Home / Opinion / Views /  More women in the labour force must not lead us to complacency

The female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in India has witnessed an increase, as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey released by the National Statistical Office (NSO) covering June 2020 to July 2021. The figure in the period stands at 25.1%, far better than the 17% in 2017-18. While this is welcome, the numbers continue to remain dismal and way below the global FLFPR of approximately 48%.

Even before the pandemic struck, the reasons for such low FLFPRs in India were widely discussed. In the post-pandemic situation, the plight of women workers and those seeking jobs apparently worsened. The 2020-21 figures show that the increase in FLFPR was mostly driven by a rise in rural FLFPR that went up from 18% in 2017-18 to about 28% in 2020-21. The increases were mostly in agriculture, where the share of rural women workers increased to 75% in this period. This is higher than the average of 70% in the last few years. In fact, the share of women workers engaged in agricultural activities had been in secular decline from the 1990s. The reversal in trend indicates over-crowding and under-employment in a sector whose rate of returns has been dropping for several decades.

Data from the PLFS 2020-21 also shows an increase in the share of unpaid family workers and own-account workers engaged in subsistence agricultural activities among rural female workers. The share of women working as unpaid family workers increased from 39% in 2017-18 to 43% in 2020-21; 87% of unpaid women family workers in rural India are in agriculture. Similarly, own account workers, i.e., individuals running enterprises without any hired help, increased by 3% over the period, almost 40% of whom were producing largely for their own consumption rather than for the market.

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Thus, the increase in rural women’s LFPR does not reflect increased demand and/or better job opportunities beyond agriculture, but indicate a possible defence mechanism to deal with the pandemic, subsequent crisis and deteriorating quality of available work. The increased demand for work under the rural job guarantee scheme by almost 10% over the last year, as per its website, combined with an increased share of women in agriculture do raise concerns of rural women’s employment.

What about urban women workers? Urban areas also witnessed a marginal increase in the FLFPR, from 16% in 2017-18 to almost 19% in 2020-21. Around 38% of these women were working as own-account workers and unpaid family workers. Again, a mere 16% of these women produce for the market and approximately 32% produce mainly for own consumption.

It is also distressing to note that even in urban areas, almost 40% of self-employed workers in the age cohort of 26-35 years end up producing for self consumption rather than for the market, indicating an increase in subsistence work among younger women. This is also associated with a falling share of working women in the same age cohort, from 31%in 2017-18 to 26% currently. The fall is evident across all categories of workers: self-employed, regular/salaried and casual workers. The data also shows that the marginal increase in the urban FLFPR is mainly driven by a 4% rise in the share of older women workers in the age cohort 36-59 years, which again may be indicative of distress employment seeking to increase current household income.

What causes drops in the share of younger women workers in urban areas? The PLFS 2020-21 asked a few additional questions of women who are seeking work and those who are not working. The responses to these questions reveal that most urban women in the age-cohort 15-35 years tried seeking jobs through formal sources: applying to prospective employers/places, answering job advertisements, checking at factories/work-sites, and registering with an employment exchange or with private employment centres. Women belonging to 36-plus age groups, especially in rural areas, opted for informal means in their job search, such as through friends, family and other sources.

Informal job networks usually lead to employment in jobs with low remuneration and below par working conditions, often acceptable to older women. Educated urban young women aspire for better paid jobs in the formal sector, a lack of which renders them unemployed. The numbers clearly show that women in the age cohort 26-35 often spend longer periods seeking employment rather than taking up stop-gap jobs till they find more suitable opportunities.

The prominent reasons for neither working nor looking for work, i.e., staying outside the labour force, is not a surprise. The surprise element is that a disproportionate number of younger women, almost 82% in the 26-35 years age cohort, cited childcare and household chores as their primary reasons for not being part of the labour force. Some 50% of women in the age cohort of 15-25 reported being enrolled in higher studies as the reason for not being part of the labour force. Women aged 35-plus cited health and age-related issues, social norms and non-availability of jobs, in addition to household commitments and childcare as reasons for not seeking work.

The trends and numbers draw attention towards the unmet demand for jobs among women in both rural and urban areas, especially for younger urban women who are awaiting better remuneration opportunities, unlike rural women who are drawn into residual sectors while seeking additional earning avenues.

The above narrative emphasizes the need to decrease the disproportionate burden that women bear for domestic care and household work that keeps them, especially those in their child-bearing ages, away from the country’s labour market. It is imperative that our policies take cognisance of the above to not only generate jobs and opportunities for women, but create an ecosystem of enablers that substantially reduces the care and household commitments of women.

Sona Mitra & Bidisha Mondal are, respectively, principal economist and a research fellow at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE)

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