Women Workers in India in the 21st Century – Unemployment and Underemployment

— Padma

T HE GLOBAL ECONOMY has created a flexible labour market and the myth of ‘feminization of work’, in reality, it has led to unemployment and underemployment of women in India. One study puts female unemployment at six to seven times that of men. In the rural areas, 30 lakh women have lost jobs in agriculture and livestock. Women have lost 1,45,000 jobs in the textiles sector during 1994-2000. Female underemployment is also increasing at a faster rate than for men [1, 2, 3]. This article will concentrate on some aspects of women workers outside of the agriculture sector. India has 397 million workers out of which 123.9 million are women. 106 million of these workers are in the rural areas and the remaining 18 million work in urban areas [4]. Only 7% of India’s huge labour force is in the organized sector, which includes workers on regular salaries, in registered companies and firms [6]. The rest of the workers – 93% work in the unorganized or informal sector. The figures for women workers in India are even more dismal – almost 96% of the women workers are in the unorganized sector. The female work participation rate (WPR) has increased overall from 19.7% in 1981 to 25.7% in 2001. In the rural areas it has increased from 23.1 to 31% and in the urban areas it has risen from 8.3 to 11.6%. ‘Participation’, however, has been largely distress induced and has compelled women to take up jobs which offer very poor wages and no social security. There has been a significant increase in women employed in petty retail trade, hotels and restaurants in the last decade as part of survival strategy of poor urban households. Hotels and restaurants have shown an increase of 2,78,000 women workers from 1994 to 2000. These are typically low paying jobs where women work for long hours without any benefits and face sexual harassment.

The 9 sectors where 90% where Indian women work are agriculture, live stock, textiles and textile products, beverage and tobacco, food products, construction, petty retail trade, education and research and domestic services. The number of women working in agriculture in the years 1999-2000 was 7,91,30,000 which accounted for 64.3% of the workforce. Next came livestock which accounted for 9% of the workforce. The domestic services sector employed 3.2%, retail trade 3.4%, textiles and textile products 2.8% and beverage and tobacco industry 3.0 % of the workforce in the same period (See table for details).


 1993 - 1994

1999 – 2000                              



Per cent


Per cent

1. Agriculture 8,10,13,000 66.6 7,91,30,000 64.3
2. Live stock 1,18,55,000 9.7 1,10,74,000 9.0
3. Textiles & textile products 36,24,000 3.0 34,79,000 2.8
4. Beverage & Tobacco 30.19,000 2.5 36,76,000 3.0
5. Food products 13,53,000 1.1 13,17,000 1.1
6. Construction 16,48,000 1.4 20,57,000 1.7
7. (Petty) Retailtrade 31,22,000 2.6 42,28,000 3.4
 8.  Education &Research 23,22,000 1.9 32,90,000 2.7
9. Personal services(domestic) 44,22,000 3.6 39,25,000 3.2

 Source: Sundaram, K., EPW, August 11, 2001.


In the urban areas a majority of women work in the informal sector, which include household industries, building construction, petty trade or in domestic services. There has been a significant increase in the casualization or informalization of the workforce both male and female since the late 1970s. In 1983, casual workers accounted for 31.5% of the workers, in comparison, 7.5% were salaried and 61% were self-employed. The latest round of the national sample survey records an increase of casual workers to 37.3% in 1999-2000. While salaried workers have fallen to 6.7% of the total, the self-employed category has fallen from 61% to 56%. The National Sample Survey shows that during 1999-2000 the self employed accounted for 55% of male employment and 57% of female employment. About 36% of employed males and 40% of employed women were casual labourers. Only 9% of employed men and 3% of employed women were regular employees.

