One year of disproportionate sufferings of women workforce

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By: Gyan Pathak

Outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent measures and policies of the government of India, including lockdown on March 24, 2020, and changes in labour rules in favour of business and industries, have disproportionately impacted women workforce of the country, whose participation had already declined in 2017-18 to its lowest level in the last five decades. Gender equity and economic empowerment of women is now at stake, which needs urgent attention from our policymakers.

Globally women’s employment is 19 per cent at risk than men, and the gender poverty gap is expected to worsen well into 2030, says an ADB report, adding that evidence on epidemics show that “women are likely to remain in prolonged unemployment or exit the labour force.” The rate of decline in women workforce participation in India has further deteriorated in the last one year resulting in massive job and income losses for women compared to men.

Just after general lockdown of the country, i.e. between March and April 2020, about 37 per cent of the female workforce, 15.4 million in number, had lost their jobs compared to 28 per cent job loss for the male workforce. As per the data of October 2020, women workforce in India shrank by 10.5 within a short span of one year while it was only 2 per cent for men workforce. Total employment in India for November 2020 was 2.4% lower than in November 2019, but among urban women it was down by 22.83 per cent. Women workforce was disappearing fast even in December 2020, and were most affected in urban India. Even women entrepreneurs were struggling to survive. According to a CMIE report, only 9 per cent of all women of working age are employed compared to 67 per cent of male after the job losses during the pandemic. Among infected women, 89 per cent are facing problems in returning to their jobs due to several reasons in their homes and workplaces.

Barring healthcare sector, women workforce suffered in every sector of the economy, because all were came to a grinding halt with announcement of the general lockdown of the country, and very slow pace of unlocking since June 1, 2020. The sectors having concentration of women workforce, such as textiles, food processing, handicraft etc underwent a sharp demand shock mainly due to lack of money in the hands of people and transport restrictions. Revival of the economy remained slow for other reasons too, such as lack of access to finance and even shortage of working capital. Informal sector, employing large number of women, such as shops and other establishment, also severely impacted.

The bias against women workers has also become stronger, and evidence shows that employers have been preferring male workers to the females in their re-employments. If the situation does not improve, a majority of women who have lost their jobs may be out of job for a very long time, except for those whose re-employment is unavoidable for a host of reasons, such as the works that cannot be done by male workers. Women employed as domestic help in cities, at construction sites, in call centres, in handicraft retail units, etc are still finding it difficult to return in jobs.

The condition of women migrant workers, which are about 20 per cent of all the migrant workers in the country, suffered most due to lack of social security and safety. After losing jobs many of them returned to their homes, because they could not afford the house rents and their other requirement, even in terms of food and healthcare. They have been facing issues for a long time, and most of them were unsolved. The COVID-19 has only increased their problems. They are even offered less remuneration for returning on job, compared to male workers.

The pandemic has come with additional restrictions to women’s movement outside their home. They now require even stronger reasons to leave home which adversely impacts their access to work, business, study, healthcare, and other government and private facilities. Even before the pandemic, the National Family and Health Survey 2015-16, had revealed that only 54 per cent of women were allowed to go to a nearby market alone, and only 48 per cent could visit places outside their village or community by themselves.

It goes without saying that majority of women are confined to their homes due to other problems too, such as transport restrictions. During COVID-19 pandemic, women’s work in home increased by almost 30 per cent. Even before the pandemic, a data of 2019 had revealed that women, on an average, spent five hours a day in household and care giving works compared to only 30 minutes for men.

The nature of work has been changing fast after the pandemic. Employers are shifting towards less labour intensive systems through automation and digitalization. It means to remain in job, more skill and education is required. Women workers are running more risks to be left behind because they are not able to cope with the latest demand at workplace, or even in work from home. In addition to several additional physical restrictions, inequality of digital gender divide has been obstructing their way of accessing work opportunities. Even now, only 63 per cent women own mobile phones compared to 79 per cent adult males. As for mobile internet usage, only 21 per cent women use mobile internet compared to 42 per cent adult males. Lack of digital access has been also obstructing their access to improve education and skills which may severely impact their future of work.

To improve women participation in India’s workforce, the government needs some proactive steps, such as reservation of women workers, and gender sensitive relief measures. The government of India has already implemented such a policy in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme by giving one-third reservation to women workers. The provisions for collateral-free lending to self-employed and 6.3 million women organized self-help groups, etc may be useful, but they need speed in delivery.

There are many other issues relating to women workforce participation which the government must take seriously, especially when the country is threatened with a new wave of surge in infection, which may further jeopardize women’s interests. (IPA Service)

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