Dharavi Leather Industry: Sweat Shop of Belt Knitting
Director: Richa Hushing
Duration: 00:19:43; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 25.938; Saturation: 0.140; Lightness: 0.564; Volume: 0.097; Cuts per Minute: 40.197; Words per Minute: 89.467
Summary: Though initially known for its tannery and leather processing, Dharavi leather industry today is largely a manufacturing unit. Due to the problem of land and environmental issues the flourishing tanneries have closed down since early ‘90s. As the work of leather processing from animal hide got shifted to Chennai, Kanpur and other smaller towns in Maharashtra, the existing workshops in Dharavi are surviving on polishing raw leathers, manufacturing consumers’ goods and exporting to declining export market.
A large part of the consumers’ goods manufacturing is accomplished through sweatshops in the neighbourhood. Due to the paucity of space in Dharavi the traders prefer to assign out works in piecemeal than employing people in their own premises. Besides, the piecemeal policy also helps them evading the wage regulation. Interestingly, precisely because of this policy women manage to get some work and earn little money. Otherwise the leather industry is traditionally a male bastion and women have never allowed an entry there. Though in the caste based practice in the villages of animal slaughtering and extracting the hide women must have played a role. But in the urban version of the work in the semi-industrialised structure women were unambiguously kept out. The only way they could enter the scene is to pick up piecemeal assignments and work from homes. The earning is not adequate as a mainstay for livelihood but attractive as a supplement. The women who are doing this work are not from the lowest economic strata in Dharavi. Within the Dharavi structure they are better off. Their social status is not conducive for them to work in the factories and workshops with wage labourers. Hence the sweatshop system, though exploitative in terms of wage return against the investment of labour hours, suits these domestic women better. The decline in the international leather market has affected this sector too. Since they are not location based only way to identify these women is to look for the visual of long leather strips (patta) hanging. It took us a long time to trace this group of women as with the reduced work orders has reduced the visibility of the hanging leather strips.
Close shot of a leather belt being weaved. The hanging pieces of leather, fingers of a woman and suggestion of her colourful saree make an interesting visual of texture and pattern. Camera pulls out to show a woman sitting on the cemented ground and weaving a leather belt which is hanging from a long pole. It is more of a community activity as other women and their children hang around.
Mid shot of another woman with strips of leather, they are called pattas, hanging from her arms. The clothesline in the foreground. Long ambient shot of the location. A vendor with boxes of bangles passes by. The long and narrow lane of the slum under the afternoon sun gets animated with the sound of radio and stray conversation. The sweatshop of the women workers in the public space takes the look of a community gathering. The work space, the living space, the road, the community space all become one and overlapping.
Q: What is your name?
A: Mary… Maeery
Q: What are you exactly working on?
A: This thing is worn by gents and also by ladies… they wear it on the waist.
It is good if there is more work. What do we do if there is no work? We make as much as we get… then sit at home.
Q: So earlier you got more orders? Why have the orders reduced?
A: Who knows We don't know. Only the agents know why the orders are less these days. We don't know anything. We are customers. If they get orders then we go… bring the patta (long pieces of leather to make belts from) and make the products. But if there is no order then what do we do. The agents too need to get orders. There is no order these days.
Q: What is your name?
Q: Please speak loudly…
(the girl smile shyly) Others off the frame: Nirmala… Nirmala
Q: How long have you been doing this work?
A: I have just started learning. These people have been around longer.
Q: Are you Maharashtrian.
(The girl looks uncertain). Others off the frame: Say Yes.
Q: What language do you speak at home?
A: Like this only… Telegu
Q: And you…
A: We speak in Kannada… (loughs) Kannada… Karnatak
Q: Since when have you been making belts?
A: We have been doing this for a long time…
Q: So you must be knowing what has been happening in the trade
A: What about us… if we get the patta (order) then we bring it… if we can't get it then we don't. Earlier there was more work… but for last two years… maybe one year, the work has become less. So we do it. When it comes through we work… otherwise sit at home. We do this work after the domestic chores. There is no work since last two years.
Q: Earlier how many belts used to come through per day?
A: Earlier more used to come. Say… there used to be around 100 /125 per day. We used complete the task. Not now.
Q: How many do you get in a week?
