International Women's Day: The female workers in the nation's garment factories

In India, there has been a gradual decline in the women?s participation in the labour force Photograph:( WION )

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Mar 08, 2017, 06.54 AM (IST) Baishali Lahiri

 

Employment makes a woman financially independent and also empowers her. At least, ideally, that is how it should be. More often than not, her income becomes meaningful for the family as she allots the resources for more productive uses. 

 

Women's employment is not simply about the work but involves the workplace too. Various conventions and legislations both at the international level and the national level intend to provide enabling work environment for the women employees. The resolute efforts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) towards providing the benchmark of ‘decent work’ and various other crucial labour welfare directives are commendable. In consonance with the global standard, India has ratified several ILO conventions and the government's efforts to translate them into action are reflected in various labour welfare legislations.

 

Besides education and skill, age, fertility, cultural and normative practices regulate women’s decision to participate in the labour market
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The factors affecting female participation in the labour market are more diverse and complex than her male counterpart. Besides education and skill, age, fertility, cultural and normative practices regulate women’s decision to participate in the labour market. 

 

In the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, less than one-third of the women participate in the labour market. This is in contrast to the global average of 52 per cent. A number of South Asian countries show a perplexing trend of female labour force participation. For instance, while in India there has been gradual decline (except 2004 -05) in the women’s labour force participation, Bangladesh has performed reasonably well, as have Nepal (79.4 per cent) and Maldives (54 per cent). Even Pakistan and Sri Lanka has shown a steady increase. 

 

Female Work Participation (FWPR) rate in India has declined from 28.5 per cent in 1987-88 to 21.9 per cent in (2011-12). Though 2004-05 witnessed a significant rise in FWPR (marginally less than 30 per cent), the growth has not been sustainable. Scholars indicate, globalisation is a major factor behind increasing female participation which prompts the question: why is female work participation declining despite overall economic growth? 

 

Some scholars attribute proliferation of educational opportunities to be the reason behind females missing from employment. But this only partially explains declining FWPR because the decline in work participation has been witnessed across all age categories. The recession in 2008 could be a probable reason for the declining FWPR too. However, this fact falls short as an explanation if we include the performance of other South Asian countries.  

 

Women with elementary education seem to be particularly missing from the labour force as they mostly perform the duties of unpaid caregivers
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Women with elementary education seem to be particularly missing from the labour force as they mostly perform the duties of unpaid caregivers. Apart from the care economy, a substantial proportion of the female workers contribute as unpaid family labour in domestic enterprises, more so in rural India. Perceptions about paid labour and unpaid household work are also undergoing profound changes and ceaseless efforts are being made to assess the value of care economy and at least give some recognition to the traditional caregivers of the society.

 

Manufacturing and construction sectors have emerged as two important sectors of employment generation. Feminisation of the low skill jobs in these two sectors has become a regular feature. Most of these workers are informally employed. Even in globalised giants like the garment export sector, majority of the artisans and tailors are informally employed. Tweaking of various labour welfare legislations and gross misappropriation of data has become a dominant feature. Within the garment industries in the National Capital Region, informal forms of employment are thriving. It is believed that globalisation puts a premium on skill. However, a closer look at the labour market arrangements and work conditions do not resonate this faith.

 

In the garment export sector, majority of the artisans and tailors are informally employed (WION)

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The government needs to be sensitive about the implementation of various schemes and policies. The ‘Sumangali’ scheme in Tamil Nadu, which have been traditionally employing girl child in the textile industry, glaringly testifies the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Various export lanes (SEZs) across the country are replete with such bondage situations. 

 

A case study of 90 women workers in Delhi-NCR revealed that only 3 female workers among them got maternity benefits. Maternity benefits form a crucial part of female employment as the most productive years of a woman worker is also her reproductive years. The recent amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, though laudable, has limited coverage as it keeps the remaining 95 per cent of the population who are engaged in the informal sector outside the safety net.

 

The informal economy represents a huge sector in our country’s employment scenario supporting around 95 per cent of the jobs created. Besides earning less, informal workers are also more vulnerable to violations of basic human rights, particularly those related to reasonable working conditions and work safety. With little job security and limited access to safety nets, most of the informally employed remain extremely vulnerable to setbacks, such as illnesses and loss of income. 

 

Not surprisingly, a strong correlation exists between informality and poverty in India. Evidence strongly suggests women have the poorest access and control over resources. Though the wage gaps between male and female workers are declining, other improvements at work also need to be ensured to realise the potential of the nation. ILO’s decent work directives, and even the best of various central and state legislations, are of little use if the workers are unaware of their rights and role in the economy. Therefore, knowledge about legal rights is a crucial step towards facilitating the environment for ‘decent’ work. Participation of various stakeholders like civil society, trade unions and NGOs would prove to be beneficial in this respect. A nation can never flourish with half of her labour force remaining unnourished and underutilised.

Baishali Lahiri

Baishali Lahiri is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She specialises on issues of labour and development in contemporary India.
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