Women working at a MNREGA site, Lalitpur, UP | Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh Chandok, Flickr

The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2019-20, recently released by the National Statistical Office of the Indian government’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation reflects on an increase in labour market participation of women. This came after the country had witnessed a decline for more than a decade.

The labour market participation of women dipped sharply from from 42.7 percent in 2004-05 to 24.5 percent in 2018-19. However, the PLFS 2019-20 has reported an increase in female labour force participation by 5.5 percentage points, taking it to 30 percent.

Declining female labour force participation and gender inequalities in the labour market have remained as major policy concerns in India. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the existing gender inequalities in the labour market. The pandemic had significantly impacted the informal sector, thereby increasing the vulnerability of women workers.

It is also true that in low and middle-income countries, the pandemic has increased the risk of poverty followed by livelihood crisis. A recent report of the ILO (2020) had estimated that globally, almost 510 million or 40 percent of all employed women, work in hard-hit sectors – including accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade, real estate, business and administrative activities, and manufacturing.

Also, gender gaps were evident with 42 percent of women working informally in these sectors at the onset of the crisis, compared with 32 percent of men. Even though the recent PLFS reports an increase in female labour force participation, it is important to understand the nature of women’s employment and whether such employment was protected by social security provisions.

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Increase in self- and precarious employment

The increase in female labour force participation witnessed during PLFS 2019-20 was mostly due to an increase in self-employment. The PLFS explains two sub-categories of workers under the self-employed category – the own account worker and employer and the unpaid helper in household enterprises.

There has been an increase in self-employment of women workers in rural areas by 3.4 percentage points during 2018-19 and 2019-20, which raises serious questions not only on the quality of employment, but also on access to social security. Also, there has been a decline in regular wage salaried employment for women by 1.9 percentage points during the same time period.

Also read ‘Women in India’s Informal Sectors Continue to Remain Outside Maternity Benefit Coverage

Though there has been a decline in casual labour, in urban areas, the percentage of women in casual labour has increased during 2019-20 from 10.7 percent in 2018-19 to 11.1 percent in 2019-20. The concentration of women in self-employment or casual employment, which are more informal in nature, often denies them access to social security coverage and decent working conditions.

Further, these women have been adversely affected by the impact of the pandemic due to the precariarity of their situations as many of them were engaged in sectors that were worst affected by the pandemic. A study conducted by Azim Premji University (2020) amongst self-employed, casual and regular waged workers reported that across 12 states of India, they were worst affected and faced a drop in their earnings. These women workers in the informal sector faced an added challenge of increased burden of domestic work.

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Shrinking employment contracts 

The presence of employment contracts somehow protects the conditions of employment of women workers and enables them to access social security. But, it is also true that a majority of women workers do not have regular employment contracts.

The PLFS 2019-20 reported that the percentage of women workers in regular waged employment who did not have a written job contract was 65 percent. However, it is surprising to note that the percentage of regular wage salaried women who did not have social security had increased since last three years from 51.8 percent in 2017-18 to 56.0 percent in 2019-20.

Even within the regular wage salaried women, the lack of job contracts increases the vulnerability of women as many of them still do not have access to paid leave or any social security. This poses a serious challenge for women workers to cope with the livelihood loss of women workers due to the pandemic.

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The way forward 

An increase in female Labour force participation does not necessarily entail a situation of better income and employment opportunities for women informal workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Increase in self-employment restricts their mobility and transition to the formal economy.

Also, most of these women workers get pushed to such kinds low-paying employment due to several constraints – including increasing pressure of unpaid domestic work and other care responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has further accentuated their challenge, increasing their vulnerabilities and affecting their daily lives.

From a broader policy perspective, it is important to assess the situation of women workers through adequate disaggregated analysis with regard to their employment contracts, social security and other provisions. Data sets like the PLFS can facilitate in-depth analysis of the conditions of women workers and aid in designing gender responsive social protection polices, which would help them cope with the loss caused due to the pandemic.

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Further, the reasons for women’s excessive participation in unpaid work and the link between paid and unpaid work regarding their concentration in low paying jobs can be assessed through an analysis of the data received from the Time Use Survery 2019 recently released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Such surveys are instrumental in explaining the reasons for women’s concentration in informal jobs and can inform policy for addressing the same.

Further, it is also important to extend social security coverage to women informal workers through the new labour codes. The Social Security Code 2020 consolidates laws related to social security with the goal of extending social security to all employees and workers – both in the formal and the informal sectors.

Since most of the informal women workers are self-employed and lack employer-employee relationship, it becomes difficult to extend the purview of labour codes to such arrangements. The need for re-orientation of the labour codes, particularly in terms of extending its coverage to women informal workers is the need of the hour.

Views expressed are the author’s own.