Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Plight of female migrant workers during pandemic: A socio-economic transition


The plight of female migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic increased exponentially, especially during India’s rigorous country-wide lockdown in 2020. The crisis-induced socio-economic transition in the backdrop of worsening FLFPR in India.

Since our childhood days, we have enjoyed seeing Hollywood thrillers where the earth is threatened by aliens and the humans fight united against such aliens or evil forces to save mankind. We could have never imagined that this can become a reality. The ongoing pandemic has again proved that the fact is stranger than fiction. The worldwide Coronavirus infection has also hit India badly, prompting the Government to opt for a severe lockdown with strict restrictions on mobility and transportation from the last week of March 2020.

In the past one and half years, there were several phases of unlocking and again re-imposition of lockdown due to increasing cases of infection in the different parts of the country. Still, many organisations are not running with full capacity–schools, colleges and other educational institutions are closed.

This lockdown led to a drastic reduction in economic activities in the country. A large number of migrant workers returned home as factories, workshops, offices remained closed and the labourers had no source of income and even dwelling place. Since most of the factories and industries were closed the labourers who stayed near their workplace were unable to participate in the productive activities. As income started shrinking so did demand. Hence the requirement of the workers was falling.

The CMIE report suggests an increase in the unemployment rate by 23% from March 2020 to April 2020. The workers coming from the rural areas and sub-urban regions had no options other than returning home. This “Reverse Migration” all over the country became one of the most discussed events among policymakers, economists and industrialists. However, the “ crisis of mobility” due to the lack of proper transportation became the main concern of the migrant workers seeking to return home.

We have observed and noticed several cases of violence, accidents, hunger and death. All these are indicative of the denial of legal rights, protection and recognition of the migrant workers in this pandemic situation. However one of the serious concerns is the absence of a gender lens in recognising the insecurities, vulnerabilities and mental health issues experienced by the migrant workers. In this article, we will focus on the status of female migrant workers and the feminisation of job losses with the advent of the pandemic.

Migrant Worker

Women’s participation in economic activities: The paradoxical outcome

Before coming into the experience of female migrant workers we will discuss the status of women’s participation in economic activities in India. In most the nations, female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has shown a great stride in the last fifty years. However, the situation was just the opposite in our nation. Currently, the FLFPR in India is around 20% which is among the lowest in the world. In fact, in 2017, the FLFPR in India was reduced to its lowest ever levels since independence.

In most nations, the participation of the female labour force in economic activities decreased initially with the growth of the economy which suggests that a rise in the family income is leading to the withdrawal of women from the economic activities in the labour market. In the later stages with the rise in education among women, female participation is supposed to be increased with the growth of the economy. Thus the female participation rate in India is not compatible with the “U” shaped curve which is observed in most economies.

This result is quite surprising and inconsistent with the expansion of women education, rights, social security schemes and decline in the fertility rate in India. It is evident in most nations, that a rise in FLFPR is not only important in the context of the independence and well-being of women but also for the economic growth of the nation. Specifically at this juncture, when the Indian economy is struggling and trying hard to reverse the downward growth rate of GDP, the rise in the FLFPR is extremely essential and crucial for ensuring the revival of the economy.

Covid-19 has aggravated the declining trend in FLFPR in India.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 has aggravated the declining trend in FLFPR in India. As per CMIE data, between March-April 2020 the displacement of the women labour force was almost 26% which is almost twice the withdrawal of male workers from the total labour force. The situation has not changed much for the female workforce even after the unlocking was initiated in a phased manner in recent times.

We can identify various supply-side and demand-side factors for the decline in FLFPR in India. The primary and foremost cause for this unsatisfactory FLFPR in India is coming from the supply side which indicates the huge time spent by Indian women in domestic caregiving. Around 60% of the productive women labour force are engaged in performing domestic duties. The tradition of performing domestic duties and the existing social norms in the different parts of the nation impede women from participating in other productive activities.

The social oppression, barriers and customs may be responsible for the typical mindset of the Indian women, who prefer part-time jobs and work from home facilities so that domestic caregiving activities do not get hampered. Thus even if they get attractive economic opportunities they are only keen to take up the jobs in which they can maintain the balance between domestic duties and the outside job.

Ratio of average time spent by the female and male members in domestic work is 10:1.

