In September 2020, when the first National Level Time Use Survey data of India, published by the National Statistical Office (NSO) revealed that the average time spent in unpaid domestic and caregiving services by men and women are 36 minutes and 280 minutes, respectively, it confirmed the open secret that we all knew, but seldom talked about: women spend a disproportionately higher time on household work, as compared to their male counterparts and they do not receive any remuneration for it.
While this data ignited many debates and discussions about how to recognize the work that women do at home, and many suggested ways to provide compensation for their work, it failed to bring to the limelight another section of women, who not only do the unpaid domestic and caregiving work but also do not get paid for working full time outside their households, in family-owned enterprises.
There are several such women, whom we all know, but seldom notice. The wife of a grocery store owner, for instance, who takes care of the store customers for hours every day, and does not get paid for it, or women who help the male members of their family in the farm/agriculture work every day, after taking care of their domestic chores. These women, despite clocking in hours of work outside their homes, do not have any bargaining power in their homes because they don’t have financial agency as the money made from their work generally goes to the male members of the family, who heads the business or owns the farm.
However, the National Level Employment Data of India, both National Sample Survey and Periodic Labour Force Survey data acknowledge these women as employed, even though they are termed as ‘unpaid family helpers.’
The double Burden
For women who are unpaid family helpers, the burden of unpaid work is obviously double, and their commitment towards their family-owned businesses often stop them from engaging themselves in better work opportunities in the labour market. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that despite the improvement of sex ratio at birth, after government’s introduction of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) Scheme in 2015 and the gross enrolment ratio of girls showing significant progress between 2014-15 to 2018-19, the labour force participation of women is on the decline.
The labour force participation rate has declined from 30 per cent in 2004-05 to 18.6 per cent in 2018-19 as per the Employment-Unemployment Survey and Periodic Labour Force Survey data. However, that isn’t the only problem. The kinds of jobs women currently have access to, do little for their empowerment.
The ‘Solo’ Entrepreneurs, and the Illusion of regular wages
According to the National Sample Survey (2012), 39 lakhs people are employed as domestic workers by private households, of which 26 lakhs are female. These women, according to the above mentioned national employment data are considered to be regular ‘salaried’ employees. However, unlike other salaried employees, who have access to healthcare, and in some cases even job security, these women do not have any such privileges.
The same is true for those solo women entrepreneurs who run their small businesses from their homes. Although they are listed as self-employed, and they earn their own living, in most cases, their earnings are so low that they cannot afford to recruit staffs or expand their business. Therefore, even after starting their own businesses, which in most cases is a challenging process, they continue to remain vulnerable, and any crisis has the capacity to push them to the brink of poverty, as the COVID-19 pandemic has proved.
According to a study by Amit Basole, Rosa Abraham and Surbhi Kesar, published in Indiaspend.com, based on the Consumer Pyramid Household Survey of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, out of every 100 women, 74 lost their jobs during the lockdown and 11 lost over the period till August 2020, whereas these numbers are 36 and 4 respectively for every 100 men. Even the recovery has been uneven, where out of those 74 women, only 24 returned to work, but for men, it was 28 out of 36.
The Road Ahead
The road ahead is challenging, and as we rebuild our economy after a year-long crisis induced by the virus, it is perhaps the right time to focus on getting women back into the labour force with more secured and better job opportunities. The government should aim to have policies to solve the multiple issues faced by women like access to decent work, improve working conditions, ensure wage equality with men, etc. Child care facilities at the workplace are one of the utmost requirements and institutional measures are required so that women can balance the burden of unpaid domestic chores and outside work.
It is also observed that working women are concentrated only in few industries like tobacco, textiles, education and service sectors and that too in the informal sectors. The government should focus on opening opportunities for women in other industries and facilitate their entry into the formal job sectors. Institutional credit facilities along with other basic infrastructural facilities should be provided to women who are running their small enterprises without any workers which will help them to expand their business. Self-help groups can also be used as a medium for providing microcredit to women, especially in rural areas to start their own petty business and enter into the labour market resulting in their socio-economic empowerment as seen in states like Odisha, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, etc. The gender budget allocation should also increase in the coming years. This year, Rs. 25.26 thousand crores were allocated for women-specific schemes.
(Views expressed are personal. Priyanka Chatterjee is a labour economist, and Amarnath Tripathi is an Agriculture and Natural Resource Economist.)