Indian Women Demand ‘Visible’ Laws to Enhance Status of Employment


A remarkable ‘achievement’ of economic ‘development’ in post-independent India has been, not just the growth of the informal sector and of those being employed informally, but also the phenomenon of ‘informalisation of the formal sector’.

What is also truly remarkable is the consistent manner in which disproportionately larger numbers of women and their ‘work’ either become invisible in data systems or get captured in categories that fall outside the purview of protective legislation. Over the years official documents such as the Towards Equality Report, the Shramshakti Report, the Report of the Time Use Survey – to mention the more important ones – have traced the trajectory of the simultaneous exclusion and (peripheral) inclusion of women in paid work even as the enormous time spent in unpaid – not to be equated with unproductive – work was shown to sustain not just the household but also the country’s economy.

These documents strongly recommended, among other things, the enactment of new laws, modification and expansion of coverage of existing laws and the stringent implementation of all laws in the spirit of enhancing the status of the marginalised, women included, from being non/second class citizens to full citizenship. In the process, these documents laid bare the continuing disjunction between development processes that expressly require the contribution of women in both their productive and reproductive roles and institutions, including legal ones, that were set up to regulate development outcomes.

In 2004-05, of the 148 million women workers in the Indian economy, 142 million – or almost 96 per cent – were unorganised workers. This includes 91 per cent of women workers in the unorganised sector plus those working informally in the organised sector. In terms of status of employment, the bulk of unorganised sector employment is self-employment, followed by casual employment. The self-employed category consists of own account workers, employers and unpaid family workers. Data reveal decline in the proportion of own account workers and employers but an increase in the share of unpaid family workers.

That in 2004-05, the bulk of women workers should still overwhelmingly belong to the self-employed category and also dominate the ‘unpaid family workers’ category within the category of self-employed, is a telling comment on how ‘India Shining’ has not only bypassed women but is actually overburdening the bulk of them while not compensating them adequately.

Literacy has an intrinsic relationship with employment. The analysis of literacy levels of the ‘worker’ population for 2001 reveals a disturbing contrast between male and female workers. While almost 71 per cent of male workers are literate, the corresponding figure for women is only 36 per cent. In other words, while ‘development’ may have increased the work participation rate for females, it has not translated into a greater proportion of literate women becoming workers, as has happened in the case of men. This national picture of relatively greater illiteracy among female worker population is repeated even in socially and economically developed states such as Tamil Nadu.

The debates among feminists and women’s studies scholars around issues of relatively larger numbers of women workers being crowded in low paying jobs and in tasks designated as ‘unskilled’ needs to also factor in the question why employment and education are moving in opposite directions as far as females are concerned.

Also to be noted is the proportion of population returned as ‘non-workers’ and the proportion of ‘literate non-workers’ among males and females. For the country as a whole, 48 per cent of males have been returned as ‘non-workers’ against 74 per cent for females. The urban areas have a larger proportion of population categorised as ‘non-workers’ when compared to the rural areas. However, unlike in the case of males, the rates of literacy for female ‘non-workers’ are higher than the rates of literacy for females in the population in general. This is the case in both rural and urban areas.

The same holds true for states such as Tamil Nadu, underlining the phenomena that social and economic development are not necessarily gender just. Despite the fact that states like Tamil Nadu reveal ‘higher than national level’ work participation rates for females, these rates are still far below the rates obtaining for males in Tamil Nadu. Further, the rising levels of female literacy in Tamil Nadu are not reflected in the literacy levels of the worker population. ‘Development’ then, has not been able to reverse the trend of literacy and employment moving in opposite directions for females, both at the national level as indeed in states whose economic and social indicators of development are better than the national figures.

Even legislation has not helped. An important law in post-Independent India is The Maternity Benefit [MB] Act, 1961. Over the years, the Courts have had to deal with several cases from aggrieved women workers who have alleged the denial of benefits under this Act despite, according to them, being eligible for them. I conducted a content analysis of a few cases filed for relief under this Act to help comprehend, among other concerns, the categories of workers who have been so denied, or given less than entitled benefit; the nature of establishments that deny such benefits; the reasons cited by establishments for denying benefits and the reasons for the Courts’ acceptance or rejection of arguments by employers/petitioners.

The larger question that the exercise evaluated was the oft-repeated argument that India has the necessary laws but they are poorly implemented. The manner, for instance, in which women employed by state governments have been excluded from provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, has been several and varied: One, contrary to all norms of justice, the State has employed women workers but used nomenclatures such as daily, ad hoc, casual, etc., and then justified the denial of maternity benefit on the ground that even the amended Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, applies only to regular and temporary workers, not casual, daily or ad hoc. Two, while recruitments have followed a set procedure, appointment letters have been arbitrarily changed to render the woman employee ineligible for any benefit, maternity or otherwise. Three, when the Supreme Court came down heavily on state governments for denying maternity benefits to women employees in this way, the bureaucracy has come up with other ways of making woman employees ineligible, namely, by citing that women employees on consolidated mode of payment of salary are not eligible for benefit under the MB Act, 1961.

It is against this background that the signal contribution of feminists and gender studies to macroeconomics needs to be recognised. They have questioned the assumptions on which economic policies are anchored, the methodologies that limit an understanding of economic problems, and the solutions that macroeconomics uncritically offers. Nevertheless, the relegation of gender to the social at one level, and the anxiety of feminist researchers – including feminist economists – to be seen as ‘practically relevant’ all the time, at another level, is one small example of the continuing tensions that keep surfacing. This is largely also because macroeconomic policies have failed in their basic objectives but those who propound them have no qualms in transferring these failures to the ‘social sector’ – a euphemism for considering all these problems as ‘women’s issues’.

How feminists continue to engage with this concern is a never ending but ongoing challenge.

(The writer is a Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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