Labour

Interview: If India Wants to Be a Global Leader, It Cannot Overlook Its Women Workers

Reema Nanavaty, who is a part of the Self-Employed Women's Association, believes that organising women workers and building their own enterprises is key to reducing the gender pay gap.

Geneva: Reema Nanavaty, who represented India’s informal women workers in the International Labour Organisation’s ‘Global Commission on the Future of Work’, says the country cannot aspire to become a global leader if it does not invest in rural women workers in the informal sector.

Nanavaty, a Padma Shri awardee, leads the Self-Employed Women’s Association’s economic and rural development activities. The Wire interviewed her on the sidelines of the launch of the commission’s ‘Future of Work’ report in Geneva last Tuesday.

Excerpts:

You’ve been a part of the commission since the beginning. The report emphasises on gender equality, what would you say are the India-specific concerns for working women raised during the discussions leading to the report?

It was a great privilege to be a member of this commission as it gave me a global platform to highlight the concerns of the Indian informal sector, especially the women workers. As you know, in India and the global south, a large majority of the workforce is in this sector, specifically in rural areas.

Also read: A Fairer Future of Work: ILO Pushes for a ‘Human-Centred Agenda’ in the Age of AI

The issue of rural workers was completely missed out. My major role was to bring out these voices as the Indian informal sector currently employs more than 95% of the workforce.

Reema Nanavaty. Credit: M. Crozet/ILO

The second big issue is the question of life-long learning – what does it entail for the women workers in the informal sector? Same with the universal labour guarantee – how do you ensure there is an increase in productivity of women workers in this sector. Today, they are all piece rate workers and therefore if you increase productivity, only then will they have minimum living income or a living wage.

Picking up on that – we have seen decreasing labour force participation of women in the Indian labour market. Are there recommendations in the report to make amends given that unlike many other countries, a unique mix of social barriers prevents women from participating in economic activities in India? 

I definitely put in a lot of recommendations pertaining to women workers in countries like ours. There are recommendations on the care economy, for example, which has so far always been unpaid. How do we convert a woman’s work, when she’s sitting at home taking care of her children or of the sick or elderly people in the family, into paid work?

Similarly, how do you look at rural workers? There’s increasing feminisation of agriculture, so how do you strengthen agriculture? What about the green economy? These are some of the major focus areas. We have to see how the government of India responds to this report. Will it endorse it? What kind of policies are framed to enable women workers?

What are some of the concrete measures we can take to reduce the gender pay gap? A recent report by Oxfam says it is 34% in India.

The ILO gave weight to gender in the report itself. When ILO takes up programmes and policy advocacy, it will have to look at how to bring equality and reduce the disparity between the wages and incomes in the workforce.

Also read: Nine Richest Indians Now Own Wealth Equivalent to Bottom 50% of the Country

Apart from the overall goal that is to be achieved, are there any measurable, concrete steps that have been suggested? It’s a difficult task as most of the women are in the informal sector.  

I think one important thing would be to organise women as workers and building women’s own enterprises. That should be the key element in the Indian context.

So, self-representation for better advocacy?

Yes

When there’s such dismal political representation of women in the entire tripartite arrangement (industry, trade unions and the government), how do you think these recommendations can sincerely be implemented? Issues concerning women are still considered ‘secondary’, do you think there’s enough political will to promote women’s work?

I think if India wants to achieve the kind of growth rate it aspires to and if it wants to be a global leader in development, women are going to be a crucial part of that future. Unless the government invests in women, accelerating growth and development will be difficult because you are leaving out half of the workforce.

Whether there is a political will or not, there will be a compulsion to focus on women. The future of work, as I see it, is in women and therefore investing in them will have to be a key element.

Also read: Future of Work in India: What is the View of the Indian Industry?

The report says, “Access to finance and credit through mobile banking can provide a tremendous boost to women’s entrepreneurship in the rural economy.” Do you think that the Indian PM’s Mudra scheme, Ujjwala Yojana, PMEGP, Stand-Up India etc. are a step in this direction? What has your experience working with rural women and “care workers” been, do you think the Modi government’s policy interventions and the way those are being implemented are enough?

This was a recommendation made by me – if you really want to increase women’s involvement and entrepreneurial capabilities then one of the barriers to overcome is access to finance. The different schemes that you mentioned here might be reaching the SME level, but what we are referring to in this report are at the bottom – the poorest of the poor. Unless you make all of these schemes more inclusive, you may not be able to achieve the kind of growth that you want.

The government’s answer to most questions on empowering women and supporting their economic activity is to point towards these schemes, but you are saying it has not trickled down to the most marginalised women?

No, the delivery of schemes definitely needs to be more inclusive.

What is your overall assessment of the report, being involved in the process for 18 months, do you think it addresses various challenges Indian women face in the world of work?

It is very difficult for a global report to zoom in and focus on a particular country. The report has definitely given enough focus to informality, rural workers, women, the care economy, and if the national government also takes these recommendations seriously it’ll make the future of work far better for women.

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