Informalisation of Women's Work in India


May 25, 2012

Dr. Govind Kelkar on female work participation in India, informal labour, and possibilities for gender-targeted measures of social security

With more and more women joining the work force in India, questions are arising about working conditions, the casualization of work and a ‘Feminization of Labour’. There has been hope that women’s’ entrance into wage labour could change traditional female roles in society. But as India’s informal sector is growing and absorbing low-paid female workers, the casual nature of the informal economy looks unlikely to fulfil these hopes. How to provide social security services to workers in the informal economy and ensure higher labour standards then becomes a question with a considerable gender impact. This interview gives an outline of the status of working women in the Indian economy and addresses the context for gender-targeted measures of social security.

Govind Kelkar is the Senior Adviser:  International Center for Research on Women, and Rural Development Institute, New Delhi, India. Earlier from April 2004 to March 2012, she worked as senior consultant with the position ‘Senior Advisor: Programme and Research’ ,Economic Empowerment Unit, UN Women, South Asia Office, New Delhi. She is also the Founding Editor of the journal ‘Gender, Technology and Development’ and has published and co-edited numerous articles and books, including ‘Secure Rights to Productive Assets that Women Manage (Forthcoming, Francis & Taylor, 2011), Adivasi Women: Engaging with Climate Change (UNIFEM-IFAD-The Christensen Fund, 2009) and ‘International Trade and Global Civil Society’ (2008, Routledge).  

The interview was held on 23rd January 2012 by Almut Büchsel, Intern HBS India

Interviewer: With regards to a clear gender divide in the Indian workforce, can you shed some light on the development in women’s economic activity rate or female work participation in the post-liberalization phase?

Dr. Kelkar:There are definitely clear trends that can be observed in the twenty years since India’s economy has undergone liberalization. Generally speaking, women’s economic activity rate has increased in two sectors: in the agricultural and in the realm of the informal economy. It is extremely important here to distinguish between the formal and the informal economy as well as nature of women’s increasing engagement in agriculture sector, as the findings are in fact quite diverse in the different sectors.

Considering the agricultural sector first, we find a huge rise in women working, tilling, cultivating the fields and thereby also escaping the confinements of house work. One of the latest government surveys conducted on the topic in 2010 found that 84% of all rural women in India are now engaged in one or the other agricultural activity. A number, which presents a remarkable rise from the pre-liberalization period before 1990, when rural women in India did not even have the critical right to till the land they were living on with their families. But the dichotomy inherent to this development lies in the fact that women now are in an increasing number working on the land they are dwelling on, but they rarely possess any ownership, or management rights to this land. A position, which is weakening and oppressing the women’s agency, as well as in certain ways debilitating the productivity of agricultural work.  

Similar observations can be made with regards to India’s huge informal sector.According to a 2011 paper of the International Labour Organization, 83.8 % of South Asian women are engaged in so called ‘vulnerable employment’. The work that these women are doing can in most cases be qualified as ‘casual labour’, piece-work such as the manufacturing of garments and other small items, produced within the restraints of the workers’ household. Informal labour is generally qualified by the absence of decent labour conditions as recommended by the ILO and a lack of any sort of secure and sufficient wages. Women workers present a considerable share of this so called informal workforce, a share that has in fact risen substantially over the last 20 years. Precisely this increase in the informal economy has to be critical because it mirrors the developments in the formal economy. Obviously, women’s employment in the official and recognized sphere of the formal economy has to be the desired aim of any economic policy directed at women workers. But while the percentage of women employed in the informal economy remains high, the number of Indian women engaged in formal, secure and recognized labour is still minimal. Only 14-15% of workers in the formal sector are women, their numbers hardly rising over the past years.

Interviewer: Comparing India with other Asian countries such as China or the South-East-Asian Region, there have been contradictory statements towards whether a so called ‘feminization of labour’ has really taken place in India. In your opinion, is it possible to speak of a ‘feminization of labour’ in the Indian context?

