Women’s Work in Globalising India : Cutting Through the Hype

(Globalisation is empowering Indian women economically and socially. Right? Wrong! Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India studies the world of women’s work in India and challenges many of the widely held beliefs about the impact of globalisation on women’s work and lives. Liberation examines some of the trends and issues that the book brings to light. – Ed/- )

Never Done and Poorly Paid, published by Women Unlimited as part of its ‘feminist fine print’ series, is a collection of essays by Jayati Ghosh. It looks at the impact of the last nearly two decades of ‘liberalisation’ of the Indian economy on women’s work. Apart from being a rigorously researched study of the state of women’s work in India, it is also a larger comment on the realities of India’s globalised economy, reflected in the mirror of women’s lives and work. 
It is useful to take some of the notions widely peddled by governments and pro-globalisation economists, and confront them with the Never Done’s rigorous analysis.           

“Feminisation” of the labour force?

Is the hype about “feminisation” of the labour force (often claimed with special reference to export-oriented sectors) thanks to globalisation justified? Quite surprisingly, NSSO data on female work participation rates reveals that in fact, these rates in rural areas have barely changed since the late 1970s. In urban areas, the rates have increased very slightly. (Never Done and Poorly Paid, pp 60-61). 
While it is true that new avenues for women’s employment have opened up in these times, how much can they be said to have ‘empowered’ women? The evidence is that far from empowering women, these new forms of employment actually tend to exploit and reinforce women’s social subordination. Let’s take a look at some of the sectors where women have actually been ‘preferred’ and have found work:

‘Self-employment’ and the ‘Informal’ Sector

Much of the ‘increase’ in women’s employment in the ongoing decade has been in “self-employment’ rather than paid work. The phrase ‘self-employed’ is highly misleading – suggesting that the woman has control over her work and is free from the exploitation associated with, say, work in a factory or a field.
The truth is that ‘self-employed’ more often than not means ‘self-exploited.’ Home based subcontracting or ‘putting out’ is increasingly being resorted to by manufacturers internationally. The reason is that the workers thus employed (very often women and children) are out of the protection of labour laws and trade unions. The “formal” sector relies on the “informal” in a big way, and “the only real specificity of the informal sector is the absence of workers’ rights and social protection.” (Ibid p 53). Latest NSSO data reveals that thanks to low income and failure to secure minimum wages from wage labour, self-employed workers, especially women, have very low wage expectations, being satisfied with wages that are far below minimum wages. (Ibid p 114-115) This, while ‘self-employed’ workers work a greater number of days: over 90% of male and 60% of female self-employed workers work all seven days of the week.
Ghosh challenges the “rosy image of new productive opportunities emerging from self-employment because of a vibrant fast-growing economy,” establishing that most self-employed workers are engaged in “continuous, intensive but low-productivity work” in the lowest and poorest paid parts of the production chain, and the increase in women’s self-employment, in large part, is “a distress-driven phenomenon, led by the inability to find adequately gainful paid work.” (Ibid, p 123)
Strikingly, it is noted that the single largest category of work for urban Indian women is that of domestic workers employed in private households:  numbering more than three million, and account for more than 12 per cent of all women workers in urban India. Marked by poor pay, denial of dignity and extreme vulnerability to violence, sexual harassment and exploitation, domestic service certainly cannot be seen as signifying women’s ‘empowerment’ or “as a positive sign of a vibrant dynamic economy undergoing positive structural transformation.” (Ibid, p 70)
What about the retail sector, which used to account for nearly 14% of all urban working women in 1999-2000? Petty retail sector used to be a “refuge” sector for employment; men and women thrown out of jobs found some fragile income here. In 2004-05, employment of women in this sector fell by 15%. This fall is thanks to the entry of large corporate in retail as well as new zoning and trading regulations in urban centres, due to which retail is increasingly becoming difficult especially for women.

