The Lawless World of Women’s Work
By Dr. S. Shakthi
Dr. S. Shakthi is an Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at IIT-Madras.
One of the hallmarks of our current stage of late capitalism is precarity in employment across all sectors of the economy. Precarity, in this context, refers to the increasing vulnerability and unpredictability that has come to characterise several aspects of modern society. While this uncertainty has been underlined by COVID-19, it has been further magnified by institutional responses to the pandemic, many of which have had a terrible impact on those most disadvantaged. Among these measures has been the attempt by a number of Indian states to suspend or seriously weaken labour protections. The proposed changes include the short-term extension of working hours to 12 hours a day, or 72 hours a week, in several states, with the purported aim of allowing for physical distancing by engaging fewer workers at a time. The suspension of all but a handful of labour laws for three years in Uttar Pradesh, as proposed in the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, has received particular attention. Presented as a move to attract investment, the enactment in its current form would eliminate the legal mandate to provide essential facilities such as toilets, sitting areas, clean drinking water and ventilation. Some of these schemes also aim to make labour-related practices, in corporate-speak, more ‘agile’, thereby allowing for the firing of employees without restrictions or resistance from trade unions.
I will not elaborate further on the specificities of these amendments, with much having been written already by legal analysts1. The impact of weakened labour laws on women, however, demands urgent consideration. While up to 90 per cent of jobs in India are in the informal sector, removing or severely diluting labour laws will likely lead to a further ‘feminisation’ of the labour force; that is, an increase in the number of women, particularly young women, employed to perform low-paid, routinised tasks under poor working conditions, as well as to a broader shift towards an even greater informalisation of work for both men and women. This is not a new phenomenon in the recent history of the transnational economy, with abundant social science research demonstrating repeatedly that the growth of poorly-regulated manufacturing jobs across a number of developing countries was spurred by the quest to find cheaper and more compliant2, often female, workers. In fact, the feminisation of work might lead some women working in the productive economy to be excluded from official worker statistics altogether. Maria Mies (1982), for example, in her study of women engaged in home-based lacemaking in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1970s, found that 100,000 women were not counted as workers in the national Census, even though they were an essential part of an intricate global supply chain.
Extending work hours can have serious implications for women in other ways. While unpaid reproductive and care work continues to be disproportionately performed by women, these changes are often made with a ‘gender-neutral’ employee in mind. As Joan Acker (1990) famously argued, this usually defaults to men, who are often relatively unencumbered by domestic work or childcare responsibilities. This could result in more women staying out of the labour force; just a few months into the pandemic, women have begun to lose jobs more than men (Outlook 2020). Enforcing 12-hour workdays will likely prevent many of them from finding a way back into safe and secure employment. For those who continue working under the conditions being proposed, these new temporal demands, combined with the lack of collective bargaining power to fight for higher wages, could acutely hinder socio-economic mobility. This goes beyond the need for financial security. Among the many forms of reproductive labour carried out largely by women, for example, is ‘family-status production work’. In Hanna Papanek (1971)’s formulation, these activities, such as spending time revising school lessons with one’s children, serve to improve or consolidate one’s social positioning. Family-status production work is an essential and generally invisibilised form of labour among the middle and upper classes, and one of the many structural advantages they possess when making claims to ‘merit’. In an environment that normalises grossly excessive work hours, poor women (and men) will find it even more difficult to carve out time for these tasks, further reinforcing multi-generational inequality.
Removing any legal obligation to provide basic amenities also fails to consider how societal conditions impact women’s access and ability to work in the productive economy in distinct ways. It should be apparent to any reasonable policymaker that the lack of facilities such as toilets or crèches is likely to keep more women out of certain workspaces. While the Uttar Pradesh government’s proposal mentions that laws pertaining to women and children will continue to remain in force, it does not provide a comprehensive list of these regulations. This creates an obvious loophole for employers who might wish to flout compliance requirements. In fact, the existence of women-specific labour laws does not guarantee compliance, and compliance does not guarantee inclusive workplaces. In my research on the Indian IT industry’s interpretations of the 2013 law on workplace sexual harassment (Shakthi 2020), for example, I found that even while formulating policies and addressing complaints, companies often failed to take into account the intersectional functioning of patriarchy along axes such as caste and class. When compliance with the letter of the law does not necessarily translate into meaningful engagement with feminist directives, curtailing labour regulations is likely to create an even more hostile climate for ensuring workplace equality. Moreover, by diminishing the role of unions that have often played a significant role in advocating for labour rights (including in the informal sector 3), these changes would further limit workers’ ability to contest these practices.
