lawyers in India

Condition of Women Working in the Unorganised Sector

Written by: Prantika Sengupta - IVth year BBA.LLB student of Symbiosis Law
Woman laws in India
Legal Service
  • You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women. -Jawaharlal Nehru.

    When Amartya Sen had taken up the issue of women's welfare, he was accused in India of voicing foreign concern. He was told, Indian women don't think like that about equality. But he argued saying that if they don't think like that they should be given an opportunity to think like that.

    The International Labour Organisation says that women represent:
    i) 50% of the population
    ii) 30% of the labour force
    iii) Perform 60% of all working hours
    iv) Receive 10% of the world's income
    v) Own less than 1% of the world's property

    Women's economic participation can be mentioned in the field of production of goods and services accounted in the national income statistics. However, female work participation has always been low at 26% compared to 52% of men. The problem is that women have always been at work; only the definitions of work and work plan have never been defined or realistic to include their contribution to the economy and the society.

    Hence we may define a few terms to get a clearer picture.
    • Work Force Participation Rate is the proportion of working population to total population.
    • Labour force excludes children below the age of 15 and old people above the age of 60.
    • Worker is one gainfully employed or one working for a livelihood- excluding unpaid family workers.

    Need to Work
    Why do women work? Women work mainly for economic independence, for economic necessity, as some women are qualified enough to work, for a sense of achievement and to provide service to the society. Most Indian women by and large undertake productive work only under economic compulsion. This is the reason for high female participation rates in economically under privileged communities. Usually upper class women are limited to homes. Work participation rate is found to be higher among rural women (27%) than the urban women (10%).

    We will find that women usually go in for temporary and standby jobs because of the prevalent hesitancy to employ women in regular jobs and providing them with good working conditions. The main workers are those who work for the major part of the year. Female main workers constitute 14.65% of the population and men- 50.54%. Female marginal workers constitute 6.26% of the population, whereas males being only 0.98%

    Most of the women are found to be employed in agricultural activities and in the unorganised sector. The employment of women is high in the unorganised sector such as part time helpers in households, construction center, tanneries (setting, parting and drying), match and beedi industries etc.

    An estimate by the World Bank shows that 90% of the women working in the informal sector are not included in the official statistics and their work is undocumented and considered as disguised wage work, unskilled, low paying and do not provide benefits to the workers. Statistics show that vast majority of Indians work in Agriculture where 55% of the population is female agricultural workers and 30% of the men are labourers and not cultivators.

    Women's Working Conditions

    Women are Overworked
    Women work roughly twice as many as many hours as men. Women's contribution to agriculture — whether it be subsistence farming or commercial agriculture — when measured in terms of the number of tasks performed and time spent, is greater than men . "The extent of women's contribution is aptly highlighted by a micro study conducted in the Indian Himalayas which found that on a one-hectare farm, a pair of bullocks' works 1,064 hours, a man 1,212 hours and a woman 3,485 hours in a year."

    In Andhra Pradesh, (Mies 1986) found that the work day of an woman agricultural labourer during the agricultural season lasts for 15 hours, from 4 am to 8 pm, with an hour's rest in between. Her male counterpart works for seven to eight hours, from 5 am to 10 am or 11 am and from 3 pm to 5 pm. Another study on time and energy spent by men and women on agricultural work (Batliwala 1982) found that 53 percent of the total human hours per household are contributed by women as compared to 31 percent by men. The remaining contribution comes from children.

    The linking of agricultural activities to male dominance is described by Roy Burman (in Menon 1991):
    The anxiety of man to monopolize his skill in plough culture is reflected in the taboo that is observed almost all over India, against the women's handling the plough. In many societies, she is not even allowed to touch it.

    Mies further observed that "whereas operations performed by men were those that entailed the use of machinery and draught animals, thereby using animal, hydraulic, mechanical or electrical energy, women almost always relied on manual labour, using only their own energy." Rice transplantations, the most arduous and labour intensive task in rice cultivation, is carried out entirely by women without the help of any tools.

    "Not only do women perform more tasks, their work is also more arduous than that undertaken by men. Both transplantation and weeding require women to spend the whole day and work in muddy soil with their hands. Moreover, they work the entire day under the intensely hot sun while men's work, such as ploughing and watering the fields, is invariably carried out early in the morning before the sun gets too hot. Mies argues that because women's work, unlike men's, does not involve implements and is based largely on human energy, it is considered unskilled and hence less productive. On this basis, women are invariably paid lower wages, despite the fact that they work harder and for longer hours than men do ."

