Improving conditions for Mumbai’s slum workers

In the slums of Mumbai, millions of women and girls are helping to support their families by working from home in difficult, unsanitary conditions with minimal financial gain.

Their efforts play a surprisingly large role in India’s business sector. They produce a vast amount of low-cost products—from electronics, garments and footwear to trinkets, jewellery and food—which are often marketed in shopping malls or exported at high prices. Yet they receive none of the profits.

Kanchan Sarker, sessional lecturer of sociology at UBC’s Okanagan campus, is trying to understand, and hopefully improve, civic amenities for the home-based women workers of Mumbai’s slums.

The project will also attempt to identify whether organizing women workers would help with issues such as domestic violence. “For home-based working women, access and quality of civic amenities are a matter of personal as well as professional survival,” says Sarker. “Rights to living space, as well as good quality water and sanitation facilities, electricity and sewage disposal, are important. It is of utmost significance to find what exists, how good it is, and how to improve it.”

Sarker notes that slums provide affordable living places for the urban working poor and play a very effective role in making the city liveable.

“Slums are generators of employment and a source of cheap labour which benefits the urban classes that oppose their existence. Instead of demolishing slums, the authorities should try and upgrade them.”

A significant challenge is combating the community’s perception of women’s home-based work, which is often devalued.

“Women’s empowerment is at the heart of this project,” says Sarker. “However, since the issues affect men as well, women’s collective bargaining on these fundamental needs and services should have a positive effect on the entire community.”

The research will focus on three Mumbai slums, including Dharavi, commonly known as Asia’s largest slum settlement. A mapping study will identify each slum’s features and settlement patterns. Social factors such as class, nature of home-based work, common contractors, and access to facilities such as water, sanitation and common space will be examined.

Some fifty women in each slum will be surveyed on social and work-related issues; in-depth interviews will be conducted with group leaders, job contractors and civic officials. Focus groups with female home-based workers are also planned.

“We hope our research acts as a tool for informing civic and government authorities, urban planning experts, academics, students and activists on the issues faced by home-based workers and the slum-dwelling communities in the city,” says Sarker. “The project attempts to encourage home workers to use their collective strength to address issues that affect their work, health and family lives.”

The project, which is Sarker’s second on improving life for India’s poor, is supported through an Action Research Project Grant from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. Partners include Prof. Sharit Bhowmik and Indira Gartenberg of LEARN (Labour, Education, and Research Network), Mumbai.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 12 | Dec. 5, 2012

Conditions for women working in the slums of Mumbai are in the subject of new research.©iStockphoto/Daniel Berehulak

Conditions for women working in the slums of Mumbai are in the subject of new research.©iStockphoto/Daniel Berehulak

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“The project attempts to encourage home workers to use their collective strength.”

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