Whitley Committee Report
While touring India in 1929, the Whitley Committee asked women's organizations to prepare proposal describing their activities among workers. The Bombay Provincial Women's Council had been interested in the welfare of women workers for some time, so they complied with the request. While they were preparing these reports it stimulated their interest and enthusiasm for a discussion of the economic and social conditions of working women. After the publication of the Report of the Whitley Committee the National Council of Women in India formed a study committee on labour and the Bombay Council scheduled a three-day conference on women and labour. This conference was designed to enlighten their members about the labour issues and bridge the gap between themselves and women labourers.
Works of the All India Women's Conference
During this time, the All India Women's Conference(AIWC) decided to broaden its scope of activities to include social issues and appointed a number of sub-committees. By 1931 the AIWC had instituted a sub-committee on labour, begun visiting mills, and sent out questionnaires to gather data on conditions in the factories. Both the Bombay Council and the AIWC approved of the Whitley Report's recommendations for reduced hours of work, women inspectors and medical practitioners, maternity benefits, and prohibition of women working below ground in the mines.
The Mumbai Council's programs touched the lives of real working women. They set up regional centres offering medical services, sewing lessons, and literacy classes. They also arranged for piecework for the wives and children of labourers. Lectures and entertainment, sometimes for audiences of 800 women, were arranged at the mills. Mumbai mill owners appreciated their work, contributing 40 percent of the Council's annual budget by 1939. Factory women showed up in large numbers to consult with medical personnel, listen to lectures, and attend literacy classes - adequate proof that they valued these services.
The AIWC concentrated on legislation. They asked the government to appoint a female representative to the ILO and by 1935 were officially reporting to this body. ILO interests became their interests and the measures undertaken by the ILO stimulated them into action. As a downside of this, they became oblivious to the real issues and concerns of women labourers. The importance of the international connection becomes evident in AIWC demands for social insurance, maternity benefits, and other measures to improve working conditions. By and large they ignored Rajkumari Amrit Kaur's warning that special legislation had already caused employers to lay off women and hire men.
Impact of Legislation for women
The legislation of labour fixed the maximum hours of work, forbade women from nightly duties, prohibited child labour, and made maternity benefits, compulsory. Unfortunately, when bids were made to implement these rules, the consequences were upsetting. Women in conspicuous numbers were fired, and men were hired to replace them. Many women workers, finding that no options were left for them, adjusted laws in such a way, that the outcome was just the reverse of what was desired. For example, work-hours were reduced to give women time for rest. For women, desperate to survive the fight for existence, limited work-time yielded inadequate money. Thus even in their leisure time, they sought part-time employment in other factories. Naturally, this work for unearthly hours was bound to take a toll on their health. Maternity leave, devised to maintain and care for pregnant mothers turned out to be an obstruction for those who required work in order to live their lives. The state of these women was deplorable.
The role of women in labour movements has been largely ignored. Nevertheless, women's presence in strikes and labour disturbances, as strike breakers and as labour leaders, was noted from the 1920s. Prominent women such as Maniben Kara, Ushabai Dange and Parvati Bhore in Mumbai and Santosh Kumari Devi and Prabhabati Debi in Kolkata, became leaders of trade unions and represented both women and men to management. Other accounts have noted women's presence at the head of demonstrations in the 1928-29 Mumbai textile strike and commented on their militancy.
Drawbacks of the Women's Labour Organisations
The women's organizations ignored practical evidence that new regulations were not improving the conditions of work for women and continued to support the ILO demand that international standards should be extended to Indian women. There were a few middle-class women who attempted to learn about the conditions of factory women. Maniben Kara tried to do social work among these women and concluded that her efforts were futile. She joined the labour unions but since only 1 percent of their membership was female, her work was with men. Legislative norms codified by the ILO started functioning in India during the lull period of world economy. However legislation could never decrease the rate of women's employment in the factory sectors. Number of factory employees, incorporating even those of the textile factories and jute mills, reached the optimum pedestals of 16.5 percent in 1927 and descended to 15 percent in 1932.
Though the women's labour organisations did much to improve the situation of the working women in ways that they felt would be beneficial, they fell short of the required level of change. This was because of their inability to understand the problems of the women they claimed to represent. The fact was that the Indian situation differed significantly from the European scene. However, no steps were taken to determine what Indian women workers wanted.