‘Most disproportionate loss of jobs because of the first wave of COVID-19 was among urban women’

Reverse migration of men in rural areas may lead to women being pushed out of worksites, says economist

Women have borne a disproportionate brunt of job losses during COVID-19, Sona Mitra, Principal Economist, Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) at LEAD tells Jagriti Chandra in an interview. She discusses the reasons for this and policy measures needed to boost women’s participation in the labour force .

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on employment and how do women fare?

The Consumer Pyramid Household Survey (CPHS) data of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) tells us that COVID-19 had a devastating impact upon overall employment and that the net shortfall is of 6.3 million jobs or a loss of 1.5% of all jobs between March 2020 and March 2021. Urban male employment was worst hit in the second wave and women fared worse in all quarters between March 2020-21.

While women account for only 10% of the jobs, they accounted for 23% of the loss of jobs since March 2020 until March 2021. Of the 399.9 million jobs, women accounted for only 41.8 million jobs.

More specifically, the CMIE analysis states that the most disproportionate loss of jobs because of the first wave of COVID-19 was among urban women. Urban women account for about 3% of total employment, but they accounted for 39% of total urban job losses.

What are the reasons for a sharper decline among women, particularly in urban areas?

Women are usually employed in sectors that are volatile when hit by sudden economic shocks such as hospitality, tourism, beauty and wellness. A lot of these women do not have the relevant skills, work experience, or the strong networks in labour markets that lets them stay afloat when a crisis hits. To add to this, women also had to retreat from the workforce as their unpaid domestic work increased two to three-fold.

The first two waves of COVID-19 saw large-scale migration from big metros to villages. How did this impact employment in rural versus urban areas?

While, it is known that in times of economic distress women’s participation in the labour force increases, on the other hand the employment available at such times tends to be in low value-added sectors with low payments and hazardous working conditions. With large numbers of male workers returning to rural areas there is concern that even the few opportunities available for women, including in public works programmes, might shrink even further. For example, a related concern is that while the participation of women has on the whole been very high under the MGNREGA, the reverse migration of men in rural areas may lead to women being pushed out of worksites. Based on the website data, it can be seen that while the women person-days generated as a proportion of total person-days was 54.6% in 2018-19 and 54.9% in 2019-20, in the current year the achievement so far is 52.7%. This is slightly lower than the previous two years.

How do you explain the paradox in the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-2020 that showed an increase in Female Labour Force Participation Rate but a decline in women’s wages?

The CMIE data shows that the average household incomes fell by 9.2% in March 2020 and by 27.9 % in April 2020 as a result of the lockdown in the first wave. Anand and Thampi 2021 calculated from the PLFS data that the real earnings of regular wage/salaried workers declined by 7.6% in April-June 2020. So, while employment recovered, the same jobs paid less in the post-lockdown period than they did before March 2020. The primary reason being slowdown of business over the period, but also the fact that many entering the workforce belong to a cohort of older age groups who are compelled to work in a distress situation and thus accept lower wages.

How can the Government respond to COVID-19 induced employment crisis for women?

Child care facilities across sectors are important for women to continue to work. The government must also incentivise sectors that have more women employed through subsidies or tax breaks. There is also a need for a legislation on minimum wages for domestic workers and registering women construction workers to safeguard their rights.

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