We are currently witnessing a historic and militant struggle by working class women across the country. The north has been boiling with momentous strikes by scores of Anganwadi workers in the states of Haryana, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir who had struck work and locked down Anganwadi centres demanding minimum wages, regularisation of services, social security benefits and an end to attempts at privatisation of government schemes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Throughout Punjab, the women workers have been on strike for the last 44 days demanding an increase in wages from Rs 5,400 to Rs 10,000 and from Rs 2,700 to Rs 5,000 for Anganwadi Workers (AWW) and Anganwadi Helpers (AWH) respectively. Other demands to the Punjab state government include the releasing of food material and payment of rent for the Anganwadi Centres.
Anganwadi workers in Haryana were on a strike for 26 days, demanding that they be accorded the status of government employees of Grade 3 and Grade 4 respectively. The state governments has only agreed to recognise them as the skilled and semi- skilled workers. The agitation is set to resume if the accepted demands including those on provision of employee’s state insurance and Provident Fund(PF) are not implemented till April 10th
Their counterparts in Jammu & Kashmir have mobilized in Srinagar to demand an increase in their honorarium from Rs 3,600 to Rs 10,000 for Anganwadi workers and from Rs 1,800 to Rs 6000 for Anganwadi helpers respectively. The workers have threatened a complete lockdown of all Anganwadi centres until all the demands are met.
Criminal neglect through the years
Their rage is fuelled by the criminal neglect they have been meted out by their respective state governments and the central government for years.
Sample this, from 5,45,714 centres in 2002 the total number of Anganwadi centres in the country have increased to 13,49,153 in 2016, which is an increase of more than 8 lakh centres. However, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the Central government’s annual budgetary allocations for the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) under which these centres run. The proposed allocation for ICDS as per the Planning Commission in the 12th Five-Year Plan is Rs 23,025 crores. However, the Union government’s budgetary allocations for ICDS have been very erratic. In 2014-2015, Rs 18,195 crores was allocated, whereas in 2015-2016, there was a drastic dip in the allocated budget to Rs 8,335 crores. The financial year 2017-18 saw an allocation of Rs 15,425.19 crores which was raised to Rs 16,334 crores in the Union Budget of 2018-19. Despite the marginal increase in budgetary allocations, the funds are still meagre for an enhancement of exiting wages, providing social security benefits to the workers, maintenance of adequate infrastructure and especially for the additional requirement of supplementary nutrition which alone requires a funding of Rs 10,000 crore.
Over 27 lakh women workers are employed in this scheme across the country. However, the work done by Anganwadi Workers and Helpers, like the work of ASHA-USHA “volunteers” fall under the category of ‘scheme workers’ and is undervalued and not recognized as work. They are usually treated as volunteers by the government. The services provided under ICDS primarily involve different tasks related to care-giving and are thus wrongly classified as voluntary services as opposed to a regular job. It is an extension of the way in which women’s work is undervalued and not accounted for in different spheres in the society. This patriarchal assumption about the nature of ‘care-work’ is what leads the government to easily evade the question of salary for scheme workers. In the case of women workers, a patriarchal cover is readily available for employers to not even pay a minimum wage, which is not different from the status of contract workers across different sectors whose regularisation is avoided by employers through the use of different tactics.
- Anganwadi workers on strike in Gurgaon
- Photo Courtesy : Pinjra Tod
The All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH) which is a federation of various Anganwadi unions and associations backed by the central trade union CITU, have been demanding the implementation of recommendations of the 45th Indian Labour Conference held in May, 2013. The 45th Indian Labour Conference held by the Ministry of Labour and Employment included the participation of State Labour Ministries, Trade Union and employers’ organisations, and various other stakeholders made some notable recommendations concerning Anganwadi Workers and Helpers which included recognition as ‘workers’ and not volunteers, payment of minimum wages, social security benefits of pension, maternity benefits amongst others.
Poor wages and lack of social security benefits are however not the only predicaments ailing the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). There have been attempts at handing over the scheme to corporate companies or NGOs which would make the conditions of work for scheme workers even more precarious if not throwing them out of stable employment. There have been protests by Anganwadi Unions over talks by the Ministry of Women and Child Development about replacing hot cooked food served in Anganwadis to ‘ready-to-eat’ nutrient packages manufactured by private companies that would be delivered at homes. There have also been stiff resistance against the mentions of Direct Cash Transfers which would completely replace ICDS. The struggle is therefore not only demanding higher wages and regularisation of employment but also against the mightier forces of capital and privatisation of public sector social welfare schemes.
Working Women! Militant Struggles!
There have been inspiring militant strikes and protests organised across the country in Bangalore, Munnar, Gujarat, etc. The garment factory workers strike had taken Bangalore by storm in April, 2016. Lakhs of garment factory workers, 80% of whom were women had brought the city to a standstill for several days. This was after the revised withdrawal norms of Employee Provident Fund (EPF) where employees would be able to withdraw the employer’s contribution to the PF only at the retirement age of 58. Earlier, if a worker was unemployed for two months he or she could withdraw the entire fund including the employer’s and employee’s share. The revised norms were withdrawn after the protests.
In September of 2015, over 5000 workers, mostly women, went on strike at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (owned by Tata) in Munnar. The strike was called demanding a minimum daily wage of Rs 500 and a 20% bonus. The strike led to the formation of Pembilai Orumai (“Women’s Unity”), an all-women’s union, which went on to bypass the central trade unions who they felt compromised with their demands and forced the Kerala government to enter into negotiations with them directly.
If for the last two months it was the Anganwadi workers across the country striking work and demanding basic rights, this International Working Women’s Day it was thousands of Pourakarmikas, sanitation workers, in Bangalore demanding better wages, regularised working conditions and end to caste and gender based discrimination. Relegated to contractual manual scavenging and garbage collection along with insufficient wages, illegal contracts and unhygienic work conditions, the women stormed the streets yet again after a 36-hour long strike that took place on August 28, 2017 demanding that arrears of the last months be paid before they go back to work.
On the one hand, there is the state and market co-opting a militant history of the working women’s movement through institutionalised hollow narratives of women empowerment and through market gimmicks of ‘special offers’ and ‘discounts’. On the other hand, there is the complete dismissal of working women’s demands for basic rights along with a systematic repression of a vibrant working women’s struggle in the country by the state machinery. The struggle of the Anganwadi workers along with that of the many different women’s struggles that have been mentioned here serve to preserve and fuel a history of social change that is constantly being waged around us.