Vol. XL No. 35 August 28, 2016

Neo-liberal Reforms Accentuate Miseries of Women


In June this year, the union cabinet approved a special package for the textile and apparel sector claiming that ‘it has the potential for social transformation through women empowerment, since 70 percent of the workforce in the garment industry is women, majority of the new jobs created are likely to go to women’. This package was aimed at increasing exports by improving cost competitiveness and to overtake countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam. Several incentives were given to the employers to achieve cost competitiveness. Government will pay their share of Provident Fund; income tax norms have been relaxed. In addition, labour laws also have been made flexible. Overtime work has been increased; EPF is made optional; fixed term employment is introduced on the pretext that the garment sector is ‘seasonal’.

A few days later, the union cabinet finalised the Model Shops and Establishments (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Bill, 2016 and sent it to the state governments for their adoption. This again was claimed to boost job opportunities for women by doing away with ‘protective discrimination’ and allowing night shift work. Highly skilled workers would be ‘exempted’ from restrictions of working hours; overtime work is increased. One of the important objectives was to encourage competition between state governments in improving the ease of doing business.

These measures indicate government’s attitude towards women workers in the era of neo-liberal globalisation. While ‘women empowerment’, ‘job creation’, ‘poverty eradication’ etc have become part of the rhetoric of the advocates of neo-liberal policies, the real objective is to help profit maximisation for the employers by attacking the hard won rights of the workers, including women workers. Labour law ‘reforms’, measures to improve ‘ease of doing business’, incentives to ‘Make in India’, ending the illusory ‘inspection raj’ through ‘Shrameva Jayate’, etc are all interventions by the State under the neo-liberal regime to achieve this objective.

The fact is that female labour force participation rate has been continuously declining in our country under the neo-liberal agenda. Nearly two crores women, most of them in agriculture have lost their work between 2004-5 and 2011-12, when the country has registered relatively higher rates of growth. This decline happened across all age groups, across all education levels and in both urban and rural areas, contradicting the argument that women’s labour force participation has come down mainly because more women are going for higher education. In 2015, India had one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the entire world, ranking 120th among the 131 countries for which data were available. Neo-liberal reforms certainly have not helped in job creation for Indian women on the whole.

Most of the jobs that women got during this period are far from the ‘decent jobs’ as defined by the ILO. 96 percent women are in the informal sector; huge majority are employed as contract, casual, daily wage or temporary workers, which has become predominant today. Agriculture, which still employs over 80 percent of women workers, is in crisis. Traditional sectors like cashew, coir, plantations, fisheries etc in which large number of women are employed are suffering because of the different Free Trade Agreements and the global recession, resulting in the loss of employment for lakhs of women.

Women are highly concentrated in the unpaid segment of the self employed that includes production of goods and services for exchange, production of goods for own consumption and activities related to household production in the capacity of a labourer or a supervisor. Despite making huge contribution to national production, they do not receive any wages or personal incomes and are compelled to be economically dependent. This is one of the most significant factors in the continuation of the inferior status of women in our society and finds expression in the persistent discrimination against them within the family and at the work place every day.

Since the global economic crisis, jobs for women employed in manufacture have become more volatile and insecure. Due to decline in demand, many traditional household industries have closed down. The manufacturing jobs outsourced to home based workers, large numbers of whom are women, have also come down. Only a small proportion of the urban women workers employed in the services sector have permanent jobs. Vast majority, in the private sector, are employed under informal contracts. One sector where there is a huge increase in employment was as domestic workers who do not have any job security, income security or social security.

Another feature since the advent of neo-liberal policies in the country is the vast expansion in the number of scheme workers. Most of the around one crore workers, working in different schemes of the government of India, like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Health Mission (NHM), Mid-day Meal Programme, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, National Rural Livelihood Mission, etc are women. The government refuses to recognise them as  workers, instead, calls them ‘social workers’, ‘activists’, volunteers’, ‘friends’ etc to avoid minimum wages, social security benefits etc to them. Most of these schemes are meant to provide basic services like education, health, nutrition etc to the poor, particularly women and children of our country. Women, who are generally responsible for providing these services in the families, are made to do the same for the society without due recognition and remuneration. The government which should act as a ‘model employer’ acts as a ‘model exploiter’ under the neo-liberal agenda. Attempts to privatise and dismantle these schemes have gained momentum recently. The present BJP government has drastically cut down budgetary allocation to these schemes. This would worsen the conditions of crores of poor women, as beneficiaries as well as workers.

