Editorials, GS-1, Uncategorized

What works for Women at Work

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In an attempt to arrest the declining rates of female work participation, the Union Government recently came out with a slew of measures including the increase maternity leave.

  • Under the new rules, maternity leave has been increased from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This has also been extended to all women workers in both public and private employment.
  • Also, it is now mandatory for all establishments with 30 women workers or 50 total workers to provide crèche facilities for their employees, either at the premises or within half a kilometre.

Significance of these announcements:

With the announcement of these measures, it appears that the Central government has begun to recognise that women workers need adequate maternity protection. These are definitely welcome measures and are good responses to low and declining rates of female work participation.

  • This move is predicated on the fact that six months of breastfeeding is important to combat malnutrition, diarrhoea, and other diseases in infants and to lower the infant mortality rate. The International Labour Organisation recommends a minimum standard maternity leave of 14 weeks but encourages states to go beyond that.
  • This decision also aims to implement WHO and the Union ministry of health and family welfare guidelines, which emphasise that a baby needs to be nursed by its mother for a minimum of six months.
  • These announcements have put India in a better position than many other countries like the US, though still far behind more enlightened countries in northern and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia. Some countries like Canada and Australia even provide a year of parental leave, which can be shared between parents.
  • This is also step towards somewhat easing the double burden that working mothers face.

Worldwide practices:

Worldwide there is no set standard and many countries, especially the developed world, have gone just beyond maternity leaves.

  • From April 2015, parents in Britain have been made eligible to share 12 months of leave after the birth of a child.
  • In Sweden, they have enjoyed that right since 1974.
  • In Asia, Japan offers a year’s unpaid leave to each parent and South Korea allows both parents partially paid parental leave for up to one year.
  • In Europe, new mothers mostly get between 14 and 22 weeks, and new fathers between two days (Greece) and three months (Italy) of paid leave.

Why we need such measures?

India stands out in the world because of shockingly low rates of recognised work participation by women (around 24%) that have even declined over the past decade. This obviously represents a huge economic loss for the country — but it is also a sign of the continuing low status of women and their lack of agency in Indian society.

  • Also, at the moment, only around 10% of the 60 million or so women in India who are recognised as workers have jobs in the organised sector. And even many of those have informal contracts, with little or no social protection.
  • Most of the millions of women working in the unorganised sector, as regular workers in small establishments or in domestic work or as casual workers earning daily wages or as self-employed workers, currently do not get any kind of paid maternal leave.
  • According to a 2015 McKinsey report, if by 2025, India can increase women’s participation in the labour force by just 10% points, thereby bringing in about 68 million more women, the country’s GDP can increase substantially.

Current position of women in India:

Most women in India are involved not in paid employment but in unpaid work in their homes or communities. Such work is socially necessary but unsung and unrewarded — everything from cooking and cleaning to looking after the young, the old and the sick, to collecting fuel wood and water for households, to tending gardens and livestock, and so on.

  • Surprisingly, during the recent economic boom in India, official data suggests that more women have moved from paid or recognised employment to doing unpaid work in their households. There are many factors behind this peculiar tendency. One among them is – When family incomes improve even slightly, women may be less inclined to try and do both.

Difficulties faced by working women in India:

  • First of all, the sheer inadequacy of job creation in the economy makes it hard for women to find suitable jobs. Gender gaps in education also work against them. For less skilled women, available paid jobs tend to be physically arduous and pay much lower wages than for men.
  • There are also difficulties of managing domestic responsibilities along with the paid jobs, given the unequal division of household work between men and women within families. The double burden of paid work and unpaid work creates extreme time poverty for working women.
  • Patriarchal attitudes within families and social restriction on mobility also act against them.
  • Concerns are also there about commuting time and about security at work and during the commute.

Other measures required:

Unfortunately, most labour laws in India are honoured only in the breach, and there is little or no serious attempt to enforce them, especially among private employers. Indian working women would be in a better position only if theselaws are actually implemented.

  • To make a real difference, public intervention has to be wider and more ambitious. It has to address the huge issue of unpaid work, by taking measures to recognise it through systematic and regular time-use surveys that capture people’s activities.
  • The government must also try to address concerns about women’s security in public places and workplaces. It has to focus on education that reduces the number of female dropouts and improves quality.
  • It has to work towards reducing the huge gender gaps in wages in most activities. Without serious attempts on all these fronts and on enforcement, these newly declared measures will seem like tokenism.
  • Article 42 of the Constitution which guarantees maternity benefits to all working women will be executed in full only when the benefit is extended to the numerous young poor women who work as housemaids or contract labour, and are denied even 12 weeks leave.

Negative implications of these announcements:

While the government’s move is a positive one, private companies could accuse it of too much interference. Many also argue that it would make companies think twice before hiring women employees, especially because Maternity Leaves would be paid leaves. However, this problem can be tackled by following the Singapore model. In Singapore, Women in the city-state get 16 weeks of maternity leave with the employer paying for eight weeks and the next eight reimbursed to the employer by the government.

Other concerns:

This has brought cheer to working women in the private sector, but concerns have been raised on its implications for both, employers and women employees, and all is not expected to be smooth sailing.

  • The major concern is that of affordability for smaller companies that may struggle to meet the increased financial burden of providing longer paid maternity leave.
  • It is also anticipated that women will lose touch with work-related developments, become distracted by baby and family, and lag behind on resuming work.
  • Further, being limited to the organised sector, the proposal may benefit less than a quarter of working women. The proposal may also affect the employability of women in general and that of young married women in particular, as they may be dismissed, not hired or otherwise discriminated against.
  • The liberalised leave may also make the beneficiary spend more time on domestic work than nurturing the child. Besides, it may even tempt her to take up a part-time job elsewhere to meet the financial needs of the family.

Conclusion:

Leaving a job to raise a family is a compromise that women are often required to make in our society. It is not a willing choice for a majority. Therefore, better maternity benefits will help women follow their career goals while raising a family. Public and private employers in the country should gradually adopt women-friendly policies. Some of the ways this could be done is by offering a light workload, flexible or reduced working hours, and work from home facility for the first few weeks after the woman resumes work. Such support is known to result in sustained work-life balance, peace of mind and enhanced productivity.

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