The job hunt at Bawana industrial area is not going too well for Najma (49), her daughter Sanjeela (18) and niece Ranju (15). They have not been to school, but assure factory supervisors that they can pack baby food, make spoons, tea cups or masks — whatever the job demands — and are quick learners. But they are turned away. “To tell you the truth, my heart is breaking,” says Najma.
Exactly a year after a national lockdown was announced, rendering thousands of migrants in the national capital jobless, many are yet to get back on their feet. And the women have been the hardest hit — as reported by The Indian Express on March 18, a Delhi government-commissioned survey found that 83% women are out of the labour force. As per the survey, after the pandemic struck, female unemployment rate jumped to 54.7% in October-November. It increased to 23.2% in the case of men.
To find the faces and listen to the voices behind these numbers, The Indian Express visited industrial areas in Bawana, Narela, Okhla, Mayapuri and Naraina — and found women knocking on doors of factories seeking jobs; employers running units with fewer labourers; and empty parks where workers used to gather for lunch.
Factory owners, workers and trade union activists say that a large number of smaller units — sized 100-250 sq ft — have shut for good, unable to recover from the blow dealt by the lockdown. Many of these units used to employ women in semi-skilled jobs — making fans, jeans, shoes, etc.
Factory owners say many women were also let go since they were employed in upkeep of machinery, which is now largely unused. “I had to fire 12 women from my unit,” says Sandeep Tyagi, who runs a fabrication unit at Okhla industrial area.
Trade unions, which have been filing complaints on behalf of laid-off workers at labour offices, say they have also noticed skilled workers above the age of 50 being fired. Those who remain are employed at Rs 5,000-10,000 a month for 12 hours work per day, way below the Delhi government’s minimum wage which stands at Rs 18,563 for skilled and Rs 16,681 for semi-skilled work.
“In fact, there are factories where around 50-60 workers are fired at the same time. Most are earning around Rs 15,000 and above and are counted in the skilled workers category. Factory owners have retired them early to make up for their losses,” says Rajesh, a trade union worker at Indian Federation of Trade Unions.
Reshma (37) from UP’s Gorakhpur used to work as a thread cutter for Rs 7,000 a month for 8 hours of work at Narela Industrial area. Now she works as a construction worker, heaving packets of bricks for eight hours a day. “There are no jobs. My family was starving; I had no choice,” she says. She is surrounded by other women, many of them minors, who have taken up part-time construction work assignments at Narela Industrial area making Rs 300 for a day’s work.
Preeti (30) used to work at a fan-making unit in Bawana Industrial area which used to employ many women alongside her. Now, even with the summer months approaching, she fails to find work at a fan-making unit as there are few left. She has started making rubber bands used in pressure cookers, like other women in her locality at the Bawana JJ colony. “I am paid Rs 150 that I have to share with other women. I used to work for Rs 7,000 earlier. I can’t even buy a day’s vegetables with this money,” Preeti says.
In fact, many skilled workers have seen a downgrade in their work, with some becoming vegetable sellers after being laid off.
Rinku (29) used to work as a dye operator in Mayapuri Industrial area, earning Rs 10,000 for 10 hours work a day and looking forward to an increment in 2020. Now, he has taken a wooden cart and a weighing machine on rent and visits Azadpur Mandi every morning to buy vegetables. “I make Rs 200-300 every day. If vegetables are unsold I can always feed my family,” he says.
Rita (26) from Bihar’s Patna used to work in an export line as a thread cutter at Mayapuri Industrial area, earning Rs 5,000. Laid off during the pandemic after she asked her employer for a raise, she has now found work at a local dhaba making Rs 7,000 a month. “I was looking forward to an increment. I know many women don’t even have a job, but what is the point of working for peanuts with two daughters to look after?” she says.
The pandemic also ended the dreams of a better life for many. Before the lockdown, several skilled workers who had managed to save money had turned entrepreneurs, taking loans to buy their own injection moulding machines or tempo trucks. Now, they say they are unable to pay EMIs and are back where they started, looking for jobs as industry workers.
Mohamad Iqbal (37) says he recently went back to the plastic making unit in Okhla where he used to work, but found it shut. He then tried to find work at a pressure cooker-making unit, an oxygen cylinder-making unit and a corrugated box-making unit, but was denied work, even as a loader. “I am desperate enough for Rs 300 a day for breaking my back. Even that is not available,” he says.
One of the few units which are up and running are mask-making units. Gyanwati (45) from Gorakhpur had found work in one such unit but was later fired after the employer accused her of not taking a Covid test every two weeks. “Around 10-15 workers were fired. The virus is just an excuse,” she says.