The recent amendments in maternity leave provisions and GST exemption for sanitary pads are being considered as vital milestones towards the gender equality paradigm. Likewise, globally 2018 has seen some major milestones for female causes like the #metoo campaign and successful referendum for abolition of Article 40 of Constitution of Ireland.
However, the same cannot be said of Indian female workforce. Concerns regarding the decreasing female workforce participation have not been raised in an alarming manner. As reported by the ILO, decadal women labour force participation in India has declined from 35% in 1990-2000 to 27% in 2000-10, and a further decline of 2-3% is projected between 2010-20. This is way lower than the global average of 48%.
Some analysts have termed this as initial shock due to job incompatibility arising out of economic reforms and accelerated growth in the short-term. However, the decline and subsequent stagnation of the participation ratio for almost two decades should be a greater concern.
Further, while participation has grown in the urban areas, the trend is just the opposite in rural areas. The decline in rural areas has been mostly attributed to dwindling jobs in agricultural and allied sectors, combined with not enough conducive job creation in the manufacturing sector. This marginalisation of rural female workforce comes at a time when Indian annual economic growth rates have been relatively high in terms of job creation post-independence.
Considering that both rural and urban household incomes have risen in the same time span, labour market’s changing preference for the workforce should be taken with apprehension. Apprehensions are also being raised about the organised sector’s reluctance to hire female employees due to the changes in maternity leave policy. Though workforce having access to such provision would be less than 5% of the total workforce, it does highlight the labour-capital conundrum in today’s complex socio-economic environment.
Comprising mostly white collar jobs, this portion of workforce will never be subjected to labour-intensive jobs. On the contrary, nearly three quarters of the female workforce is involved in informal sector, is needful but bereft of any maternity benefits, and will be out of workforce at some point of time due to biological exigencies.
Besides these, prevalent social norms and women’s safety at workplace or public spaces remain a setback. One needs to comprehend that the contemporary social architecture of women’s modesty is also a male construct. In addition, the universal economic systems are designed without delinking access to gender specific infrastructure for all economic classes.
The current political debate for gender specific issues seems to face a policy void. However, lack of advocacy in this regard also puts a serious question on groups and individuals championing female issues.
While, the current framework of UIDAI is being utilised for tax audits, direct benefit transfers, subsidised food under Antyodaya Anna Yojana and several other government-run schemes, there can be little or no justification why the Ministry of Women and Child Development can’t utilise Aadhaar for transfer and monitoring of maternity benefits for workforce employed in the informal sector.
The first step in this regard would be to integrate, facilitate and extend such benefits for female workforce employed under Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana, National Urban Livelihood Mission, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and other similar government-run employment schemes, with a final objective towards universalisation for the female workforce.
However, only maternity benefits will not do much in the absence of long-term child care systems. This needs to be supplemented with better work opportunities through skill development and reliable social architecture for postnatal integration of female workforce.
The second step in this regard would be the creation of gender neutral economic system and would require universalisation of child care infrastructure like crèche in urban areas and Anganwadis in rural areas. This should be done on the lines of primary healthcare centres, with universal coverage. Design of such infrastructure should accommodate the needs white collar as well as blue collar jobs.
The past experience of female issues-based advocacy has been mostly about safeguarding the rights of already empowered workforce through maternity benefits, sexual harassment committees and GST-exempted sanitary pads. A few policies like ASHA under National Rural Health Mission have been successful in bring the marginalised within the mainstream.
Advocacy for winning the subsidisation might be a spark but it might not pave the long-term path. Removal of roadblocks for long-term lifetime employment sustainability of the female workforce will provide the right momentum towards improving and sustaining female workforce participation within the Indian economy.
Even to abolish the contemporary social architecture of workplace compatibility and women safety, economic empowerment and universalisation of suitable infrastructure seems to be the only way out for the Indian policymakers.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Operations Management Area, Jindal Global Business School, O.P. Jindal Global (Institution of Eminence Deemed To Be University), Sonipat, Haryana)