Women in EPZs, SEZs

All over the world, “the most visible sign of the link between feminisation of paid work and export orientation is still in the Export processing Zones (EPZs.” (Ibid, p 72) Most Indian EPZs (and now SEZs) too display the characteristic feature of “numerical dominance of women workers,” with women in the Santa Cruz and Madras EPZs constituted 70-80 % of the workforce. With flagrant breach of labour laws and highly exploitative conditions within EPZs, “women workers were typically preferred simply because they have been much more willing to accept such conditions.” (Ibid, p 75) In other words, women’s relative social and economic weakness makes them attractive to EPZs and SEZs: they can be paid less and worked longer hours in unpleasant or dangerous work conditions; easier to fire on the pretext of life-cycle changes like marriage or childbirth and replaced with younger women workers; and less likely to unionise. Studies of EPZs reported a “range of work-related illnesses” – headaches, back problems, menstrual disturbances and other more serious complaints; but workers had to pay for absence from work or medical costs. (Ibid, p 74)

Government: ‘Model Employer’? 

Possibly the most shocking section of the book is the essay on women in public employment. (pp 88-102)
Be it the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) or NREGS, (all ‘flagship’ government schemes) we find the Government exploiting the unpaid skill and labour of women by “relying on drastically underpaid women to provide essential public services.” (Ibid, p 89)
The story of the World-Bank supported SSA is a comment both on the state of women in public employment as well as on the sub-standard schooling being passed off as the World Bank-approved model of ‘parallel primary schooling’ in India. SSA teachers, a very large number of which are women, usually have some schooling (Class VIII or more) but no pedagogical training. Their monthly wages are as low as Rs. 1000- Rs. 3000. Such teachers “account for approximately 16% of all school ‘teachers’ in the country”!
The ICDS (also World-Bank supported) is supposed to be India’s answer to the country’s appalling hunger, malnutrition and maternal mortality indicators among women and children. The entire scheme rests on the anganwadi workers and helpers - one of each is allotted to each anganwadi centre, which is supposed to cater to a population of 1000 (and that of 700 in tribal areas). In spite of the Supreme Court’s repeated instructions, the Government is yet to expand the scheme to provide universal coverage. An enormous burden of work rests on the shoulders the only two women functionaries at each centre – providing nutrition, immunisation and basic health check-up, ante-natal and post-natal care to children and expectant mothers as well as care of newborns and small children, nutrition and health education to women, referral of cases of malnutrition and illnesses to hospital, and even daily non-formal pre-school education to children of 3-5 years. In addition, due to their dedication, other government schemes and initiatives are routinely also come to rest on them – total literacy, election duties, awareness and health-related campaigns and so on. Yet, they are not treated on par with other government employees, but are called “social workers” or “voluntary workers,” who are not paid wages but only a pittance of an “honorarium.”
It is much the same case with the ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) who are the backbone of the NRHM. They have a mind-boggling range of seemingly endless duties, yet they are called ‘honorary volunteers’ as a pretext to underpay and deny them rights.
It is in the case of the anganwadi workers and ASHAs that the book’s title best fits. Exactly as the women’s work in the home is famously ‘never done and unpaid,’ the work of these women is ‘never done and poorly paid.’ It is indeed a shame that major large-scale Government programmes have been “designed and launched by explicitly relying on the unpaid labour of women,” “trading on the time-worn stereotype of caring women who serve their families and communities selflessly without any thought of return.” (p97)

Higher Wages, Equal Pay for Equal Work? 

Studying the NSSO data on average daily wages of regular women workers, a decline in real wages in the first half of the ongoing decade can be seen for women at every category of education level, in both rural and urban areas. (Ibid, p 80) The gender gap (between wages paid for the same work to men and women) also increased “for all categories of workers except urban casual workers, for whom the gap was already very great.” The evidence is that women, even educated women continue to be paid far less for equal work, and this gender gap widened between 1993-94 and 2005-05.  (Ibid p 81)This means that globalisation has actually reduced the degree of women’s equality in terms of wages, over and above the overall decline in wages.

