India - An Overview of Women's Work, Minimum Wages and Employment

An Overview of Women’s Work and Employment in India. Minimum wage, wages, labour employment, unemployment, women employment, working conditions, Labour market structure, Legislation, Labour relations, Literacy, Literacy and skill levels of female labour, etc...

Decisions for Life MDG3 Project Country Report No. 13

University of Amsterdam /Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS)
Maarten van Klaveren, Kea Tijdens, Melanie Hughie-Williams, Nuria Ramos Martin
Amsterdam, Netherlands, January 2010



This report provides information on India on behalf of the implementation of the DECISIONS FOR LIFE project in that country. The DECISIONS FOR LIFE project aims to raise awareness amongst young female workers about their employment opportunities and career possibilities, family building and the work-family balance. This report is part of the Inventories, to be made by the University of Amsterdam, for all 14 countries involved. It focuses on a gender analysis of work and employment.

History (2.1.1). After Independence, Prime Minister (PM) Nehru and the Congress Party pursued socialist-oriented economic policies. After Nehru’s death (1964), policies changed from urban industrial to agricultural development, continuing under PM Indira Gandhi. From 1984 on, PM Rajiv Gandhi encouraged science and technology and started to depart from socialist policies. After his death in 1991, a liberalisation process was put in motion, which has been supported by various government coalitions. From 2003 on, the Indian economy has shown high macro-economic growth figures.

Governance (2.1.2). In spite of a democratic system of government, a progressive Constitution and many laws to protect women’s rights, serious problems with compliance remain, especially in maintaining human and women’s rights. The position of women in politics is weak, though at top level there were and are remarkable exceptions. With the 2009 elections, women representation in the lower house of parliament increased to 11%. In recent years many women have been confronted with domestic violence and sexual harassment.

Prospects (2.1.3). The global economic crisis has had a rather modest impact on India’s economy, and the prospects for the country’s rebound seem bright. Yet, in 2008-09 the decline in manufacturing exports has caused serious problems for in particular women.

Communication (2.2). Telephone use is rapidly switching from fixed line to cellular phone networks. In 2009, already 365 of each 1,000 in the population used a cell phone. Internet coverage is growing but still low, with one in 12 surfing on the Internet. Television is a popular medium: over half of all households have a TV set. Cable TV proves to have emancipatory force, especially for rural women.

The sectoral labour market structure – Population and employment (2.3.1). Being slightly below 36%, women’s Labour Participation Rate (LPR) in 2008 was extremely low, whereas with 85% the male rate was high. LPRs hardly changed in the 2000s.

The sectoral labour market structure – Formal and informal employment (2.3.2). Less than 15% of all employed is currently working in the formal (in India: organised) sector, and less than 8% are formal (organised) workers. Just over half of the total labour force is self-employed. In 2008-09 about 50% of all employed worked in agriculture, 20% in manufacturing, and 30% in services.

The sectoral labour market structure – Unemployment (2.3.3). In recent years unemployment for women has gone up. Unemployment is highest among youngsters, with for girls and young women in 2006 official unemployment rates between 17 and 22%.

Legislation (2.4.1). India has ratified only four of eight core ILO Labour Conventions. In practice workers’ rights are only legally protected for the small minority working in the organised sector. Even formally the freedom of association is limited. Strikes are prohibited in the public sector. Child labour is widespread, and the number of child labourers estimated at 55-60 million.

Labour relations and wage-setting (2.4.2). The trade union landscape in India is complex and diversified. The union movement opposed liberalisation taking place after 1991, in which period centralized collective bargaining declined. We found that union membership in the 2000s remained at about 6.5% of the labour force. On average the female share in membership and decision-making remains low. In contrast, strongholds of female organizing have emerged as responses to problems in informal labour.

The statutory minimum wage (2.5.1). There is a complex system of statutory minimum wages (MW) in place, with 1,232 occupational and sectoral minimum wage rates. In practice, only average wages in the manufacturing part of the organised sector are above the MW level. In 2004-05 80% of casual workers and 31% of regular salaried/wage workers did not receive the MW, with the proportions of females even larger. Innovative is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a combination of a minimum wage provision and a public employment scheme.

