Women workers of India and gender wage gap

Understanding the nature of work performed by women in India requires first of all that we broaden our understanding of what work is, and recognize the different kinds of socially necessary as well as other work. The nature of work and how to capture it in empirical data have indeed been among the most complicated and debated issues in social sciences. The fact that international definitions of work and of economic activity have themselves been changing over time only adds to the complexity.

Most standard dictionaries define work as any “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result” and economic activities are typically defined in a more restrictive way, as actions that involve the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services at all levels within a society, which of course begs the further question of what constitutes “goods and services”. For example, the activities associated with motherhood are typically seen as “non-economic”. Yet many of the most essential of such activities can be outsourced, such as breastfeeding, delivered through the hiring of a wet nurse, which then makes it an economic activity, with the wet nurse engaged in paid work. An even more extreme but recently proliferating example is that of surrogate motherhood, in which a woman is paid to be impregnated, carry a child in her womb and go through child birth, making all of these explicitly paid economic activities which, in turn, also contribute to national income to the extent of the remuneration received. Yet a woman who does this for her “own” child rather than someone else’s, and without any monetary reward, is classified as “not in the labour force” in most if not all national statistical systems – and indeed, the very notion of “maternity leave” from paid work suggests that the mother is in effect on some sort of holiday, rather than actively engaged in the work of producing a child, definitions of work and economic activity are not that simple – and nowhere is this complexity more marked than in the case of care activities.

Given the historical context of vagueness and imprecision, it is not surprising that Indian definitions of work have also been characterised by some lack of clarity about what can be classified as “work” in the sense of economic activity, after 1994 the national service scheme has moved to a notion of work based on “economic activity”, that covers market activities and non-market activities in agriculture directed towards own consumption, including cultivation, post-harvest activities, gathering of uncultivated crops, forestry, hunting, fishing, etc. In addition, it included another set of activities that were previously not included: those related to the production of fixed assets on own account, such as the construction of town houses, roads, wells etc. and of machinery, tools etc. for household enterprises and also construction of any private or community facilities free of charge. Involvement in such own account construction either as labourer or supervisor is construed as economic activity. However, the processing of primary products for own consumption has not been considered as economic activity. All domestic work is excluded, as are miscellaneous activities such as prostitution, begging, gambling, etc., even if these generate earnings.

Further, judged by this more expansive definition of work, many more women work than men in India – the work participation rate for all women in India has been consistently higher than for men., across both rural and urban areas, the total female work participation rate (even after declining over the decade) is as high as 86.2 per cent, compared to 79.8 per cent for men but around two-thirds of women workers are still employed in cultivation as their principal economic activity, while the share for men workers has fallen to less than half. The stubborn domination of agriculture as the primary source of work for most of our workers (especially women) is a particular problem given the agrarian crisis that has persisted for nearly two decades in the Indian countryside yet women wage workers in agriculture experience some of the highest wage gaps

However, the overall gender wage gap declined in both rural and urban areas. There was an increase in real wages for both regular and casual workers but the surprising fact was that the increase in real wages was higher in rural areas than in urban areas, and the rate of increase was faster among women compared to men. The decreasing gender gap in wages was evident for all categories of workers except for urban regular workers. The increase in gender wage gaps for urban regular employees reflected the changing composition of the urban women workers and their increasing participation in domestic work, which was the lowest paid urban activity. Agriculture has shown high gender gaps in in every category of manual work, even in the tasks conventionally carried out by women such as transplanting, weeding and harvesting. The gender wage gap was not significant for “administrators, executives and managers” followed by slightly less skilled “Professionals”, The gender wage gap was highest among service workers and domestic workers, gender wage discrimination occurred through different remuneration for similar characteristics, because of lower bargaining power of women, different career opportunities and the exclusion of women from the better-remunerated jobs in both rural and urban areas

Unpaid work performed by women, which in turn has fed into lower reservation wages and less social valuation of all work performed by women. Not only do most women in India perform unpaid work, this prevents their ability to engage in paid employment and also adds to double burden Indeed, the number and proportion of unpaid women workers actually increased in the period of India’s economic growth boom. For those women who are employed, this has meant greater exploitation in terms of significant gender wage gaps, at least partly because women workers have been clustered into poorly paid activities that are seen as less skilled. What is more problematic is the role of public employment strategies that rely on underpaid women workers to run major public schemes for nutrition, health and education, which have had the perverse and undesired effect of intensifying gender discrimination in terms of occupational segmentation and gender wage gaps. It was also observed that gender gaps in manufacturing have been the largest for enterprises in the public sector. Clearly, in this context, public policy can play a major positive role in rectifying this distressing situation – if there is the political will to do so.

-Hanif Mohammad