Different Workplaces, Similar Exclusions: Women’s Work in India

What are the kinds of exclusion that women face at work? 

In January 2019, before the opening of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam released a report and said that the face of inequality in India is female. According to the report, the gender pay gap in India is currently at 34%.

The gender pay gap is the real-world, material consequence that women face owing to numerous forms of social discrimination. Whether it is because they have unequal access to education, or because of patriarchal social norms that define what kind of work is “suitable” for women, these kinds of discrimination have ensured that women’s wages have remained depressed as their labour is considered cheaper than that of men.

In this reading list, we look at the economic consequences these kinds of discrimination have had on women from different workplaces.

1) Mines: Exclusion from Economic Activities

Through a history of the mines in Raniganj, West Bengal, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt’s 2001 article traces how women went from being “gin girls,” that is, women who ran the steam engines, to scavengers, in a matter of a few decades. Her articles shows how technological and policy changes were responsible for pushing women, especially Adivasi and lower caste women, out of the productive labour force. From the beginning of the 20th century, the role of women in mines was reduced till they had to resort to scavenging.

Each change in production technology within the industry also had a gender impact: the changes effectively excluded and marginalised women, the extent of exclusion depending on how men’s interests, needs and hopes are disproportionately represented. Therefore, the impacts of technology changes have been experienced differently by women than men in collieries.

2) Tea Plantations: Exclusion from Political Organisation

Plantations have historically employed a high percentage of women workers, mainly because in the early stages, labour was hired on a family basis. Work on the plantation was divided in a gendered manner, because of which, convention now demands that more women be employed in picking tea-leaves while men are preferred for maintaining the estate. However, Kanchan Sarkar and Sharit K Bhowmik studied the participation of women in trade unions in the post-independence period and have argued that this gender segregation has been maintained, even now, because it allows the planters to keep the women’s wages low. According to Labour Bureau figures from the 1970s, it was found that 52% of the women employed in tea plantations were members of trade unions. But was this membership meaningful?

The high rate of membership of unions gives the impression that women were actively involved in the trade union movement. However, when we probed the reasons for joining unions we got a different picture. We found that the most common reason for joining a union was because the husband or the father of the woman was a member of that union. In the case of married women they became members of the unions their husbands belonged to. Unmarried women were influenced by their fathers' decision on the choice of the union. These reasons were given by 90 per cent of the sample. The other 10 per cent were influenced by the decisions of sons, brothers or male relatives. In fact we did not come across a single case where the choice of joining a particular union was determined by the woman's independent choice.

3) Agriculture: Exclusion from Productive Labour Force

There is a marked difference in women’s agricultural work depending on the agro-ecological zone that they are situated in. Female labour participation rates are significantly lower in regions that produce wheat as compared to regions that produce rice, where agriculture is more labour intensive. Among women agricultural labourers, Martha A Chen’s study has revealed that the landless wage labourers and land-poor cultivators find themselves especially disadvantaged because their dependence on agricultural wage labour is higher and increasing faster than men's while the demand for female labour has not increased.

Landless women wage labourers are the largest and most visible section of India's female labour force. They are, by definition, from the poorest rural households and, very often, from scheduled, backward, or tribal castes. Although often primary earners, they are almost invariably excluded from access to opportunities for training and mobility. They work for meagre wages at, often, sex-typed tasks. They suffer major disadvantages relative to men in their search for employment opportunities: segmented labour markets, lower real wages, and greater uncertainty and irregularity of employment.

4) Garment Manufacturing: Exclusion from Employment

The clothing industry in South Asia is notorious for being extremely labour-intensive. It is one of the largest absorbers of female labour. According to Deepita Chakravarty, the reason behind this, though the management never admits to it, is that women workers are ready to work for lower wages which cuts costs in a low-technology intensive industry. Through her research, she attempted to study the share of female employment at various levels of the garment industry, and found that women face discrimination when applying for higher levels of jobs because they are unable to access the same level of education as men. This inherent disprivilege is structural in nature, but it prevents employers from considering women as suitable candidates for higher positions.

In reaction to the question: do you prefer women workers in the higher categories as well, such as supervisor, the management reiterated that if they got an adequately educated young woman with experience they would definitely prefer the woman to a male candidate with similar background … This suggests, in the context of our sample, that the discrimination against women is not taking place within the labour market. It is the lack of education in general and technical education in particular that makes a woman less endowed and bars her entry into the industrial labour market.


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