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India's day care center workers seek fair pay

Female workers say the government treats them more like volunteers than employees.

 
Day care workers protest in Bengaluru demanding better wages and regulations during demonstrations held in March. Some 2.4 million women who work in the sector complain they are underpaid and neglected. (ucanews.com photo)
Bengaluru: 

It took four hours for Sudha to join thousands of women who work at day care centers for a four-day protest in the heart of Bengaluru, the capital of India's Karnataka state.

In the unprecedented demonstration some 10,000 women sought attention to mitigate issues related to low payment, lack of regulation and retirement benefits.

"We are paid even less than a manual laborer," said Sudha, who takes care of 32 toddlers in her village about 200 kilometers from Bengaluru.

"Despite our meagre salary and other difficulties, I am doing this job out of my desire to help and my affection for the kids," said the 46-year-old.

"It is high time the government realizes our contribution," she said.

The demonstrations March 20-23 paid off as the state government, on April 10, announced a hike of 1,000 rupees (US$15.50) per month for childcare workers and 500 rupees more for helpers. Now the monthly salary of a Karnataka caretaker stands at 8,000 rupees and 4,500 rupees for a helper.

Like other care center workers across India, their salary is made up of two portions — one that comes from the federal budget and the other from the state budget.

Despite the increase protest leaders said their action will move forward to have the federal government raise their portion of the pay. "Our struggle will continue" against the federal government which has decided to reduce salaries at state-run care centers, Karnataka Rajya Anganwadi Noukarara Sangha told the Times of India.

The care centers, called Anganwadi (courtyard shelter) in Hindi, are part of the government's Integrated Child Development Services Scheme. It is the country's, perhaps the world's, largest public initiative for mother and child care. It was formulated in 1975 and caters to over 91 million children in over 1.3 million centers.

These centers together employ some 2.4 million workers and assistants who help provide supplementary nutrition, non-formal pre-school education, nutrition and health education and health check-ups in collaboration with the public health system. They also facilitate nutritious diets and medical check-ups for pregnant women.

Their time-consuming job is invaluable in a country where government data shows that 37 percent of children under the age of five are stunted and 34 percent under the age of five are underweight.

Over the years, the centers have been assisted many poor laborers, farmers and migrants. They are a safe destination for their children while they are working. Normally located in a single-room building, children aged 3-6 spend about 3-4 hours a day there.

Although these female workers hold the key to India's fight against malnutrition they are ignored, say their leaders. They have been fighting for better salary and benefits against government apathy and neglect. The protests in Bengaluru were one of many held by day care center workers in other cities across India.

A.R. Sindhu, general secretary of the All India Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Association said the "basic rights of women are denied" when thousands of them do not have a minimum salary.

About 40 percent of the workforce in these centers come from socially and economically backward groups, said Sindhu. The government considers them "volunteers" and have always shied away from considering them government employees.

Sindhu said hundreds of workers in the eastern state of Bihar were not paid for months in 2016, adding that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are among the states that already pay the lowest. Salaries differ across states due to differences in budgets.

Sindhu and other leaders want state governments to increase their salary and form guidelines applicable across the country to secure the livelihood of day care center workers.

Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha in May 2016, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said "they [Anganwadi workers] are not government employees but are social workers". Their contribution is "extremely important," she added.

However, the federal minister said it was not possible to increase the federal share of 3,000 rupees as a salary due to the "sheer number of workers," which numbers 2.4 million across the country.

She promised non-monitory benefits such as insurance, maternity leave and promotion to the permanent role of supervisor for workers who have completed 10 years of service. None of these promises have so far been implemented.

Sindhu said that relief for these workers was a major promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run up to the 2014 national election. However, after winning, they drastically cut the budget of Integrated Child Development Services under which these centers function.

Local reports quoting government sources show a 7 percent cut in Integrated Child Development Services allocation since 2014. However, a 27 percent increase in allocation for the Ministry of Women and Child Development in this year's budget is expected to change the situation.

Source: UCAN

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