As per recent NSSO data, the average time spent by the female and male member in domestic work is in the ratio of 10:1 which clearly indicate the dominant role of women in the unpaid work. Another supply-side phenomenon centres around are the so-called “income effect”. It is often observed that the rise in family income, specifically through the male member, mostly in the post-liberalisation period, has reduced the requirement of the “additional or second income” which were mainly generated through the female members.

The withdrawal of the female worker from the job due to the prosperity of the family also depicts a supply-side phenomenon in the Indian labour market. Gender discrimination in terms of vocational training is also responsible for the lesser supply of women in the labour market in India. Only 2-3% of women workforce received formal vocational training for skill development and 50% of these skilled women are not interested to join in the paid productive activities in our country. As a result, we find a negligible percentage of women involvement in skill-oriented activities in the service sector.    

Apart from these supply-side issues, we may also elucidate upon the demand related factors for the declining trend in the participation of women workers in the labour market of India. it was noticed in the last forty years, that male employment in the agricultural sector has declined considerably and this displaced male workforce was absorbed by the manufacturing sector and the service sector. However, on the contrary, the reduced female labour force in the agricultural sector was only partially absorbed by the other two sectors which suggest the inability of the manufacturing and the service sector to create adequate jobs for the female workers in India.

In addition to this, the innovation, automation and mechanisation in the form of the fourth industrial revolution, also limit the opportunity of Indian women in participating in productive activities. The jobless growth generated from innovation and mechanisation has created a severe gender-oriented digital divide in the Indian labour market. Though the labour force participation rate for men remained stagnant, the FLFPR has shown a drastic reduction which suggests that the increasing number of male workers are absorbed in the job market while this is not the case for women workers.

The economic interpretation for this phenomenon is the dearth of manual jobs in agriculture which is appropriate for women workers. Moreover, the manufacturing sector also fails to create adequate jobs for women who are redundant in the agricultural sector. The recent McKinsey Global Institute report predicted the job losses for 12 million women in the next ten years due to automation, mechanization and innovation. This is clearly a demand-side phenomenon.

Thus the combination of different factors like social norms, customs, innovation, mechanisation, caste dynamics, and lack of structural reforms are accountable for the skewed gender diversity in the Indian labour market. The declining rate of women participation in the Indian job market is actually acting as a barrier to economic growth because if half of the total population in the form of women can contribute to the growth and production, then it will facilitate the process of economic development of India. 

Migrant Worker

The missing gender lens: Challenges faced by migrant women worker

We have already mentioned the poor participation rate of women in the economic activities of India. Not only that, but we have also identified the demand and supply-side factors responsible for this poor participation rate of women in the productive sectors of the economy. Many of the women workers in India are basically migrants and they have to travel from one state to another for their livelihood and associated reasons.

In this section, we will give emphasis to the vulnerable condition of female migrant labourers in India, especially in the post-pandemic era. It is quite conspicuous that the four-hour notice preceding the first lockdown affected the enormous magnitude of internal migrant workers adversely.

Even the Government could not judge the possibility of the huge loss of jobs and distress of the internal migrants of the nation. The sudden announcement of the lockdown has created a panic among the migrant workers as they had lost their primary income and it was not possible for them to stay nearby their working place for so long with the limited resources.

Hence the migrant workers–both male and female had no option other than trying to be back to their homes in other states and districts by any means of transport. Unfortunately, as we have mentioned earlier, the lack of transport facilities not only exacerbated their agony but also presented a gloomy picture of their struggle to the citizens of India.  

One of the problems of the existing studies related to the miserable conditions of the migrant workers in this pandemic situation is the absence of gender lens and perspective. It can be evident from different real-life examples and available data, that the nature of problems and vulnerability of female migrants are quite different from their male counterparts.

The context of migration of women from one place to another is often explained as marriage and marriage related in our country.

The context of migration of women from one place to another is often explained as marriage and marriage related in our country. However, this is a very simple generalized and obscure statement that fails to identify the heterogeneous reasons for the migration of female workers. Hence most of the time, the cases of female migrant workers are invisible and unnoticed.

It is obvious and true that often female workers have to sacrifice their jobs in order to provide domestic services to the family by travelling with their migrant husbands. But this cannot be the sole reason for women migration in India. It is often not taken into consideration that the migrant woman who has travelled to the working place of her husband, also entered into the job in the newly migrated area.

So the whole system is not structured enough to assess the number, reasons for migration and exact status of the female migrant workers. Thus the real problems of the migrant women are often misunderstood, misinterpreted and underestimated. Due to this market failure, the policy initiatives to ameliorate the status of female migrants fail to reach the core of the problems most of the time.