While overwhelming majority of women working in the unorganised sector are outside the purview of Equal Remuneration Act, Maternity Benefit Act and the Factories Act etc, the restrictions imposed on labour inspections, ensure that even those who are eligible are denied these benefits. According to the data provided by the Labour Bureau in April 2013, the gap between the wages of men and women in several activities has widened in the last decade.

44 central labour laws are being clubbed into 5 labour codes on the pretext of simplification of labour laws. The Labour Code on Wages in which the Equal Remuneration Act is included, only talks about equal wages for women. It is silent on other types of discrimination related to promotion, training, transfer etc, which are covered by the Equal Remuneration Act. Equal Remuneration Act and Maternity Benefit Act are among the 14 labour laws sought to be exempted under the proposed Small Factories Act. The increase in paid maternity leave to 26 weeks through a recent amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act would mean little to most of the women workers. Over 70 percent of the already small proportion of workers, who are now covered by these Acts, would be thrown out of coverage when the Small Factories Bill is passed. The government itself does not provide paid maternity to the lakhs of Midday meal workers, ASHAs, para teachers etc working in its schemes. Lakhs of women employed in the Special Economic Zones too are denied maternity benefit.

The hollowness of the government’s claims of ‘women empowerment’ while diligently following the neo-liberal agenda was exposed when lakhs of women came out into the streets against the restrictions on PF withdrawals. Over fifteen thousand women garment workers of Brandix in the Atchyutapuram Special Economic Zone near Visakhapatnam and lakhs of garment  workers in Bengaluru and other districts in Karnataka were up in arms against the government notification prohibiting withdrawal of PF money till 58 years and forced the government to withdraw the notification. Though the measure affected both men and women, women garment workers were more agitated because they are compelled to shift companies and jobs very frequently and needed the money to meet several domestic necessities like children’s education, marriage, medical expenses etc.  

No new social security benefit has been formulated for the workers in the unorganised sector, large number of them women, under the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. No national fund has been created. The government does not contribute a single rupee for the ‘Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana’, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Suraksha Bima Yojana’ or the ‘Atal Pension Yojana’ announced with huge fanfare last year. In fact, they are only modified versions of the already existing schemes like the Aam Admi Bima Yojana, which had government contribution, while the new schemes have none.

Neo-liberal policies of globalisation with their focus on commodification and commercialisation of everything including human relationships, feelings, the vulgar depiction of women and their bodies etc have highly aggravated the violence which is already prevalent in the patriarchal society. There has been a horrendous increase in violence against women and girls in the recent period. Single women, unmarried, widowed, deserted etc seeking employment, particularly in urban areas, have become highly vulnerable to such harassment.

The increasing violence against women is also a reflection of the intolerance against women claiming public space and joining the race for the shrinking jobs under the neo-liberal regime. It reflects the chauvinist attitude towards the few women who are in a position to assert their economic independence irrespective of whether they really do so or not, indicating the still widely prevalent patriarchal attitudes in the society towards women.

As in other sections of working people, the discontent among women against the impact of neo-liberal policies on their lives is growing. Lakhs of women have been participating in the struggles against the attacks on their livelihood and living conditions. Huge numbers of women have joined the earlier country wide general strikes called by the trade union movement. Different sections of women, working in the factories and offices, will be participating in the country wide general strike on September 2 this year. They will be joined by the women agricultural workers and peasants working in the fields. Such struggles on all aspects that impact the lives of women have to be further intensified with still larger participation from all sections of people till the neo-liberal policies are defeated. That alone will help in advancing the struggle for emancipation of women and men from all exploitation as well as social oppression.