Dr. Kelkar:Once again, the answer to this important question has to be differentiated and multi-layered. First of all, what does ‘feminization of labour’ mean? Take the example of agriculture in India: The term ‘feminization of agriculture’ would suggest that agriculture is being ‘feminized’, which would also entail a transfer of management and ownership rights to rural women. However, this has not happened. What has occurred is in fact rather a feminization of agricultural work, without any transfer of the asset rights. A similar development has taken place in the Indian informal sector: as mentioned in the previous question, the number of women engaged in the informal economy, performing officially unrecognized work has increased, while the number of women in the formal sector has almost stagnated. What does this mean if we ,for example, compare India with South East Asian countries, to which the term ‘feminization of labour’ has frequently been applied? India, unlike other South, East and South East Asian countries such as Thailand and China has failed to build up a significantly big export-oriented manufacturing sector that can absorb and employ a low-qualified, women workforce. This low demand for manual labor-intensive work here in India means that if we compare India to other Asian countries with a bigger export-oriented manufacturing sector, India can only offer a small amount of work opportunities in the formal economy, which could provide a minimum of security. The work opportunities that do exist in this formal economy-manufacturing sector, are, in the existing patriarchal framework, exploited by men rather than women. India’s largest manufacturing units, such as the garment manufacturing in Tirupur in Tamil Nadu are largely dominated by men. Women, on the other hand are left with the remaining insecure and casual jobs in the informal economy. Consequently, in the Indian context, rather than applying a generalized term such as the ‘feminization of labour’, it would be more adequate to talk about a feminization of casual labour, of informal labour, and of agricultural work. Women workers in India, even if their number is rising, still remain largely invisible and their work unrecognized, as long as they are not integrated into the formal economy.

Interviewer: Women’s integration into wage labour and female work participation has often been characterized as a vehicle for ‘emancipation’. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Kelkar:Generally speaking, I have to answer this question with a yes. I am deeply convinced that women’s participation in wage work has an emancipating and empowering effect. Integrating women into wage labour means enabling them to interact with the outside world, and in a ‘knowledge society’, a society that is fuelled and nurtured by the production and management of knowledge. If a woman stays within the traditional confinements of the household, this interaction is not going to take place. There is no chance then that she can, through interface with co-workers or other members of society outside of her family, improve and heighten her skills, enhance her capacities, her outlook and knowledge. Work in wage labour, as long as performed under constructive working conditions, has also proven to increase a women’s confidence by supplying her with independent income that contributes to the family’s revenue. This income presents a important factor if we discuss the empowering effects of women’s labour, a point that stands irrespective a women’s qualification, literacy and education: If the women’s income is comparatively lower than the income of the family’s male members, she is often pressured to give up her work which is regarded as not profitable for the family. And as a gendered wage-gap, where women are getting less money than men for the same work, is in fact prevalent in India, this scenario is likely to happen in a majority of households. These gender-specific wage differences can be regarded as a symptom of the patriarchal structure of the society we are living in, where a women’s work generally seems to be worth less than a man’s. Women’s integration into the labour market thereby becomes a question of India’s societal structure, a patriarchal structure that is mirrored in a gender specific wage gap. In order to enable the structural change that we call emancipation or empowerment, women first have to be diverted from their traditional roles as housekeepers and be involved in the ‘knowledge society’. It is true that women are currently shouldering a ‘double-burden’, performing the traditionally female household work plus modern wage labour. But I would argue that leaving women in their traditional and often disempowered roles cant be the solution to this problem. It is a slow process, but once women’s structural placement in the society changes through their incorporation in the formal workforce, traditional gender-roles within the household will change as well.

Interviewer: To what extent can a rising female work participation that is mainly taking place in the informal economy or among self-employed workers be beneficial towards women’s agency and well-being?

