For Poor their Home is their Workplace

by Shivani SIngh, PRIA

I. Introduction

For poor their home is their workplace. This statement stands true as 93% of our labor force is in the informal sector and lacks any kind of social security also most of our Labour Laws are also not applicable in the informal sector. Amidst this for poor utilizing the limited space available to them in the city is the only option to make out a living for themselves and their family. My visit to Chamara Patti slum in Kolkata was learning towards knowing what a slum is. The slum I saw was blooming with lots of economic activities like leather making, packaging of cardboards, footwear making etc. that was taking place inside their homes, in small factories or on the roadside. But apart from observing the economic activities I also observed how ignorant the State is towards the right to social security, right to sanitation and right to life of these urban poor workers.

II. Glimpses of Urban Poor’s Work Place

But beyond the glitz of new street lights and fresh paint lies a world of abject poverty. During my visit to Kolkata I visited a slum named Chamara Patti that is divided into two parts nalla (canal) at one side Hindu families reside and on the other side Muslim family resides. The Hindu families are mainly engaged in leather making and the Muslim families are mainly engaged in footwear making. The population residing on both the sides migrated from nearby states. In Chamarpatti Slum leather making work and footwear making work is prominent, majority of urban poor workers are engaged in this work-children, adult and old age. The houses built in the slum were both Kutch and Pucca houses what was significant to observe was that how poor have utilized and converted their living space into a workplace.

I observed each step of leather making and captured the glimpses of it.

Step 1: The leather-making process begins with the cautious removal of the hide from the flesh of the animal. Once at the tannery, skins are sorted by species and quality. Fresh hides are immediately put into process, beginning with a soak in our large tanning drums to clean and remove dirt and other materials.

Step 2: The hide is chemically removed using a lime (calcium carbonate) bath, after which the flesh is removed from the inside of the skin with a mechanical fleshing machine. Then another lime bath and enzyme solution prepares the hides for tannage by removing unnecessary proteins and inter fiber substances. This second bath is also known as bating.

Step 3: Next tannage takes three to four days. Skins are weighed and placed in a rotating drum with water and the appropriate measure of tanning agent. Continuous agitation ensures even distribution.

Step 4: After the tanning, we can now call the skins leather. First, the leathers are dried. As seen in the slum the leather is dried in sun utilizing the spaces available like their own house, rooftop, roadsides etc.

Step 5: After drying, leathers are hand staked on the stake, naturally.


It was a learning to see how leather is manufactured in slum. Later I explored the workplaces of urban poor in the slum.

In the picture below we can see the space next to the road where all the leather was stacked on a wooden frame made especially for tanning the leather in sun. When I walked further into the slum I saw that leather sheets are hanging on Kutcha roof and similarly from other picture we can see that it is hanging on the terrace. This shows that the limited space that is being provided to the poor they utilize it for their work activity. Also in the next picture we see how they have utilized the roof top for tanning the leather. In front of the house there were few men nailing the leather on a wooden plank and coloring it. As we see in the picture an old man is sitting on the wooden planks. In the last picture a man is keeping the leather sheets in his rickshaw.

t2Then I went to the other side of the slum where the Muslim families reside. While walking inside the slum I saw a woman making footwear, she smiled looking at me, I asked her, “what are you doing, “She replied and said ‘nothing’. I further explored the conversation her by saying that “you are making rubber slippers is this not work?” She smiled and said, “I do this work as a time pass”.  Then I said, “But this is work don’t you earn out of it?” She said, “yes, but it’s very less”.  This incident made me realize that how despite of working and contributing to the city the woman feels that she is doing nothing. The next thing I saw was her house. As seen from the picture there is a wooden bed, water buckets under the bed, hanging cloths, grocery, utensils etc.  Looking at her house we can see how in just one room everything and every person in the household get adjusted.


Apart from observing the economic activities my attention was being drawn towards the lack of educational, health and other amenities in the slum. A picture story on the lack of basic amenities is available as below:


III. Other Problems in The Community

Occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery. In the Tanneries I saw no labour and no environmental law is applicable. Moreover other health problems like fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil.

The question is that despite of Slums being a center of economic activity and social existence the government denies them a crucial right that is right to life? 


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