Print this page


03 September 2020

The Covid-19 Pandemic may not be gendered, but the response of the Indian government – as also other governments around the world – to it has been disproportionately gendered, with women having to face the brunt of the myriad crises borne out of the government’s abysmal failure coupled with lack of will to deal with the Covid-19 situation.

Numerous studies and reports have shown how the pandemic and the unplanned lockdown imposed by the Indian government have subjected women to increased domestic abuse and violence, decreased access to food, education and healthcare and growing joblessness. In this article, we shall attempt to show how India – where the female work participation rate is among the lowest in the world – has witnessed a sharp rise in female unemployment in the Covid-19 period, with experts opining that this sudden chucking of women out of employment might set back Indian women by 20 years!

Before the Pandemic

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index (based on pre-pandemic data), India ranks 112 among 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) — the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work — fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. According to the Deloitte report titled ‘Empowering Women & Girls in India’ for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of the slim percentage of Indian women who are employed, 95% or 195 million are employed in the unorganised sector or are in unpaid work. Among women in the prime working ages of 30-50, more than two in three women are not in the workforce, with the majority of them reporting that they are “attending to domestic duties only”.

Among those in the workforce, rural women work overwhelmingly in agriculture, while the most common jobs for urban women are of garment workers, domestic cleaners and ‘directors and chief executives’. The last may sound promising, but the fact is that “99% of women workers described as directors and chief executives were self-employed, of which around one-third worked as unpaid family workers,” economists Bidisha Mondal, Jayati Ghosh, Shiney Chakraborty and Sona Mitra found using 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office data. “Such women were mainly engaged within the self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and had thus been recorded as directors or working proprietors, even as their activities, for the most part, remained confined to food processing and garment manufacturing. A large proportion of self-employed women workers were also engaged in outsourced manufacturing work, typically characterised by low earnings, long hours of work and lack of any form of social protection.”

Further, the average working Indian woman works a longer week than her developing country counterparts. The average employed Indian woman worked 44.4 hours per week (in the April-June 2018 period) as against the developing country average of 35-36 hours, as per ILO estimates.

The unadjusted gender wage gap — the gap in the earnings of men and women in regular, salaried jobs, without accounting for differences in hours worked and educational qualifications — was significant. In rural areas, a male salaried employee earned nearly 1.4 to 1.7 times a female salaried employee, while in urban areas, salaried men earned 1.2 to 1.3 times a salaried woman. Indian women earn 35 per cent less on average than men. (The global average is 16 per cent.) Meanwhile, women are slightly under half of India’s population but can contribute only 18 per cent to its economic output.

The Pandemic and the Lockdown

Needless to say, the pandemic and the government response to it, have made these figures far worse and the consequent decline in Indian women’s right to dignified employment will continue to nosedive in the years to come unless urgent measures are taken to acknowledge and address this problem. A host of studies have highlighted the toll the government’s arbitrary and kneejerk response to the pandemic has taken on women’s employment.

Already, at least 4 in 10 women in India have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey. In other words, between March and April of this year, an estimated 17 million women were rendered jobless, in both the formal and informal sectors.

As stated earlier, 95 per cent of the slim percentage of employed women in India is employed in the informal sector. This sector, in particular, has been dealt a crushing blow by the lockdown and the government’s refusal to help citizens with much-needed cash in the lockdown situation. It is likely that the informal sector will take much longer to revive than the organized sector, and this will have a devastating impact on its women workforce, who are the first to be thrown out of these jobs and the last to be taken back into employment.

Small and growing businesses (SGBs) have been hard hit by the government response to the pandemic. According to a report in the ‘Stanford Social Innovation Review’, the COVID-19 crisis is especially threatening SGBs in low-income nations. These developments will have a disproportionate impact on women. According to India’s sixth economic census, published in 2016, 13.8 per cent of business establishments in India are owned by women, a majority of which are microenterprises and self-financed. Many of these women-led businesses are found in sectors like tourism, education and beauty, which have been devastated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. Similarly, as discussed above, women mainly engaged within self-help groups and co-operatives as partners and thus recorded as ‘directors’ or ‘working proprietors’ are facing catastrophe as the unplanned lockdown and the equally unplanned ‘unlock process’ has demolished their fledgling enterprises.