Dr. Kelkar:This question brings us back to the necessity to distinguish the different kinds of wage labour that women are actually performing as well as the separate economic sectors that they are placed in. Theoretically speaking, there are three different spheres of women’s work or labour: the first sphere where the woman is totally restricted to the household, performing all the so-called duties and work within these confinements and not engaging in any interaction with the world outside the family. In the second sphere, a woman would already be engaged in wage labour and work in the informal economy or in agriculture, but without actually being recognized as a worker. In this sphere, the woman would be involved in various kinds of small-scale productive work, working either on piece rate payments or, in agriculture, for the benefit of the family. In the third sphere, she has acquired employment in the actual formal economy. Now, in the second sphere, when the woman is working in the informal economy, she often still works from home, remaining confined to the restrictive and casualizing sphere of the household. Overburdened with the multiple tasks she now has to accomplish at home, there is a risk of getting entrapped in this stage. Without any interaction with the knowledge-society, the home worker doesn’t have any opportunity to enhance her capabilities. It definitely is essential, therefore, to move on from this sphere that restricts women to the confinement of home; the strangulating boundaries of domesticity. Not treating the second sphere as the ideal condition of work, I would still argue that the second sphere does present a step forward, providing the woman with at least a small income and therefore the chance, to be recognized for the work she is doing. This recognition, and thereby the confidence that a women can gain from her work, increases gradually. Rather than dismissing women’s work in the informal economy, there should be a concerted effort to take notice that this sphere is not the goal of women’s empowerment with work and income, but that women eventually have to gain equal access to work and recognition with their entry into the formal sector.

Interviewer: What provisions should the state incorporate into its development and social security policy to ensure not only a higher female work participation, but women’s integration into the formal economy and higher labour standards?

Dr. Kelkar:The precondition for any effective social security policy aimed at women is the provision of economic security through ownership rights, the securing of women’s right to resources, such as land, housing, energy and technology. As long as the state takes no effective measures to ensure these very basic rights for women, we can’t expect even those social security policies aimed at women to have any effect. If these rights are ensured, the next step has to be to foster women’s entry into wage labour and provide them an opportunity for skill enhancement and a higher degree of independence. The critical part here is to make sure that women don’t end up solely as casual labourers in the informal economy, but find sufficient access to the formal economy. However, even if women are integrated into the formal economy, without the state enforcing decent work conditions as International Labour Organization (ILO) standards provide, there is no guarantee that women workers will be treated equally to their male counterparts. Equality in this context means that women will be treated, legally and practically as workers, not as women workers. The important point here is that policy-makers must stop viewing and treating women only in their traditional roles and as care-givers, mothers and wives. Of course, the very real burden that these existing functions impose on a woman’s life shouldn’t be ignored, but women are individuals, are human beings who don’t exist to perform a specific function, to be mothers and care-givers.

What happens to women at their workplace on the first sight seems to be the employer’s or company’s responsibility, but it is more than that. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), for instance, is a very good example of the fact that the state can legislate change. In MGNREGA’s case, this change occurred in the form of gender wage parity. The state has to regulate the market, legislate social security policies and press the market to implement them. It is this implementation that is the problem. India actually has very progressive laws, but they are not implemented. Take the 2006 domestic violence act as an example: The act says that in a case of reported domestic violence against the woman, the man has to move out of the house, regardless to whether he is the owner of the house or not. Reportedly in a couple of years after the act in 2008 in Rajasthan, there were 7000 cases of reported domestic violence occurred that should have been treated under the Domestic Violence Act and the men should have legally been forced to leave the house. But instead of implementing the law, the state agencies acted as patriarchal counselors: The law was not implemented in numerous cases, the men were allowed to go back to their families. What we need in India is an actual enforcement of the existing laws.

Interviewer: Stressing the agency of the female workers themselves: how do you think the women could improve their adversity and strengthen their own bargaining capacity?

Dr. Kelkar:It is very important that women realize their agency, and recognize that they are very capable of speaking for themselves. A very good example of how women are capable of improving their own situation is women’s collectives. Any kind of individual agency becomes more powerful when expressed in a collective, in a group. Women’s collectives, whether informal or formal also function as networks, providing the women with a space for the exchange and individual enhancement of their knowledge. However, even if women’s collectives can have an empowering effect, it is essential to not only recognize women’s agency in collectives, but to remember that there needs to be space for the women as individuals. Therefore, the rights that provide agency to the women in the first place need to be individual rights, not collective rights.

It is critical to also take a look at the role that NGOs can play in improving women’s agency: as more and more government measures are ‘outsourced’, implemented through NGOs, the influence of NGOs on women’s situation is increasing. But, like their government counterparts, many NGOs do need a great degree of gender-sensitization. It is crucial to analyze what understanding the concerned NGO has of gender relations, of women’s economic participation and their leadership roles. The most important thing to keep in mind for any government and non-government actor engaged in enhancing women’s agency is to treat women as individual agents, with unmediated power over resource management and ownership of assets, equal to the unmediated power of men.