The lot of unskilled labourers is generally a hard one, but hardest for women, who often do not receive legitimate wages, or get complete access to those earnings once home. Not only do they earn less than their male counterparts, if they work as part of a family unit, they frequently do not get paid at all. Most of them are employed on a project-by-project basis, and have no insurance against periods of unemployment, because their work belongs to the unorganised sector. Existing legal regulations (Abolition of Contract Labour Act, 1971), which provide women labourers with maternity benefits, are seldom enforced.
A large proportion of these unskilled women workers tend to be migrants and thus, seasonal labourers, who are rarely given sickness or even accident benefits. These migrant workers often lack access to clean drinking water or facilities for bathing, not to mention any means of caring for their children when they are at work. They are also vulnerable to police harassment, since their civil rights are not recognised.
How should development efforts tackle the problems of these women, who suffer the debilitations of poverty more than any others? The last decade has witnessed a growing consensus among development practitioners about the correct approach towards poverty alleviation: they stress that instead of being top-down, the process should be participatory and collective. This vision, advocated by NGOs and governments alike, is a noble but problematic one. Does collective action truly evolve from local women's groups, or is it marshalled and shepherded by NGO intermediates? Are NGOs themselves outsiders? Do they recognise the self-help strategies local communities have already evolved?
These questions are taken up in Women Builders, a thought-provoking new documentary on women labourers in Chhattisgarh - labourers who are as yet not unionised but might soon be encouraged to act collectively by institutions like the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers (IFBWW).
When so much hype surrounds the 21st-Century working woman and her purchasing power, it is instructive and chastening to dwell on the lives of these women, who also inhabit the working world, but in a completely different capacity. Women Builders was commissioned by the ILO in consultation with the IFBWW and produced by Jandarshan, a community filmmaking unit based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. Following a screening organised by the Oxford Ethnographic Film Society, I had a chance to speak with the film's producer, Margaret Dickinson. It was Dickinson who, along with course leader Stephen Jinks (of Sheffield Independent Film and Television) and NDTV cameraperson Natasha Badhwar, trained the twelve students who now comprise the staff of Jandarshan.
The first half of the film depicts the lives of four women working at a building site in Chhattisgarh, while the second portion examines the impact of the organising activity carried out by two Gujarat-based NGOs, Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan. SEWA has 20000 members who work in the construction industry. It arranges for them to get accident insurance; it also trains women in masonry, so that they can weather the impact of job losses which are expected to increase with the growing mechanisation of the industry. Despite this training, contractors rarely hire women to perform skilled work. Nevertheless when women labourers do break through this barrier, their prospects improve significantly, as happened in the case of one SEWA-trained woman, who doubled her salary when she began working as a bricklayer.
The breadth of SEWA's work does not, however, extend into the sphere of migrant women workers, arguably the worst-off casual labourers. Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan is one of few organisations which tries to help these women. In addition to standing up for their rights when they face police intimidation, they also provide them with basic amenities like drinking water and bathing facilities, as well as education for their children.
The two-fold structure of the film - it is both a portrait of four women working on building sites, and a commentary on the efforts of NGOs to organise them - means that the two narratives can seem disconnected. If the first section is a collection of human stories, focussing on the lives and histories of these women, the second half owes its premise to the film's genesis as a commissioned work. Despite the involvement of the ILO and IFBWW, Women Builders takes a rather provocative look at the role of NGOs and collective action in bringing social justice to these women.
Visible work, invisible women
Nonetheless, she keenly emphasises that "there is solidarity and a strategy amongst those working together, despite the absence of collective organisation". Indeed, one of the most inspiring moments in the film occurs when a few women address their mobility difficulties by saving enough to purchase their own bicycles. Although many of these women are primary wage earners in their families, coping with the chronic unemployment that afflicts their husbands, in cases where both spouses are working, the women often establish informal babysitting arrangements with their neighbours, paying stay-at-home mothers to watch over their children. The over-riding impression is of a group of women who are aware of their own needs, and have the initiative and intelligence to fulfil them, finances permitting. By taking matters into their own hands, they themselves make a difference to their lives.
Part of the filmmaker's brief was to make a film which would be "useful to those working with women labourers". That said, Dickinson admits that screenings of the film before members of the IFBWW and the ILO evoked a mixed response. The ILO collaborator, Jill Wells, liked the film, and Dickinson elaborates, "we agree about the value of collective organisation and unionisation but it is not the be-all and end-all, and so, whatever people can do on a smaller scale is to be encouraged". The IFBWW associate, Fiona Murie, was not as receptive to the film's conclusions. Dickinson recalls, "her attitude suggested a certain criticism because it didn't show enough of the IFBWW".
More importantly, most of the women who were interviewed were also shown the film. The original plan was to show the film on the building site, but when contractors raised a fuss about the women missing working hours, the programme had to be moved to a community hall in the evening, which made it harder for the women involved to attend. Although unable to go to that screening herself, Dickinson says that she heard that the women expressed a great deal of interest in the first half, which focussed on their lives, but showed surprisingly little curiosity about the second section (perhaps they too felt as detached from the goings-on as their counterparts in Gujarat). She feels that this might have had little to do with their attitude to the subject matter per se. It was more likely, she says, that they found it "difficult to read the subtitles (from Gujarati) fast enough" and were distracted with pressing domestic duties awaiting them at home.
Keen not to exclude the women and their perspective from the finished film, she responds sharply when I bring up the recent controversy surrounding Zana Briski's Oscar-winning documentary, "Born into Brothels", on the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. Feted largely in the West, Briski has faced much more resistance from Indian film critics and NGOs for her perceived self-importance and condescension towards the society she depicts. When I ask Dickinson if the outsider/insider conflict is an issue in her work, she replies that it is certainly something she is aware of, and to that end, has always worked with all-Indian crews. "But", she continues, "I think the Indian press pick too heavily on it. Jandarshan did another film on a tribal project by a foreign student who lived in a village for two years. I think, having lived in that environment for so long, she would be likely to have a better view of that reality than say, an Indian journalist coming down from Delhi".
Describing the details of her own work, she says that her crew worked hard to gain the trust of the protagonists, many of whose male colleagues were initially suspicious of the film-makers' motives, believing them to have a prurient interest in focussing on women. She explains that prior to filming, one of the Jandarshan trainees, Ajay T.G., spent a lot of time taking photographs of the women, who "liked this, because they couldn't afford pictures themselves". No one had filmed them before, and Dickinson says she wanted to create "a non-victim portrait, and highlight their energy and competence".
Despite the presence of tragedy in so many lives - one of the women profiled left primary school to start work because her mother died, another works to provide for her paralysed husband, yet another young woman is victim to an unhappy marriage - this is not a tragic portrait. Their lives are difficult but they cope. When I point out that the film opens with a woman directly addressing the director, and querying why he is filming her, Dickinson adds, "yes, the woman at the start of the film is sharp and thoughtful, like many. You know, they are undaunted women, despite their difficult lives. I wanted to show their condition, without making them into victims".
This impression of women working together in a spirit of solidarity is what the viewer leaves with: an awareness of the strong bonds formed through their shared experiences as labourers. It remains to be seen if this sense of community can be expanded - either through their own initiative or through processes of collective action - to empower them even further. Women Builders is a sensitive, yet unsentimental view of a social group that is very present and all too absent at the same time: they provide the backbone to our buildings, but remain unrecognised and unrewarded for their contribution. For giving us a glimpse of this reality, as well as for its provocative take on the question of collective action and social improvement, it deserves to be seen.