The handloom industry which has been the largest employer of women after agriculture and live stock suffered serious setbacks in the 1990s and is slowly being replaced by the beedi industry as the largest employer. The powerloom sector’s growth has been at the expense of the organized mill sector. It is estimated that there are a total of about 17 lakh powerlooms in the country. The majority of these are in the western zone followed by the southern zone. 75% of these powerlooms require modernization in varying degrees. Although this industry employs several lakh workers it is being threatened by the relentless onslaught of global players. Women are the main work force of both the handloom and powerloom sectors. In Nammakal district in Tamil Nadu the powerloom industry employs lakhs of workers. These industries are run by powerful rural landlords. They maintain strong feudal links on the one hand and at the same time powerful business links with the global market. Hundreds of sweat houses are fitted with ten to hundred looms each. The working day is 12 hours with two shifts. The workers live in adjacent sheds. The working conditions are dreadful with workers earning Rs 500 a week on piece rate system. Most of the workers are bonded with the owner by the advance they received. Women workers face other challenges with the Government of Tamil Nadu barring several lakh ration card holders from getting rations. In addition there have been attacks on the impoverished by way of hikes in electricity prices and school fees [7].

Tirupur, a small town in Tamil Nadu is the largest export center for knit wear production in India accounting for 20% of direct exports and 50% of all exports if re-exported sales to the big cities in India are included. Neetha’s study shows that the mills in the early phase 1925-70 were employing only male workers. In the next phase between 1970-85 production started to get more fragmented. Production facilities moved to Tirupur from Calcutta after a series of strikes. This period witnessed the decline of the local handloom industry leaving many women workers unemployed or underemployed and they started to get involved in the production process as helpers to the male workers in cutting, arranging and folding jobs. From 1985 onwards with massive expansion of exports from Tirupur there has been accelerated subcontracting and informalization of labour. There has been feminization of the work force with women now constituting 60% of the total work force. The women between the ages of 15 and 30 work for very poor wages with daily incomes just above half the minimum wages in the area. Activities like tailoring which is considered to be of a higher skill is still the preserve of men. Subcontracting is very extensive and it goes to the home based work level or to very small production units i.e. very tiny cottage enterprises. Thus the feminization of employment is to provide the cheapest possible production for international suppliers to ensure maximum profits.

Continuing the discussion on the textile industry, the conditions of women workers in the garment industry in the Peenya industrial estate in Bangalore are once again deplorable. The garment industry in Bangalore employs about 1.5 lakh workers of which more than 80% are women. Several international name brands are manufactured here. The Rs 4,000 crore industry is export oriented. The average work day for the women in the industry is 10-12 hours. In many factories that employ more than 500 women there are no more than 4 or 5 toilets. The factories have neither a rest room nor a crechè. The salary range is 1500-2000 rupees per month which is far below that stipulated by the government. Annual leave, benefits, bonus are all very rarely given. Many of the employers are provident fund defaulters. This industry classically exemplifies the exploitation of workers in the export processing zones set up in the country aimed at promoting export and growth [8].

Women workers in domestic services in 1999-2000 constituted 3.2% of the workforce and this comprised of 39,25,000 workers. The services provided include cooking, cleaning utensils, washing, babysitting amongst other responsibilities. In the ‘global economy’ there has been an emergence of a new professional class of workers that includes well educated women. With this there has been a need for domestic servants to help the professional women in their daily chores. However, even in this sector, there has been a decline in the number of women employed from 1993-94 to 1999-2000. The percentage has fallen from 3.6 to 3.2 and the actual numbers have declined from 44,22,000 to 39,25,000. A considerable section of the urban middle class women have lost jobs or have had to take up voluntary retirement schemes (VRS). The public sector units targeting women for VRS include Life Insurance Corporation of India, Coal India Limited and banks amongst others. These educated women after losing their jobs have taken up the roles of housewives, which in turn has affected the employment of women in the domestic service.

The IT industry has been touted as the panacea for all the problems in India. It is considered to open up avenues in favour of women. However, there is data to show that women professionals are still a minority in this sector with a clear trend towards clustering at the lower ends of the job leading to feminization of service centers [5]. In the years 2000, 5,22,250 people were employed. 79% of the software professionals were men and 21% were women.