A: What week. After two months this lot has come. After two months they have given work… 25 each. Earlier… everyday… we did not have time to sit… only go on working. Yes… no time to eat. Eat later, first make the belts… it is urgent for the agents… they need it immediately… this is how we used to work… now there is crisis.
The women take piece meal work from the tannery owners to knit belts. This is a household based activity and not community or location based. This work is not done in the premise of the tanneries or anywhere in the leather industry. Nor does it have a locational requirement as in the sector of papad making where a large courtyard is needed to dry the papad. Hence in the case of papad it is possible to locate the sweatshops around the locality which posses a courtyard. But for belt making it is truly a household based work where the workers cannot be identified as a group. Yet we have found that no household or woman works alone. Though not community based, the work can still be located as a neighbourhood activity. In this segment we have the set women who all are long time Dharavi residents and yet belong to various language groups. Though they are working on the separate assignment they appear to be working together. This practice is closer to traditional artisan tradition.
When the interviewer asks the Telegu speaking girl whether she is a Maharashtrian, the girl appears confused and others prompt her to say yes. This, most probably, has stemmed from the insecurity among the other language groups in response to the aggressive Marathi chauvinism. The right wing politicians in the city launch public campaign in regular interval with the slogan the 'Mumbai belongs only to the Marathi speaking people'. In that context other languages groups have learnt to be defensive about their status and claim to be Maharashtrian whenever possible.
Q: How much do you earn per belt?
A: For each belt they give Rs.4/-. .. 4 for one like this. Then there are some for Rs. 2, some for Rs.3. depends on how the belt is. When the number of laces is more then it is Rs. 4… when the number of laces are 11 or 12 then they give Rs. 6/-
Q: The prices of these belts have gone up or got reduced.
A: Not gone up… it got reduced further. I am telling you it has not gone up. They are reducing the value per belt for one or two rupees. There is no work… so they have to reduce.
Q: Why there is no work? What do you think? Has some other market come up… or
A: No there is no other market. The company people give work here… then we bring the material. We don't go to market. The agents give us material. They cut the leather into laces and give us. We just make them like this and give back. That's all. Our job is only to make them… according to their design. This is one design… there are other design too… we make all sorts… whatever design come up.
Q: You make different designs.
A: Yes. All kinds. They give various designs and we make accordingly. .. This one… some other. They just give us a small sample and we copy that.
Q: We learn the design by looking at the sample.
A; Yes. We are used to it. We have been making this for so long. We have been doing the same thing.
Q: Do you also make your design?
A: No. They give us the design. They give us a small sample and we are to copy that. Even for this one… they gave a sample.
Q: Have you thought of doing something else… when there is no work of making belts…
A: No, we don't. We stay at home and do domestic chores. .. There is nobody else at home… only men…
Q: Why don't you women collectively make an organization? So that the value of the work grows… or
A: Everybody together… how to… somebody goes here, the other goes there… if I say something on my own… my name will be spoilt.
A: There is 4/5 belt worker in this lane, some 4/5 are in the other lane and every household has one or two people who do this work. How to bring them together? You cannot find them at home.
A: There is the agent… if I tell him to please increase the rate… I can't afford it… he will yell at me…
A: You don't make. Others will do. That is what they say. If you don't make it… there are others. You will not get material… they say like that.
Q: Do you get some bonus or any such thing?
A: Bonus… no, they don't give. Earlier there were some things given in kind … but now nothing at all.
Since the work is not community or location based we had to work harder to locate these women. In normal circumstances the easiest way to have traced them would have asking the shop owners for their names of the women who take orders for them. But the shrinking of the market has made the shop owners contact with these women very thin. Besides, the work needs no infrastructure. Hence when there is no work there is no visible sign of the very existence of this work. Today it is almost impossible how many, both in numbers and kinds, job evolved around the leather industry. Hence the decline of the leather industry has affected much more people than who work within the factories or tanneries. Unfortunately no data base has been created to measure the amount of loss of livelihood due to the decline of the leather industry.
Leather industry is the worst affected due to the recession and slump in the import export market. The other major economic activity such as pottery is comparatively less affected. The main market of the Kumbharwada is domestic whereas the main market for the leather industry is international. The smaller domestic market too has been eroded due to invasion of plastic and cheap Chinese goods.
