Women’s empowerment has become a buzzword in the lexicon of politicians and bureaucrats in India after the official pronouncements on the status of women and the enactment of the constitutional amendments. The 73rd and 74th amendments have added new dimensions to the issue of women’s empowerment by making provisions for the compulsory participation of women in local governing bodies and involvement in development activities. The amendments make provisions for reservation of not less than one-third of the total number of seats in panchayats and municipalities for women. The amendments have resulted in about three million elected representatives in panchayats and municipalities and out of this, one million are women. How far have these amendments helped women in the informal sector? Women contribute largely to the country’s development but their needs are not addressed adequately or at the right time and place. Their lives are still characterized by low income, ill health, low nutrition and high level of exploitation. The National Service Scheme (NSS) has identified women’s development and gender justice as one of its thrust areas for two reasons – (a) increasing atrocities against women and (b) marginalization and exploitation of women. This paper seeks to explore the questions of women engaged in the informal sector. What is this ‘informal’ sector? What keeps women working in the informal sector down? Why is employment of women in informal sectors important for them? How can their position be bettered? How do NGOs help organize women in the informal sector? These are important questions to be looked at in the context of all questions raised about the empowerment of women in India.

Informal sector -- background In terms of historical analysis of women’s work, Marx and Engels believed that earlier the men had a monopoly over the heavier work and that women were excluded from productive work outside the domestic sphere. This analysis ignores the work of women in mines, factories and on the land, as well as the work of peasant women and women of the craftsmen. There is ample evidence to show that women have always engaged in social production. They perform not only wage work, but reproductive work, or the whole gamut of work that is crucial for reproduction – cooking, cleaning, fuel preparation, gathering, gleaning for foods, etc. Women thus are not dependent on the income of their husbands, but the last guarantors of the survival of the family.

The informal sector was 'discovered' in the 1970s when Keith Hart first used the term. The International Labour Organization (ILO) then embraced this. This view largely saw the informal sector as "covering marginal livelihoods and survival activity outside the regulatory reach of state and not yet able to be absorbed by industry (and) emphasised the role (or failure) of formal sector employment in defining the informal sector". The 1980s, however, saw the emergence of a more textured understanding of informality. Informal activity was then considered as much a rural or ‘rurban’ phenomenon as it was an urban one. Nearly a decade back, the ILO 1998 World Employment Report characterized the informal sector in the following words: "Informal units comprise small enterprises with hired workers, household enterprises using mostly family labour, and the self-employed. Production processes involve relatively high levels of working capital as against fixed capital, which in turn reflects the relatively low level of technology and skills involved". Current research on informality underscores the inherently ambivalent nature of informality, focussing on the ‘partial’ or strategic informalisation across and within enterprises. For example, firms may be registered as ‘formal’ in some records and not registered at all in others. As there is no system of tallying these records, firms can maximize their set of advantages by avoiding taxes and yet acquiring state-subsidized finance. The informal economy either lies beyond the scope of state regulation, or is officially subject to state regulation but does not function in keeping with the rules that state regulation officially prescribes. If it lies outside the scope of state regulations, it is generally known as an ‘unregistered’ firm and defined as consisting of firms with electricity but with less than 10 workers or without electricity but with over 20 workers. If it lies within the scope of state regulation, in practice, most firms with labour force exceeding the threshold for registration employ a substantial number of casual labour, mainly women, and this is undeclared under the Factories Act. They did this even for registered workers by cleverly skirting rules instead of breaking them. For example, textile mills in Mumbai were expected to support young nursing mothers and mothers with small children with a crèche if the mill employed 50 or more women workers on the rolls. Many mills and factories cleverly skirted this regulation by employing less than 50 women.

In one study of corporate capital put the proportion of unorganized labour in various corporations at somewhere between 40% and 85%. Of the total labour force of 390 million, only 7% work at regular wages and salaries and of this, only half are unionized. Between 1989 and the mid-1990s, the unregistered workforce increased from 89% to 93%. The informal economy was recently estimated as comprising 60% of net domestic product, 68% of income, 60% of savings, 31% of agricultural exports and 41% of manufactured exports. The informal economy is not shrinking at all. Because if these are the statistics of ‘informal’ labour in the ‘formal’ sector, it would not be difficult to visualize the figures of informal labour in the informal sector.

In India, 88% Indians live in settlements with less than 200,000 population. Agriculture and food-related goods and services dominate the economy. In 1997, an average of roughly over 10% of consumption expenditure in India was estimated to be on the output of the corporate sector. The remaining 90% was spent on the output of the informal economy in which most of the 88% of the population worked.

Women and Work in the Informal Sector Women workers in the informal economy are amongst those with least access to social protection. Given their vulnerable status at home and at work, income generation alone may not improve their socio-economic status. Their economic empowerment needs to go along with political empowerment, which could improve their bargaining power both in the household and at work. This means that organizing women workers in the informal economy could have beneficial impacts on their work and their life if such organization combines voices representation along with access to resources such as credit and information – a holistic strategy that provides political empowerment allied with economic empowerment.

Amongst those who are left out of any social protection system in India, and amongst those who are poor, women form a major group. Women dominate those forms of work that are unregulated and unregistered, found most in the so-called ‘informal economy. According to Visaria (1966), the informal economy in India employs about 90 per cent of the country’s work force and 97 per cent of its women workers.

Many of these women workers are the primary earners in their families -their earnings necessary for their own and their families’ survival. With the economic reforms currently underway in India, some believe that such informal work, characterized by low earnings, irregular employment and unsafe working conditions, is likely to intensify in the coming years- a holistic strategy that provides political empowerment allied with economic empowerment. Using data from the People’s Security Survey carried out by the ILO’s Socio Economic Security programme in India, this paper examines the hypothesis that such organization of women in the informal economy leads to both tangible and intangible benefits - greater income security, employment security and work security along with greater control over their earnings and greater self-esteem.