The Effects of Globalisation & Liberalisation on Women Workers in India

Read this article to learn about the effects of Globalisation & Liberalisation on women workers in India!

Let us now examine the effects of liberalisation and globalisation on women workers.

Women have been losing their jobs in the formal sector for a long time, much before the present policies were conceived. Employment in the formal sector has been sluggish, resulting in job losses.

However, job losses among women workers in this sector took place at a time when this sector was expanding. In the 1920s, employment of women in the three traditional industries, namely, jute, cotton textile and mines, was over 20 per cent. By the 1970s, the number of women workers in the three industries had been reduced to less than 5 per cent.


The only industry where women were employed in large numbers is the plantation industry where they form 50 per cent of the total permanent labour force, according to Tea Statistics 2006 published by the Tea Board of India, Kolkata. Their number continued to be high in plantations as women are more efficient in plucking of tea leaves.

The main observation we can make in this regard is that women faced job losses after certain laws were passed. The Factories Act not permitting women working in night shifts in factories and the Mines Act preventing women from working underground were ostensibly passed to protect women as it was believed that it would be unsafe for women to return home late at night after the shift ended and, in the case of mines, working underground was bad for their health.

Moreover factory work was projected as masculine activity and thus unfit for women. A significant fact in this whole process was that women were never asked whether they wanted to work at night, or underground. It was presumed in a patriarchal society that women needed protection.

The 1991 census data showed that women workers formed one- seventh of the formal sector workforce while they constituted one- third of the workforce in the informal sector (Davala 1993). The female workforce in the formal sector owes its weight-age to the large number of women employed in the plantation sector comprising tea, coffee and rubber as the main crops; it employs around 16 lakh permanent workers, of whom 8 lakh are women.


It should be noted that the plantation sector offers the lowest wages in the formal sector. Elsewhere, women are mainly employed as nurses, airhostesses, school teachers, receptionists and secretarial staff. Salaries in each of these categories, with the possible exception of airhostess, are, or used to be, the lowest in the industry/profession concerned. We can thus see that women in the formal sector are mostly assigned to jobs that are identified and categorised as ‘feminine’.

We have mentioned earlier that the argument for preventing women from working at night was mainly for their protection and safety. Even the ILO has a convention to this effect, and it also has a convention that states that women should not work underground. These are two of the few conventions that have been accepted by most countries.

At the same time, when it becomes necessary for women to participate in the labour force, these conventions are overlooked. This happened during WWII. Men had to fight the war and women were recruited to work in factories and mines to keep production going. At that time, the ‘safety norms’ were conveniently ignored.

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In the present phase, when there is a growth in call centres and production in the small-scale sector, the issue of women working at night has resurfaced. On 29 March 2005, the Union Cabinet took a decision to amend the Factories Act 1948 so that women could work on night shifts.

The main reason that guided the cabinet’s decision was that after January 2005, the quota system for garments and textiles had been lifted by the WTO. Hence it was now possible for India to enter the international market in a big way provided the goods were cost-effective.

Though women occupy a better position in the informal sector in terms of numerical strength, their position in the work hierarchy and income is low. The better-paid jobs are taken by men and the lower-paying ones reserved for women. In fact, the types of work performed by them are those that can be replaced by technology.

For example, in the construction industry, women are assigned tasks of carrying building materials to the work site and they carry bricks or crushed stones in baskets on their heads to these places. This task can be performed using conveyer belts, and when they are installed women lose their jobs.

Bhagalpur in Bihar is regarded as the centre of the silk spinning industry where the entire task of spinning silk and twisting the yarn is done by women. This is a low-paid job that requires long hours of work. This industry is now facing a crisis because silk imports from China and Korea are fast replacing the domestic product. The obvious losers are the impoverished women spinners of Bhagalpur.

Technical changes, that are taking place at rapid rates at present, result in job losses if no new jobs are created. In agriculture, weeding used to be done by women. The use of pesticides has removed the need for manually removing weeds and hence this reduces the employment of women. In cotton cultivation, women were engaged to pick the cotton buds, but the use of combined harvesters has reduced employment of women.

In most of the cases mentioned above, women are paid wages that are lower than those of men, which is a violation of the law, but women are made to believe that the type of work they do is inferior and hence they are paid less. The Equal Remuneration Act passed in 1976 was meant primarily for workers in mines, plantations, construction industries, etc.

Initially it was found that employers, especially in plantations, continued to pay less to women workers on the ground that the workload of men was higher and equal wages would discriminate against male workers. Under the Act, though they worked more than women, they would be paid the same wages.

The government clarified in December 1976 that equal pay had to be given to male and female workers when the nature of work was similar irrespective of the volume of work. In other words, the nature of work in construction or in plantations is similar even though women may be assigned less workload than men.

Tea plantations in West Bengal started paying equal wages soon after this clarification. However, in Assam, which employs half the plantation workers in the country, equal wages were first paid as late as 1990. In other industries and in agriculture, women continue to be paid lower wages than males.

We find that even in the informal sector, women are assigned the lowest paid jobs and even these are shrinking. At the same time, it would be incorrect to assume that after liberalisation and globalisation, jobs in the informal sector have decreased. In the construction industry, demand for women head loaders may have declined but there are higher demands for services such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, etc.

Women workers are unable to access these jobs because, firstly, these are categorised as masculine jobs, and secondly, they are not trained, with the second point following from the first. In most cases, plumbers, carpenters and electricians learn their skills from their fathers.

Boys are taught these skills when they accompany their fathers to their work but girls are never imparted such skills as these jobs are not meant for them. Hence, if women are to access these jobs they need training. If the state or NGOs provide such training to women construction workers, they could be more freedom of choice in their work. This would also help in eroding the gender-based barriers in work.

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