Women workers in rice mills of West Bengal’s Dakshin Dinajpur are getting together to demand toilets at their workplaces

Even as the latest Census 2011 data brought to light the grim fact that nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no toilet at home and policymakers pontificate on the need to change “mindsets” to inspire people to use toilets, women employed in scores of rice mills across West Bengal’s Dakshin Dinajpur district launched a movement demanding the right to toilets at their workplace.

Shukla Oraon is a young woman worker of Joardar Rice Mill, which falls under the Gangarampur police station. Talking about the difficulties women workers were facing, she says, “For years, women workers were denied access to toilets in the mill. The men had a toilet for their use but women were asked to go outside in the open fields.” Of the 150 workers employed at the mill, 20 per cent are women.

Not just this one mill, the plight of women working in most of the other rice mills dotting the district was the same. Haimanti Murmu of Shree Laxmi Rice Mill, situated just opposite Joardar, says, “We faced regular abuse and insults whenever we wanted to go to the toilet. For one, we were asked to go out in the open. This was difficult as there would be people about during the day and we had to search for a spot hidden from public view. If we were slightly late in coming back, our wages would be deducted.”

What made matters more difficult was the fact that the workers in all these mills were not unionised. According to Zero Linda, a tribal woman rice mill worker, “Being a predominantly rural area, there was no culture of unionisation here. So there was neither adequate knowledge of labour laws nor the conviction to unite and struggle for basic rights. Moreover, as not a single woman worker in any of the rice mills is a permanent employee of the company — they are all casual labourers, working on a no-work, no-pay basis — they are not only deprived of innumerable rights but are also under constant threat of being thrown out of employment if they display the temerity to challenge the mill owners.”

However, in May last year, the women workers of Joardar Mill revolted. Unionised by the Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI), they decided that they would no longer use the open fields and would fight back in case of a crackdown. “We gheraoed the manager Mansoor Ali,” recalls Linda, adding, “there were some 30 of us. We shouted slogans and told him that we would not settle for anything less than a separate toilet for women.” Within an hour, the manager showed signs of relenting. Soon he was assuring the women workers that they could use the men’s toilet if they wished.

But this suggestion enraged them even more. Shukla says, “We told him that we would agree to this on the condition that the men stopped using that toilet. We also told him that we knew the law and that our union would file a case against the mill authorities if they did not give us a separate toilet.”

Incidentally, according to Section 19 (1) of The Factories Act, 1948 (Act No. 63 of 1948), as amended by the Factories (Amendment) Act, 1987 (Act 20 of 1987), “(a) sufficient latrine and urinal accommodation of prescribed types shall be provided conveniently situated and accessible to workers at all times while they are at the factory; and (b) separate enclosed accommodation shall be provided for male and female workers.”

Says Manas Chakraborty, the district TUCI leader, “Generally, mill authorities used to rely on the fact that rural workers had little knowledge of the law and so they quickly buckled under this threat of taking recourse to the law.” As pressure from the women workers increased, the mill owner, Ashok Kumar Joardar, was compelled to intervene. The very next day, a separate toilet for the women was constructed within the premises of the mill.

“We were greatly encouraged by the Joardar incident,” says Haimanti, “so we raised the demand in our mill too.” The result, however, was different here. There the women were asked to use the men’s toilet and the men were asked to relieve themselves outside the mill, in the open. “We have accepted this as a temporary compromise and are now fighting for separate toilets for both men and women,” Haimanti adds.

According to Mr. Chakraborty, the fight for women’s dignity in the workplace and especially the right to separate toilets began way back in 1989 at the Salas Rice Mill under Tapan police station in the district. “That movement was brutally suppressed by the police and many workers had to go to jail,” he says.

Of the 42 rice mills in the district, less than 10 have separate toilets for women. “Before the Joardar movement, not a single mill did,” says Mr. Chakraborty. “So this is indeed a beginning. Now the challenge is for the women to unite and get at least their legal rights. Only then can we think further.”

(Women's Feature Service)