THE Union Budget 2017-18 was preceded by the Economic Survey, 2017-18 which comprehensively outlines the long term economic strategy of the government. Though the survey is rigorously researched and referenced by the chief economist, it displays a strong ideological commitment and focus to pushing India into the next phase of neo-liberal reforms, both in terms of policy and societal changes. As the introductory section underlines, here are “lessons here (in the analysis within the survey) for inefficient redistribution, and the legitimacy of the private sector and the state that may prove crucial as India moves along on the next stage of its economic journey. One such is that further reforms are not just a matter of overcoming vested interests that obstruct them. Broader societal shifts in underlying ideas and vision will be critical. Ideas rule (Economic Survey, p 51).
Within this broader framework, whose main aim is to promote measures for the promotion of India as a leader amongst the ‘emerging countries’, women workers form an important part of the medium and long term strategy for achieving this goal. So what is the place of women workers within the vision of economic development promoted by the Economic Survey? This question is answered by two crucial chapters titled “Clothes and Shoes: Can India Reclaim Low Skill Manufacturing?” and “India on the Move and Churning: New Evidence” which will be considered in the foregoing discussion.
WOMEN WORKERS & WAGE HIERARCHIES
The survey identifies clothes and shoes as the two main sectors which will create jobs with greater exports. In particular it underlines the fact that women will be the main beneficiaries of such job creation in these sectors and also provide the industry with a competitive advantage because they will work for low wages. In other words the Indian policy makers should accept that the wage hierarchy exists and within the emerging economies, India holds a special place because it provides low skill and cheap labour to the export oriented apparel and leather industries. Hence, according to the survey the government should market itself as a hub of low wage labour intensive hub of industrialisation and expand its market share in the apparel and footwear industry. In this sense the authors of the survey end up justifying the low wages and poor working conditions in these two industries, and also make a virtue of what is in fact a shameful trend in the oppressive nature of export-oriented capitalism.
The argument placed by the government in the survey is a weak justification for the unwillingness of the ruling classes to regulate the high profits in the export oriented industry. Instead it is covering up the highly illegal and unfair practices of the industry and turning the attention away from the ill treatment to which women workers are subjected. It is well known that about 36 percent of the workforce in apparel and 47 percent of the workforce in footwear comprises of women. Many of these women are informal factory workers who face rampant violence in the workplace. A 2016 survey of the Karnataka Apparel industry by the Sisters for Change (SFC) showed that at least sixty percent of the women surveyed in garment factories faced frequent physical and verbal abuse from their employers. The alarming finding from this report is that one in every sixteen women face virtual daily abuse and one in seven women have been are forced to have sexual intercourse. This abuse augments the already pathetic working conditions of these workers. The survey argues that women get $ 90 per month in the apparel industry, but the SFC reports show that the monthly income is not higher than $ 71 which is the basic minimum wages. The vulnerability of the homeworkers is even higher.
The story in the footwear industry is similar. Most of the women stitching shoes are home workers who are paid a piece rate of about 10 pence a shoe. The same shoe is sold in United Kingdom from $40-$60. At the same time occupational safety concerns are totally ignored. Women workers from Ambur in Tamil Nadu and Agra report that after stitching shoes the whole day they are unable to even do their housework. In factories they sit in a crouched position and are unable to stand straight after a whole days work. In the tanneries, which have even more precarious conditions women workers often complain of abuse and occupationally unsafe working conditions. In the Tamil Nadu tanneries, most of these women are migrants from North and East India and are often isolates and subjected to sexual abuse of the employers. Given these abysmal conditions, it would have been more appropriate for the government to address the concerns of these workers rather than market their pathetic state as a competitive advantage through the Economic Survey.
An aspect which the Survey has focused on is migrant workers. The authors of the Survey argue that their estimate is that there have been about 60 million inter-state migrants and 80 million inter-district migrants in the country within the last one decade. Of these a significant proportion are women and rate of migration of women workers between 2001 and 2011 is higher than male migration, even though men remain the bulk of the migrants. Predictably the Survey argues that migration is aspirational and brings employment opportunities. This conclusion asserts that migration shows the progress of the economy as a whole and of rural workers in particular. Hence there is a need to recognise the need for portable cards and digital cash transfers in order to facilitate migration.
The survey once again pushes the neo-liberal argument that all migration is voluntary and good for the worker. But as several studies have shown, most migration is forced and distress migration. The increasing female migration in the last decade reflects a larger rural crisis where employment is not available where people live. Further several cases of abuse have also been recorded as far as migration for construction, domestic work and brick kilns is concerned. Now added to this is the garment sector where the export houses of Bangalore isolate migrant women workers, thus making them more vulnerable.
Given the discussion above it is obvious that ameliorating the conditions of women workers by providing them recognition as workers, adequate social security and improving their bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers is necessary. However the budget does none of this, rather the survey sells their pathetic condition in a manner that leads to high profiteering by exporters. Hence there is an urgent requirement to understand the full import of the economic vision of the government for demystifying its real intentions.