01 April Wednesday

Crisis of Women’s Employment Deepens under Modi

SaveraUpdated: Sunday Jun 30, 2019

ONLY about 22 per cent of women of working age (defined as 15 years of age or more) were gainfully employed; unemployment among women has doubled and women’s wages/salaries languish at half to two thirds of what men doing similar jobs get. These are some of the shocking revelations contained in the recently released report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) for 2017-18, carried out by the government. It may be recalled that the report was ready in December 2018 but the Modi government deliberately suppressed it till after the general elections.

Women’s participation in the work force at 22 per cent is the lowest in decades, down from about 31 per cent in 2011-12, as estimated by the 68th Round of NSSO survey. In 2004-05 it was 41.6 per cent, double the level in 2017-18. India already had low women’s work participation but it has sunk to a new low, one of the lowest in the world. It is 61 per cent in China, 55 per cent in Russia, 51 per cent in the European Union, 57 per cent in North America and the world average is 48 per cent. 

These latest estimates are for what is called the ‘usual status (principal+subsidiary)’ which means that any woman who worked for a large part of the preceding year in an occupation as well as those who worked in subsidiary occupations (for more than 30 days in the year) are included as employed. This is a rather nebulous definition and includes a large number of under-employed women. Despite that, the remarkably small share of women in work highlights the deteriorating problem of women’s employment in the country. No government, whether the current one in its previous tenure or earlier ones have seriously addressed this tragic situation.

This has happened during the tenure of the first Modi government. Coming in the background of a worsening jobs crisis, the plummeting women’s employment rate shows that it is women who have borne the brunt of the jobs crisis that Modi presided over. Not only did Modi and his government fail to boost public investment, push industrialisation and relieve farm distress, it had no clue about how to increase women’s jobs.


Are women unwilling to work, as is often argued by apologists for the government? Other information in the PLFS report contradicts this view. As the chart below shows, women’s unemployment, that is, the share of women who are seeking work but unable to find it, has increased precipitously in the past few years.

In rural areas, where the bulk of women stay, joblessness has doubled from 1.7 per cent in 2011-12 to 3.8 per cent in 2017-18, according to the PLFS 2017-18.  In urban areas too it has doubled in that period from 5.2 per cent to 10.8 per cent.

Not just this, among educated women (those with secondary level education or more), unemployment rate was a stunning 17.3 per cent in rural areas and 19.8 per cent in urban areas. Among young women, that is those in the 15-29 years age group, unemployment was 13.6 per cent in rural areas and a staggering 27.2 per cent in urban areas. 

If one in five educated women and one in three young women are available and seeking work, this can hardly be a situation where women don’t want to work. The reality is that women do want work but are unable to get opportunities. Available work is too low paying (see below) or too unsafe and unsecure. In addition, women have to face patriarchal resistance from family members who still hold the regressive view that women should remain confined to their homes and not stir outside.

According to the survey, the share of working women goes up in richer families. Among the poorest 10 per cent of families, just 16.5 per cent women work in rural areas while among the richest 10 per cent families, the share increases to 19.7 per cent. Similarly, in urban areas, the share of working women goes up from 11 per cent in the poorest to nearly 20 per cent in the richest families.

So, what are the rest of the women doing? The bulk of them are no longer in the labour force, that is, they are not seeking jobs. They confine themselves to domestic duties, which in India include such drudgery as collecting firewood or fetching water, as also looking after cattle. Needless to say, they also do all the care work at home.

This situation was there earlier too but in recent years, the decline in work opportunities and specifically, the decline in farm jobs due to deep agrarian crisis, has pushed more and more women back into the four walls of stultifying domesticity.


Compelled by the pressing need to supplement family incomes in these times of economic crisis, some women do go out to work but find that the wage or salary levels are shockingly low, as can be seen in the table below, drawn from the PLFS report.

Note that even among the regular wage or salary earners, women’s monthly earnings are 34 per cent less than men’s in rural areas and 19 per cent less in urban areas. The biggest difference in earnings is in the vast self-employed sector where women’s earnings are less than half of men’s in both rural and urban areas. This is because these self-employed women workers usually run their own small enterprises like petty shops or they are service providers of all kinds, assisting in the main work being done by the men folk, with hardly any demarcated earning. Also, many of the very small shops (like selling candies or tobacco products or vegetables) is left to women while the men go for other work.

The main employment for women in the self-employed category comes from personal and other services which employ over 44 per cent women in urban areas and about 9 per cent in rural areas. These are all the maids, cooks, ayahs, housekeepers, sanitation workers, press walis, and similar service providers that smoothen the lives of families with disposable incomes. Women are also employed by government in large numbers in out-sourced care work like health workers, anganwadi workers, cooks in schools, nurses etc – all of them at very low wages and no job security.

According to the PLFS, women’s employment in the manufacturing sector has stagnated at around 8 per cent in rural areas and about 25 per cent in urban areas for the past nearly one and a half decades. Construction, which was once a  big source of women’s employment, appears to no longer be in good shape as, in rural areas, women’s employment has declined from 6.6 per cent in 2011-12 to 5.6 per cent in 2017-18, while in urban areas it has practically stagnated at around 4 per cent.

What the latest data from this PLFS unequivocally establishes is that while the overall employment situation is dire (with joblessness at 6.1 per cent), women continue to suffer the brunt of this crisis with higher rates of unemployment, lesser opportunities and continued lower wages. And, the present government – like all its predecessors – has no clue about how to solve this crisis. Unfortunately, with a government that believes that women are best suited to decorate homes, serve their husbands and rear children, not much can be expected in terms of resolving this crisis.