The fourth Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) (2020- 21) has been recently published and provides employment conditions in India for the period July 2020-June 2021. The survey of the last two rounds of PLFS (2019-20 and 2020-21) was interrupted due to the outbreak of the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, but the reference period was kept the same once the survey was resumed. The recent round of PLFS data shows a disturbing trend of increasing Workforce Participation Rate (WPR) and declining Unemployment Rate even after the impact of the pandemic and 68-day long strict lockdown and then partial lockdowns.
The WPR has increased from 49.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 55.2 per cent in 2020-21, and the increase is more in rural areas. The unemployment rate declined from 6.5 per cent to 4.6 per cent in the same period, with urban areas contributing to this decline more. Also, women have more contribution to this trend. An in-depth analysis of WPR across age groups indicates that more women of the 30-59 years age group participated in the rural job market from 2017-18 to 2020-21 compared to women of the younger age group (15-29 years). Data for the last two rounds (2019-20 to 2020-21) also portrayed the similar pattern. However, over time (2017-18 to 2020- 21), WPR increased for younger men relative to the other age groups.
It indicates that the Covid-19-induced job crisis and the drudgery of the rural women forced them to take up low-paid, informal work to supplement family incomes during a period of crisis. So, the nature of the work in which men and women are engaged in the pre- and post-pandemic period is worth exploring. Most men and women in the working age-group are self-employed and a deeper study of the employment category shows a sharp increase in the proportion of selfemployed women compared to men and more in rural areas relative to urban.
This is accompanied by the decline in the regular employment of women during the pandemic and post-pandemic periods. In the case of men, change in the category of employment over the years has not been very significant. Most of these self-employed men are own-account workers (i.e. running enterprises without any hired workers) while self-employed women in urban areas are largely own-account workers. However, in rural areas within the self-employed category, women are mostly engaged as unpaid family helpers (working in household business without getting any payment).
The engagement as own-account workers reflects the nature of work is not opportunitydriven, but necessity-driven and the engagement of women in rural areas as unpaid family helpers indicates the precarious employment condition. The change has been noticed in industry-wise employment as well during this period. Male employment has increased in the trade and hotel industry, and in construction with a marginal decline in agriculture, manufacturing, and other services sectors. In 2020-21, men were mostly engaged either as own-account workers or regular workers in the trade sector, but almost 80 per cent of them were casual labourers in non-public work.
On the contrary, in the recent period, women’s employment has increased by 8 per cent in the agricultural sector from 2017-18 to 2020-21 where mostly they are working as unpaid family helpers. It is associated with a decline of 14 per cent in manufacturing and 18 per cent in other services sectors, which can be explained by the reverse migration from urban to rural areas due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. A closer look at the average daily wage rate indicates that for the first time since the PLFS was launched, there was a significant decline in absolute and real wages for both men and women during the pandemic (2019-20). However, the decline in real wage was sharper in rural areas compared to urban and for men relative to women in 2019-20.
Moreover, the gender wage gap (as measured by women to men wage) has significantly increased over the last two years and the increase in gender wage gap was more in urban areas compared to rural. Between casual wage labourers and regular wage employees, the gender wage gap was larger for casual wage labourers but during the pandemic, the gender wage gap significantly increased for urban regular wage employees, and it had even deteriorated during the post-pandemic period i.e. 2020-21. Despite the increase in official WPR for women, the labour force statistics failed to capture a significant proportion of women who are engaged in unpaid domestic chores and other unpaid but essential activities.
In 2020-21, approximately 46 per cent and 58 per cent women were engaged in different unpaid activities in rural and urban areas respectively and the majority (29 per cent in rural and 51 per cent in urban) of them were involved in household chores such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the children and elderly. The detailed estimates of the participation rate and time spent in these unpaid domestic and caregiving services activities can be well studied from the All-India Time Use Survey 2019. According to the TUS (2019), women were primarily found responsible for the domestic chores spending long hours daily compared to their counterparts.
Within the unpaid domestic services, 87 per cent women of the productive age group were engaged in food management and preparation activity for household members spending more than two hours daily. Again, 75 per cent and 52 per cent women were also involved in cleaning and maintaining of own dwelling and surroundings and care and maintenance of textiles and footwear, where they spent more than five hours per day. In addition, women were majorly accountable for taking care of children and around 32 per cent were engaged in this compared to 15 per cent of men.
A more nuanced gender difference is observed in spending time in unpaid child care work as women spent more than two hours daily in the physical care of the child such as feeding, cleaning, etc. whereas men spent most of their time in meetings and arrangements with schools and child care service providers. Against the backdrop, the overall increase in women’s WPR, cannot be considered as an improvement in women’s employment conditions in India. A further and more detailed investigation of the quality of jobs created over the period unveils the darker side of the bitter truth. Thus, only looking into the increase in women’s WPR is absolutely misleading in India and more so during the pandemic period.
The above trends also indicate that even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, gender inequality was quite pervasive in the Indian labour market and the pandemic has simply aggravated it, which the WPR failed to capture. Furthermore, with an increase in self-employment for women, the government can think of supporting women’s start-ups by providing tax incentives and easy access to finance. Child care support and after-school child care are important from the lens of women’s economic participation and empowerment and universal availability of child care facilities to all women workers across organized and unorganised workers is the need of the hour. In a nutshell, our macroeconomic policies need to be more gender-responsive and the measures adopted now must also outlast Covid-19 and contribute to mitigating gender inequalities in the long term.