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This article is written by Ishan Roy Chowdhury. 

Introduction

Women in our country form an integral part of our workforce and the General Census 2001 stated that 127,220,248 people in the workforce are women. In other words, 149.8 million female workers exist, 121.8 million women work in rural areas while 28 million work in urban areas.  Women in our country face certain discrimination in the workplace. There was a time where women were not allowed to do certain jobs but that was later amended and now women can do any job they choose to do. Even though there are laws against discrimination women still face discrimination sometimes, especially in work which is usually seen as a men’s job such as working in factories or mines. As stated in Article 15 of The Constitution of India, there will be no discrimination based on gender in anything. Yet some women face discrimination while working in factories. Though the Factories Act, 1948 does provide for many provisions related to women and women’s health, safety, well-being, and benefits, it still is lacking in certain areas.

Health and safety provisions for women provided under the Factories Act, 1948

Section 19: Latrines and urinals

Chapter III and Chapter IV of the Factories Act provide for health and safety provisions respectively. Section 19 of the Factories Act mandates that every factory must have enough latrine and urinal accommodations, for both men and women which should be accessible to all the workers at all times. No person can be barred from using them at any time and the employer must maintain adequate cleanliness and sanitation in the latrines and urinals at all times. There should also be washing places nearby. This is all very necessary for keeping the workers healthy. Women, in particular, should not have any problem. This section aims to keep women and men healthy at all times. Though unfortunately both women and men had to work overtime with no toilet breaks by their employer in this COVID-19 pandemic to continue supplying the growing demands of their consumers.

Section 22: Work on or near machinery in motion

The Factories Act very clearly states in Section 22 that the lubrication of machinery and/or adjustment of any machinery or any part of it, while it is in motion, will not be done by any woman or a young person. This Section exists to prevent any dangerous injury to any woman or child (young person). 

Section 34: Excessive weights

Section 34 gives certain powers to the concerned State Government to make rules regarding the maximum weight limit which would be lifted by women, men, and younger people in the factories. It is clearly given that no one can be employed or asked to move or lift a weight that may cause them harm or injury.

Section 27: Prohibition of employment of women and children near cotton-openers

Section 27 of the Factories Act prohibits any women in employment to be employed in any part of a factory for pressing cotton or in which a cotton opener is used. This is done to keep the women healthy as there is a high risk of the cotton bales generating flames. When wet cotton bales are being pressed (in cotton pressing) they generate high amounts of heat and the things around them can catch fire. In many instances, the dry cotton bales nearby have caught on fire and have caused fire-related accidents and burns to the people in the immediate vicinity. Women are not allowed in the process so as to prevent burn-related injuries. 

Furthermore, the sudden opening of cotton bales (in the cotton opening) may result in the steel straps holding them to split open and disengaging, which sometimes hits the people nearby, this can cause a lot of pain and injury. Hence, so as to protect women from such injuries, they are prohibited to be employed in cotton opening procedures. Though women can be employed in other parts of cotton factories that are not hazardous to health such as cloth-making, weaving, cotton cleaning, dyeing, etc.

The lacunae in the Factories Act, 1948 and the reality

In garment factories and clothes factories, women are being fired or are being underpaid in the current corona pandemic. In the lockdown, many people sat in their homes without work and hence without money. After the lockdown was lifted the factories only allowed up to 30% of their workforce making many people still unemployed.  Female workers who had children were asked to not come to work to not endanger their own lives and their children’s lives but the workers after some time needed money to feed their families. The 30% workforce was allowed to follow the social distancing norms and as it was the bare necessity. 

Many factories laid off their workers as they found it to be more convenient than keeping them idle or on the sidelines till the pandemic ends, as the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight even now. Apart from that many women suffered pay cuts and partial work due to the pandemic and losses incurred by the industries. Many brands cancelled their orders and/or closed their shops down till further notice. This reduced the demand for clothes and thus further reduced the demand for work and hence workers, along with incurring more losses. This all, in turn, made the factory owners resort to paying cuts and laying off of their employees, leaving many women jobless or with an underpaid job. 

Women, in general, are not favoured over men in factories as much of the work in factories is heavy lifting, hazardous, and sometimes life-threatening, which all is exempted to be done by women and hence they can only do some specific work in only certain factories. But even that is now being taken away from them in this COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic the work prospect of women and chances to get a job in a factory was low as many factories do not hire women (as their work or manufactured goods may be harmful or hazardous) and due to the high population of our country, there are always fewer job opportunities. Women need these jobs as women who work in factories usually have a child or two and need to take care of them and work to provide for them. Their husband’s salary might not be enough in some cases and hence they also must go to work and earn for the welfare of their family.