Different studies had pointed out more than 15 million job losses for female workers immediately after the first lockdown.

Different studies had pointed out more than 15 million job losses for female workers immediately after the first lockdown. In comparison, the percentage of job losses for male workers were not that huge, which led to the widening of the gender gaps throughout the nation. Different economic researchers as well as the present author have identified different categories of women related to migration.

At first, we can cite the examples of the women whose spouses had migrated to other parts of the nation either for better income or for the dearth of appropriate jobs in their locality. These left out women have to perform all the caregiving activities for the children, in-laws and others in the family. Thus they are engaged in household management and caregiving without any remuneration and do not contribute to the so-called productive activities of the economy.

Migrant Worker

The second category of women related to migration refers to the single women migrant workers. These women face different constraints related to customs and norms but break the shackles and migrate alone in order to earn better income and opportunities. Their migration from rural to urban areas has created a new avenue for capable rural women.

These single female migrant workers are mainly engaged in construction sites, domestic help, restaurants, hotels, beauty parlours, hospitals etc. The problem is the majority of these workers are working in these concerns as casual unregistered employees and also in informal sectors of the economy and thus excluded from various welfare and relief schemes introduced by the government during this pandemic.

Another category of female migrant workers is those who have migrated with their families for better economic benefits and opportunities. After the announcement of lockdown for 21 days in 2020, they have lost their primary income and were bound to return to their home in other states or districts by walking miles after miles with their children.

In this arduous journey, some of them died in accidents and due to other diseases, some of them had to carry their newborn babies, some had to face sexual assaults in their journey and obviously, some were infected by Covid-19. This specific category has got maximum media attention and coverage. However, unfortunately, the second category of single female migrants was unnoticed and they remained outside the domain of media coverage and Covid related relief programmes initiated by the government and NGOs.

The female migrant workers had to face the brunt of the crisis since the initial lockdown was announced in March 2019.

The female migrant workers had to face the brunt of the crisis since the initial lockdown was announced in March 2019. Unfortunately, the policymakers and the competent authorities failed to realize the multidimensional nature of this problem. Although the rural-urban migration is beneficial economically, the female migrants had to face the risk of vulnerability related to exploitation, mental health, domestic violence and social security. After the imposition of the lockdown, the ‘reverse migration’ began from urban to rural areas. This return of the female migrant workers to their native land made their life more complex and disastrous.

The single female migrant workers had to face various societal resistance after returning home. However, the other type of female workers who have returned with their jobless husbands had to go through a tough phase due to a sudden drastic fall in the family income. The cases of distress sale of assets like lands, equipment increased by leaps and bounds. The jobless husbands who were unable to handle the pressure of poverty, frustration, debt trap and depression, often addicted to alcoholism. This is one of the predominant factors of the increasing incidence of domestic violence in this pandemic situation.

There was a considerable amount of reduction in the intake of nutritious food, especially for the women and the children. The girl children and their mother were victimised–the cases of exploitation, sex trade, women trafficking became the common phenomenon especially in the rural and sub-urban areas in different parts of the country. The rate of drop-outs from educational institutions increased a lot despite ongoing mid-day meal schemes in the schools. As a result, the increased incidence of child labour is on the cards whenever the situation will begin to normalise.

The cases of migrant women in the informal sector were not addressed properly.

Apart from these problems, the female migrant workers had faced severe mental and psychological issues in recent times. The reverse migration from the workplace place with family not only hampered their family income but also elevated the mental stress to a great extent. The frustrated husband and his alcoholism, the school drop-out children, loss of personal “second income”, the lack of housing and proper sanitation facilities made their life catastrophic.

Although the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare pointed out the importance of maintaining dignity and mental health of the female workers during the pandemic and also took some initiatives to make them aware of the possible facilities that they can enjoy, the mismanagement of transport facilities, misbehaviour of the police personnel and security persons, lack of sympathy among the officials dealing with this problem, and unsafe conditions and insecurity during their travel acted as barriers to achieve the goal.

The government initiative to inform the benefit schemes for the female migrant workers were not adequate.

Moreover, the cases of migrant women in the informal sector were not addressed properly and also the government initiative to inform the benefit schemes for the female migrant workers were not adequate. They were not provided with shelter, sanitation facilities, safety and basic hygiene which had a severe psychological impact like increased mental stress, depression and sleeplessness on them. Economists suggested that developing a comprehensive well-structured system for the female migrant workers with medical practitioners, counsellors, stress screening, health workers, proper sanitation and shelter, and including information on employment opportunities near home, can nullify the intensity of the problem in coming days.

Migrant Worker

Policy initiatives and the unfulfilled objectives:

It is almost clear from our analysis that migrant women in India are engaged in the most insecure jobs as a majority of them are attached to the informal sector as unregistered workers. Hence in most cases, they are not entitled to get the benefits of the different schemes announced by the government for migrant workers. In this section, we will discuss the policy initiatives adopted by the government and we will also suggest some policy measures which can ensure at least some benefits for the female migrant worker of India.

At this juncture, the public distribution system (PDS) could act as a saviour for the migrant workers irrespective of gender. Through PDS, a huge portion of the population can access the foodgrains for free or at a subsidised rate. It was noticed by some economists that despite the fulfilment of buffer stock norms by the Food Corporation of India (FCI), the government was not interested to supply additional foodgrains in November 2020. Moreover, surprisingly, NITI Aayog proposed to reduce the subsidies from 75% to 60% in rural areas, and 50% to 40% in urban areas. This reduction in subsidy during the pandemic led to a disastrous nutritional impact on female migrant workers.

Very few states have started the “one nation one ration card” policy so only a few migrant workers can take the advantage of this policy.

Very few states have started the “one nation one ration card” policy so only a few migrant workers can take the advantage of this policy. Recently, The honourable Supreme Court strongly directed all the states to implement this policy and so that migrant worker, irrespective of gender are assured of foodgrains even during reverse migration. This policy will be beneficial during the expected outbreak of the third wave of the pandemic, which is supposed to hit the nation in the month of October.

The most important advisory in this context was issued by National Commission for Women in April 2020. The commission rightly identified the heterogeneity of female migrant workers and recommended some measures to the Ministry of Women and Child Development during the different phases of lockdown. Recognising the multidimensional vulnerability of female migrant workers the commission had identified six basic needs of the female migrant workers which should be addressed.

Sl NoRequirementsRecommendations
1FoodEnsuring accessibility of Nutritious food, safe drinking water, medicine, and cooking provision, supply of ration
2AccommodationFacilities of privacy, dignity, sanitisation, physical distancing (in case of rehabilitation), special provision for a lactating female worker
3HealthAccess to medical facilities with doctors and support staff, provision of Covid screening, counsellors for mental health care, emergency reproductive care
4HygieneProper sanitation facility, safe drinking water, mask, gloves and sanitisers, maintenance of menstrual hygiene and supply of sanitary napkins 
5Psychological needsAssistance from psychologists for mental health care, counselling for specific trauma
6Security and safetyPrevention of gender-based violence, awareness of social security schemes, legal consultations, sympathetic behaviour from officials and engagement of more lady officials for dealing with the problems, grievance redressal mechanisms
Source: National Commission for Women (2020)

However, these recommendations are non-existent in many of the states. The quarantine centres and safe homes for migrant women are not at all safe. The returned female workers through reverse migration have been entrapped in their rooms with their children due to the fear of the virus, which severely affect their mental status adversely. In most cases, the unregistered migrant women have no access to the medical facilities provided by the government. These female workers are “invisible” to the government and this situation will not improve unless and until they are institutionalised.  

The migrant workers are entitled to avail various social security schemes and provisions which can be beneficial for them. Unfortunately, these schemes are of limited applicability as a huge section of the female migrant workers are working in the informal sector and hence remain outside the domain of these benefits. Secondly, the existence of informality in the formal sector also limits the scope of accessing the facilities of life and disability cover, maternity benefits, health care and old age protection.

Another problem regarding these social security provisions in addition to the limited scope is the lack of uniformity and universal applicability of laws in different states. The existence of legislation does not ameliorate the disastrous conditions of the female migrant workers, specifically those who are engaged in the informal sector. The informal workers with domicile status are often protected but unfortunately the discrimination between domestic and migrant workers, and also cultural and ethnic discrimination worsen the plight of the female migrant workers here in India.

Some gender-sensitive schemes like Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) and Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) introduced by the Government of India are expected to be beneficial also for the female migrant workers. PMUY prevents the respiratory diseases of rural women related to cooking via biomass fuels and firewood as the rural women are provided with LPG connections. After the introduction of the scheme, the LPG coverage reached 94.3% in April 2019. However, despite wide coverage LPG refills have been constantly decreasing in recent years. Of the 3.18 crore PMUY consumers, around 18% never ordered a second refill and around 33% ordered only 1-3 refills per year which is clearly below the national average.

The excessive rise in the price of LPG is on the verge of making the objective of the scheme unfulfilled. Similarly, PMJDY initiated direct benefit transfers to the beneficiaries which are immensely beneficial for the female workers. The accounts opened under this scheme broke all the records but in recent times most of these accounts remain dormant and one of the reasons for this dormancy is the absence of digital knowledge on the part of rural female migrant workers.

Migrant Worker

Concluding remarks and way forward

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of livelihoods are destroyed and many demand and supply-side factors led to disruption of the labour market in India. Now the country is in front of the challenges of the third wave and hence it is crucial to frame a proper policy path in order to outweigh the adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy. As we have mentioned earlier the women workers, in particular, had to bear the disproportionate brunt and burden of the lockdown induced disasters.

The scenario was the same prior to the pandemic situation but the gender employment gap has exacerbated in the pandemic situation. Even at the end of 2020, around 47 % of female workers who had lost their jobs during lockdown still remained unemployed against 7% for men. However, our focus in this article revolves around the status of the female migrant worker and the possible course of action for their uplift in a comprehensive manner. 

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women migrant workers is closely associated with the reduction in the paid work and increase in the unpaid care work in the family.

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women migrant workers is closely associated with the reduction in the paid work and increase in the unpaid care work in the family. One of the suggestions in this regard is the expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

This scheme guarantees 100 days of wage employment per year to a rural household whose adult members can be engaged in unskilled manual work at the predetermined wage rate. It was observed that MGNREGA jobs increased significantly in May and June 2020. This can be evident from the following table showing the percentage growth in MNREGA jobs.

April38.6– 51.6
Source: MNREGA

Since these jobs mainly comprise unskilled workers, the rural female migrants with limited or no skills can avail this project after their return to the home village place.

We have shown that the female migrant workers are estimated to be the most vulnerable in terms of precarious jobs as the majority of them are engaged in manual jobs as unregistered workers in the unorganised segment of the informal sector. With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution and innovation, the need for unskilled workers will be reduced considerably in the coming days. Hence the government should focus on the skill formation, training and up-gradation of the technical knowledge of the female migrant workers. This can diminish the gender gap or discrimination in the labour market caused due to the digital divide.

The heterogeneity of the female migrants should be recognised and plans and schemes should be introduced accordingly.

Another important policy focus in this context should be on the provision of foodgrains to the female migrants in a consistent manner as prescribed in the advisory issued by National Commission for Women. The “One nation, One Ration card scheme” has enormous potential to fulfil this objective irrespective of the place of migration. Abolition of intermediaries and direct benefit transfers will also facilitate the female migrants with minimum digital knowledge.

The heterogeneity of the female migrants should be recognised and plans and schemes should be introduced accordingly. They should be identified and registered and brought under social protection mechanisms, and financial and credit schemes. As prescribed by the National Commission for women they should be given access to health, social security, sanitation, hygiene, child care facilities and accommodation or shelter. The mental health of the female migrants should be taken into account and proper counselling and psychological sessions should be arranged for them. They should be provided with adequate security from gender-based violence and other related issues.

After the reverse migration, the female migrants were mostly absorbed in domestic family care activities. Some were absorbed in rural agricultural or non-agricultural activities when these sectors were not super-saturated. In addition to this, there are some female migrants also, who were previously working in the urban areas for quite a long time. Often they have no connection with their relatives in the rural areas. Thus they can not opt for the option of reverse migration. This definitely calls for an urban employment guarantee scheme for the migrants, irrespective of their gender.

A comprehensive policy formulation is required for the elevation of the rate of women participation in the total workforce.

The coordination between different states is also required for dealing with the problems of the female migrants compassionately. There should be some uniformity in the rules and regulations in spite of the heterogeneity among the migrants. A monthly cash relief to the female migrant workers can be helpful as it not only facilitates the persons concerned but is also essential for the demand-led revival of the economy.

A comprehensive policy formulation is required for the elevation of the rate of women participation in the total workforce. This requires the creation of more jobs in different sectors by channelisation of public investments specifically in the social sector. The constraints acting against the job potential of the female workers after reverse migration should be properly addressed so that they can be encouraged to participate in external activities instead of spending more time in the duties associated with home care.

Also Read: Innovation in Indian industrial sector: Implications for employment and development

(Sujatra Bhattacharyya is an associate professor in Economics Maharaja Srischandra College, Kolkata.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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