Education and healthcare are increasingly being privatized. These sectors employ large numbers of women for low wages with no social security. Moolchand hospital, a large private hospital in New Delhi, intimidated women workers and forced many of them to sign a contract that denied them the right to engage in any trade union activities and to accept consolidated pay. Those who refused to sign and went on strike were dismissed on framed up charges. The challenges for women workers in these sectors are multifold and any resistance is met with force by the employers in complicity with the police and the state. In this context it is also appropriate to mention that established trade unions do not often give priority to the problems of women workers. For example in the case of sexual harassment of a nurse in the Lala Ram Swarup TB hospital of New Delhi, the employees’ union was not prepared to take up the case. It was only after that nurse went on a hunger strike and womens’ organizations intervened that the union had to take a stand.

‘What is to be done’– Organizing the Unorganized
The existing legislation does not protect the vast majority of the women workers in the country. The Factories Act, 1948 covers working conditions, health and safety, basic amenities like toilets, creches, working hours etc but does not apply to work places with fewer than 10 workers using power driven machinery or less than 20 workers without such machinery. Employees State Insurance Act, 1948 providing for sickness, accident and maternity benefits at the ground level does not apply to the vast majority of women workers. The Employers by sub contracting production and dividing the establishment into small units are able to evade all the existing laws. The Contract Labour Act, 1971 has been flouted by not just the private enterprises but the Government itself by the employment of contract labour for work of perennial nature. The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 prevents arbitrary closure of industrial establishments and provides redress for workers dismissed for participation in trade union activities. This act does not apply to workers in the informal sector. Without the protection that this act provides (at least in theory) workers in the informal sector can be victimized or dismissed for participating in union activities.

There are many obstacles to organizing women in the informal sector. Women with the dual burden of working long hours in poor working conditions on the one hand and raising children and the domestic chores on the other find it hard to come to meetings. The Korean Women Workers Association United and Korean Women’s Trade Union organized an international workshop in 2000 entitled “Perspectives and Solidarity of Women’s Trade Union Movement”. There were extensive discussions on strategies to organize informal and part time workers. One of the strategies that was discussed was to encourage union activists to visit the women at their workplaces and start active campaigns to inform women about their rights. One example is that of the Hong Kong union which regularly visited janitors (domestic workers) working in housing complexes. Every visit was made by 2 activists because one had to do the work in place of the worker who was being informed about her rights. This reduced the work burden of the cleaner in addition to paving the way for confidence building. It was also discussed that centers needed to be set up close to the workplaces. The proximity will help union members to actively get involved with the women and share their interests and concerns. It was felt that it is important to provide services like child care to help lessen the burden of the workers.

The struggles have to start with wages and job security and then move beyond those issues to raising the class consciousness of the workers. These struggles have to gradually move from the factories to the streets. The conditions for women workers can ultimately improve only through their participation in the revolutionary movement and only the victory of the working class can bring their emancipation.


  1. Ajit Ghose, 'Current issues of Employment in India', EPW, Vol. 34, No. 36, 4th Sept, 1999.
  2. . Amitabh Kundu, Trends and Patterns of Female Employment
  3. Barbara Harris, 'Mapping India's World of Unorganized Labour,' Socialist Register 2001.
  4. K. Sundaram, EPW Vol.34, August 2001.
  5. S. Rothboeck, M. Vijayabaskar, V. Gayatri; 'Labour in the New Economy', 2001.
  6. Sharit Bhowmik, 'The Labour Movement in India: Present Problems and Future Perspectives', the Indian Journal of Social Work, vol. 59, no 1, 1998, pp. 147-66.
  7. Usha, The Status of Women in Handloom and Powerloom Industry and the Task Ahead, AIPWA workshop, 2003.
  8. Women Workers In The Garment Industry in Bangalore, AIPWA and AICCTU, Bangalore.