March 8 is globally celebrated as the Women’s day. The day is devoted, internationally, to account for and celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity and highlight incidences of unfair practices being faced by them. As both social and economic settings are strongly intertwined, let’s have a closer look on the situation of women workers in India. Like the canaries that alerted miners to poisonous atmosphere, the declining women's work force participation point to structural problems that affect overall employment and growth.
Informality is a way of life in India
India at the time of independence in 1947 was primarily an agricultural economy. In seven decades since independence, services however, have replaced agriculture as the largest contributor to the national GDP, though agriculture remains the sector in which over 50 percent of the population is working with informality as its basic character.
Even in 2016, the informality has remained India’s principle character as far as the labour market is concerned. Various surveys have concluded that over 93 percent of the workers as are in its informal economy without proper access to decent work or social protection. Only 17.9 percent total workforce are employed are regular wage or salaried employees. The remaining 81 percent are either self-employed or casual labour. Of the overall working population, only 31% of women participate in the labour market as compared to the 83% of men. And that number is still declining.
Looking at the two decades since the economic reforms, India has seen a boom in almost all the sectors. This had led to increased demand for workers, both skilled and unskilled. The skilled workers, men and women, were absorbed in IT and Services and other expanding sectors such as hospitality, travel & tourism, medical, trade and commerce. Like in other countries, the ongoing globalisation has led to increased avenues for employment particularly for skilled women.
“Skilled women have benefited from globalisation though unskilled women are still largely trapped in domestic work.”
Domestic work – an ancient yet still unconventional story
The unskilled on the other hand, got absorbed in agriculture, animal husbandry, construction, etc. sectors. Those who couldn’t find any work opted for household works, such as cleaning, cooking, washing, caring, etc. Women constitute the majority of domestic workers since they are more conversant with the domestic chorus and are more acceptable for in-house work, whereas men are generally engaged in for outside works such as gardening. Not surprisingly, domestic work counts among the oldest occupations we know. In countries that do not accord basis social security protection, domestic work is in fact an occupation of the last resort.
“In countries that do not accord basis social security protection, domestic work is an occupation of last resort.”
A domestic worker is engaged by a household employer either directly or through labour agencies. Those employed through agencies are full time live-in domestic workers and have written contract with the agency. The directly engaged domestic workers on the other hand are either full time or part time workers with no written contract of employment. Most of the household employers as also the domestic workers are ignorant of the government initiatives as also policies and laws relating to engaging a domestic help.
“The particular nature of domestic work happening at private homes makes it difficult to organise for collective bargaining. Surprisingly, not so much on the workers’ side but on the employers’ side: who is to represent the myriad of domestic household owners?”
The domestic work takes place in an unconventional place of work, i.e. in the private house. Indian laws do not define private house as workplace as such access to labour inspection authorities is denied. Implementation of labour laws on issues such as minimum wages and regularized working hours, which are essential elements of any kind of work, also remains a challenge. Consequently, wages paid depends purely on the domestic worker’s capacity to negotiate. Survey on wages show that domestic women workers received almost half of what is paid to male domestic workers.
The challenge of migration
The expanding demand for workers in booming urban India and deteriorating living conditions in rural India, caused primarily by subsistent agriculture, frequent droughts and floods, rigid local customs and practices, lack of non-farming employment opportunities induced individuals (and families) to migrate to cities that were seen as hope for better lives. Most of the workers migrated from poor to rich states either on their own or on the recommendations of their relatives and friends already living in cities.
Over 86 percent of the domestic workers are migrants from other Indian states, Nepal or Bangladesh and possess no marketable skills. Normally, they migrate with their male counterpart caused by non-availability of work or exploitative social conditions. Since majority of them are first time migrants, they are often manipulated by labour agents or contractors. Many times, such labour agents are the migrant workers acquaints themselves, consequently, ending up in unskilled, low paying jobs as well, such as in construction or cleaning.
“States have passed adequate laws to provide for social protection, but they remain on paper only as there is little awareness on both employers’ and workers’ side.“
Many of the Indian states, in recent years, have either enacted laws and announced policy aimed at extending protection to domestic workers. States such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan and others have notified minimum wages payable to a domestic worker. The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 covers the domestic workers as well. The said coverage is however good in paper only since domestic workers are neither aware nor have capacity to secure protection. Needless to stress that women domestic workers are in an even weaker position, since the burden of managing their family as also acquiring resources falls on them on top of that.
For more information on the situation of working women in India, watch Prof. Gita Sen and her public lecture or contact Patrick Ruether FES India Office.