    Working conditions result in premature and stillbirths

    The tasks performed by women are usually those that require them to be in one position for long periods of time, which can adversely affect their reproductive health. A study in a rice-growing belt of coastal Maharashtra found that 40 percent of all infant deaths occurred in the months of July to October. The study also found that a majority of births were either premature or stillbirths. The study attributed this to the squatting position that had to be assumed during July and August, the rice transplanting months.

    The invisibility of women's work: Women's work is rarely recognized

    Many maintain that women's economic dependence on men impacts their power within the family. With increased participation in income-earning activities, not only will there be more income for the family, but gender inequality could be reduced. This issue is particularly salient in India because studies show a very low level of female participation in the labor force . This under-reporting is attributed to the frequently held view that women's work is not economically productive. If all activities — including maintenance of kitchen gardens and poultry, grinding food grains, collecting water and firewood, etc. — are taken into account, then 88 percent of rural housewives and 66 percent of urban housewives can be considered as economically productive.

    Women's employment in family farms or businesses is rarely recognized as economically productive, either by men or women. And, any income generated from this work is generally controlled by the men. Such work is unlikely to increase women's participation in allocating family finances. In a 1992 study of family-based textile workers, male children who helped in a home-based handloom mill were given pocket money, but the adult women and girls were not.

    The impact of technology on women

    The shift from subsistence to a market economy has a dramatic negative impact on women. Where technology has been introduced in areas where women worked, women labourers have often been displaced by men. Threshing of grain was almost exclusively a female task, and with the introduction of automatic grain threshers — which are only operated by men — women have lost an important source of income.

    Women are Mistreated

    Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world today. Women have to face at home forces them to work for meager wages and without social security. However, the working conditions of women in this sector are improving. Women face a lot of sexual harassment in the course of employment. Due to their inability to work for long hours they are not employed in sensitive or crucial positions. Women in gold mines handle mercury and cyanide with their bare hands. Woman has to work beyond working hours, even in advanced stages of pregnancy, and there is no leave facility. In some quarries in Orissa, women have to work at night and are sexually abused . HIV AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory problems, silicosis, tuberculosis, leukemia, arthritis and reproductive problems are more prevalent among women working in mines.

    In 2005, for the first time, agriculture was no longer the main sector of employment for women and this trend continued in 2006. The service sector now provides most jobs for women. Of the total number of employed women in 2006, 40.4 per cent work in agriculture and 42.4 per cent in services.

    Recent problems and Government action:
    The most serious hazard faced by the working class in the era of globalisation is the increasing threat to job security. The informal sector is fast expanding, while the organised sector is shrinking. Contract, casual, temporary, part-time, piece-rated jobs and home based work etc are increasingly replacing permanent jobs. To circumvent resistance to amendments to labour laws and to give the employers the freedom to 'hire and fire' workers, the governments of the day are resorting to various back door measures. The NDA government had introduced 'fixed term' employment through an administrative order, which continues under the present UPA regime. Special Economic Zones, which are areas deemed to be outside our territory, are being opened in large numbers throughout the country . While there is no explicit provision that labour laws would not be applied in these zones, in practice, even labour commissioners are not allowed inside these zones and the workers are practically at the mercy of the employers. Neither the central nor the state governments intervene to protect the interests of the workers. The workers in the informal sector, a large number of who are women, have no job security. Work is often unskilled or low skilled and low paid. Availability of work is irregular; when work is available, they have to work for long hours. However the concerned governments choose to ignore this open flouting of the labour laws.

    The Factories Act, The Mines Act, The Dock Workers' Act etc are some of the laws, which contain provisions for regulating the health of the workers in an establishment. The Employees' State Insurance Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act provide health benefits and compensation to the workers in cases of ill-health and injuries etc. But in the unorganised sector where the majority of women workers are concentrated, no occupational safety and health safeguards are in place. Even in the organised sector, where these are applicable, safeguards are rarely provided for the workers, either male or female. Usually the safety devises are designed keeping the male workers in view and become unsuitable for women workers. Besides, the social aspects of work are not considered risk factors. As a result, more emphasis is given to work related accidents than to illnesses.

    "The female labour force constitutes one third of the rural workers in India. Women workers face serious problems and constraints related to work such as lack of continuity, insecurity, wage discrimination, unhealthy job relationship, absence of medical and accident care etc. The exploitation of female labourers in rural regions happens both horizontally and vertically. It is time to address the issues and discuss the kind of policy reforms and institutional changes required for the emancipation and empowerment of rural female labour force. Empowerment should aim at changing the nature and direction of the power structures which marginalise the women labourers.

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