In a recent piece on India’s labour market, The Economist noted, “During the pandemic, women have typically been the first in India to lose their jobs and the last to regain them.” An examination of time series data over the last five decades, shows that women’s low labour force participation (vs. men) is not new, and is only worsening. The labour force participation rate (LFPR), which measures the proportion of working-age looking for work, has declined steadily from 47.1% in 1987-88 to 24.5% in 2018-19 for women, vs. 91.7% to 75.5% for men. (PLFS 2018-19).
The Covid-19 pandemic left women to manage paid work with additional unpaid domestic work, even as sectors employing a higher proportion of women were hit harder globally (ILO, 2020). A comparative review of employment trends shows that India had amongst the lowest female LFPRs across all G20 countries to start with, and widest gender gaps post-COVID-19 (Government labour departments and statistical agencies).
The story the data tells us.
Women bore the immediate impact of the national lockdown, as the female labour force contracted by 27% compared, while the male labour force shrunk by 13%, between March – April 2020.
Almost a year into the lockdown, employment recovery was distinctly gendered. At the national level, the female LFPR witnessed a V-shaped recovery as the lockdown eased initially but was immediately followed by a fall. In December 2020, the gender gap was at its peak. The female labour force was 14% smaller than December 2019, but the male labour force was only 2.3% smaller. In February 2021, the gender gap narrowed, with the female labour force being 9% lower than February 2020, vs. 1.8% for men.
Nationally, 40.8 million females were employed in February 2021 as compared to 41.8 million in February 2020, a 2.3% decrease. However, the pattern of employment changed in favour of rural women, as the number of employed rural women increased from 29.3 to 31.7 million (increase of 2.3 million, or 7.9%), while employed urban women fell from 12.5 million to 9.2 million (decrease of 3.3 million, or 26.4%). In contrast, male rural employment decreased by 1.8%, and urban by 1.5%, resulting in overall decline of 1.7%.
Unemployment rates (URs) tell a more important story, indicating long-term disenchantment with the labour force. Female URs remained higher than 2019 levels only between March – June 2020. Between July to February 2021, male URs were comparable to 2019 levels, and female URs were lower. Yet, these low URs do not fully reveal the depth of unemployment. In February 2021, of the 30.2 million unemployed men, 23.8 million (78.6%) were actively looking for employment. In comparison, only 5.7 million of the 15 million unemployed women (38.4%) did the same, suggesting that falling URs are a sign of being discouraged by economic conditions, especially for women.
Voices from the ground
Nikore Associates conducted a dipstick survey between August – December 2020, engaging in discussions with over 30 representatives of women’s community organisations, rural worker groups, self-help groups (SHGs), and urban informal workers across 13 States.
A majority of rural women (71%) are employed in agriculture, usually on family farms (PLFS 2018-19). While the data shows an uptick in rural female employment in recent months, representatives of women farmer groups shared that since female labour is considered expendable, new job opportunities were taken up by men and women were relegated to household chores and home-based work. Women who did work, especially on farms experienced lower wages and fewer opportunities due to crop failures.
Self-Help groups (SHGs) are another key employer for women, with a strong presence in sectors like textile, handicrafts, and food processing. Consultations with SHG participants pointed to various hurdles- female entrepreneurs in Telangana reported issues in loan repayment owing to a drop in income whereas jute entrepreneurs from West Bengal were unable to sell their products owing to cancellation of exhibitions and inadequate knowledge of digital marketplaces. However, many SHGs smartly pivoted their resources towards the productions of masks due to their increasing demand and simplicity of production thus creating revenue potential.
The services sector employed 59.4% of urban women, especially in retail, hospitality and beauty (PLFS, 2018-19); sectors hit hard due to social distancing norms and a demand slump, making them vulnerable to sustained job losses. Policy experts consulted shared that women were suffering disproportionately high job losses or reduced/ delayed wage payments, especially in MSME sector. For instance, a stakeholder pointed out how some spinning mills in Andhra Pradesh laid off more women than men to save costs.
India suffers from pervasive gender based digital divides, leading to gender gaps of up to 20% in ownership of mobile phones and an even wider gap of 50% in internet usage (Mobile Gender Gap Report, 2020). During consultations, multiple female entrepreneurs cited the inability to pivot to digital marketing either due to lack of mobile ownership or digital literacy/skills. Female frontline health workers and community workers shared their inability to carry out their routine data reporting as their organisations moved these tasks online without equipping them with devices or training. Falling household incomes during the pandemic created barriers to purchasing smartphones, as women across sectors found them costly.
India’s Time Use Survey (2019) found that women spent more than 80% of their time on unpaid work while for men this proportion ranged from 12 to 26%. Nearly every woman consulted, regardless of geography or occupation, mentioned that due to school closures, elderly care work, and presence of their husbands at home, their domestic workload increased. Worryingly, owing to greater time spent by husbands within the home, some women also felt a reduction in their agency in making household decisions and greater mobility restrictions.
So where do we go from here?
Covid-19 has become the proverbial straw that’s broken the camel’s back when it comes to women’s exclusion from the labour force altogether. It is now essential to take concerted policy action to bring women back to work, not only for the $770 billion addition to GDP by 2025 (McKinsey Global Institute, 2018), but because financial independence is a key tool for breaking cycles of violence, discarding antiquated social norms and ensuring women have a voice.
“Co-author: Poorva Prabhu; Chandni Ganesh and Samarpita Banerjee are acknowledged for research and writing assistance.”
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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