The Fairwear Foundation had once stated that violence is very common in Indian Garment Factories and it ranges from verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment and even rape.

Though Section 11 of the Factories Act, 1948 talks about cleanliness many factories are not actually a very clean place. Many factories make workers work in horrible sanitation surroundings and completely ignore the mandate. Many factories clearly violate multiple health and sanitation demands from the Factories Act. Improper ventilation exists in many factories, to the point that the workers sometimes go outside the factory to breathe properly or as they call it “a breath of fresh air”. Waste is seldom cleared out and some parts of factories have continuous dust and fumes (mainly due to mechanical work causing it) and are not cleared out. The factory owners get away with all of this by cleaning up the mess for a few days in case of inspection by the authorities under Section 9 of the Act. 

Many workers do not even have proper lighting in their workplaces and so they prefer day shifts, working using the light of the sun but at dark, with poor lighting, it is really hard to work especially if the work is to weave clothes or sew clothes. All in violation of Section 17 of the Factories Act 1948. The International Labour Organisation has stated how important lighting is in any factory, and how it even increases work efficiency. The article by the International Labour Organisation even states where to put lights and serves as a basic plan for all factories.

Chapter V of the Factories Act 1948 provides for welfare for the workers by the employer. Most of this welfare are basic human needs like sitting areas, canteens, facilities for first aid, and even creches. Most factories should even have welfare officers to look after the needs of the workmen and women, but many factories lack that. Many factories have all the welfare needs but they are sub-standard at best. With broken benches and old tables which have not been changed for years.

Improvement and initiative to protect women’s interests

There is vocational training for women under the Directorate General of Employment and Training. This training program was made to make women independent and so they could speak up, talk and learn. This training program helps them in getting better jobs in the job market. The Directorate General of Employment and Training (DGE&T) is the main agency for providing vocational training in the traditional and contemporary courses and it even certifies women to be able to keep up with the trained skill workmen to any industry and/or service sector. The courses under the DGE&T help women achieve their goals and dreams by providing them with a much-needed confidence boost along with the training they need to secure a job in the job market. The DGE&T also plans long-term training programmes for women’s vocational training in the entire country. The institution has eleven institutes from the central sector and offers many courses to help women find jobs or self-employment by giving them the skills necessary to do so. The vocational training even exists in the state sector and the women are exclusively taught craftsmanship through a network of people under administrative control. Some of the courses offered by DGE&T are dressmaking, electronics, architecture, and secretarial practice.

A project for reducing sexual harassment in factories and workplaces was supported by the United Nations fund which is training thousands of women workers in India and Bangladesh through education. Many of the teachers there were victims themselves and hence understand the pain of their students and hence know how to teach them how to stand up for themselves and stop the sexual harassment once and for all. This project is even supported by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, and focuses on 24 different factories and all of their 3,500 women workers and 15,000 other workers and imparts them the education necessary to stand up to such uncivil behaviour by their co-workers.

The Government of India also has done quite a few things for the women in factories; there are maternity benefits given via The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 which states how long the maternity leave will be and what work the woman will be allowed to do after she comes back to work (after having her child). The Act does not just give maternity benefits but also certain other benefits. Many provisions of the Factories Act aim at the welfare of women and focus on their wellbeing and go to the extent of penalising the employer if the women are not given certain benefits. 

The Maternity Benefit Act provides for a paid leave for 12 to 26 weeks which greatly helps the women. Recently the government has been making policies to increase women’s participation in the country’s workforce. They have given tax incentives to companies to hire women and having women in their companies and factories above a threshold they will get tax reductions. The media has been taking an active role in spreading awareness about sexual exploitation in the workplace and even has written articles about how we need more women in manufacturing industries, both in the factories and upper management. 

Conclusion

Women in factories have faced many hardships, there was a time they were denied jobs or were given jobs with sub-par conditions and less than average wages which they had to still take as they were desperate. It improved to the point that legislation was implemented to aid them but the benefits were only on paper and not practically. Now, finally, the benefits are showing in practice, with the help of different NGOs and United Nations Welfare schemes along with our women care bodies established by the government, women in factories are finally getting what they duly deserve. Women are getting the wages that they duly deserve, and receiving the most benefits that they are supposed to. Though there are some places where they need help, it has improved a lot than it was a decade ago. But we must stay vigilant as then only then can we stop exploration of any kind, to man, woman, or child. The government must keep implementing laws for the benefit of all and make bodies to see the valid practical implementation of those beneficial laws. Only then can we say we have achieved true equality and women in all workplaces will be safe! 


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