What Work Choices Are Indian Women Making and Why?

A recent film developed by the ISST on the situation of informal women workers of Delhi highlights numerous challenges.

In India, 94% of women are employed in the unorganised sector, involved in work which lacks dignity of labour, social security, decent and timely wages and in some cases, even the right to be called a ‘worker’. An analysis of their work pattern shows that women’s choice of paid work is deeply influenced by patriarchal and religious norms, restricting their mobility and decision-making ability. Their work and contribution to economy is not valued and since domestic and care activities are specifically categorised as ‘woman’s work’, they are left to manage paid and unpaid work responsibilities on their own, on a daily basis.

The NSSO data (2011-12) shows that a majority of women take on employment in the primary sector, within the realm of agriculture and farm work. Within the manufacturing sector, they are found to be employed in low paying, casual, home-based work or in unpaid work within family run enterprises. In the tertiary sector, women are seen more in number in retail trade, education-related work and paid domestic household work. All of these sectors provide women the flexibility to manage their unpaid and care responsibilities along with paid work.

Also Read: Where Are Indian Women If Not in the Workforce?

The first (and only) national Time Use Survey (TUS), conducted in India in 1998-99 on a pilot basis, shows that women spend less time than men on paid work activities, but substantial amount of time on household chores as well as unpaid work which includes collection of water, fuel, animal grazing, chopping and storing wood and helping in family enterprises.

Care work and women

In terms of care work too, it shows that women spend more time (4.47 hours per week) on direct care work (related to looking after children, elderly, sick and disabled) than men (0.88 hours per week). Researches have reported that this estimation could be lesser than actual time spent on care work as women perform care work simultaneously along with their other household duties as well as paid work. Thus, time spent on care work is not accounted separately.

It is seen that for most women, home and child remains the centre of all work-related decisions that they make. Their strategies however, differ from situation to situation. They choose work which is near their home or inside their home, part-time and therefore also low wage; and in cases where the woman takes on full time work, it is seen that she chooses work places which give her the flexibility to bring her child to work. However, irrespective of the sector she chooses to work, challenges that a woman informal worker has to face are many.

A recent film developed by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) on the situation of informal women workers of Delhi highlights that women informal workers have to deal with numerous challenges at the workplace. These include difficulty at all levels – finding consistent work, untimely and ad hoc payment of wages, unhygienic, hazardous working conditions, lack of appropriate tools and basic facilities, inability to take leave, wage cuts and harassment and abuse. Their need to constantly give time to their care and domestic work responsibilities complicates their situation.

When women are not able to bring their child to work, they usually have to leave their child alone in the house or with an older sibling. This has an impact on the education of the older child and several times, also leads to accidents which put the child in danger. Sometimes, they also have to stop working because their children are too young.

In cases of women who work from home or in places which allow them to bring their child to work, such as construction sites, the challenges are no less. Women find it difficult to concentrate on their work with the child around. They also fear that the child may get hurt. Women with young children have reported harassment from fellow workers as well as contractors when they take break to feed or look after their child. They also earn less money for taking breaks during work for looking after their children.

Access to basic public services

Lack of basic public services where most of these women workers reside and work also increases their time poverty. They have to spend long hours to access basic resources such as water. In terms of child care too, women fail to get any support as mostly the only child care facility available to them are anganwadis, open only for a couple of hours. They also cater to children who are old enough to look after themselves. Women who have young children and have to go out of their home to work do not see anganwadis as a suitable option for their child care needs.

Thus, women are constantly struggling with multiple burdens of work. This remains specifically true for those who are employed in the informal sector and do not have resources like their middle-class counterparts, who can outsource some of their responsibilities to another person at a cost.

While the data on female work participation rate shows a steep decline, the reality remains that women work, in the house as well as outside the house. The inability of data to capture various facets of a woman’s work as ‘work’ has led to complete failure of policies in acknowledging her as a ‘worker’ and recognising her entitlement to equal wages, better work conditions and social security.

Also Read: How Can India Reverse Falling Female Workforce Participation?

The recent Maternity Benefits Act 2017 as well as the Labour Code on Social Security 2018 have also failed to take on board the challenges that women in informal work face and the complex nature of the work that they do.

There is a need for specific policy intervention which can ease this burden of work for them to a certain extent. Regular provisioning of basic public services and full day child care facility to all women can help to some extent, in bringing more women to work arena where they can freely negotiate for work that recognises their labour.

Monika Banerjee is affiliated with Institute of Social Studies Trust, a voluntary and not-for-profit research organisation based in New Delhi.