There is no division in the opinion that women at work bring good trends and tidings to society. India has a significant record of women working in both the organized and unorganized sector; but the bias toward informal work arrangements is greater. The best reforms for women’s role in the future of the Indian economy, therefore, would be ones that help informal women workers.
The plight of India’s women in the workplace continues to be a mixed bag. With the employment of women workers, the generally-accepted notion is that they:
- play a meaningful role in the society
- maintain financial independence
- enjoy employer-led initiatives for women workers’ well-being
- and make the most of the fair practices and incentives devised to support the continuity of women workers
You might also be interested to read: Women In Technology: These Factors Weigh Them Down
In reality, these advantages are only available to educated, progressive women whereas their counterparts from illiterate or low-income, low-education backgrounds suffer in silence from exploitative wages, unfair work environments, and conditions, or drop out of the workforce altogether.
To ensure that social security to informal women workers keeps up its pace, the government pursues multi-pronged initiatives. One of these is the measures taken up during and after the covid-19 lockdowns. Authorities are aware that it is the figures of employment of women workers that suffered greater hits than those of men. Also, women at work making a minimum wage from informal work arrangements lost their incomes or were made redundant overnight.
Some of the reasons women workers in India bore the brunt of job losses are:
- Increased domestic chores, caregiving, and childcare responsibilities due to the pandemic (while women spend nearly five hours a day in these activities, men spend only an hour on average)
- Unpaid hours of work in supporting working men and unemployed dependents make working outside the home untenable
- A higher number of undocumented women workers in the informal sector with no proper employment records than men
- Women are mostly employed for low wages in vulnerable sectors such as domestic help, construction work, or vending on the streets, all of which suffered during the coronavirus pandemic
For this reason, among other society-led biases and constraints, women workers in India tend to drop out of the workforce. Since these factors compound the problems of low-literacy and social restrictions, the falling rates of women at work are unsurprising.
To counter the above constraints and provide employment guarantee schemes for women, existing initiatives like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) seek to support rural women. When an employer fails to provide work, they are liable to pay an unemployment allowance. Under this scheme, childcare facilities are also made available to encourage women at work.
Minimum employment guarantee schemes are a short-term solution to help vulnerable women workers, if only until the day-to-day economic activity returns to pre-pandemic levels. To help this cause, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) was constituted in 2006.
The way forward for women at work
At present, a new set of recommendations are to be faced by the NCEUS in which documenting lists of unorganized workers – both men and women – is the need of the hour. Next, social security measures should include distribution of food, provision of midday meals to children of vulnerable workers, and Work Facilitation Centers to help workers find work locally. Finally, a “social floor” is to be acknowledged in accordance with inflation. This constitutes a minimum wage of Rs. 200 according to the center and Rs. 400 a day when adjusted for current inflationary pressures. No employee would ideally fall below this bracket of earnings.
These measures would be particularly helpful to displaced migrant workers, workers facing sickness or accidental hospitalization needs, and other situations that affect income. However, the larger aim of safeguarding women’s role in the future would require working backward on providing specific programs to address gaps in healthcare, nutrition, and education to be rolled out. This has to be executed by the government whether or not women at work continue to fulfil their roles or face temporary slumps in their employability standing due to unforeseen circumstances such as the pandemic.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) acknowledges that the striking figure of 93% informal workers is a staggering one and seeks to help self-employed women by calling for transparency in taxation among other reforms for small business owners. When these schemes are in place, women at work are less constrained by societal and family expectations and can go on to fulfill part-time or full-time work commitments. A parallel avenue for empowerment is self-employed women who actively create jobs and hire more women.
- Women at work | The Statesman | Dilip Datta | Dec 2020
- Social Security in the Lockdown: A Time to Revisit the NCEUS Recommendations | Link Springer | K P Kannan | Sept 2020
- COVID-19: India’s self-employed women, rights and a sustainable response | TaxJustice.net | Liz Nelson | May 2020
You might also be interested to read: