India

India’s COVID-19 Experience May Usher in a More Humane World for Women and Informal Sector Workers

Viewpoint by Lakshmi Lingam*, Tata Institute of Social Studies

MUMBAI (IDN) – Women in India spend 297 minutes on unpaid domestic work each day, 245 minutes more than men who contribute only 52 minutes. Women’s work is not accounted for in the national accounting system, making their contributions unrecognised and unvalued.

An Oxfam report observes that the unpaid work of Indian women plays a crucial role in sustaining economic activity, equivalent to 3.1 per cent of GDP. Economic and social challenges, including domestic violence, dowry at the time of marriage and the trafficking of women, coalesce to sustain and perpetuate gender inequalities in India.

COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns worldwide have forced markets and the movement of people to a standstill. But the unpaid care economy has continued to function unabated. According to the International Labour Organization, globally women perform 76.2 per cent of all unpaid care work. The economic contribution is estimated to be US$10 trillion a year and 13 per cent of global GDP.

COVID-19 has seen the ‘domestic’ space reclaimed as one that can accommodate economic work. Individuals in IT-enabled services have for more than two decades blurred the ‘public’ and the ‘private’, and the ‘office’ and the ‘home’, through telecommuting. The closure of establishments like schools, creche facilities, laundromats and cleaning services, and the restriction on the entry of care and household workers due to the need for social distancing, has brought many monetised domestic tasks back to the confines of the domestic. For the first time in the post-war era, society is witnessing the blurring of this divide on a large scale.

The division of the ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ spheres occurred in the Industrial Revolution. The work done in the ‘reproduction’ sphere — procreation, care work and socialisation of young children — has been labelled emotional labour. Feminist Maria Mies called this ‘production of life’ or ‘subsistence work’, constituting the hidden underground world of capitalism and accumulation. The COVID-19-induced collapsing of this division between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ has put a spotlight on the political economy of their compartmentalisation, hierarchisation and invisibilisation from discourse and public policy.

Women’s labour, understood as a ‘reserve army of labour’, contracts or expands with the demand for labour in the market. Their contribution to procreation — replacing labour through fertility — is unpaid, unrecognised and inadequately supported by markets or state policies. Domestic labour helps capitalism in keeping the ‘real wages’ of workers low on the one hand while keeping the demand for goods and services ticking on the other. Ivan Illich refers to domestic work as ‘shadow work’ and traces its emergence to the rise of industrialisation.

Apart from expanded workdays within the domestic sphere, another aspect that has become hyper-visible during the COVID-19 lockdown is the plight of India’s internal migrants who form part of the unorganised and informal sectors of the economy. Migrants with few rights or entitlements constitute the other ‘reserve army’ of labour.

The announcement of the lockdown on March 24, 2020, with four hours’ notice, clearly signalled that the Indian government did not foresee the fallout of such an announcement on precarious workers, who seem to be perceived as dispensable to the urban economy.

In the post-liberalisation period in India, growth in regular and secure employment has given way to informality and precarity. Only 23 per cent of the workforce is regularly employed, 52 per cent are self-employed and 25 per cent are casually employed. According to the 2017–18 Periodic Labour Force Survey, the informal sector makes up about 65 per cent of India’s workforce. 88 per cent of women’s employment in India is in the informal sector while 30 per cent of the total population migrates internally.

The economic recession following COVID-19 is lifting the lid off the globalisation ‘success’ story of India and many other countries wedded to the current market model. Women as workers, farmers, artisans, self-employed, unpaid family workers, mothers, caregivers and nurturers are left to carry on with their domestic and caregiving tasks in the absence of any wider support for these services. The unprecedented exodus of internal migrant workers to their home states has driven home the point that their rights as citizens and workers have been short-changed.

Post-COVID-19, can India aspire to be a society where work is recognised, legislated and supported whether it is done at home or in the public domain, and whether it is done for the market or subsistence? The distress that women and informal sector workers are enduring can be vindicated if binaries in society and economy can be blurred towards a more humane world that is not dominated by corporate interests and global politics.

* Lakshmi Lingam is Professor and Dean at the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Studies, Mumbai. This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 August 2020]

Photo: The Indian government is apparently trying to find some mechanism for informal sector workers. Credit: Press Trust of India (PTI).

IDN is Flagship Agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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