Reshape manufacturing sector to improve FLFPR

Reshape manufacturing sector to improve FLFPR

Dropping female participation in the labour force over the last 30 years is a sign of worry; solution might lie with setting up more SEZs where rural women can find work

Representative image. Credit: iStock.

When society talks about women empowerment, a fundamental question that arises is how can we measure whether our women are empowered or not. The Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) i.e. the section of the female working population in the age group 16 to 64 years in the economy that is currently employed or seeking employment is a good measure of the autonomy and power that women hold in society.

For starters, India is one of the worst-performing countries in the world when it comes to women participation in the workforce. As of 2019, India was ranked 175 with 20.52 per cent FLFPR.  Pakistan was ranked at 171 with 21.92 per cent and Bangladesh at 155 with 36.26 per cent.

The most obvious question to ask here is why is India’s FLFPR dropping and why it is not on par with China which stands at 60 per cent FLFPR. And why is a country like Bangladesh with similar socio-economic realities, doing better than India?

There are multiple cultural and religious barriers for women to get into the labour force. FLFPR is not just an outcome of the economic participation of women; it talks about all the factors that contribute to women working and feeling comfortable to do so.

If policymakers are serious about their commitment towards women’s empowerment, they need to pay more attention to setting up industries where barriers of entry are low for women. We can follow Bangladesh's lead and focus on the garment and textile industry. Bangladesh has jumped nearly 10 per cent points in FLFPR since 2006.

In India, 80 per cent of the Female Labour force is employed in rural areas, while only 20 per cent in the urban area. More than 70 per cent of the Rural Female Workforce is traditionally engaged in agriculture. In comparison, close to 10 per cent are a part of the manufacturing sector for both rural and urban India, which implies that either the manufacturing sector hasn't kicked off in India or it is just not employing enough women.

The former seems more plausible, and that is where policymakers should focus in the coming decade. In 1993-94 the Rural Female Labour Force was 32 per cent  which declined to 9.4 per cent by 2011-12. Niti Ayog,  in a July-September 2015 report on Rural Female Labour Force Participation, states:

“This maybe due to the decrease in demand for the products from traditional industries which led to the loss of job for women.”

Benefits of SEZs

So, focus on manufacturing alone is not sufficient, but a focus on the manufacturing of profitable products is the key. We need to start looking beyond handloom, art and crafts, pottery for the Rural Female Labour force. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry should look at setting up 50 SEZs dedicated to the rural economy. Identify strategic industries for SEZs, which the Central government wants to give a push. These SEZs should be across the country near a Tier 3 town and averaging 500 sq. km. in size.

Incentives designed for industries in terms of tax exemption for the first five years, relaxed labour laws ensuring higher participation of women, and tax incentives for companies that have at least 50 per cent women in their workforce can help boost LFPR. The benefits of setting up SEZs are plenty. It stimulates the manufacturing sector as well as facilitates considerable economic growth by an increase in exports and FDI.

The Factories Act, 1948 puts restrictions on working hours of women as they are allowed to work in the factory only between 6 am to 7 pm. This results in women not being able to fulfil a significant chunk of their labour requirements. Women should be allowed to work night shifts or perhaps any shift they want to work. Instead, safe transport for women doing night shifts should be arranged. Encouraging women-only buses can go a long way in providing safety for women travelling long distances for work.

Thirdly, take teasing, sexual advances, sexual harassment seriously, and this requires a mindset change. Currently, daily wage workers, women from marginalised groups, and many subaltern groups face these challenges in their places of work/employment. Due to social pressures, these cases go unreported and often are tied up in litigation for several months after the first report.

Until the time business owners face intense pressure from the community and the government, regarding guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment, factories will not be a safe workplace for women. While the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act have made significant inroads in corporate workspaces, we are yet to see some best practices replicated in rural areas. Setting up SEZs will be an excellent opportunity to extend protection to women working in rural areas.

Ensuring more women join the workforce should be a national concern. There is a limit to which economics can solve the problem. There has to be a change in mindsets for women to be empowered.

(Vandit Jain runs a podcast on social issues called ‘Lights | Camera | Azadi’. This article is an output of a collaborative policy simulation workshop at the Takshashila Institution.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.