and elbows constantly ache. She buys painkillers from the local government health centre and from unregistered practitioners. “The government health centres often remain shut, or they turn us away,” says Gendi. “Even unregistered medical practitioners charge 70 rupees on one visit, which is more than my daily wages. I can barely afford it.
“Even in case of accidents, mine owners will help only the men financially. If women workers get injured if the slab falls on them, or if our fingers bleed from loading stones, the employers do not offer even casual help.”
(Source: theguardian) *Workers’ last names removed to protect identities
This report was supported by a research grant for the forthcoming Report on State of Working India, by the Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University