Can relocating industries help women job seekers?
The Economic Survey 2015-16 underscored the challenge of “good” and “suitable” jobs as one among the
most pressing issues for labour markets in India. Giving the example of the Indian apparel industry ceding market share to Bangladesh and Vietnam, the document noted that there was a “spatial mismatch” between firms and workers. It contended that relocating apparel firms to smaller cities could benefit in terms of profits, female labour force participation (FLFP), and economic growth.
As work opportunities in agriculture shrink, the future lies in improving women’s access to jobs in manufacturing and services. But can “suitable” jobs only be created through relocating industries, and subsequently creating specific employment clusters? It is imperative to understand the demand and supply factors that determine women’s participation in these sectors, which has been stagnating. In recent fieldwork in Delhi’s industrial areas, we examined the profile and background of women workers — the kind of opportunities available; barriers to participation; and aspirations and expectations from industrial employment.
Industrial Delhi is characterised by small-scale manufacturing such as garments and footwear, employing low-skilled migrants. The city’s industrialisation has been a contentious issue, and, so, this employment landscape is perpetually in flux. It is seen that women are concentrated in low-end tasks in factories, such as packing and packaging, and as helpers to machine operators. Therefore, they earn far less than male workers. Many factory owners prefer not to employ women as they consider it inappropriate for women and men to work together, and are concerned about possible sexual harassment cases. Further, men are uncomfortable about their female relatives working, especially late hours; they exercise control over their workforce participation decisions and mobility on account of both customs/traditions and safety concerns.
Not surprisingly then, there is an explicit preference for home-based work for women, outsourced from factories. This is routed via contractors residing close by, indicating the presence of strong spatial and social networks for women’s work. Payment is on a piece-rated basis and the work is on the lowest rungs of the supply chain — unacknowledged and undervalued. Nevertheless, it enables women to manage household responsibilities alongside undertaking some form of paid work and may positively influence gender relations within the household.
Our research suggests that suitable jobs for women need not be created elsewhere; they already exist in the industrial spaces and bastis of our cities. Interventions to encourage and regulate home-based work, therefore, are critical to enhancing FLFP. For this, we need to recognise that urban neighbourhoods go far beyond residential uses, and develop neighbourhood spaces such as community centres that can facilitate home-based work.
Second, regulations to ensure minimum wages for home-based workers are important to ensure that their contributions to supply chains do not remain unacknowledged. The calculation of minimum wages for piece-rated workers calls for a different approach than the usual time-rated notion of minimum wage.
Home-based workers must also get maternity benefits, health insurance, and childcare — with contributions from employers where applicable. While the proposed Code on Social Security recognises home-based workers
as a category of unorganised workers, concerns remain about coverage, outreach and implementation.
Third, while social stigmas cannot easily disappear, implementation and strengthening of laws and legal redress mechanisms for female factory workers can at the least enable a process of change and counterbalance. It is imperative that all factories have an Internal Complaints Committee as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Gender sensitisation programmes are required not only for factory workers, but also for owners and industry associations, and there is a strong need for workers’ associations and NGOs to engage in this space. Further, while the recently passed Code on Wages Bill, 2019 upholds principles of equal remuneration for equal work, such measures stand no good if women continue to be concentrated in low-end occupations. Upskilling and expansion of work opportunities for women on the shop-floor are critical to boosting their workforce participation.
Finally, it is important to move away from sealing unplanned industrial areas as the principal mode of practice in the context of Delhi’s complex industrial landscape. Our findings point towards an approach focused on sealing and/or relocation, instead of regularisation and/or redevelopment of unauthorised areas as provided for in the Master Plan for Delhi 2021.
Regularisation of unplanned industrial areas is important as these areas create flexible, home-based work opportunities for women, and are connected to planned areas through circulation of labour, raw materials and intermediate products.