In 2016, Kumari, 41, went from an unpaid agriculture and house-worker in Vedireswaram village of East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, to a paid domestic worker in Qatar. She left behind her ailing husband, young children, and a run-down house. An unregistered recruitment agent helped her migrate, albeit on a visit visa. In the absence of a verified contract, Kumari found herself unable to negotiate her monthly wage or living conditions. Her illegal travel documents discouraged her from registering at the Indian Embassy in Doha.
Soon, she was caught in a vicious cycle of abuse and was trafficked from one employer to another. It took Kumari a whole year to stage an escape and secure shelter at the Indian mission.
Experiences of women like Kumari illustrate how the world of work is changing, especially for women. While innovations in technology and globalization bring significant benefits, the growing informality of labour and women’s disproportionate share of informal work is a major barrier to inclusive and sustainable development.
Every year, nearly 700,000 people—men and women—in the Emigration Clearance Required Category (ECR) migrate internationally, mainly to the Persian Gulf, in search of decent work. This is because they have few options for livelihoods and employment in rural areas.
The agriculture sector has been facing a crisis due to climate change and limited investments, among other things. While the early 2000s were characterised by the ‘feminization of agriculture’, in more recent years, this trend has also changed. Rural female labour force participation is rapidly declining, and stands at 35.8% as compared to 81.3% for men. More women than men now migrate in search of jobs.
The Indian government’s flagship programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), goes a long way in supporting the survival and subsistence of families like Kumari’s.
Currently, women’s participation in MGNREGA stands at 56% . In states where women’s participation in MGNREGA has not even touched the 33% legal mandate, UN Women supports governments to include more women, particularly from marginalized communities, in the scheme.
Research and training inputs provided by UN Women as part of this project, led to an increase in women’s participation in pilot blocks; three to 21% in Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh), 12-16% in Budgam (Jammu and Kashmir) and 17-30% in Murshidabad (West Bengal). UN Women also works with civil society alliances such as MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch: Forum for the Rights of Women Farmers), to address the persistent poverty and vulnerability of women farmers and rural women, and to build their resilience in the face of rising insecurities brought on by agricultural distress.
Even as rural livelihoods are being revived, women continue to move away from subsistence and farm-based livelihoods to jobs in the services sector, both within and outside the country. The government plans to support this movement by skilling the nearly 4.2 million domestic workers seeking employment in the domestic and the international markets.
While Kumari and others like her would benefit from certified skill training, her story underscores the larger continuum of vulnerabilities that dominate India’s informal labour market: an absent universal social protection system, manifested in this case by the lack of public healthcare for her husband and education for her children; poor housing facilities for the family; lack of access to decent work; prevalence of unsafe transit; human trafficking; and gender-based violence.
Positive policy shifts can help women realize their full economic potential, resulting in more equal and inclusive work environments. For example, workers who choose to migrate are rarely aware of their rights to freedom from violence, to privacy, nutrition, adequate housing, and fair wages, and do not have access to remedial measures.
To address the gap in awareness and information, UN Women, in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, will provide human rights based training to potential migrants as part of pre-departure orientation trainings. Further, when workers are in transit or at their destinations, stronger protection and regulatory mechanisms would ensure that they do not become targets of abuse and trafficking.
Back in her village, Kumari, still not fully aware of the systemic loopholes that exist, spends her spare time educating aspiring women domestic workers on how to undertake safe international migration. She has two messages: “Mobility and safety are your rights” and “undertaking legal migration is your duty”.
While these messages are in line with international conventions and constitutional rights and freedoms, aspiring women migrant workers would also be helped by national laws and policies that ensure safe migration as well as access to sustainable livelihoods at home.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to recognize the changing world of work, and the new challenges it throws up for women. The Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 requires that all governments, the UN, civil society and the private sector ‘Step It Up’ to ensure that the world of work, works for all women.
Rebecca Tavares is Representative, UN Women Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka
Subhalakshmi Nandi is Programme Specialist, Women’s Economic Empowerment, UN Women
Ajita Vidyarthi is Programme Analyst, Gender Responsive Labour Migration