According to a paper (titled ‘The Covid-19 Lockdown in India: Gender and Caste Dimensions of the First Job Losses’) published by Ashwini Deshpande, Professor of Economics, Ashoka University, “Women who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed in the post-lockdown phase compared to men who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase. Male heads of household were 11.3 percentage points more likely to be employed in post-lockdown phase, compared to female heads of household who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase.”

Deshpande made a further point in her paper. “”While women and Dalits have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve,” she wrote. “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.”

The truth of Deshpande’s words was reflected in a series of strikes by ASHA workers in different states and finally a nationwide protest in early August demanding protection, better and timely pay, and a legal status ensuring minimum wages. Nearly 6 lakh Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, apart from staff of anganwadis, National Health Mission (NHM) and other schemes participated in the protest.

One of the new sources of women’s employment in the last few decades has been government schemes, especially in the health and education sectors, where, for example, women work as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks. During the pandemic, ASHA workers, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers, although they are not recognised as “workers” or paid regular wages. Thus, they came out in huge numbers protesting inadequate assistance from the government in the fight against COVID-19, including lack of safety equipment, payment of salary and even risk allowance. They also opposed moves to privatise basic services at government hospitals and in nutrition schemes.

According to an Economic Times report, “The scheme workers have been demanding the government withdraw the proposals for privatisation of basic services including health (including hospitals), nutrition (including ICDS and MDMS) and education, make the centrally sponsored schemes like ICDS, NHM and MDMS permanent with adequate budget allocation and give them minimum wages of Rs 21000 per month and pension of Rs 10,000 per month besides providing them with other benefits of ESI and EPF.”

A survey by the Azim Premji University, of 5,000 workers across 12 States — of whom 52% were women — found that women workers were worse off than men during the lockdown. Among rural casual workers, for example, 71% of women lost their jobs after the lockdown; the figure was 59% for men. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy also suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.

A rapid rural survey conducted by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS) showed that in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent, there was no agricultural activity during the lean months of March to May. In areas of irrigated agriculture, there were harvest operations (such as for rabi wheat in northern India) but these were largely mechanised. In other harvest operations, such as for vegetables, there was a growing tendency to use more family labour and less hired labour on account of fears of infection. Put together, while agricultural activity continued, employment available to women during the lockdown was limited. Employment and income in activities allied to agriculture, such as animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture were also adversely affected by the lockdown. FAS village studies show that when households own animals, be it milch cattle or chickens or goats, women are inevitably part of the labour process. During the lockdown, the demand for milk fell by at least 25% (as hotels and restaurants closed), and this was reflected in either lower quantities sold or in lower prices or both. For women across the country, incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives shrank. Among fisherfolk, men could not go to sea, and women could not process or sell fish and fish products.

Similarly, non-agricultural jobs came to a sudden halt as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other enterprises, employing a significant number of women, shut down completely.

In recent years, women have accounted for more than one-half of workers in public works, but no employment was available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) till late in April. The first month of lockdown thus saw a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women. In May, there was a big increase in demand for NREGS employment. However, with male migrant workers returning to their native places in large numbers during the lockdown, and thus creating a new pool of ‘unemployed workforce’ in the villages, rural women workers are now more likely to be pushed out of their jobs to accommodate the men and even in jobs under the NREGS women are now more likely to bow out in favour of women. This, by the way, is no contradiction or conflict between men and women – it is simply the gross failure of the government to provide jobs to all its citizens and protect the most vulnerable section – women – from sudden joblessness.

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 lot of domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, has been especially hard. In 2008, for the very first time, domestic workers were recognized as workers in the Unorganized Sector Social Security Act, 2008. Official ILO statistics place the number of persons employed as domestic workers in India at 4.75 million, of which 3 million are women. But this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number is supposed to be more between 20 million and 80 million! 

