A peep into ground realities of female labour force in India

By Akash Bhagat*

The rate of attrition of the women in the Indian workforce is high. As the Gig economy culture in India developed, it was forecasted that more and more women would join the existing workforce which will lead to an improvement in the workforce participation rate. However, the statistics do not paint an encouraging picture.

There are many articles by academicians on explaining why the statistics are the way they are, but they lack the ground reality picture of why this is the case. In my conversation with Urvashi Butalia, we have tried to address this. Urvashi Butalia is the founder of Zubaan Books, a self-proclaimed feminist publishing house based in New Delhi. Butalia has been publishing academic texts, children’s books and fiction by women for over 30 years and is widely regarded as the founder of the feminist literary movement within India. In 2011, Butalia and Menon were jointly awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, for their work in Literature and Education.

Urvashi says, it’s very disturbing that in a country like ours or in any country, but in India, the female labour force participation rates have been falling so drastically. And the flip side of that is that, in some ways, globalisation, despite all its bad effects has opened certain kinds of jobs for women, which weren’t available before. And the changes that we’re seeing in our society, have made those jobs within quotes respectable. So, you can be a salesgirl. Now, when I was growing up, you couldn’t be a salesgirl, because it was considered tantamount to being a sex worker, really, you know. So, you can be a security guard, now, you have those kinds of jobs, you can be a pilot, now, all these things. So, what is happening with the female labour force participation rate? Nobody really knows. But we can only speculate.

One thing is how the rate labour force participation rate is counted. It considers only formal labour in India, formal workers, those who work with a contract inside of Office factory, whatever it is, we know well, that 94, or 90 plus percent of women’s work is informal in the informal sector. So that doesn’t get counted. So, one issue is how you count what you define as well, what you define as labour, even if you leave, household work, that’s domestic work out of it. And one of the things that feminists have been saying for a long time is, how can you not count the labour that women perform inside the house, because if you start costing that labour, it will have a direct impact on the GDP. But economists don’t count that, nor do they count the fact that the woman works. Literally the whole day, there are no work hours, there’s no retirement, there are no pensions or no benefits, none of that. So, I think there’s a very serious issue there in how we perceive work, and how we understand labour, and how we count it, which leaves a huge number of women out.

Then I think there is another question that we must ask ourselves to, rather than take this statistic as a given, if you just look around you in your life, look out onto the street or into any poor area slum, wherever you go. Have you ever seen women sitting outside of the pie shop and drinking Chai? No. Where are they? They’re in the house working. Right? So, you can’t say that women are not working, they don’t even have leisure time. So again, it comes down to how do you measure it, then there is another precarity, if you look in the lives of women, which is that because they are in informal work a lot of the time, what happens is that those jobs change all the time.

Let’s say a woman worker working on a construction site, most likely will not have any papers or a contract, she will be this adjunct to the man, he may not have any papers either, but there are possibilities that he may do, and she will be the adjunct. So, this labour force participation rate will not count. But he or she is working away. Then what will happen is, if the lockdown happens, both jobs go, his job may come back hers’ very likely won’t. So, what will she do? She will go into domestic work. There is no counting there. Then Corona becomes serious. So, she can’t continue domestic work, what will she do she go find something else. Sometimes she will go into sex work. So, what is happening is that women are moving from job to job. And therefore, it’s very difficult to capture in statistics, their participation.

Now, having said all of that, there is no doubt that women are dropping out of work. And I think we must ask ourselves why. And I think one of the questions we have not asked, you know, is what does the violence women face in the workplace have to do with their entry? They’re staying on under exit from the workplace, you look at, let’s say, a garment factory, then, so much of it is dependent on women workers. But the women workers face so much sexual harassment and violence, that often they might drop out. That same garment factory might decide to shut down the factory. So, there are many of these factors that I think you need to take account on.

So, how we can help women in using this attrition rate that they’re facing, and help them grow in their careers, Urvashi says, the first thing is to begin to understand women as people deserving of respect, and somebody who should be treated at par with men, so things like salaries, and so on and so forth. But also, to understand that women bear a double burden that of the workplace and domestic work. And therefore, to try and understand those kinds of things and see what conditions you can create.

Many employers, for example, will have a crash, where women can bring their small children and be there. This means also working with the other employees and making them understand the value of having women in the office and why sometimes you require special conditions to create a conducive workplace. Workplaces have been so sort of dominated by men that when women come into those workplaces, men feel very threatened. They feel threatened by all kinds of things, they feel threatened by the way the workplace changes even visually. You know, women bring a lot of colour into workplace men are always in black and blue and something like that. women bring their handbag and their shawls and I mean, these small things, change the way men have seen their workplace, they don’t know how to deal with that. So, there are things like that you can do. There are things like implementing the POSH act, but not only in a legalistic kind of way, but creating conversations around sexual harassment, what it means, and therefore creating conversations about good relationships in the office, there are all these things, infrastructure, in terms of toilets, and so on, and so forth.

Recollecting an instance, Urvashi says, I once listened to the CEO of a large organization speak about their women’s workforce, they are a factory-based organization. And in the factory, they found that women’s productivity was quite low. And they couldn’t understand why. So, they had conversations with the women workers, and the workers explained to them that the overalls you give us are made to men sizes, they’re too large for us, so they hamper our movement, the gloves you give us are made to size of men’s hands. So, we can’t be nimble with the hard hats you give us come to our eyes, because they’re made for bigger heads. Now, these people had never thought about this. So, when they started to think, then they started to change all of that had a direct impact on the productivity.

There are many things that are at a psychological level, at a social level, at a personal level, at the factory level, at an office level at a legal level. If we think of all these things, it’s the same challenge that next generation will face as more and more trans people enter the workplace. Because again, that is something so different, that people will again feel threatened, and people are so used to being insulting towards trans people.

How to change from looking at somebody as an object of insult to seeing them as an object of respect. It’s a Huge journey we must make. Workplaces will have to create these cultures. And Urvashi thinks that it is very exciting for next generation that that’s the challenge.

*PGP 2020-22, IIM Bangalore

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