Caste, Gender and Labour – WSS Seminar Report, Session 2

May 21, 2016

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The following selection is from the national seminar entitled “Resisting Caste and Patriarchy: Building Alliances” held by Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), in December 2015 The background of this meeting, and notes from the first session are available here.

Caste, Gender and Labour

Introducing the session, Uma emphasised the importance of approaching the theme of caste and labour with as broad a perspective as possible. The women’s movement has by and large confined the discourse on caste and patriarchy within a comparatively narrow conceptual domain. The question of Dalit women’s labour has not been adequately addressed. Labour is intrinsic to caste, but experiences of caste are very sector-specific. This session will hopefully surface some of these specificities.

1. Iqbal Udasi, AIPWA, Punjab (poet, daughter of revolutionary poet Santram Udasi)

Iqbal highlighted the high levels of caste and gender discrimination in a rich state like Punjab. A significant proportion of rural dalit women in Punjab are working for upper-caste landowners. Dalit women agricultural workers and brick-kiln workers, mainly Dalit bonded labour earning annual wages of Rs.70-90,000/ have no rights to speak of. Rs 450/- is deducted for every day of work.

The Siri system prevails. Women in bonded families work in cattle sheds (making dung cakes for fuel) for one roti and one glass of milk per day. Dalit women are forced to pay to be allowed to glean the grains of wheat left behind in fields after harvesting. Brick-kiln workers get work only for part of the year; local workers are paid more than migrants. Employers warn labour that they will lose jobs if they talk to AIPWA activists. There is much exploitation of Dalit women – low wages, forced labour, sexual exploitation, violence from employers. Nor is there much benefit from reservations, Dalit women only get low-end government jobs like ASHA workers, NREGA workers. Landless workers do not even have a roof over their heads. Temporary shelters put up by landless workers on shamlat lands (revenue land) are demolished by the administration and land mafia.

There have been land struggles of Dalits with more than 3000 women going to jail with their children for more than a month, because they protested against their eviction from common lands where they had built shelters. Among Bihari migrant workers some have moved to other occupations (including in urban industrial areas eg in Haryana), but those who remain in agriculture are in a very bad situation. Alcoholism has increased the economic pressure on women, increase in sex work, and women are forced to migrate to cities. There has been a weakening of labour movements, increase in violence and caste discrimination in wake of the agrarian crisis and changing land relations in Punjab. With the increase in farmer suicides women pay the price. Again, Dalit farmers are most vulnerable. Agricultural workers are now migrating out of Punjab.

There is much social sanction for certain kinds of violence — two Dalit girls who wanted to get married were targeted by society, but there is no social boycott for fathers who rape their daughters. We need to ally with struggles on the ground – eg support for Dalit women who have taken action against violators. We need a joint protest of left and women’s groups in Punjab against assaults by the state on workers’ rights.

2. Sonal Sharma, Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research

Sonal’s presentation was based on his recent research on different kinds of paid domestic work. When it comes to domestic workers and caste the usual analysis is that it is the employers who practice caste discrimination. But the situation is more complex since workers are themselves differentiated by caste and themselves also practice it, which calls for a micro political economy approach. Caste discrimination destroys solidarity among unorganised sector workers, for very small economic gains. This does not mean that employers themselves do not also differentiate among those who work for them according to their caste, which they do. Employers treat their domestic workers quite differently – for instance, Sonal found that employers interact the least with dalit workers engaged in cleaning bathrooms.

Employers do not want to hire Dalit or Muslim workers, but upper caste and OBC domestic workers also do not want to work for Dalit and Muslim families. Upper caste and OBC workers try to distance themselves from certain kinds of occupations (eg cleaning bathrooms) on the grounds that they are “Dalit jobs”; some also do not eat at work because employers allow Dalit workers to use the same dishes. Upper caste and OBC women do not want to work in areas where they have relatives, because they do not want to be seen doing “demeaning work”.

