Our impact, their stories

Fighting for rights and the future of ‘chikankari’

From making beautiful embroideries to lending a helping hand to others during the COVID-19 pandemic, Uzma Jalees is determined that the rights of home-based workers should be recognized and indigenous artforms like Chikankari promoted.

Feature | India | 01 June 2022
Uzma Jalees, center, conducting a meeting with home-based workers © ILO
UTTAR PRADESH, India (ILO news) – Everyday life is synonymous with struggles for many informal workers.

This is true for female home-based workers, like 34-year-old Uzma Jalees, a resident of Sri Nagar Colony in Madiyaon, a village on the outskirts of Lucknow, famous for its beautiful and intricate hand embroidery, called ‘chikankari’ or ‘chikan’ work .

Ms Uzma Jalees has been engaged in Chikankari work for nearly two decades.

The chikan embroidered fabric and readymade garments are popular in the domestic and international market.

“The demand for Chikankari has increased over time, as other women in the village have also gotten engaged in the work,” recalls Ms Uzma Jalees.

Chikankari embroidery is the primary income source for the families of nearly half of these women and supplemental income for the other half. Like many others, she earned an average of Rs 4,000 (USD52) a month to supplement her husband’s income of Rs 15,000 (USD193) working in a private company.

Before COVID-19 hit, Ms Uzma Jalees worked on orders for both export and domestic markets, which came from a factory and different contractors around her village.

“Before the pandemic, I worked 25 days a month, about 7-12 hours a day. Sometimes, during a good season, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law would help me through the nights to finish work,” said Ms Uzma Jalees. “August, September and October were the most productive months when the orders were highest.”

Working long and odd hours is not unusual for home-based workers, given the pressure from buyers to complete orders. Often, workers would burn the midnight oil to complete the work. Additionally, the work itself is not easy. Ms Uzma Jalees shared, “We often experience lower back pain, pain in the hands and neck, pain in the eyes, and weakening of eyesight.”

In January 2020, Ms Uzma Jalees became a local leader of the SEWA trade union and started to organize women like her, with support of the ILO. Ms Uzma Jalees made connections with 250 families, each with 2-4 women homeworkers. She motivated about 150 workers who joined SEWA union as paid union members.

Uzma Jalees, second from right, conducting skills training for women home-based workers © ILO
Workers like Ms Uzma Jalees are paid per piece, and the agent or factory arbitrarily determines the wages. Ms Uzma Jalees says, “I did not even know how much I should ask for, or how to calculate the piece rate wages, until I attended a training on the same by the SEWA union and the ILO. The training taught us how to calculate the rates per piece and to keep record of the wages paid.”

Ms Farida Jalees, state level trade union leader from SEWA Uttar Pradesh explains, “There is little scope to bargain for higher wages unless workers collectively negotiate. If the order is for a higher number of pieces from the same vendor, and a worker asks for a slightly higher rate, often the agent will refuse to give her the work and will give it to another worker who will charge lower rates,” said Ms Farida Jalees. Workers need to organize and collectively demand for better wages.

Through the capacity building of the ILO/Japan Project Towards fair and sustainable global supply chains: Promoting decent work for invisible workers in South Asia, leadership skills of several women workers were built to take role of union leaders. Ms Farida Jalees is determined to improve working conditions for the women doing Chikankari work. She has helped the women learn about their rights as workers and encouraged them to become union members. explained that the union would provide a platform to voice concerns and bargain for their rights collectively.

COVID-19 strikes but hope lives on

Chikan work stopped almost entirely with the pandemic. “Since the lockdown, I did not get new orders. I received some pending money from agents, but only after a few months of the lockdown. My husband worked in a private company that helped people prepare documents for visas and passports. The company shut with the first lockdown, and my husband lost his job,” Ms Uzma Jalees explains.

Nevertheless, unlike many others, she did not lose hope. As a key member of SEWA, Ms Uzma Jalees made a list of 24 households from her locality who needed food and helped coordinate its distribution. She also helped about 50 women access free food rations from the government. Most of these were chikan homeworkers who had no work and were in dire straits. SEWA helped Ms Uzma Jalees open a no-frills bank account, the Jan Dhan account, and in turn, she helped other young women workers do the same. This enabled them to receive Rs 500, which the government deposited in every Jan Dhan account every month for three months.

Till November 2021, SEWA unionized about 27,534 homebased workers in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi and organized about 35,543 workers, mostly women. SEWA also lobbied with the State Government, asking that home-based workers receive social security and other associated benefits similar to other workers.

As a result, chikan workers, including Ms Uzma Jalees, received tool kits from the Government of Uttar Pradesh, under the One District One Product and Toolkit Scheme.
The kits included a sewing machine, needles, thread and scissors.

The workers also took part in a ten-day training program, with an added stipend, that helped upgrade their skills and revive their livelihoods following the first COVID-19 wave.

Explaining the embroidery work to be done © ILO
“Homebased workers include home workers - who do outsourced work from factories catering to the global and domestic supply chains as well as own-account workers who work from home and sell their products in the market. Both face similar challenges. For them, home is their workplace. Most of them are women workers. They do not have access to fair wages, income security, decent working conditions and social protection. They are engaged in highly skilled and intricate work, yet they are not recognized as workers. They receive low piece-rated wages, often working long hours to make their end meets. Organizing and unionizing the workers is key which enables them to have a voice and representation. They can collectively negotiate for better wages and working conditions. They also need social protection,” said Ms Bharti Birla, Chief Technical Officer, the ILO/Japan Project Towards fair and sustainable global supply chains: Promoting decent work for invisible workers in South Asia.

The ILO trained women union leaders, including Ms Uzma Jalees, on calculation of piece rate wages, promoting health and safety in home-based workplaces (WISH Programme) and COVID-19 prevention and protection. They raised awareness in their communities on rights of homebased workers, training them on wage calculations, and supporting the union members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving forward

Despite many achievements Ms Uzma Jalees is still passionate about improving the working conditions of the highly skilled Chikankari workers.

“We should be registered by the labour department and be given a labour card so we can benefit from labour entitlements and labour welfare schemes. Minimum wages, decent working hours, and access to health benefits and pensions are our rights as workers,” she said.

Ms Uzma Jalees remains passionate about Chikankari art and the need for its protection and preservation.

“This is a tradition and inherited art and skill, but unfortunately it is on the brink of extinction due to low wages. Big owners have become millionaires by selling these products in international markets, but workers are not getting a fair share of the profits,” said Ms Uzma Jalees.

“Through the ILO project, we hope to bring together many more chikankari workers and help them sustain their incomes through our union. We want more women to come forward, get organized so we can raise our voice against exploitation from big chikan employers and their agents. We should get fair wages for our work,” Ms Farida Jalees added.

The work of SEWA was supported by the ILO/Japan Project Towards fair and sustainable global supply chains: Promoting decent work for invisible workers in South Asia, through capacity building and training which helped the homebased workers realize their right to decent work. The project works to promote decent work in the lower tiers of the supply chains.