How Can India Reverse Falling Female Workforce Participation?

Unionisation of informal labour and freeing women from unpaid care work are measures that need to be ensured to boost participation and the economy with it.

Last month, I was in Bhubaneshwar for a book release commemorating 19 years of Navin Patnaik as the chief minister. While I prepared for the panel discussion, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the Odisha government had recognised the need to address specific issues faced by women, such as domestic violence and access to government schemes.

A decade ago, the Odisha government set up a ‘Gender Budget Cell’ in the department of women and child development. Its mandate was to provide technical inputs for gender planning, gender budgeting, gender analysis and audit of policies, programmes and outcomes. It was expected to cover all 41 government departments, especially key departments such as panchayati raj, rural development, agriculture and farmer’s empowerment and revenue.

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However, the budget allocated for the cell was a meagre Rs 15 lakh. It has remained at this level for the past three budget cycles. Further, the cell is led by a consultant. Those familiar with the functioning of government departments will know that a consultant does not have much influence. In some ways, the cell has been reduced to a toothless body.

Falling female labour participation

Oxfam India’s new report, ‘Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India’ brings to focus among other issues, the falling female labour force participation (FLFP) rate. As of 2017, India ranked 20th from bottom out of 187 countries in terms of FLFP. It has slid 18 spots from its rank in 1990s. The report argues that if India’s FLFP reaches the current Chinese levels, the GDP will be boosted by 27%. If it matches the level of participation of men in India, the GDP will rise by over 43%.

According to NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, increasing the FLFP from the current 24% to 48% will translate into a 9-10 % increase in the GDP.

The report attributes the low and falling FLFP to deep set social norms of a patriarchal, ‘family oriented’ society. A range of factors, like decrease in demand for farm work (due to increased mechanisation), decline of the manufacturing sector, lack of jobs commensurate with educational qualifications of women are also forcing them to opt out.

Job seekers line up for interviews at a job fair in Chinchwad, India, February 7, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Jobs in the informal sector

While their participation in the labour market continues to reduce, there are still many women who need to work, who are seeking work and who find work in certain sectors. Women are employed in the vast unregulated, informal sector, which accounts for 93% of India’s workforce. Wages in this sector are discriminatory and the income is irregular.

According to estimates made by in 2018 by the International Labour Office (ILO), women get paid just two-thirds a man for the same job. Women who work in the unorganised sector are desperate for work and their number is not small. There is a definite case for regulating the informal sector. While labour laws exist to regulate it, employers find creative ways to bypass them. Or, the government simply turns a blind eye.

Also Read: For Women in the Workforce, India Just Better Than Saudi Arabia Among G20 Nations

One way forward could be to promote unionisation to ensure decent work conditions and payment of minimum wages. There are examples of successful unions of domestic workers in Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

Unpaid care work

Another area that the report has examined is the issue of unpaid care work such as looking after children and elders, collecting fuel and water for the family and other household tasks. Having access to LPG gas, piped water supply and crèche facilities will free up women’s time. A primary research included in the report has found that schemes like PM Ujjwala – when implemented well – have made it possible for women to take up paid work.

Poor implementation is a challenge that governments, whether state or Centre, must address. It must also focus on creating equal and decent opportunities for women to enter the labour market. There is enough evidence to show that female participation can boost the economy and bring growth.

A Gender Budget Cell is a brilliant idea, but without resources, political will and a steady action plan, it will have little impact. Governments are capable of doing much more. They owe it to the women of this country.

Ranu Kayastha Bhogal is director of policy, research and campaigns, Oxfam India.