Agrarian Crisis and Women

40% of all agricultural workers are women, yet women’s work in agriculture, as in so many other sectors, is invisible and unrecognised. In most states, women do not have land titles in their own names, even if they are the direct cultivators. At most their role on family farms is recognised as “helping” the farmer “rather than full and active participants in cultivation.” (Ibid, p 111) Women’s suicides are often not classified as “farmer suicides” as a result of the same lack of recognition and land titles. They also end up being excluded from public subsidies, institutional credit and various benefits thanks to the same non-recognition, though they bear higher costs of labour due to structural and institutional reasons. (Ibid p 109) It must be stressed that even the 11th Plan Document of the Government recognises “that it is important to devise ways of ensuring land titles for women, through direct government transfers in land distribution, through changes in inheritance laws, and by facilitating market transfer of land.” (Ibid, p 128)

SHGs – panacea for all ills? 

Neoliberal opinion and the Indian Government schemes for economic empowerment of women often rest on SHGs. This book cuts SHGs down to size, describing it as “based on the principle of group lending, in which peer pressure and knowledge about other borrowers substitutes for collateral in ensuring repayment.” (Ibid, p 124-125) What such “peer pressure” can mean is clear when we find that in early 2006 there were “reports of several suicides of SHG members in AP who were unable to repay their loans as well as evidence of extreme harassment of defaulting members by other members.” (Ibid, p 128)  
SHGs do not even necessarily ease the dependence on non-institutional high-interest credit: in the experience of Bangladesh, due to the intense pressure for repayment, women often borrow from Peter to pay Paul – i.e, borrow from informal credit sources and traditional moneylenders to repay the loan. (p 125) Women who will find it harder to meet the repayment schedules are often excluded. While noting that “some access to credit for women is usually better than none,” Ghosh cautions against “treating microcredit as the new development panacea” since this approach “has tended to reduce policy concern about ensuring more extensive access of women to the regular channels of institutional finance, and left them confined to the ghetto of microcredit while the bulk of formal lending continues to go to men.”
In India, studies have noted that “the volume of credit provided to SHGs has been pitifully small over the past decade, so that it has hardly had any impact on the financial position of women in the groups.” Further, “the much-hyped bank-SHG linkage has occurred in an overall context of declining access” of rural poor to banking services.” (Ibid, p 127)

Women’s Unpaid Labour

In an early chapter, Ghosh notes the problem of invisibility of women’s work, and the subsequent difficulties of measuring women’s work. Work such as cleaning, child care, processing and preparation of food, collection of fuel and water, production of clothes, handicrafts, and so on (the “care economy” and social reproduction) are not recognised as economic activity or productive contribution. Ghosh establishes how the policies of liberalisation – cutbacks in access if public goods and services, cutbacks in public health care, failure to provide drinking water, etc.. – dramatically increase the burden of housework on women. And for women also engaged in paid work, this is a ‘double burden’ – at the cost of leisure and rest. Ghosh raises the issue of recognition and remuneration of women’s work that is as yet unpaid – and also the State’s responsibility to provide conditions that facilitate entry into paid women’s work – through making available alternate arrangements for household work and child care.

Growing Unemployment

The rates of women seeking work and not getting it have also increased. Open unemployment is especially high for young women. 9% of rural women between 20-24 years were openly unemployed in 2004-05, while for urban women it was 26% (double that of urban men in the same age-group). (Ibid 166-167)

In conclusion, Ghosh notes four “apparently contradictory trends” in women’s work since the early 1990s – “simultaneous increases in the incidence of paid labour, underpaid labour, unpaid labour, and the open unemployment of women.” What the book does is to try and explain this paradox, in the context of wider economic processes. The book concludes by suggesting that “a basic feature of Indian economic development thus far has been exclusion” – exclusion from control over assets, from the benefits of economic growth, from education and employment, along class, regional, caste, community and gender lines. “However, such exclusion from benefits has not meant exclusion from the system as such – rather, those who are supposedly marginalised or excluded have been affected precisely because they have been incorporated into market systems.” This process of “exclusion through incorporation” that marks India is a process that has been typical of capitalist accumulation throughout the world. (Ibid, p 177)..