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Making all workplaces safer for women

Some measures that can be implemented immediately include sensitising informal sector workers on gender-based violence and informing them in simple language about the laws that deal with such violence

Female Labour Force Participation Rate, centre for monitoring indian economy, employment news, Indian express, Opinion, Editorial, Current AffairsDifficult working conditions are aggravated in the absence of proper redressal mechanisms and women’s access to them.

The Female Labour Force Participation Rate, already low in India, received a further setback with the pandemic. Women were the first to lose their jobs once the lockdown was announced, two years ago, and they are yet to get back into the labour force. The female labour force participation rate was at 9.4 per cent for the period between September-December 2021, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). This is the lowest female labour force participation rate since 2016 when the data was first compiled.

In understanding the all-time low female labour force participation rate, there is a need to factor in a longstanding problem — the safety of women in workplaces. All women deserve a non-discriminatory and safe working space. But those in the informal and unorganised sector deserve particular attention. The pandemic aggravated the situation for women in the informal economy.

The informal economy in India encompasses a variety of activities. The agricultural sector has the highest level of informal employment, followed by manufacturing, trade and construction. In terms of rural-urban differentials, informal employment constituted 96 per cent of total jobs in rural areas, where female informal employment was 98 per cent compared to 95 per cent of male informal employment. Seventy-nine per cent of the jobs in urban India were of an informal nature, with 82 per cent of total female workers engaged in informal employment compared to 78 per cent among urban male workers.

Statistics show that women are more likely to be engaged in the informal sector in both rural and urban areas. They are also more likely than men to be working as informal workers in the formal sector. However, not much has been done in terms of understanding the violence faced by women in the informal sector which can range from harassment to sexual assault and rape. Such violence can be tied up with several aspects ranging from a male-dominated workplace to harassment by labour contractors to a lack of basic amenities for women in the workplace. A few studies also indicate that women in the informal sector face sexual harassment in workplaces.

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A recent study by Oxfam India on tea plantation workers reveals that the extremely hierarchical nature of their jobs, the migrant status of workers and the lack of other job opportunities for women tea pluckers contribute to the normalisation of workplace violence. Facilities such as canteens and toilets — generally available in factories where workers are predominantly men — are lacking in the fields. Because of the presence of the mostly male “sardars” (supervisors), women try to seek privacy far away from where their colleagues are working. This makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse or attacks by wild animals. It is now quite well known that women sugarcane cutters undergo forceful hysterectomies. These workers also face domestic violence and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

Difficult working conditions are aggravated in the absence of proper redressal mechanisms and women’s access to them. It’s well-known that laws such as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, Criminal Amendment Act 2013, and Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 are not implemented well and do not take the difficulties faced by women in the informal sector into account. An effective body for this purpose could have been the Local Complaints Committee structure under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, But such bodies are almost non-functional.

The quest for inclusive growth in the post-pandemic should catalyse endeavours to make workplaces in the informal sector safe for women. Some measures that can be implemented immediately include sensitising informal sector workers on gender-based violence and informing them in simple language about the laws that deal with such violence; employers must ensure that complaints committees are functional; sensitising local labour contractors on how to deal with cases of sexual harassment at workplaces. These bare minimum measures can be implemented with technical support from local women’s rights organisations. The government should also step in to improve the implementation of existing laws and increase budgetary provisions for workplace safety.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on April 4, 2022 under the title ‘Employment with dignity’. The writer leads the informal sector work at Oxfam India

First published on: 04-04-2022 at 04:30 IST
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