Amidst the nationwide lockdown, courtesy the coronavirus, India’s formal sector is also experiencing a meltdown. A dwindling economy is not helping either. Over 136 million non-agricultural jobs may see a cutdown as per the National Sample Survey and Periodic Labour Force Surveys released on March 31. Over the last two weeks, the media industry saw several big publications folding up verticles, sending employees on ‘leave without pay’, cutting down on salary despite being one of the essential services during the lockdown. Because of the stay at home directive, manufacturing companies which depend on the manual labour force, companies into experimental projects that require to work in laboratories can’t function either.
But for working women, the struggle doesn’t end with workplace issues and stress of the situation, as they now may have to fight the very battles with patriarchy for empowerment all over again, which they had won in the last few decades. We spoke to working women from across various fields to get a bigger and better picture of their struggle during these uncertain and stressful times.
Pay cut with complimentary anxiety and stress
A journalist from a leading national daily who lives in Delhi with her family tells SheThePeople that the email they received telling them about the pay cut was ambiguous and lacked information about till when this mechanism is going to be in place. “Although we expected it because of the current economic status, now I and my colleagues have been discussing among ourselves that there could be a possible job cut as well. But the pay cut itself brings with it a lot of stress and the knowledge that nobody is hiring currently, so future options are also limited. It feels like we are stuck because even with the pay cut there isn’t much that we can do.”
She adds, “With the pay cut and possibilities of job loss there is added pressure to perform. We’re all performing to the best of our abilities but if for a day you slack and aren’t being as productive as others then it might be used as an excuse for lay off which is a scary scenario.”
Another woman journalist, working for a large-scale print media organization, who has undergone a pay cut, is managing her expenses while living alone in a rented apartment in Delhi. She observes that when the lockdown came into effect, she didn’t even think that her industry would be affected by it because it comes under the essential services sector. “It came as a shock to me when I was told that my salary would be cut because my company has been financially impacted by the lockdown. Initially, it led to a certain level of fear and uncertainty because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to afford the kind of lifestyle I am used to. Even being able to pay rent, buy groceries and save enough money because I don’t have much of it,” she says adding that the percentage by which her salary has been cut seems less compared to her peers because her salary is, anyway, at the lower end of the spectrum.
“So the impact may not seem a lot but I have had to cut down on expenses and makes me think twice before spending it,” the journalist voices her concern.
“It came as a shock to me when I was told that my salary would be cut because my company has been financially impacted by the lockdown. Initially, it led to a certain level of fear and uncertainty because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to afford the kind of lifestyle I am used to.”
‘Losing Job During Quarantine Is Disastrous’
For Pooja Aggarwal, a Business Development Manager, who quit her job just days before the lockdown, the quarantine has brought with it an unending streak of days when she can’t apply for work or seek work out. Her work involves meeting with potential clients who are having events across the country, and with the lockdown and coronavirus scare, there aren’t any events happening. Thus her hopes of finding another job soon have also had a major hit.
“With no work in hand, I am feeling unproductive all day and it’s making me anxious and the scary fact that we are living in times of a pandemic is adding to the stress,” she says adding that she is trying to cope with it through her childhood hobby of painting that she had given up along the way.
“I picked up my oil colours and canvass sheets after almost a decade and have been painting for the past one week. It is helping me immensely because I am actually producing something,” Pooja responds.
Entrepreneurs Suffer A Double Whammy
Like the job-seekers, the job-creators are hit equally and more. They are struggling with not just trying to maintain their employees’ salary structure but to also keep their business afloat. Nusrat Sanghamitra, who founded Cyca OncoSolutions to develop ‘a better anticancer drug with fewer side effects’ has been severely impacted by the lockdown.
“The government says work from home but for us, nothing happens from home as we need to access the laboratory to achieve milestones. All our milestones have been shifted further and the investment which was supposed to come for some experiments has also been postponed. Secondly, the rent of the lab doesn’t stop and we can’t fire people because that’s what the government advisory says but there is no compensation for us. My lab’s rent is Rs 70,oo0 per month and if we don’t work for three months, we’ll be incurring a huge loss in terms of just the rent. There are products that may get expired.” says Nusrat, who is based in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.
Another entrepreneur who runs a Zumba studio in Jammu, Aarti Mahajan Dhingra says, “The lockdown has affected us a lot. Right now there is no income because people aren’t allowed to go out for anything let alone for fitness purposes. Although, I have struck a mutual understanding with my staff that I’ll be paying them 50 percent of their salary during the lockdown and then we’ll get back to the older structure as soon as we can go back to our normal lives. There is also no support from the government. While we aren’t making any money, we can’t even draw a salary, which is very stressful.”
She further adds, “There is a sense of insecurity as we don’t know how long will this go on for. I feel that even after this crisis comes to an end my business will continue to be hit. Since the economy is going through a tough time, our clients and potential clients may consider fitness as a luxury and might not come back at all. People will focus on fulfilling their basic expenses first before enrolling for a fitness course, which is a normal tendency. Besides, our business is seasonal; after September it starts to go down because of the festivals, winter season, exams etc. So this leaves us with no respite whatsoever.
The struggle doesn’t end here
Apart from employees and employers, women working independently, for example sportswomen, are struggling as well. International-level golfer, Diksha Dagar was waiting to represent Indian in Olympics this year. But since it has been postponed, she will have to practice further to qualify it. She also had a few other big tournaments up her sleeve but they all will be rescheduled too. “Since golf is a game that needs one to practice at the course, I am making do with what I have which is a facility my father has DIY-ed for me at our house itself. I was really looking forward to the tournaments but it seems now it will have to wait,” says the 20-year-old golfer.
“Most of the cases I take up are cases which I fight pro bono or charge a nominal amount for it so I don’t think I am too impacted by it as against those thousands of migrant workers and daily wage labourers in the country who are currently struggling for a meal.”
Diksha became the youngest woman to win a Ladies European Tour title by winning the 2019 Investec South African Women’s Open after turning pro.
However, there is one section of our society, whose voice seldom reaches our ears; their plight under lockdown needs our immediate attention. But there are people who are using their reach to raise concern over the plight of the oppressed such as migrant labourers. Lawyer Seema Sammridhi is one such woman. Sammridhi is the same woman who brought justice to the family of Jyoti Singh Pandey – the 23-year-old whose gangrape and murder in Delhi’s Vasantvihar area. Sammridhi says, “Most of the cases I take up are cases which I fight pro bono or charge a nominal amount for it so I don’t think I am too impacted by it as against those thousands of migrant workers and daily wage labourers in the country who are currently struggling for a meal.”
Men are equally hit financially by the lockdown as women if not more. But what makes women’s distress far greater is that the lockdown can negate the battles they have fought and won, to be able to step out of their homes and work. This lockdown can potentially set back women empowerment in our society by decades. Women who have lost their jobs which they had taken up against their family’s will, for instance, will have to fight their fights all over again. How do you fight the same fight twice over? As for those working from home, how many have help from other members of the family to shoulder their load, now that they do not have any maids to help them out?
We will have to wait for this pandemic to come to an end, to assess the damage it has done to the prospects of working women in India. However, no one knows right now, when will that day come.