When World War II started, one of the important changes in the labour market was a sudden increase in the female labour force participation rate. When the men went out to fight the war, the idea of women, mostly middle class women, going out and working became acceptable. It is noteworthy that poorer and lower-middle class women were already working outside the domestic sphere.However, as the war ended, the women lost their jobs and the rates returned to the pre-war period. Female labour was at the mercy of the availability of male labour, except in certain sectors.
Years after the war, the picture has not changed much. The existing sexual division of labour excludes women from high paying jobs and forces them into unequal marriages with men. This in turn builds an environment where unpaid care and domestic work become normalised. While working outside the house has become somewhat acceptable, women often cannot escape the domestic responsibilities of care and unpaid work.
The COVID-19 pandemic, like theSecond World War, will remain one of the most significant eventsin human history. And similar to the war, the pandemic has also heavily changed the labour market for women owing to the sexual division of labour. There are reports on how the burden of work has unfairly shifted more towards women than men because of the pandemic. ASHA workers, like many care workers, are struggling with very low wages. Domestic workers, another sector dominated mostly by vulnerable women, have seen either a reduction in their wages, or worse, have lost their jobs. Middle-class working women are also finding it hard to manage household chores along with working from home, given the increase in workload.
As lockdown rules have eased, “going back to work” became the norm. However, what became evident was how very few women were returning to work. According to a government report, the female labour force participation rate in India fell to 16.1% during the July-September 2020 quarter, which is the lowest among the major economies. India already had a low and declining female labour force participation rate. According to World Bank estimates, the female labour force rate in India in 2005 was around 26% which had dropped to 20.3% in 2019. The pandemic aggravated the fall and the recent rates reflect the vulnerabilities of women in the labour market, which has not changed much since the post-war times.
According to recent work by McKinsey and Company, one in four women is considering leaving the workforce as compared to one in five men in the year 2020. They also found that women are feeling more exhausted, burned out, and under pressure as compared to men. There is a crisis here; the very act of women going out to work comes under so much scrutiny – approval of family members, workplace safety concerns, mobility infrastructure, transportation facilities, and so on. The pandemic has added to the already vulnerable nature of female labour since most employed women in India are in low skilled work such as factory labour and domestic help, the sectors which have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Hence, along with the domestic challenges of women entering the labour market, there are now fewer jobs in the labour market for the women to do!
Going beyond the Crisis of Care: Crisis of Female Labour
It has always been true that female labour has been concentrated in certain sectors. Care-giving activities or jobs in the social reproduction sector like nursing, teaching, and cleaning have always been dominated by women workers. Caregiving is often an unpaid job when it occurs in the domestic realm. Even if not in the domestic sphere, it is not surprising that these women-dominated sectors have some of the worst paying jobs. These social reproduction jobs, as defined by Tithi Bhattacharya, are “life-making” activities. However, social reproduction goes beyond giving birth, it also implies the activities required to maintain life like feeding, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and caring. Most of these activities go unnoticed and undervalued. A capitalist society accords no monetized value to the activities of social reproduction. They are treated as free and as “gifts”, are taken for granted, and are considered unlimited in a world of limited resources. Hence, there exists a “crisis of care” in capitalist societies as Nancy Fraser has spoken about. Crisis of care is derived from the social reproduction theory which critiques capitalism’s obsession with production and neglects social reproduction. The important question asked in the theory of social reproduction and crisis of care is: who produces the worker?
There has always been a crisis of care in a capitalist society. The gender wage gap and lower wages in female-dominated sectors have been a subject of research for some years now. The female labour force participation rate of India has been falling for some years now, but the pandemic has aggravated the numbers. A report by researchers at Azim Premji University finds that women were seven times more likely to lose a job during the nationwide lockdown and eleven times more likely to not return to work subsequently, as compared to men. This could be because of the added burden of unpaid work that women are more likely to bear. Another reason could be that women are more engaged in sectors which have been hit the hardest in the pandemic, such as the garment industry, domestic help, and low-skilled factory work. This crisis goes beyond the crisis of care – the women are not only earning less now, they are, in fact, not likely to return to work.
Understanding this new crisis of female labour
Working women in India have always done two jobs – one at home and the other at the office or factory. The work at home goes unnoticed, undervalued, and is taken for granted. The work at offices/factories is also highly gendered. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2020, in India, only 29.2% of all professional and technical jobs are done by women. The same report found that only 14.6% women are in senior and managerial positions. Only 8.9% firms have women as top managers. The disparity is so huge that an average woman earns 20.7% less as compared to an average man in the country.
The already gendered nature of the workplace has made it easier for women to lose jobs when the pandemic struck. In fact, the post-war and the post-pandemic induced lockdown periods have shown similar patterns of fall in the female workforce, despite years of so-called progress and “women’s empowerment”. During the war years, more and more women got absorbed in receptionist and caregiving jobs. However, the return of the men after the war saw a fall in this rate which never recovered again. Female labour today remains just as dispensable as in the post-war times. In fact, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of the labour market – there is no longer just a crisis of care where women are earning less than the men. The women are losing more jobs than men and finding it more difficult to return to their previous work.
Whether the female labour participation rate will go up in the coming years remain to be seen. While many people have lost jobs and the vulnerable have become more vulnerable, the relation between gender and labour remain overwhelmingly interconnected during any crisis, be it a war or pandemic.
Bhattacharya, T. (2017)Introduction: Mapping the Social Reproduction Theory in Bhattacharya, T. (ed.) Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press, pp. 1-20.
Fraser, N. (2016) Contradictions of Capital and Care, New Leaf Review, 100, pp 99-117.
Vogel, L. (2013) Marxism and the Oppression of Women Toward a Unitary Theory. Boston: Brill.
Cover Image: Unsplash