Sonal’s mother is herself a domestic worker – hence his engagement with these issue was at a personal level as well. The whole issue of “respectability” was very central to his life while growing up, which he described as being “on the verge of the margins”. What then of solidarity? This depends on the meanings that can be attached to work and on the nature of the home as a workplace.

The nature of the work determines the relationship between domestic workers and employers, requiring a micro economy approach to domestic work. For example, Baby Haldar’s writings not only describe her complex relationships to different employers but also their relationship to her and to other domestic workers. How did she access the toilet, sit on a chair? We need to incorporate these kinds of complexities into our discourse on domestic work and our efforts to build solidarity between women’s movements and domestic workers. To realise dignity for domestic workers demands a more substantial engagement with issues of humiliation and stigma.

3. Deepa Tak, Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Pune

Deepa, a member of the Balmiki community, shared findings from her research on Balmikis in the city of Pune and the history of Balmiki women workers in manual scavenging and cleaning. Existing evidence suggests that Balmikis came from northern India (mainly Mehtar, Chura, Chamar communities). They were attached to and moved with the British Army and were established in different parts of the country as manual scavengers. In Maharashtra other local Dalit castes are also engaged in manual scavenging, although 80% are Balmikis.

In current policy and legal frameworks manual scavenging is approached as a class/poverty or occupational issue. This invisibilisation of caste dimensions is the main cause of policy failure. There are also ambiguities within Balmiki self-perception – the “right” to retain control of a hereditary occupation is claimed even while social/caste discrimination is recognised as oppression and humiliation. Government jobs are seen as one of the only routes to upward mobility in the present socio-political context and shrinking of job opportunities. Job as a manual scavenger has incentives such as housing and a permanent income. On the other side there is the contradiction between policy commitment to the “eradication” of manual scavenging and government practice of precisely hiring Balmikis for manual scavenging.

There are also ambiguities within Balmiki self-perception – the “right” to retain control of a hereditary occupation is claimed even while social/caste discrimination is recognised as oppression and humiliation. Government jobs are seen as one of the only routes to upward mobility in the present socio political context and shrinking of job opportunities. Job as a manual scavenger has incentives such as housing and a permanent income. On the other side there is the contradiction between policy commitment to the “eradication” of manual scavenging and government practice of precisely hiring Balmikis for manual scavenging.

The Hinduisation of Dalit communities in the 1990s has fueled claims of a “Balmiki” identity, This claim and the adoption of “Balmiki” as a surname is relatively recent. There have been more recent waves of Balmiki conversions to Christianity and Islam (but not to Buddhism), which appears to more influenced by Gandhi than by Ambedkar.

Balmiki women are trying to challenge stigma and humiliation through their own strategies. In many areas, manual scavengers are women, but there is little discussion of their issues in existing policies, which speak of scavengers as though they were exclusively men. There are daily humiliations, for instance when women clean men’s toilets and come face-to-face with men who are relieving themselves. These are directly humiliating even if violence is not involved. There is a danger of speaking of Dalit women as a homogenous community – issues of Balmiki women and women in manual scavenging are at risk of being excluded from such homogenised formulations.

The current economic situation is so dire that people are willing to do any jobs, so much so that dominant castes and upper echelons of dalits are moving into scavenging. In UP dominant castes have occupied municipal posts and then sub-contracted them back to Valmikis.

4. Vasudha Ratawal, Researcher, Delhi

Vasudha began her presentation by going back to the late colonial period in 1929 when Ambedkar decribed how Dalits were barred from weaving mills because of the practice of licking the end of the thread while winding it on the shuttles. Caste Hindu workers refused to work with them. In the Makrana marble industry in Rajasthan that Vasudha is studying, Dalit women work in breaking marble rocks and earn Rs. 130/- per day as opposed to Rs.150/- for upper caste women.

Dalit women are paid once a month (as against every 15 days for other women). Polishing is seen as a more skilled job, with better wages but no Dalit women are hired. Upper caste women are allowed to drink from the water cooler while Dalit women have to bring their own water. Marble workers die early because of silicosis due to the hazardous nature of the work, but Dalit women not given compensation for many months. Similar experiences of caste discrimination are to be found in the diamond-polishing industry where Dalit women are under greater scrutiny from employers because they have been labelling as “thieves by nature”.

