Women and work

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

PROFESSOR Jayati Ghosh has written a very useful and important book, happily of modest length and for the most part, of easy readability. The sixth in the Feminist Fineprint series brought out by the publisher Women Unlimited, the book provides an excellent exposition of several important dimensions of womens work in contemporary India, against the background of the processes of economic globalisation internationally and the political economy of Indias economic reforms.

The author begins by describing the international context of womens work. She goes on to provide a crisp overview of the nature of economic growth in India over the past two decades and more, focussing especially on the period of neoliberal reforms, and examines the changes in the patterns of employment that have been a part of this growth. She then discusses the conceptual issues in the assessment of womens work, in terms of both its qualitative and measurement aspects.

This is followed by an examination, in succession, of wage-paid work by women in the private sector, womens paid work with the state as the employer and women in self-employment. Jayati Ghosh then turns to examine the role of migration in the case of women and follows this up with a discussion of the enormous amounts of unpaid work that women do, while simultaneously seeking and not finding wage-paid or otherwise income-earning employment.

In the concluding chapter, Jayati Ghosh provides a succinct summary of her findings and their significance before ending with the hope that vibrant womens movements will help address the issues of exploitation of women in all forms of labour in contemporary society. The contemporary world economy is characterised by the attempt of large capital in the form of transnational capitalist entities to hegemonise international economic relations, exercise control over the use of resources across the globe, and set the rules of the game for all nations in all matters pertaining to trade in goods and services, investment policies, fiscal and monetary policies, labour market policies, and so on.

This effort is, of course, primarily directed at the poorer countries, with the rich countries left free to flout the very rules of the game they seek to impose on other countries through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various international fora as well as regional trade agreements. A specific feature of the contemporary world capitalist economy is the dominance of capital as finance, which bulldozes its way across country borders at will.

While the equations among the major powers in the global economy may be changing, and some new players such as China (and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and India) may be emerging as important players, the dominance of finance capital remains a key feature. The weakening of the U.S. economy and its constraints in playing the leadership role may imply a period of instability ahead for global capitalism, especially in the current context of a deep recession, but all this does not change the broad contours of the global capitalist system.

Jayati Ghosh notes that broader changes in the international economy have significant implications for national and international labour markets. In particular, the dominance of finance capital and the consequent constraints on the ability or willingness of the state to mobilise resources to enhance employment has implied much higher levels of open unemployment, including in developing countries where hardly any social security system exists, thus implying far greater hardship for working people.

The decline in formal-sector employment, which characterises the current phase of capitalism in the developing world, has been associated with the proliferation of workers into the informal sector, especially in the low-wage, low-productivity occupations.

The emergence of global production chains, aided by rapid changes in technology, especially in the information and communication technology sector, and the presence of a large number of skilled but cheap manpower in some of the poorer countries have led to a dualistic situation where a small proportion of the labour force in these countries finds employment with transnational corporations while the vast majority is pushed even further into informalisation and unemployment. The early predictions, based on a certain reading of the East Asian experience, that relocation of production by transnational entities will lead to vast expansion of factory-sector employment in the poor countries, especially for women, have since been belied.

What has emerged in many cases is a variety of putting-out arrangements with production operations decentralised to the household and women emerging as an especially cheap source of labour, willing to drive themselves to great degrees of self-exploitation to obtain meagre incomes based on extremely low piece rates.

Jayati Ghosh makes a telling reference to the emergence and market domination of manufacturers without factories, as multinational firms such as Nike and Adidas effectively rely on a complex system of outsourced and subcontracted production.

These changes in the international and national labour markets have a number of largely negative implications for women, which she spells out.

The Indian economy has grown rapidly in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) since at least 1980. Growth of GDP has been even more rapid in the recent past, especially the period 2004-08. However, a key feature of the growth in the period of economic reforms since 1991 has been its poor record in terms of employment creation. The other important concern has been the very poor performance of the agrarian and rural economy, and the severe agrarian crisis that has been with us for a decade now.

