About seven years ago, Rana Plaza, one of the prominent garment factories in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, collapsed due to structural failures. More than 1,100 factory workers died, and more than 2,000 people were injured.
Since the factory used to manufacture clothes for internationally renowned brands like H&M, Zara, and Primark, the incident caught global attention, leading to unprecedented changes in labour conditions in Bangladesh. Customers across the world, especially Europeans, organised protests, pressuring the brands to be more careful in their functioning. Thus, over the last six years, the average wage of labourers in unorganised sectors like garment exporting in the country rose by 77 percent. In addition, Bangladesh’s annual death rate of workers (in building collapse or in the event of a fire) fell from 71 before the Rana Plaza incident to 17 afterwards.
Despite the trauma that caused these changes, this whole episode is a testimony that when different stakeholders come together, change happens.
In India, according to the Economic Survey 2019, around 93 percent of workforce is involved in unorganised sector jobs, with poor working conditions and little scope to improve their living standards. Not to mention, women in unorganised labour have it even worse in India compared to their male counterparts – from a reduced minimum wage to job guarantee (see graphics).
According to the International Monetary Fund, women’s participation in the workforce results in economic and social empowerment at the individual, community, and country levels. The entity also states that India’s GDP can grow by up to 27 percent with equal participation of women (as men) in the economy. (India’s female labour force participation rate now stands at just 27 percent, compared to 96 percent for men, according to World Bank.)
As India struggles with joblessness and falling economy, a way out of this mess lies in empowering the women in the unorganised sector. Read on to find out how.
Traditional gender norms favouring men have been used by companies to justify the gender wage gap for equal work between men and women. Lucknow-based researchers Rashmi Tiwari and Shivani Tiwari claim that women’s pay is around 30 percent lower than that of men across sectors in India.
“Employers divide the kind of work to be done between men and women and technically evade the provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976,” says the duo.
A 2019 report by the Observer Research Foundation states that industries, which employ women the most – textiles, health and social work – generally have low average wages. In contrast, women’s participation in the industries with the highest average wages (including IT, communications, and financial services) stands at just 15 percent as per the NSSO 2011 Employment and Unemployment Round Survey.
In fact, according to UK-based scholar Juanita Elias, export-oriented textiles manufacturing is dependent on ‘gendered production processes’ based on the exploitation of low-waged female labour. She states that global management practices are centred around the ideal of the docile ‘factory girl’ in contrast to the qualities such as rationality, aggression, and competition, which are perceived as ‘masculinist.’
Elias adds that recruiters construct the manual dexterity skills displayed by female workers (in the garment industry) as innate/natural, and thus not deserving of higher rates of pay.
Breaking gender stereotypes is essential to fight this system. A Deloitte report in 2019 titled ‘Empowering Women and Girls in India for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ points out that training women in technical skills (like robotics, automation, computer skills, higher levels of human-machine interface, coding, data analytics, and digital marketing) can help break gender stereotypes.
Moreover, it could enable more women to be engaged in the manufacturing and services sectors, transitioning out of the unorganised sector into the gig economy or the formal sector.
Downfalls of the unorganised sector
The National Commission for Women states that 94 percent of working women in India are in the unorganised sector – including in manual scavenging, where they are often paid with a meal rather than daily wages. Even in the relatively formalised export industry, very often, women employees are terminated from contract just before they complete five years so that the employers don’t have to pay them a gratuity.
On the other hand, women who find seasonal employment (in fruits processing, pickle making, agricultural sector, etc.) have to find another job when there is no work during off-season.
Also, domestic helpers are even more vulnerable than those employed in factories or construction sites, as they are not officially classified as workers and hence not covered by laws that apply to workers.
Lack of skills and awareness on their rights keep these underprivileged women from accessing better profiles. Their work is considered unskilled, and hence undeserving of fair wages, and they often remain undocumented.
According to the Deloitte report, opportunities to reskill or upskill in line with evolving industry requirements (through training labs, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and learning and development programmes) can empower women to succeed and grow at work in organised and unorganised sectors. Besides, reskilling or upskilling women on humanities and management education allows them to transition to new roles. Not to mention, entrepreneurship can also catalyse economic empowerment and agency for women.
Although National Skill Training Institutes for women and programmes like Skill India, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, Scheme for Higher Education Youth in Apprenticeship and Skills (SHREYAS), and various initiatives by the National Skill Development Corporation have made its mark, there is a long way to go before making an impact at the grassroots level.
Beyond upskilling, the government can help the women in the unorganised sector gain a better livelihood by providing more jobs in the care sector. Development economist Professor Jayati Ghosh, the Chairperson of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recommends more public employment in sectors like health and education.
“Currently, the macro-economic conditions of the Indian economy has deteriorated and we have fewer jobs than before: nine million lesser compared to 2011-12. But, technology cannot take over in roles like doctors, nurses, and teachers. State can provide more jobs, especially in the under-served care services economy. Tech cannot substitute a human being caring for the disabled, or babies, or the geriatric population. 10X more people can thus be employed. Currently, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers do not even get minimum wage. They are treated like volunteers, which they are not,” she adds.
While Skill India Mission includes skilling in areas like beauty and wellness, which fall in the unorganised sector and where women usually have a stronghold, Ghosh also suggests more spending in MGNREGA. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, launched in 2005, guarantees 100 days of work per household per year at a statutory minimum wage. It mandates one-third of workers to be women, equal wages for both men and women, as well as crèche facilities at worksites, where children under the age of six are present.
While the Indian working class have strong unions, Ghosh says that labour unions often ignore women’s rights. “What we need is a genuine, systematic change in policy,” she concludes.