The women’s movement and anti-caste movements have to confront these interconnected issues. Vasudha was strongly of the view that we first “Have to break unity to create new unity.”

5. D. Saraswathi, Activist, performer and writer, Karnataka

As a Dalit woman, Saraswathi has struggled to overcome class privilege and has used stories in organising work. She read out an English translation of her story “Bacheesu” (“Lakshmi’s Mutton Curry”).

For workers in cleaning and scavenging, urbanisation has made things worse – while earlier, surface drains could be cleaned with simple implements, now manual scavengers are literally swimming in shit to clean sewers. This is an issue where Dalits are asking for technology – this is the only sector where technology has not been allowed to enter.

Humiliating professions have been forced on Balmikis – they had agricultural skills but when they migrated, the British only gave them scavenging jobs. On the issue of why scavengers do not want to leave their humilating profession, it is simply because of a lack of alternatives. The only option is coolie work which pays much less than a municipal job which carries some benefits like housing.

According to Brahminical values food is sacred and shit is polluted even though food goes into our bodies and shit comes from the same food. Why can we not deal with our own shit? In response to Modi’s statement that cleaning is a sacred job, like puja, she asked if that is the case, will pujaris go on deputation and become safai karmacharis? If dominant castes come into scavenging, then it will be higher paid and more mechanised.

As feminists, we have to fight against gender, caste and class simultaneously. Also, we need to recognise and affirm positive alternatives in Dalit communities, for example the alternative family structure of hijra collectives where children are seen as belonging to the whole community.

In closing, Saraswati argued for a more flexible approach to such discussions, where other modes of expression could be allowed instead of presenting academic papers.

Uma responded to the issues raised in the session. While it is true that marriage and family are central to women’s subordination, but we need to introduce more detail and depth into our analyses of the family as an institution. Autonomous women’s movements have provided a strong analysis of the patriarchal oppression in the family, but it is also necessary to understand families in the context of social/labour relations. For example, in bonded labour families every member of the family is intricately involved in survival labour. We need to look at where the critique of the family is coming from, who is included and who is excluded. This is a prerequisite for dialogue between perspectives.

The larger context of labour needs a fresh analysis. With regard to the different issues raised among the speakers she referred to the selective use of social boycotts – it is a powerful weapon but not deployed against rapists in the same way it is used to crush subversive women. Domestic work emerges differently when a caste lens is applied and it is further disaggregated. Cleaning the toilet is considered acceptable for a wife and mother, but an upper caste domestic worker will refuse to do it for anyone else’s household.

While we all agree that caste and gender are linked, we do not have a complete understanding of how they work together – we need to break/deconstruct old notions of sisterhood and reconstruct them anew. We have to understand that caste is both humiliation and exploitation.

A brief discussion followed.

Muneeza referred to the experiences of discrimination for Muslim women in Banaras. Muslim women are forced to hide their religious identities and take assumed names in order to get jobs as domestic workers. Muslim girls staying as paying guest with a Hindu family they were asked not to enter the kitchen and were given separate utensils.

Kiran spoke of the Trilokpuri communal violence where Dalit workers were incited against Muslims. Economic opportunities for Muslims have been seriously affected in these areas. She said that we need to understand complex issues of work and dignity, such as why Dalit scavengers want to stick to this occupation. Kiran also commented on the need to be conscious about our use of language – why use “upper castes” when we can make the power hierarchy visible by saying “oppressor castes”.

Geeta (Sadhana Gumpu) pointed out that sex work, like domestic work, is not seen as work but as a curse. She described the challenges faced by her organisation in claiming dignity for themselves and their work. They face discrimination from non-Dalit sex workers as well as from society.

Swati spoke of how moved she was by Saraswati’s story, particularly the ending, and hailed her as a great writer.

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