Jayati Ghosh demonstrates, using data from the National Sample Surveys, that employment growth has been much slower in the period 1993-94 to 2004-05 than in the period 1983 to 1993-94. Though the growth rate of employment in the more recent period, 1999-2000 to 2004-05, has been higher, the bulk of it has been in the category of self-employment. Data also show that earnings in self-employment are typically abysmally low. Between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, real wages for those regularly employed have been stagnant, while those for casual workers, both male and female, show marginal improvement in rural areas but none in urban areas.

It is especially striking that stagnation in wages, even in the formal sector, has been accompanied by substantial increases in productivity. The implication of this is that the benefits of the rise in labour productivity went largely to what Jayati Ghosh calls the surplus earners in the organised manufacturing sector, though the more apt term would have been surplus receivers. All this means that the employers have been on a strong wicket in the labour market in the reform period.

Jayati Ghosh argues that while the direct and formally recognised involvement of women in the economy stagnated, home-based sub-contracting activities or work in very small units that do not even constitute factories, often on piece rate basis and usually very poorly paid and without any known non-wage benefits, have probably substituted to some extent for the more standard form of regular employment on a regular wage or salary basis. In the case of urban workers outside of agriculture, she shows that (in 2004-05) women working as domestic servants number more than three million, and account for more than 12 per cent of all women workers in urban India. Hardly a sign of a vibrant, dynamic economy bringing women into visible and valued employment.

Average real wages for both regularly and casually employed women workers fell between 1999-2000 and 2004-05. There is also an increase in the gender gap in wages across all categories, except among urban casual workers, for which category the gap was quite large to begin with. If the situation for wage-paid employment for women was so unsatisfactory, was the situation any different in public sector employment? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Jayati Ghosh makes the important point that the recent trend at the level of both the Central and the State governments has been towards eliminating permanent jobs and moving to contract-based employment on terms that are unfavourable to the worker. This is especially true of employment of women in government. Whether it is low-paid, poorly trained para-teachers in education under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in its alternative education centres or the scandal of treating anganwadi workers in the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme as volunteer workers, so that they can be denied a decent daily minimum wage, or the new category of accredited social health activist (ASHA) in the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), who is again called a voluntary worker, the pattern is the same: in line with the dominant patriarchal perception of womens work, employ women in demanding occupations on poor wages.

Quite apart from the injustice to women that this implies, it also has extremely negative implications for the quality of implementation of these important public service programmes. The tasks of the ASHA as set out in the NRHM and listed by Jayati Ghosh (pages 94-96) drive home the argument very well.1

The author has an illuminating discussion of women in self-employment, which should serve to disabuse anybody who thinks of self-employment as automatically empowering the woman, since it is presumably being ones own boss. She shows that a large part of the increase in womens self-employment and therefore in employment as a whole is a distress-driven phenomenon, led by the inability to find adequately gainful paid work.

Noting that one of the consequences of the employment and agrarian crises in the reforms period is that it has compelled working people to migrate in search of employment even under the most adverse terms, Jayati Ghosh makes a strong case for a humane policy framework in respect of migration. She also draws attention to the positive role that schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) can play. One could make a compelling case for a similar scheme for urban areas in the context of the current recession.

What is the upshot of all the different trends pertaining to womens employment in terms of self-employment, wage employment, unpaid labour and unemployment? As Ghosh points out, during the recent period, all these seem to have increased simultaneously.

As she puts it, we have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work. These, as she points out, indicate the reduced economic and social bargaining power of women as workers in neoliberal India.

It is difficult to do justice to Jayati Ghoshs book in a short review. It is written in a manner that is accessible to both the lay reader and the activist, and has enough to stir debate among academics. I would strongly recommend the book as a worthwhile but not always easy read.

1. I recall being in a seminar where a senior officer of the Indian Administrative Service claimed that the ICDS worked well precisely because the anganwadi workers were designated as "volunteers". When some of us suggested that if this were the case, perhaps the IAS officers could also be so designated and their service conditions modified accordingly, the officer in question was not too pleased.

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