The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on women’s work, but as official statistics do not capture women’s work adequately and accurately, little attention has been paid to the consequences of the pandemic for women workers and to the design of specific policies and programmes to assist them.
A survey by the Azim Premji University, of 5,000 workers across 12 States — of whom 52% were women workers — found that women workers were worse off than men during the lockdown. Among rural casual workers, for example, 71% of women lost their jobs after the lockdown; the figure was 59% for men. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) also suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.
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To comprehend the effects of COVID-19 on women workers, we need to begin with the situation before the pandemic. I draw here on the experience of the last 10 years with village studies conducted in collaboration with the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS).
According to national labour force surveys, a quarter of adult rural women were in the labour force (or counted as “workers” in official data) in 2017-18. If we examine data from time-use surveys, that is, surveys that collect information on all activities undertaken during a fixed time period (usually 24 hours), the picture changes radically. There are no official time-use survey data: the National Statistical Office did conduct a time-use survey in 2019 but the results are not available (a previous pilot survey was conducted 20 years ago). I use detailed, village-level time-use surveys from Karnataka, with data for 24 hours a day for seven days consecutively over two agricultural seasons in 2017-18, to illustrate the ground-level situation. Taking time spent in economic activity (or what falls within the production boundary in the System of National Accounts or SNA) and using the standard definition of a worker as one who spent “major time” during the reference week in economic activity, time-use data show that, although there were seasonal variations in work participation, almost all women came within the definition of “worker” in the harvest season.
These data suggest — and this finding is echoed in observations by women activists — that rural women face a crisis of regular employment. In other words, when women are not reported as workers, it is because of the lack of employment opportunities rather than it being on account of any “withdrawal” from the labour force. This crisis of regular employment will have intensified during the pandemic and the lockdown.
A second feature of rural women’s work, brought to light by gender-disaggregated data at the household level in villages across India surveyed by FAS, is that women from all sections of the peasantry, with some regional exceptions, participate in paid work outside the home. In thinking of the potential workforce, thus, we need to include women from almost all sections of rural households and not just women from rural labour or manual worker households.
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A third feature of our village-level findings is that younger and more educated women are often not seeking work because they aspire to skilled non-agricultural work, whereas older women are more willing to engage in manual labour.
A fourth feature of rural India is that women’s wages are rarely equal to men’s wages, with a few exceptions. The gap between female and male wages is highest for non-agricultural tasks — the new and growing source of employment.
Finally, an important feature of rural India pertains to the woman’s work day. Counting all forms of work — economic activity and care work or work in cooking, cleaning, child care, elderly care — a woman’s work day is exceedingly long and full of drudgery. In the FAS time-use survey, the total hours worked by women (in economic activity and care) ranged from 61 hours to 88 hours in the lean season, with a maximum of 91 hours (or 13 hours a day) in the peak season. No woman puts in less than a 60-hour work-week.
How did the lockdown affect employment for rural women? A rapid rural survey conducted by FAS showed that in large parts of the country where rain-fed agriculture is prevalent, there was no agricultural activity during the lean months of March to May. In areas of irrigated agriculture, there were harvest operations (such as for rabi wheat in northern India) but these were largely mechanised. In other harvest operations, such as for vegetables, there was a growing tendency to use more family labour and less hired labour on account of fears of infection. Put together, while agricultural activity continued, employment available to women during the lockdown was limited.
Employment and income in activities allied to agriculture, such as animal rearing, fisheries and floriculture were also adversely affected by the lockdown. Our village studies show that when households own animals, be it milch cattle or chickens or goats, women are inevitably part of the labour process. During the lockdown, the demand for milk fell by at least 25% (as hotels and restaurants closed), and this was reflected in either lower quantities sold or in lower prices or both. For women across the country, incomes from the sale of milk to dairy cooperatives shrank. Among fishers, men could not go to sea, and women could not process or sell fish and fish products.
Non-agricultural jobs came to a sudden halt as construction sites, brick kilns, petty stores and eateries, local factories and other enterprises shut down completely. In recent years, women have accounted for more than one-half of workers in public works, but no employment was available through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) till late in April. The first month of lockdown thus saw a total collapse of non-agricultural employment for women. In May, there was a big increase in demand for NREGS employment.
One of the new sources of women’s employment in the last few decades has been government schemes, especially in the health and education sectors, where, for example, women work as Anganwadi workers or mid-day meal cooks. During the pandemic, Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs, 90% of whom are women, have become frontline health workers , although they are not recognised as “workers” or paid a regular wage.
While the lockdown reduced employment in agriculture and allied activities and brought almost all non-agricultural employment to a standstill, the burden of care work mounted. With all members of the family at home, and children out of school, the tasks of cooking, cleaning, child care and elderly care became more onerous. There is no doubt that managing household tasks and provisioning in a situation of reduced incomes and tightening budgets will have long-term effects on women’s physical and mental health. The already high levels of malnutrition among rural women is likely to be exacerbated as households cope with reduced food intake.
As we emerge from the lockdown, it is very important to begin, first, by redrawing our picture of the rural labour market by including the contribution of women. While the immediate or short-run provision of employment of women can be through an imaginative expansion of the NREGS, a medium and longer term plan needs to generate women-specific employment in skilled occupations and in businesses and new enterprises. In the proposed expansion of health infrastructure in the country, women, who already play a significant role in health care at the grass-root level, must be recognised as workers and paid a fair wage. In the expansion of rural infrastructure announced by the Finance Minister, specific attention must be paid to safe and easy transport for women from their homes to workplaces.
As the lockdown is lifted, economic activity is growing but the young and old still remain at home. Further, as the COVID-19 infection spreads, given a higher likelihood of cases among men than women, the burden on women as earners and carers is likely to rise. We need immediate measures to reduce the drudgery of care work. To illustrate, healthy meals for schoolchildren as well as the elderly and the sick can reduce the tasks of home cooking.
It is time for women to be seen as equal partners in the task of transforming the rural economy.
Madhura Swaminathan is Professor at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute
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