Those in favour of the proposed modifications have argued that Indian labour laws are bloated and antiquated. Some have pointed to the IT industry as an example of a formal-economy sector that has flourished without being ensnared in a web of outdated compliance frameworks. Yet, this lack of regulation, and the periodic mass layoffs that have come to characterise IT employment, have resulted in the mushrooming of small but vocal IT unions across the country in recent years. While there is certainly an argument to be made for reforms that keep worker rights intact, an almost complete withdrawal of oversight and monitoring by the state cannot be the solution. What is crucial, instead, is bringing more workers into the formal economy, with guaranteed entitlements that recognise their value, safeguard their dignity and correct inherent power disparities between employers and employees. This is relevant also to the many sectors of the informal economy with a high concentration of women, such as domestic work.
This moment in our lives feels extraordinary, and in many ways, it is. Yet, many of the consequences of COVID-19 do not represent a disjuncture, but a continuum built on the long-term and systematic breakdown of multiple institutions. This includes the shift to neoliberal forms of governance that privilege the demands of capital over the needs and well-being of workers, resulting in sweeping changes to labour laws under the guise of a pandemic with potentially devastating consequences. For women workers, such measures will serve to exacerbate existing forms of inequality, including among women themselves. This can only be countered by the universalisation of thoughtful and inclusive labour laws, which should be the primary focus of any government committed to a welfare-oriented, rights-based agenda.
- For a succinct overview of the proposed changes, see Gopalakrishnan (2020); see Bhatia (2020) for an evaluation of their constitutionality.
- Or ‘docile’, as Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson (1981) highlighted almost 40 years ago.
- K. Kalpana (2019) provides an interesting account of the hybrid strategies adopted by unions working to secure the rights of informal women workers in Tamil Nadu.
Acker, Joan. ‘Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organisations’. Gender & Society 4, No. 2 (1990): 139-158.
Bhatia, Gautam. ‘Equal Freedom and Forced Labour’. The Hindu, 12 May 2020, <https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/equal-freedom-and-forced-labour/article31560930.ece>, accessed 7 June 2020.
Elson, Diane and Ruth Pearson. ‘“Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers”: An Analysis of Women’s Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing’. Feminist Review 7, No. 1 (1981): 87-107.
Gopalakrishnan, Ramapriya. ‘Changes in Labour Laws Will Turn the Clock by Over a Century’. The Wire, 20 May 2020, <https://thewire.in/labour/labour-laws-changes-turning-clock-back>, accessed 10 June 2020.
Kalpana, K. ‘“Old” and “New” Trade Union Activism: Organising Women Informal Workers in Tamil Nadu’. Economic and Political Weekly 54, No. 50 (2019): 49-56.
Mies, Maria. The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market. London: Zedl Press, 1982.
Outlook. ‘Women, People in Semi-urban Areas Bear the Brunt of Job Losses’. 16 May 2020, <https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/women-people-in-semiurban-areas-bear-the-brunt-of-job-losses/1836606>, accessed 5 June 2020.
Papanek, Hanna. ‘To Each Less Than She Needs, From Each More Than She Can Do: Allocations, Entitlements, and Value’. In Persistent Equalities: Women and World Development, edited by Irene Tinker, 162-181. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Shakthi, S. ‘The Law, the Market, the Gendered Subject: Workplace Sexual Harassment in Chennai’s Information Technology Industry.’ Gender, Place & Culture 27, No. 1 (2020): 34-51.