The missing women in India’s workforce
Studies have shown that women are willing to be employed, negating the argument that cultural factors keep women from working outside the household
According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19, the female labour force participation rates among women aged above 15 years are as low as 26.4% in rural areas and 20.4% in urban areas in India. Both supply and demand factors contribute to the low levels of employment among women — especially the burden of domestic responsibilities, including the reproductive roles played by women, coupled with the lack of adequate and appropriate job opportunities.
Studies have shown that women are willing to be employed, negating the argument that cultural factors keep women from working outside the household. It is also seen that unemployment rates (ie, those who are seeking employment but not finding any) are highest among women who are educated up to secondary and higher levels (17%; this is higher among young women at 26%).
There is also the problem of much of women’s work not being counted as work. The All India Time Use Survey (2019) shows the disproportionate amount of time women spend on unpaid activities, much of which is not accounted for as economic activity. For instance, over 80% women participated in “unpaid domestic services for household members”, spending, on an average, 299 minutes a day compared to 26% men spending, on an average, 97 minutes a day.
Even for women who are in the workforce, the nature of their employment is such that most of them are out of the purview of labour laws, including the recently passed Social Security Code. Over 55% of women (71% in rural India), who are counted as being part of the workforce, are in agriculture (vis-à-vis 53% in rural areas and 38% overall in the case of male workers). This is, by its very nature, informal and lacks social security provisions. Moreover, with land in agriculture continuing to be mostly in the name of men, women are not even recognised as farmers, although a large proportion of them are involved in agricultural work. This also keeps women away from accessing various schemes and resources such as priority sector loans, income support cash transfers and so on.
At least 53% of women workers are in the self-employed category (of this, the majority are in the category of “helpers”), 22% receive regular wage/salary, and 25% are casual labour. Even among regular/salaried employees, two-thirds of the women workers had no written contract, about half were not eligible for any paid leave or had any social security benefit. The wages earned are also very low — their average earnings in a month from self-employment work in 2018-19, for example, being only ₹4,919. The average earning of those in regular employment is also only ₹12,000 per month. This category also includes domestic workers, anganwadi workers and so on — basically all those who receive some payment at regular intervals, even though that might be below minimum wages in some instances.
The Social Security Code has minimal provisions for such women workers who are in informal employment. The maternity benefits portion of the Code is simply a reproduction of the Maternity Benefits Act, which includes only those women who work in an “establishment” and have worked for more than 80 days with the employer from whom she claims the maternity benefit. This automatically leaves out women in self-employment and those in informal jobs, together constituting more than 90% of the female workforce. In relation to the workers in unorganised sectors, the Code only specifies that they need to be registered (with mandatory Aadhaar) but does not spell out what they are entitled to. This is left for schemes to be notified by central and state governments.
It is clear that Covid-19 has impacted women’s employment even more than that for men. Concerted efforts towards ensuring enabling conditions for women to be employed including transport, safety, women’s hostels along with social security provisions for all in the form of maternity benefits and child care arrangements are required for providing a level playing field for women entering the labour market. Unfortunately, these are all absent.
Dipa Sinha teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi
The views expressed are personal