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India’s sari weavers face poverty and disease

Industrialisation and changing fashion trends have left traditional sari weavers in Varanasi impoverished and prone to disease.

It is estimated that, due to high levels of poverty, around fifty percent of the children of these women are malnourished, creating a situation in which they themselves may suffer in terms of both health and education. This in turn can leave them poorer in their later lives, creating a cycle from which it is difficult to escape.

Traditional Indian Sari. Attribution: Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Workplace health, an overlooked public health crisis

As previously reported by Health Issues India, workplace accidents and health hazards are seldom reported. This leads to many workplaces which pose dangers both immediately because of injuries and for long-term health.

Varanasi’s weavers are no exception to this. Weavers will often work eight-hour shifts in poorly lit and badly ventilated rooms. Adding to the ventilation issue is the fact that they rarely wear face masks to prevent inhalation of fibres resulting from the lint dust.

Owing to the conditions and the nature of the work, weavers often succumb to very specific work-related injuries and illnesses. Lung issues are common due to fibre inhalation, though other issues are less obvious. Eyesight deterioration due to highly focused and detailed work in a poorly lit environment is not unheard of. Prolonged performance of repetitive movements can leave weavers with specific injuries such as damage to the back or to the arms.

Over time, and often without the necessary medical attention due to the inability to afford treatment, these symptoms can worsen. This has the potential to leave the individual unable to work and destitute.

The mental health of the workers also needs to be taken into consideration. Recent evidence has shown that suicide rates in India are rising, particularly among impoverished groups such as farm workers. A similar situation is occurring among the weavers. 175 weavers have committed suicide since 2002.


Gender discrimination leaves female weavers more prone to poverty than their male peers

A level of discrimination is at play putting weavers at a significant disadvantage when compared to their male peers performing much the same roles in many cases. Traditional sari weavers are classified as male, and women are often not afforded the same job title, despite their undeniable assistance in creating the garment.

The differentiation lies in the job role. While women can work in the same areas as men, it is more common to find the women spinning threads or in the finishing detail, rather then the assembly of the sari. As such some of these jobs are referred to as “secondary” or “menial” and not afforded the same occupational status.

While this disadvantage over job title may be deemed as a minor inconvenience, the issues run deeper. There are numerous health schemes in place for those that fall under the title of weaver. By denying these women the job title, they are effectively cut off from these health schemes, forcing them to pay out-of-pocket for the often highly specific injuries that they suffer as a result of the work.


Is government assistance the only option?

Poverty, malnutrition, and an often cramped and densely populated work environment leaves these women prone to contracting infectious disease. Tuberculosis seems to be the most common condition proliferating in these environments. In many instances, time away from work could mean being unable to afford to feed their children, and so for many women in this situation, they are forced to work on regardless.

The People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), an Indian non-governmental organisation, has suggested a number of programmes that may be essential to ensuring the wellbeing of these women. A specialist hospital catering to the specific illnesses found commonly in the group is among the suggestions, as are government nutrition programmes targeting the affected women and their children.

It is undeniable that industrialisation and automation are likely to make profit margins even tighter for the weavers. Advancing technology is likely to make a number of other occupations all but obsolete. In order to future-proof these jobs, adaptations are needed to be made.

Another suggestion by the PVCHR is to rework some of the weaving facilities into either direct sales outlets or, potentially, museums. Museums could be an excellent idea to display the traditional methods of the artform of making saris. They would also provide employment to the current weavers without the need for extensive retraining.

Automation and changing styles within urban India could still leave the industry unprofitable, and without some manner of government intervention to ensure basic levels of medical and nutritional care for the workers, their situation could indeed worsen in the coming years. Taking steps advocated by outside observers will be key to ensuring that this does not become the case.

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