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Handmade Tales

A group of women adding plastic covers to sequined sandal straps

The sour smell of the gutters, the rats running amok, the incessant thrum of noise, the claustrophobic living conditions, and the overflowing public toilets are daily irritations for the millions of inhabitants of slum areas in Mumbai. Add to that the exploitation of women who do piecework for small factories. Every day, in every slum cluster in Mumbai, men arrive carrying giant plastic bags bulging with everything from unfinished garments, small plastic parts, foam pieces, widgets, coils and springs, magnetic parts, labels to attach, and drop the bundles at the single room homes of women who are paid piece work rates to finish or embellish the various products. The women provide a large, unskilled, semi-literate, labour pool anxious to earn a wage, with no choice but to work for a few rupees a day. It's the perfect scenario for the owners of small factories who operate under the radar of labour laws or inspections to maximize profits.

Reeta and her teen daughters, Sneha and Nikita, received a bag of thousands of alphabet pieces. Their task is to insert each letter into a matching slot in a rigid plastic package. Their nimble fingers work quickly and the finished sets start to pile up. They bundle twenty sets together, wrap the package in elastic and start all over again. The trays of alphabet pieces will be sold in small gift shops in India, and maybe abroad in dollar stores. For their effort they will earn $1 for 50 completed sets. Working together they earn approximately $80 to $100 per month. Reeta is the only income earner in her household of three children and an alcoholic husband. Income from piece work supplements Reeta’s sporadic income as a domestic worker.

Khunbunitsa embroidering small details on factory garments in her home.

Hunched over her hand-work, sitting cross-legged on a charpoy in her chawl home, Khunbunitsa embroidered small patterns on the collars of dresses piled on her floor while we chatted and dunked biscuits in the warm, spicy chai she served us. Some days she sews buttons on cuffs, other days she makes yarn tassels secured with a bit of beading. Every time we visit her we sit among large bags of garments spilling their contents in the crowded living space she shares with her five children and her husband. When her two oldest daughters come home from school they pick up a needle and help their mother sew the finishing details on hundreds of garments, a task that earns the family about 5000 rupees ($100) a month.

Cutting threads along the laneway.

Wandering the laneways we always see women sitting in their doorway for better light while deftly working with a small pair of scissors, cutting loose threads from identical garments piled high on a piece of plastic in the lane. For this, they earn less than a cent a garment while they shoo cats from napping in the soft clothing and yell at children for leaving footprints on the garments.

On a recent visit to Sangeeta’s home, I sat on a mat next to a pile of one inch hard plastic pieces. We chatted about her recent move to this room, and her daughter’s upcoming birthday, while she focused on her task. Using a razor blade, she scraped the rough factory edges off of each piece and put the finished pieces in a separate pile. She is shy, very quiet and reclusive and this type of work appeals to her. She watches television soap operas on the small TV while she works at the mundane task, earning $1.60 for every 1000 pieces she finishes. Her daughter, Priyanka, helps her when she’s home from school; their hard work earning up to 4000 rupees ($80) a month.

Sangeeta shaves the rough edges off these plastic pieces.

Ranjana earns less than a cent for every 100 pieces she completes by inserting two wires into two tiny holes on a small plastic piece used in a telecommunications factory. She calls the work “time pass” and often insists her children help when they aren’t studying. While visiting her for chai and conversation, I tried my hand at production work. Though I knew I could get faster with practice, the hour that I worked inserting tiny wires into tiny plastic holes alongside Ranjana wasn’t profitable for me. For her, the extra money she earns tops up the earnings her husband makes driving their own delivery truck.

The women who do piece work seem resigned to these tasks, but that doesn't mean they don't understand that they are paid a miserly wage for mountains of work. They enjoy the gossip and conversation when they work in groups, and sometimes laughter rings out from the doorways while they toil over the piles of clothing or widgets from the factories. In their world, something is something, and nothing is nothing. They know that the something they get from working hours of menial labour is better than nothing, but they also know they are being exploited.

These women are attaching labels to display boards.

All these families arrived in Mumbai hoping for jobs and choices they'll never have in their native places in northern India, but the dream is overshadowed by the reality of the caste system, gender inequality, poverty, and inadequate, unhygienic housing in an overcrowded city. They’re keen to educate their children, especially their daughters, who can one day speak for them with loud voices. Those voices, and there will be a lot of them (50% of the population of India is under 25 years old), could be the impetus for change in labour laws, gender issues, and the problem of caste, for a more equal India for all.

Durga making powder puffs by fitting the puff to a base.

DWP provides full or partial school fees for the women's children:

Reeta’s daughter/Sneha: 12,600 rupees ($252)

Khunbunitsa’s daughter/Faima: 6,400 rupees ($128)

Sangeeta’s daughter/Priyanka: 7,000 rupees ($140)

Ranjana’s sons/Hardhik: 1,250 ($25) & Sushil: 4,700 rupees ($94)

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