#ChildhoodMatters: Beyond Moderne Mahagun, informal workers and the challenge of child care

Sadly, even women from India, who used the ICDS's Anganwadi centres, didn’t demand it as their entitlement vocally or vehemently.

ByBiraj Swain
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#ChildhoodMatters: Beyond Moderne Mahagun, informal workers and the challenge of child care
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Homenet South Asia called for a national policy for home-based workers on the occasion of the International Day for Home-based Workers i.e. October 20, exactly three weeks ago when most channels were already into loop coverage of the Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya and the elections to Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Predictably enough, it went unreported and exposed the big media’s amnesia when it comes to such issues. But the Moderne Mahagun fracas is still fresh in our memories.

Why should it matter? For beginners, the numbers are massive, as per the UN Women, 85 per cent women are engaged in vulnerable employment, especially in home-based work (37.4 million workers), domestic work (4.2 million workers) and construction work (5.7 million women). According to the 2011 Census, number of domestic workers has increased by 120 per cent from 1991 to 2011 after economic liberalisation. According to the Domestic Workers Sector Skills Council, helmed by Amod Kanth, the domestic workers in India are 20 million, and it is a conservative estimate, by its own admission. As per Arjun Sengupta Committee report, 93% of the country is engaged in the informal sector. The numbers are staggering, any which way one looks at them, which is why informal workers deserve way more media attention.

But this article is not about informal workers, it is about the child care challenges they encounter.

WIEGO, Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, a global advocacy network, has come out with a five country study (India, Thailand, South Africa, Ghana and Brazil) on the challenges to child care that informal workers encounter. WEIGO also came into prominence during the Moderne Mahagun stand-off with their draft legislation for regulation of domestic workers’ working condition.

The countries are purposely selected in the study i.e. countries in the Global South where social policy and welfare programmes are still under construction. The countries represent three continents housing most of the low and middle income countries i.e. Asia, Africa and Latin America. All the respondents in the study are working women with children younger than seven years to care for.

The in-country researches were done by organisations affiliated to WIEGO such as SEWA in India, Homenet Thailand and SAIWA in Thailand, WEIGO Brazil and WEIGO Ghana in Brazil and Ghana respectively. The research and writing is led by Laura Alfers of WEIGO global team, who has also done the South African leg of the research.

Key findings

  1. UN Women says that across the world women spend 2.5 times more time providing care than do men. This is work that is very important for families and society as a whole but it is usually not recognised as work, and women do not get paid for doing it, which is why it is called “unpaid care work”.
  2. Choice of employment and child care: Women, who have young children to care for, tend to choose work that is more flexible, but where working hours are not regular and incomes are much lower. In Thailand, home-based workers said that they knew that “working outside” the home would mean that they could do better paid and more regular work, but they felt it made more sense for them to stay at home, where they could earn an income, look after their children, and attend to household chores.
  3. Decreased productivity inside and outside of the home: When women keep their young children with them while they work, this decreases their productivity considerably, which in turn affects their incomes. In this study, most of the women who kept their children with them while they worked were home-based workers. They complained that trying to work and care for children at the same time left them exhausted and distracted. Some women who worked outside the home also kept their children with them at work. This could be very difficult, especially for women working in public spaces where infrastructure is not appropriate for young children.
  4. Child care alternatives used by women informal workers: 57 per cent respondents said they used a child care facility as their primary form of child care while they worked. The next most common form of child care reported by 27 per cent respondents was, that provided by family members, usually a grandmother, an aunt or an older daughter, followed by the rest who took their children to work or cared for them at home while working.
  5. Not all the child care centres used by the women workers in this study were the same. The different types of centres they used were: Public child care centres provided by the state (Brazil, some women in India use the Anganwadi centres provided by the ICDS, and Thailand where the Bangkok Municipality provides some free child care services, Non-profit child care centres provided by WEIGO members or NGOs subject to state regulation like SEWA in India), Private, informal child care centres run by community members not regulated by the state (these were most commonly used by women in South Africa) and early education centres attached to schools (Ghana).
  6. Cost is an important barrier to accessing child care, the study highlights, especially quality care where other than feeding and care, stimulation and learning are provided. A finding echoed by former bureaucrat and India’s Supreme Court commissioner Dr NC Saxena in the launch episode of our series, which is why, many times the elder sibling (who is mostly a child herself) becomes the care-giver of the children.
  7. Most women in informal sector do not want to take their children to workspaces and the ones working from home are worried about their children handling or swallowing dangerous substance or damaging their products.

From rag pickers to tailors, from street vendors to construction workers, from women engaged as maids in others’ households to agricultural labourers in peri-urban farms, women want day-care for their children, not just for the feeding and care, but also the learning and stimulation their children will get. A sentiment echoed by Sumitra Mishra of Mobile Creches also in our launch episode.

But only respondents from Brazil were most articulate, felt, quality child care should be a service provided by the state, or heavily subsidised by the state. Surprisingly and sadly, even women from India, who used the ICDS services, the Anganwadi centres, didn’t demand it as their entitlement vocally or vehemently. Says something about the world’s largest democracy and the citizen-state engagement and such low benchmarks for public service demand!

The study threw very specific set of demands from the respondent informal workers for their dream child care centres, and these demands hold good across countries and continents:

  • Affordable: Child care should either be free or subsidized by the state.
  • Opening hours should match informal workers’ working schedules: In Brazil, ragpickers organised and advocated for a child care centre that was open from 7 am until 10 pm to match their working hours. To prevent care workers being overworked, the day was split into four shifts.
  • Provide care of a good quality: Basic infrastructure should be in place, there should be enough trained care workers, nutritious food should be provided, and there should be an educational and health component included.
  • Provide good job opportunities for women care workers: Care workers should be paid at least a minimum wage, have regulated work hours, and should have access to training. The recurrent strikes by Anganwadi workers in India, demanding living wages and wanting to be upgraded from honorarium-based workers’ category is a case in point
  • Be participatory and community oriented: Informal workers want to be included as key stakeholders in the governance and running of the centres, and to communicate with care workers regularly. SEWA has found a way to meet this demand by recruiting care workers from the local settlement of informal workers too
  • Be in a convenient location: A conveniently located child care centre should be close to either the homes or workplaces of informal workers, so that transport does not increase the costs of care

The study concludes with a call to recognise informal workers’ rights to access child care. Speaking to Newslaundry at the study’s India launch, WIEGO India representative Shalini Sinha shared, “Access to childcare needs to be seen as an integral part of women workforce participation. India has one of the lowest women’s labour force participation and lack of access to childcare is a major reason for the same.” A sentiment echoed in an earlier piece by this author, No country for working women.

The new national nutrition strategy of the NITI Aayog calls for prioritisation of creches and care for children. But will the call translate to reality? Many women’s organisations and child rights organisations are pinning their hopes on the new strategy. This is one agenda that brings the feminists, the child rights advocates and the nutrition advocates together. Will their hope hold? The jury is still out.

WEIGO’s child care initiative study can be accessed here.

The author can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com

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