The travails of poor migrant women workers, but who cares?
Rakhi Ghosh, Kandhamal, Odisha
December 7, 2017

Central and State government sponsored skill training programmes to help young women in rural Odisha who migrate and find jobs in other parts of the country have not really been beneficial. Unable to cope up with the poor living conditions and inhuman workload at abysmally low wages, the women are forced to return to their native villages and eke out a living as best they can

Jyotshna Pradhan from Raikia Block in Odisha’s Kandhamal District was very happy when her parents allowed themselves to be persuaded by a village leader to send her for skills training in the big city of Bhubaneswar. A school dropout, she had never left her village till then. Jyotshna was part of a batch of 60 young women who underwent the two-month training at the institute. Subsequently, the group was sent for on-the-job training at a garment-making factory in faraway Bengaluru.

Jyotshna Pradhan, busy with tailoring work at home.

After placement, Jyotshna’s monthly income was around Rs 8000, including incentives and overtime pay. But the work was long and arduous. “Every day I was given a target of 80 shirt collars to prepare in one hour. You are not allowed to urinate or drink water, because you have to meet the target in the given time,” she recalls.

The living conditions in the hostel were unhygienic too. Jyotshna fell prey to repeated episodes of UTI (urinary tract infection) and she informed her parents that she was unable to cope with the stress. Her requests for leave were turned down. So, some of her hostel-mates helped her book a ticket home. Now Jyotshna is back in Raika. She has no intention of returning to Bengaluru, though she gets repeated phone calls asking her to resume work. She plans to use her training to take in some tailoring work at home.

Jyotshna’s story is shared by many girls from rural Odisha. The Central and state governments have launched various schemes to help poorly educated or illiterate girls acquire skills which will enable them to migrate to more prosperous areas and earn a decent livelihood. A baseline study conducted in Kandhamal District a few years ago reveals that most of the young women from the district migrate in search of employment opportunities.

Reeta Sahu, a diamond polisher since 2007.

Women from G Udayagiri and Tikabali blocks, Daring-badi, Nuagaon, Baliguda, Tumudibandha, Phiringia, Kha-juripada and Chakapada go to Surat, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kerala and Bhubaneswar to work in various sectors. But reality falls short of dreams too often.

Sunelika of Duguripari Vill-age in Kalinga GP had to drop out of school due to financial constraints. She decided to migrate to Surat with other women of her village. She was 18 years old, the second of five siblings. She got a job polishing diamonds and earns between Rs 5000 and 6000 a month. “This amount is not sufficient to meet house rent, food, travel and other expenses. It is difficult to save and send money to my family,” she says. But she feels she needs to keep her job for the sake of her family.

Reeta, who is also a diamond polisher, finds the work too much to cope with. “We sit from 8 am to 8 pm at a stretch, with just an hour’s break for lunch,” she says. “We have to polish 30-50 diamonds a day. We have to continuously look at the diamonds in bright light, and dust flies into our eyes. After two-three hours our eyes start itching and we develop headaches.”

Reeta has been working in the industry since 2007. She had returned to her parental home after separating from her husband, but found there was no work available to help her survive. That’s when she decided to migrate in search of a job and landed in Surat. She wants to return home, but the bleak employment scenario in rural Odisha continues to be a deterrent. “I am in a fix. If I return how will I survive? If I stay, how will I manage? There is no social security, no health services and no PDS (public distribution system) for migrants. Most of my earnings go towards daily expenditures and now on health,” she rues.

Faced with abysmal living conditions, lack of social security, occupational hazards and unfamiliar languages, cultures and food, many girls see no option but to return to their villages, and battle for survival there as best they can.

In 2009, Puspanjali Sahoo of Duguripari Village went to Kerala to find work. She did various jobs for ten months, and then shifted to a seafood processing unit in Gujarat. She worked there for six long years. “I fell ill and found there was no one to take care of me. When I didn’t get better, my hostel-mates helped me to get back to my village. It’s been two years since I returned,” she explains, adding, “I want to work, earn and support my family but I have to find work near my village”. With her savings she has renovated her parents’ house and bought a small patch of agricultural land.

Trafficking and harassment at workplaces are other issues that young women have to contend with. Princy (name changed), who underwent skills training, got a job in the apparel industry in Chennai. But she returned to her village at G Udayagiri Block in October last, and is not willing to leave again. “When she was selected to go outside the state she was very happy, but now she stays inside the four walls of her home. We really do not know what happened to her, we assume she was harassed or faced some other problem,” says a neighbour.

Most young women migrate in a group with the help of middlemen. In some cases, those who migrated earlier facilitated others to leave their homes. “Recently, many skills training institutes have come up, and young women who were sitting idle at home got the opportunity to work in various sectors. However, the truth is that many of these are unregistered institutes. There is no monitoring system or vigilance mechanism in place,” says Pramod Patnaik, social activist and founder-member of Seva Bharati, an NGO which has been working in Kandhamal for three decades.

Also, before migration, the women who have had no exposure to the world outside their villages, are given no information about the type of work they will be doing, the hours of work or the living conditions in the places they will be sent to. They find jobs in the apparel industry, seafood processing factories and diamond polishing units, and as cooks in missionary centres. They usually manage to hold on for only between six months and two years.

The pity is that the baseline study reported that the women were reluctant to complain about the low wages and long working hours, and none of those surveyed mentioned any other issue. Perhaps, the abject poverty in their native villages makes them see even the hardships they suffer in alien cities as worthwhile in exchange for the pittance they earn.

October 2017