When there is a community based association or union, as the Prajapati Samaj in Kumbharwada or Indian Adi Dravidar Mahajana Sangam for Tamil community, it broadly works for the whole community and thus may achieve some power of negotiation within the community as well as with the outside forces. But in the case of these women, who are wage workers across communities and locations, there is no available method to evolve a collective. A trade based or economic interest based association or union can evolve for the traders of the leather industry. But the sweatshop existence, without any locational or community affiliation, make these women completely isolated and alone.
A: Why do we do this work…? If we sit at home… sleep away… there is no gain. I have four children. If I work it shows in my household. If I make belts of at least Rs.20 then one day's expenses get covered. That is why we work. If we take nap… then what… this much money also we cannot get. By making belts some money comes is… in a year or six months some 2000 or 3000 gets accumulated. Some expenses get covered. I can't go out to work. I have 4 children. We will look after the children if I go out. There is nobody.
See her. Working with the infant baby. Even if it is little money… we think some thing is there… our belt money will come through… so we get some courage. Women should do something or other. Why sitting home idle
The young dream of upward mobility that is surviving within the dense ghetto.
Q: What is your name?
Q: You are studying?
A: 12th standard. SIES college.
Q: What do you want to be in life?
A: I want to be a CA (chartered accountant)
Q: How do you plan your next five years?
A; I think I will finish my degree… after 12th I will be giving my CPT (common proficiency test – preliminary test for CA course) exam… after that finish my degree and then do a 3 years course.. To finish CA.
Q: I have heard that CA is a difficult thing
A: Yes. But it is my ambition that I will do it.
Q: And what are the things you are doing to accomplish that?
A: Actually in this… maths and accounts are compulsory. After that if I file for CA then… it is easy.
Q: My god! How many hours do you study everyday?
A: At least 2 to 3 hours. Right now I am not getting the time… my schedule is so busy… in the morning from 7 to 11 are my classes (private coaching) … after that from 12.30 to 5 is my college and I have joined typing class for 5 to 7… after that I come home… take rest for 10 / 15 minutes and then I study.
Q: tell us more about your dreams and ambitions
A: I want to prove that… people say… that Dharavi is so… poor people living there… it is not a proper area… I want to prove that it is a good area and people who live here are so kindly and loving … and … those girls are not so weak, they can earn.
Q: Nice talking to you. Anything else you want to speak about your ambition… why you want to be a CA…
A: In my community no one has become a CA. I want to be that because no one else has been… and I want to help my Dad… he is a businessman… he requires a CA. In business they require a CA regularly … I don't want my Dad to spend that money and save it and help the poor people… I too will be there… helping my Dad.
Q: What does your sister do?
A: She is studying in 10th standard. Evlina.
Q: And what does she wants to be?
A: She wants to be doctor.
Q: The other sister?
A: Her name is Sylvia. She is studying in 7th standard. .. I don't know… she says I want to be a CID officer. And the fourth one is Stefan, Mom wants him to become a pastor… we are Christian… so Mom wants him to be pastor…
Q: You want to prove yourself…
Q: Can you speak more about that…
A: In our community all think that girls are not to study more… and after 18 they are to marry and look after the other family and all that. They think that girls are so… like they cannot do anything, boys can do everything. But it is false and I want to prove that girls can do anything… if they allow the girls to study… in some areas, not in our areas, they are not allowing the girls to go out and study. But if they are allowed they can prove themselves.
Q: Sure, they can. What do you think of living in Dharavi?
A: It is a good area. I will talk about it practically… suppose we to some other area such as Goregaon… for example for fish market and other things we will have to go to other places. In Dharavi Sion station is in 5 to 10 minutes walking distance, fish market, vegetable stalls are all in 5 to 10 minutes walking distance. Its good… all… all that we need … whatever we need are all around us.
Q: Tell us what is your name?
A: My name is Evlina.
Q: That's a nice name. What does it mean?
A: I don't know.
Q: Don't know. Ask your Mom.
A: She did not give my name. My dad's sister did.
Q: Your sister said that you want to be a doctor?
A: Yes. My mother wishes so… she says in each home there must be one doctor. It will be good for everyone. If something happens suddenly then she can take care of it…