Photo by Ritwika Mitra

Indian women hustling for US$2.50 a day making kites face precarious working conditions

In the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, a network of 20,000 kite makers struggle to make ends meet. Here, independent journalist Ritwika Mitra goes behind the scenes to explore their day-to-day experiences.  

Rihana does not pay heed to her son’s persistent requests to use a phone. She also stays away from a TV set. These are “distractions”  she cannot afford, says the 50-year-old kite maker at her one-room home in the city of Ahmedabad in India’s western state of Gujarat.

“People will call and chit-chat (on phone). That won’t pay my bills,” says Rihana. Dedicating at least eight hours with about an hour and a half’s break in the afternoon means finishing a day’s order and earning Rs 200 (less than $2.5 USD). To earn this amount, she sits on the floor, bends over to stick bamboo arcs and paper stickers on 2,000 pieces of kites — work she has been doing since childhood. 

Kite making typically involves seven processes, including cutting, sticking designs and threads on all four sides, middle stick and the tail, bottom triangle, arc and side folds. Interviews with nine women kite makers showed that the average monthly income varies between Rs 3,000 - Rs 6,000 ($35 - $70 USD) if they manage to receive steady work from contractors for 30 days. In some cases, women outsourced part of the work to other family members, which means lessincome. The piece rate varies depending onthe size and design of kites, and the work involved.        

Rihana runs the household with her income, and encourages her 22-year-old son who works at a jeans factory in the city to aggressively save up. The duo nurture a dream of the son working outside India — immigrating to “perhaps Saudi (Arabia)”, says Rihana.  

“He has high hopes … he has to get his passport … Is there no expense? When he goes abroad, there will be a house. Then, there will be a good alliance (for my son). There is Allah,”  adds a smiling Rihana. Her husband died when her son was eight years old. Though she insisted he pursues college, he dropped out of school after passing his class 10 exams. 

“What if I did not get a job after studying – he told me. I wanted him to get a government job after completing his studies. But that did not happen.”

In early 2023, Gujarat’s Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel had said that kite making was a Rs 625 crore industry in the state. However, the condition of workers remains dismal with most of them trapped in intergenerational poverty. Though piece rates have improved over the years, inflation is steep, and workers struggle with poor pay and work conditions. Work is largely seasonal with orders picking up during the months before the kite-flying festival in January. A socio-economic study by the trade union Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) found that that Ahmedabad alone had over 20,000 kite makers — the highest in Gujarat.

In India, the Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO)  — a global network which focuses on women in the informal economy — has estimated that there are over 41 million home-based workers in India around 2017-18.

Globally, 260 million people are estimated to be in home-based work with 86 percent in developing and emerging countries. Fifty six percent of them or 147 million were women. Home-based workers are typically outside the ambit of social security benefits and labour laws and need to be protected.

“The majority of kite makers are home-based workers. We have been demanding for the formulation of National Policy for Home-Based Workers so that they can avail the social security benefits. At the international level, the ILO Convention 177 for the home-based workers has been passed. We are struggling to ratify the same in our country. But we are still far from it,” said Rashim Bedi, senior coordinator at SEWA.    

The Home Work Convention No. 177 aims to improve the state of home-workers, a large number of whom are women.

Chand Bibi, and her mother-in-law rely on kite making as a fall back option on days that they do not have orders for mattress making. In a week, they complete around 6,000 pieces together. Pointing to the practical challenges, Bibi adds that she cannot take orders on a Sunday as all her children are at home and the fan needs to be switched on in the single room that the family of six occupy. Kite makers typically have to switch off the fans during their work hours as the plastic and paper kites flutter and can often get damaged.

Mothers work hard with their daughters to supplement family income

For Sheikh Nafisa and Salma Banu, both slightly over 40 and living a few houses apart from each other, the biggest regret is their daughters being forced to drop off from school after their class 10 exams amidst the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns. Both the mothers later enrolled the girls for training at a local camp where the teenagers learnt parlour work.

“I have been doing this work for as long as I can remember — I started doing this as a child. Now, my daughter assists me in this work. If not for the lockdowns, she could have continued with her studies,” says Nafisa. 

Banu has a similar story to share. “She was not stubborn about (attending school) as she knew our financial condition. Our income takes care of the other school-going children’s tuition expenses while my husband takes care of the household expenses. My 17-year-old son goes to a workshop to learn how to repair mobile (phone) repair work.”

With batches of kites stashed under her bed, she adds she will soon ask the contractor to pick them up. “During the monsoon season, water seeps into the tile floor. We have to be careful that they do not get damaged or we have to pay for those pieces,” she adds.

Shalini Sinha, Urban Asia Lead and Home-based Work Sector Specialist at WIEGO observes home-based workers bear the cost and risks of production. 

“They work from home which are often in slums and informal settlements with poor quality of space to work and store raw materials. They face exploitation by contractors as they are at the bottom of the supply chain,” says Sinha.

The interviews showed the precarity of the financial condition of the workers. When work dips, or there are any additional expenses, workers often go into debt to make ends meet. During the lean season, they typically fall back on earnings from the busy months to scrape by.

Health challenges means loss of work

Shahin Banu, 32, feels she is fighting a losingt battle — her husband barely goes to work, her mother-in-law lends her no financial or emotional support, and her fluctuating income is the lifeline for her two children – aged 11 and 5 years.

She outsources some part of the work to her sister – putting the plastic tassels at the tail of the kite. This means parting with Rs 50 ($.6 USD) from the total amount of Rs 150 ($1.81 USD) that she makes from sticking arcs and attaching tassels in 1,000 pieces of kites.

At the time of the interview she had lost two days’ work due to acute pain in her right hand. 

“I could not afford going to a doctor. So I compressed my hand with warm water and tied a bandage to get some relief. But soon I took it off as I had to do household work.”

“See, my kids will not understand if their mother is getting paid or not. I have to provide them with whatever they want,” says (Shahin) Banu. 

Anisha Sheikh, home-coordinator at SEWA, points out the health challenges that workers engaged in kite making face. 

“They sit for such long hours at a stretch to complete a batch that suffer from acute pain on their back, waist and elbows. It also hurts their vision. But workers have no option but to work such long hours.” 

Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist.