Women laboring along the side of the road or on a construction site, with enormous loads balanced expertly on their heads are such a common sight in India that eventually they fade into the landscape like the cows and the traffic. These women laborers are known as head loaders. With the grace of a heron, they carry as much as 40 kilograms of rocks, stones, bricks, sand and cement on top of their heads that are often draped in their colorful, flowing sarees, teeth clenched around the ends to keep the saree in place over their heads so that it doesn’t slip off. This need to maintain modesty, a relative of purdah, is more common in the north and a remnant of Mughal India. I took these photographs in south India where the dress code is a bit more relaxed. Although these workers are gaily dressed and smile easily, their plight is tough.
The construction industry is India’s second largest and fastest growing sector; estimated to employ more than 30 million people. 51% are women, unskilled, casual and manual and day laborers. Women are rarely admitted into the male dominated skilled trades of carpentry, masonry and plumbing. There is a decided gender bias at play here. The wages are low. There are long periods between jobs. Injuries are common place.
There are, however, little pockets of change as women organize and are beginning to establish trade
unions and working standards for themselves. This, though, is a long way off for many but change is in the air.