Poverty (2.5.2). For 2005, it has been estimated that 76% of the population lived under the poverty line of USD 2 a day, and that 42% had to make ends meet with an income below USD 1.25 a day. The poverty gap remains relatively large. In and through the nationwide liberalisation process, the seven states with the lowest incomes are lagging behind. In 2006, India ranked 132nd on the human development index (HDI), six places below its GDP per capita rank.

Population and fertility (2.6.1). For over two decades the population growth rate is falling, but further decrease seems to stagnate. For 2005-2010 the growth projection is 1.5% per year. Due to the preference for sons the country’s sex ratio is 1.12 male/female. The total fertility rate (2.8-2.9 children per woman) and the adolescent fertility rate (90 per 1,000) are rather high. In 2006 the median age for women at first marriage was 17.8 years, and by then 42% of all Indian women aged 20-24 gave birth before age 20.

Health (2.6.2). In 2007, about 2.3 million Indians lived with HIV. Though HIV/AIDS is in India more a man’s disease, there is a shift going on toward women and young people. The country’s health disparities are large, also because of relatively low public expenditure on health.

Women’s labour market share (2.6.3). With 19% the female share in the organised sector is low. In both manufacturing and in commercial services about one in six employees was female. The public sector is by far the largest employer in the formal sector, employing 70% of all women engaged in that sector.

Agriculture (2.6.4). It is estimated that about 60% of all agricultural operations are handled exclusively by women. Female hourly wage rates in agriculture vary from 50 to 75% of male rates, and are too low to overcome absolute poverty. Working conditions are often appalling. Young women living in cities and trying to make a career rarely can rely on a “fall-back scenario” in which they can go back to their families living from agriculture.

Mining and manufacturing (2.6.5). Since the early 1990s, informalisation and casualisation of employment and decreasing wage rates show up as main trends. Thus, manufacturing has become a less promising source of employment for women.

Services (2.6.6). In the last two decades the service sector share in total employment doubled, and in 2004-2008 employment and export growth have even speeded up. The motor of growth is the IT/BPO industry. Yet, at the same time informalisation has grown: currently over seven in ten service employees are in informal labour. Women may comprise less than one third of the IT/BPO workforce but their share may soon increase.

Government (2.6.7). In spite of a recent decline in public sector employment, the share of females are gradually increasing at central, regional and local state levels. Relatively high wages and maternity and sickness benefits may make the public service attractive for young women.

Literacy (2.7.1). The adult literacy rate –those age 15 and over that can read and write—was in 2007 66%, with a considerable gender gap: the female literacy was 54.5% and the male 77.1%. For 2007 the literacy rate for 15-24-year-olds was set at 82.1%, with a smaller gender difference: 77.1% for young females and 86.7% for young males.

Education of girls (2.7.2). Girls are lagging behind in enrollment rates for all educational types. For 2006, combined gross enrollment in education was 61%, with 57.4% for girls. For 2007, international sources set net enrollment in primary education at 90%: 88% for girls and 91% for boys, but the drop-out rates were quite high. In the same year, gross enrollment in secondary education was 57%: 52% for females and 61% for males. And in tertiary education, 13% of the 17-25 of age were enrolled: 11% of females and 16% of males.

Female skill levels (2.7.3). The gender gap in educational level of the labour force is immense. Whereas in 2004-05 60% of the female employed was illiterate and 3.7% was graduated, these shares for the males labour force were less than 28% and nearly 8% respectively. Nevertheless, the female shares of graduated were higher than the male shares in banking and finance; real estate and business services, and transport. Among the 15-29 of age, the gender gap was considerably smaller. We estimate the current size of the target group of DECISIONS FOR LIFE for India at about 1.8 million girls and young women 15-29 of age working in urban areas in commercial services.

Wages (2.8.1). We found for 2004-05 the very large gender pay gap of 57% in the formal (organised) sector. Comparisons with the unorganised sector showed that wages rates here were 20-30% of those in the organised sector, though wage rates varied widely across states and activities. Among casual workers, gender pay gaps showed up of 35-37%.

Working conditions (2.8.2). In 2000 female employees in the organised sector made longer hours than their male colleagues: an average working week of 48.1 hours against 46.3. Between 2000 and 2006, the average working week of females has been shortened by 1.3 hours, whereas the male working week has been prolonged by 0.5 hours.


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