How do migrant women working in factories see themselves in relation to their work? What are their dreams and how do they negotiate difficult situations at work? In her book, Mobile Girls Kootam: Working Women Speak, Madhumita Dutta offers some answers and insights into the lives of working-class women. The book, published by Zubaan, is based on Dutta’s interview with five women who worked at the Nokia facility in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu till 2014, when it was shut down.
What comes through in this book, beautifully illustrated by artist Madhushree, is the diverse experiences of these women, captured in their own language, their steady banter about their everyday life, gossip about co-workers, teasing each other, and commenting on what they see around them. These freewheeling conversations were first released as a podcast and later converted into a book, but the emphasis has remained on staying true to the women’s original voices.
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They discuss everything from wanting tea shops that women can use and thereby reclaim public spaces, how society judges single working women of a certain caste and class, the exploitative nature of factory work to the fear of losing a job, the autonomy it bestows, economic independence and marriage.
“These women have an extraordinary way of thinking about life. Most people think women factory workers have no agency or thoughts about their lives, but they do think about relationships, how they are seen as bodies, and interrogate these power relations,” says Dutta, an assistant professor at Ohio State University.
Most of the women working at the Nokia factory had left their villages for the first time and were living alone. It gave them a sense of independence and confidence, and so they were reluctant to return home and lose this sense of identity and self. “They were conscious of the exploitative nature of factory work but were still able to negotiate some of the social relations because they had some sort of economic autonomy. But they also understood that all these things were dependent on production and if that slowed down, their jobs and independence were at risk,” she says.
The women had realised that their skills were limited and the jobs they did at the very bottom of the assembly line. “They were thinking of reskilling or continuing their education as they didn’t want to go back to their villages where they would be married off,” says Dutta. All five women were doing distance education courses.
Dutta is skeptical of diversity and inclusion drives that claim to be bringing more women onto factory floors. “I don’t think structurally there has been much change for working class labour irrespective of gender. Often corporates use these things to show how gender sensitive they are but we need to see what kind of jobs and conditions of work being offered,” she says.
Most opportunities for working class women and men are precarious in nature. The flexible nature of work, which sounds good, doesn’t work for a blue-collar work force, who don’t have social welfare or security of any kind. “Economic policies and labour reform don’t touch upon the overall welfare of workers. Labour is a social relation; it has to intersect with other social relations like gender, caste, ethnicity and other oppressions in society. Just thinking about wages and piece-meal jobs doesn’t address the issues of labour as such,” she says.
Madhumita and the five women are still in touch on Whatsapp and are working to turn their conversations into a play. “We have restarted the conversation and hope to have a theatrical play in Tamil by next year,” she says. “The women are keen for their families and friends to hear these conversations and understand them, as just not just wage-earners but also as women who have dreams and opinions.”
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