Ground Realities of Female Labour Force in India


The rate of attrition of 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 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, it 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, one can be a salesgirl. Now, when she was growing up, one couldn’t be a salesgirl, because it was considered tantamount to being a sex worker. But, now one can be a security guard, now, or be a pilot. 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 90 plus per cent of women’s work is informal in the informal sector. So that doesn’t get counted. One issue is how we count, what we define as well, what we define as labour. One of the things that feminists have been saying for a long time is, how can we not count the labour that women perform inside the house, because if we 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. So, she thinks there’s a very serious issue in how we perceive work, and how we understand labour, and how we count it, which leaves a huge number of women out.

Then there is another question that we must ask ourselves, rather than take this statistic as a given, if we just look around you in your life, look out onto the street or into any poor area slum. Do we ever seen women sitting outside of the pie shop and drinking Chai? No. Where are they? They’re in the house working. Right? So, one 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, which is because they are in informal work a lot of the time, what happens is that those jobs change all the time.

Let’s consider a woman worker working on a construction site, most likely she will not have any papers or a contract, she will be 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 but hers’ very likely won’t. So, what will she do? She will go into domestic work. There is no counting there. Then if Corona becomes serious, she can’t continue domestic work. Sometimes she will be pushed to 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 we must ask ourselves why. And one of the questions we have not asked 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. Let’s consider, 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 are needed to take into account.

To understand, how we can help women in lowering 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 we can create.

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. Men don’t know how to deal with that. So, there are things that we can implement. There are things like implementing the POSH act, but not only in a legalistic kind of way, but creating conversations around sexual harassment also, what it means, and therefore creating conversations about good relationships in the office, infrastructure, in terms of toilets, and so on and so forth.

Recollecting an instance, Urvashi says, she once listened to the CEO of a large organization speak about their women’s workforce. 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 given were made to men sizes, they’re too large for them, so they hamper movement, the gloves are made to the size of men’s hands. The hard hats hamper vision because they’re made for bigger heads. Now, upper management had never thought about this. When they started to think, they started to change all the attributes that had a direct impact on 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 and at a legal level. If we think of all these things, it’s the same challenge that the 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.

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 the next generation that this is the challenge.

BY – Akash Bhagat

PGP 2020-22

IIM Bangalore