According to a survey conducted by Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha (BBGS), and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union, as many as 91% of domestic workers were not paid salaries in April and 50% of workers, who were above the age of 50, lost their jobs. Similarly, a survey by the Domestic Workers Sector Skill Council (DWSSC) found that nearly 85 per cent of domestic workers were not paid for the lockdown period. An eight-state (Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu) random survey by the DWSSC – a non-profit organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship – found that 23.5% of domestic workers have migrated back to their native place. While 38% of the domestic workers said that they were facing problems in arranging food, around 30% had no money to survive the lockdown period. However, contrary to elite pre-conceived notions, 98.5% of domestic workers were aware of the precautions that should be taken to be safe from COVID-19. DWSSC’s survey was conducted in April. Four months down the line, domestic workers are still in distress as they are still largely unable to get back to work and access wages.

Across India, only 14 states have notified minimum wages for the domestic workers. In these states, the workers can file a complaint seeking redressal but in the remaining states including in the national capital, they do not have any such recourse. Hence there is a need for uniformity.

The report further stated that in many affluent communities, these domestic workers face discrimination. The rich consider the domestic workers as the carriers of the virus.

The present situation across the country is that because of the unjust stigma associated with domestic workers as carriers of the virus, coupled with declining incomes in middle income families as a result of job losses and wage cuts faced by them as well, domestic workers are facing unemployment and wage cuts on an unprecedented scale.

Even in the organized sector, women employees have faced disproportionate job losses and wage cuts. In India, women form a large section of the teaching community, but teachers in private schools have been subjected to wage cuts across the last few months.

Now, as the government has declared phased ‘unlock’, in as unplanned a way as it had declared the ‘total lockdown’, women workers who have not lost their jobs yet are facing every threat of doing so. With trains, buses and other forms of public transport still not running normally, women – who are much more unlikely than men to either own or access private means of transport – face the threat of being terminated from their jobs for the simple reason of not being able to reach their workplace regularly and on time.

Further, as India initiates phased ‘unlock’, with requirements that businesses operate with fewer employees, trends toward mechanisation are also likely to pick up pace. Because women are generally relegated to menial tasks within production processes, their jobs are often the first to go when firms automate.

The Road Ahead

The Pandemic and anti-people government policies have thrown the country into a whirlpool of excruciating poverty and hopelessness. But for its 600 million women, the impact has already been worse and is likely to be devastating unless proper corrective measures are adopted.

Research from the World Bank suggests the pandemic will drive more than 12 million Indians into poverty. Women are likely to be over-represented among the new poor. Needless to say, women’s employment must become a priority in recovery efforts. This, contrary to the government’s present policy of demolishing labour laws and giving corporates a free hand to exploit workers, will require government directives to curb any attempt to retrench the women workforce. For employees of enterprises that have folded up as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown, it should be the task of the government to provide alternate employment opportunities to women. In rural areas, reservation for women in jobs under MNREGS should be considered. Women’s participation in the rural economy should be given a boost by facilitating their access to the market and putting in place policies to ensure that they get a fair price for their produce. Women’s large scale employment in the manufacture of masks and sanitisers should be facilitated. Enabling measures to ensure women’s continued participation in employment should be implemented. Government financial support – substantial and not token – to domestic workers to tide over this crisis is a must. Alternate employment avenues for domestic workers thrown out of employment should be explored and put in place. New institutional provisions that leverage women’s empowerment at the community level will have to be actively considered.

Recovery from the pandemic and its aftermath has to be viewed through the lens of gender. According to Kadambari Shah, Sahil Gandhi and Gregory Randolph (Shah is a senior associate at IDFC Institute, Mumbai; Gandhi a visiting scholar at Brookings India and a postdoctoral scholar at the Lusk Centre for Real Estate at the University of Southern California’ and Randolph founding partner of the JustJobs Network and a PhD candidate in urban planning at the University of Southern California), “The policy response must be structured around rebuilding economies and societies in ways that empower women to lead safe, productive and fulfilling lives.” With women’s employment being crucial to not only their independence from patriarchal oppression but also to the development of society as a whole, it is essential that women’s organizations across the country unite and put pressure on the government to do whatever is essential to ensure that existing social and economic inequalities for Indian women are not deepened but bridged

Kabeer Katlat

Latest from Kabeer Katlat

Related items