Home >opinion >Night shifts are not the answer to getting more women to work

Mumbai: Last week, the labour and employment ministry wrote to all state chief secretaries to amend laws in order to allow women to work night shifts in factories. The government’s ultimate aim is to increase India’s female labour force participation rate (LFPR). A previous Plainfacts story had found that 217 million women are missing from India’s work force, and at 53 percentage points, the country has one of the world’s worst gender gaps when it comes to labour force participation.

However, while this move will certainly increase gender equality, it may not bring more women into the labour force. That’s not to say this is unwelcome. Among its peers, India has the most restrictive laws when it comes to allowing women to work night shifts.

Indeed, India’s female labour force participation rate has dropped in the last couple of decades. The International Labour Organisation has pointed to various reasons for this: higher educational enrolment of women, rising household incomes (women in wealthier households tend to have lower work participation rates), measurement issues (whereby women’s employment may be undercounted), as well as a general decline in employment opportunities for women.

Currently, only Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra allow women the right to work night shifts and the latter only from last year.

As Chart 3 shows, there hasn’t been much of an improvement in female labour force participation rate in Tamil Nadu too. To be sure, this comes with the caveat that there could be other factors preventing women from coming into the work force.

Experts agree that the government’s move, however well intentioned, is unlikely to help the cause. Jayan Jose Thomas, assistant professor at IIT Delhi, argues that across East Asia, countries that have managed to increase the female LFPR have done this by increasing manufacturing jobs.

“Women typically enter the workforce at the lower levels of the industry, at low wage jobs," he said, referring to the experience of Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China and South Korea in the 20th century, and in Bangladesh in more recent times.

However, that need not always be the case. As chart 4 shows, India’s share of manufacturing as a percentage of GDP is comparable to Bangladesh and Vietnam, both of which have higher female labour force participation.

“Within the manufacturing and services sectors, the areas where night shift is required constitute only a small proportion of the total jobs. Hence, the impact of this legislation will be statistically insignificant," said Jesim Pais, assistant professor at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development.

Neetha N. Pillai, senior fellow and professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, suggested that structural shifts in the manufacturing industry have also led to decline in manufacturing jobs where women were earlier employed. For instance, in an industry like leather, there has been a shift from artisanal production, where more women were employed, to larger industries concentrated in selected areas that may not always be easily accessible to women.

“Any kind of structural change in the industry impacts men and women differently," she said.

Moreover, overall employment growth has been slack and unless this picks up, female job participation would remain low, said Pais.

Then there is also the question of whether women themselves are ready to work nights. Various researchers have pointed to socio-cultural norms that restrict women’s mobility. An Assocham-National Commission for Women study highlighted the concerns of women who are already working night shifts in industries like the business process outsourcing sector.

Close to one-third of women working night shifts felt unsafe, especially in the cities of Bangalore and Ludhiana (Chart 3), and in the leather and textile industries. Moreover, hardly any women were provided self-defence or safety training.

Thus, unless issues such as women’s safety and restrictive socio-cultural norms are addressed, women’s participation in the workforce is unlikely to rise. In other words, allowing women to work nights would just be a necessary and not sufficient condition for bringing more women into the work force.

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