The #MeToo campaign has implications for the much-debated issue of India’s female labour force. The country’s female labour force participation rate (LFPR)—the share of women in the working age range (15 years and above) engaged in any economic activity or looking for work—stands out as being among the lowest (24.5% as of 2017) in the world. This is well below the global average of 48%.

India’s neighbouring countries generally do better as well. China has a female LFPR of 64%, Nepal has 80%, Bangladesh 57% and Sri Lanka 35%. Even Pakistan has a female LFPR of 25%. As per the International Labour Organization, India’s female LFPR is ranked 121 out of 131 countries. In addition, it has been declining over the years—from 37% in 2005 to 24.5% last year.

There is a wide gender gap in India’s LFPR; the female LFPR is just a little more than a third of the male LFPR, which stands at 82%. So it is no surprise that India is among the poor performers in the area of gender parity at work. As per the Global Gender Gap Index 2017 prepared by the World Economic Forum, India ranked 108 in gender equality—behind China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Past studies attributed the low LFPR to a host of factors: more girls are now pursuing higher education, rise in household income, lack of quality jobs in the market, patriarchal society and other sociocultural norms and organizational shortfalls.

Marriage and having babies reduce the likelihood of female participation in the labour market, for instance. To counter this, the government amended the Maternity Benefit Act in 2017, offering working women 26 weeks of paid maternity leave instead of the earlier 12 weeks. This should have helped to retain women in the workforce and encouraged them to rejoin after delivering a baby. However, this move has proved to be futile.

A study by human resource services company TeamLease, conducted in 2017, estimated that the increased cost for companies may have discouraged them from hiring women. The study estimated that the loss of female jobs due to the amendment of this Act was between 1.1 million and 1.8 million for 2017-18. Many medium-scale business ventures and start-ups have welcomed this move but micro and small enterprises find it hard to bear the costs of an extended maternity leave.

Government efforts have also failed in another crucial area. The current #MeToo campaign has highlighted another contributing factor to low female LFPR. Families do not encourage their female members to work in companies that have offices in distant locations or involve night shifts, citing safety reasons. And harassment in the workplace adds to attrition rate for female employees.

Working women were encouraged to complain about harassment at the workplace by the introduction of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (SHOWW) Act in 2013. But according to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 2,535 cases of sexual harassment at the workplace were registered over the four years between 2014 and 2018. However, in a 2015 report, Ernst & Young revealed that about 38% of women faced sexual harassment at the workplace with the maximum in the information technology and banking sectors.

Meanwhile, the majority (75%) of women in a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association said that they did not report sexual harassment due to fear of repercussions such as loss of jobs or poor compliance by employers. As per the SHOWW Act, an internal complaints committee (ICC) is mandatory in every private or public organization that has 10 or more employees. However, 36% of companies and 25% of multinational companies had not constituted their ICCs as per research by Ficci. About 50% of the 120 companies that participated in the study admitted that their ICC members were not legally trained.

The #MeToo campaign in India has exposed the indifferent attitude of organizations towards sexual harassment and proper implementation of the SHOWW Act. It is also important to remember that the #MeToo campaign is only exposing the plight of women from select sectors such as the media and films. Women in government and the corporate sector have largely been silent. This is even truer when it comes to women in the unorganized sector.

The aim of the campaign should be to encourage people and employers to abide by the SHOWW Act, investigate charges and punish those found guilty so that workplaces become dignified and secure places for women workers.

The central and state governments should work towards more effective implementation of the SHOWW Act. Women who file complaints under its rubric should be protected and encouraged. Otherwise, it disincentivizes other female employees. However, any step should not be taken in haste. Without extensive consultation and discussion, it may be counterproductive as the amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act proved to be.

There is a need to build a conducive workplace environment to enable a higher women’s LFPR. Japan is a good example. It built half a million publicly funded quality day care homes (crèches) to encourage mothers to rejoin their jobs, which boosted their female LFPR by 5 percentage points and contributed to economic growth.

Balwant Singh Mehta is a fellow at the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

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