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Job losses in April in the immediate aftermath of the national lockdown were significant (MINT_PRINT)
Job losses in April in the immediate aftermath of the national lockdown were significant (MINT_PRINT)

How covid-19 locked out women from jobs

From an already low base, women’s employment has fallen further, and a recovery will be difficult

A clutch of early studies on the impact of the lockdown on employment is showing that women’s employment could be particularly badly hit. Given India’s record low female workforce participation rates, growing child care demands, and a looming recession, researchers fear that women could be increasingly shut out of the productive economy.

To estimate the impact of the lockdown on employment, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University, looked at national-level panel data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database for a discussion paper published on the University’s website. CMIE’s database covers 170,000 households, speaking to each household three times a year, and surveying around 11,000 households per week. In the absence of official data on employment since 2017-18, this was the only available national-level source, Deshpande said.

The CMIE data showed that job losses in April in the immediate aftermath of the national lockdown were significant. Employment in April 2020 was just 70% of the average of the preceding fiscal year ending March 2020, Deshpande found.

Far more men are in the paid workforce in India than women, and women’s participation in the paid labour force has been in steady decline. As a result, the absolute number of men who reported having lost unemployment in April 2020 as compared to the average of the preceding year was much larger than the number of women who reported losing their jobs. Over 100 million men lost jobs as against 17 million women. But in percentage terms, the number of men who reported themselves as employed dropped by 29% between March 2019-20 and April 2020, while for women the change was much greater at 39%. This implies that even from an already low base, four out of every ten women who were working during the last year lost their jobs during the lockdown.

Rural women were hit the hardest of all, for reasons that are not yet clear, Deshpande says. In rural India, the biggest relative decline in employment was among scheduled castes.

Other Indian studies have found a similar disproportionate impact on women. In a survey of 4,000 people across 12 states, researchers at the Azim Premji University found that two-thirds (67%) of the workers they surveyed reported having lost their employment. However the sample was not random, having been obtained through civil society organisations, and had more women than men, while women make up less than 20% of the paid workforce in India. In their sample, urban India was more severely affected with 80% of their urban sample reporting employment losses as against 57% of their rural sample. Across states, the share of women reporting job losses was greater than that of men, the researchers found.

The key question will be whether these were temporary losses caused by the disruption of the lockdown, or whether the looming recession means that these jobs will not return just yet. CMIE’s data for May shows that roughly 21 million jobs were added, although the unemployment rate remained high at 23.5%. Whether more jobs returned to men or women is something we will not know until September, says Deshpande.

Given the increased burden of childcare in the coming months as most schools remain closed, women could see a longer impact, Deshpande warns. In a study of 176 female workers in informal sectors in Delhi, Shiney Chakraborty, a research analyst at the Institute of Social Studies Trust found that a majority of women reported a loss in income, but at the same time, 66% of the respondents reported an increase in unpaid work at home and 36% reported increased demands of child and elder care. Only a quarter reported any help from their spouses in household chores.

The other concern is that even when there is work, women and Dalits might have to choose between putting themselves in harm’s way and retaining their jobs, Deshpande says.

“While women and Dalits have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve," wrote Deshpande in her discussion paper. “All frontline health workers are women; manual scavengers are exclusively Dalit. Thus, for several women and Dalits, the choice seems to be between unemployment and jobs that put them at risk of disease and infection and make them targets of vicious stigma."

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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