• Bidisha Bhattacharya

Coronavirus endangers the livelihood of Women in the Informal Sector

Kabita, a 22-year-old woman, lives in a basti next to the posh residential complexes of Kolkata’s South City. She runs a family of five- a husband, who earns his livelihood from pulling rickshaws, an old mother-in-law suffering from arthritis, a widowed sister-in-law, and two children. After losing her job as a housekeeper in the nearby office premises, she decided to take up domestic work in two houses in order to sustain her family. It was at this time that COVID-19 kicked in. 

The nationwide lockdown and its consequent extensions did bloat an already bloated mammoth- Poverty. Kabita is just one exemplification of thousands of others who were asked by their employer to not come from the next day. Reasons? diverse indeed but somehow each one of them narrowed down to indicate the increasing form of injustices and disregard towards migrant domestic workers in the public domain. Systemic denial of not recognizing workers as in fact ‘workers’ in the informal sector have for decades left them at the mercy of the employer.

The sudden imposition of the lockdown on the 24th of March, 2020 with a meager four-hour notice spiked the unemployment to a percentage that remains beyond imagination. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment rates in April and May were over 23% in India, which was three times higher from the value last year. Well, it doesn’t halt here, the International Labour Organization report, 2020, has indicated that as a result of COVID-19, an estimated 400 million informal sector workers are at risk of crude poverty in this country. The gender that is most likely to bear the brunt of maximum job losses are women, solely due to the fact that much of their work surfaces within informal work arrangements. 

Statistics also reveal that India has recently recorded one of the most unequal gender division of household work. Going by the numbers of the first National Time Use Survey (TUS) (1998–99), women spend around 4.47 hours per week on direct care work, which comprises looking after children, elderly, sick, and disabled, while men spent only 0.88 hours per week. Owing to the gross imbalances in gender distribution of unpaid care work, the COVID-19 pandemic might worsen the situation by increasing women’s burden of domestic chores, unduly cuts, and lay-offs in employment. 

In India, because of women’s less acknowledged (and definitely unpaid) contribution towards many economic activities and also due to social reproduction, men have a hidden advantage in the labor market as they do not have to share the burden of domestic chores. The following table represents the percentage distribution of workers by employment status from 2011-12 to 2018-19:

The above-mentioned data clearly reveals that among the employed, self-employment remains the predominant source of sustainable livelihood for women, yet almost 31% of them have largely been working as unpaid family helpers in 2018-19. Furthermore, a significant chunk of the self-employed women have worked within the household premises, without having any fixed workplace and with less than six workers. If we pry into the data on women employees earning regular wages, there have been several of them who’ve had no written job contracts, weren’t eligible for any paid leave nor entitled to any social security benefits. Given this bitter reality of the dearth of a basic employer-employee relationship, it isn’t really surprising that women suffered the highest decline in unemployment. 

The COVID crisis kicked in when India was already suffering from rising unemployment with 87% of the workforce employed in the informal sector. In order to understand the magnitude of the detrimental impact women have faced, it’s important to have a detailed view of women’s employment distribution across industries along with a sectoral break-up. 

The above portrayal of data clearly deems Agriculture to remain the largest provider of employment for women. Although ILO has marked this sector under the low to a medium risk category, the sector in India remains largely informal to this day and women workers in this industry comprise of the largest group of landless laborers. Almost 14% of women are shown to have been involved in the manufacturing industry, one of the worst-hit sectors. Being a labor-intensive one, the industry employs low-skilled women workers and hence the recent drop in demand for non-essential goods leaves them susceptible to lay-offs. 

Even though sectors such as public administration, health, and education have been marked relatively low in terms of risk in job losses, yet many of these frontline health workers are employed as voluntary workers in public employment, namely the accredited social health activist (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers. They are recruited on a contractual basis and are not even paid wages but only an “honorarium,” significantly lower than the minimum wage. While we’re still on this topic, it’s also important to note that there are 10.6 million domestic workers in India, and 82% of them are employed in urban households with wages lower than the national minimum wage. 

With the number of COVID cases reaching record-high levels, the unfortunate situation of the women domestic workers along with the large unorganized informal sector may further worsen, pushing many into the vicious circle of poverty thereby subjecting them to dire consequences in the years to come.

This post was also published in bidisha.scrollstack.com

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