Young women are storming workforce

While a large number of women in the age group of 20-24 are entering the labour force all over India, TN fares better in all age groups
Source: CMIE
Source: CMIE


Women in the 20-24 age bracket are returning to the labour force in large numbers across the country. This is significant because this is the only age group to have shown an increase, while all other age groups have shown a decline nationally, as per a Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) report.
Between September and December 2019, participation of women of this age group was 14.3 per cent, a big improvement on the 9.4 per cent seen in 2017. Rural participation was 12.2 per cent, and urban, 18.7 per cent.
The CMIE study covered 1.74 lakh households and respondents covered were all over 15 years of age and were employed at all levels and in a variety of professions.
The national picture
The CMIE report notes that this is the highest participation rate in the 20-24 age group since demonetisation. Between January and April 2016, participation of the 20-24 year olds was 17.3 per cent. It went up to 18.4 per cent in May-August 2016.  Participation fell to 13.5 per cent in September-December 2016, after demonetisation. It further reduced to 9.5 per cent in May-August 2017 and remained under 11 per cent through 2017 and 2018.
As the age increases to the late twenties, women tend to drop off from the labour force in huge numbers, touching 10.13 per cent in the 55-59 age group. In rural areas, participation of women fell from 16.4 per cent before demonetisation to 9.3 per cent after demonetisation. Now it is 12.2 per cent, an increase of 300 basis points. In the urban areas, there was an increase of 670 basis points in the same period.
In the thirties age group, women fall dramatically off the employment charts, from a rate of 16-18 per cent to just 11 or 12 per cent.
The Tamil Nadu story
The numbers in Tamil Nadu are higher for every age group, with the 20-24 year olds accounting for 15.59 per cent of the labour force, higher than the national average. In the September-December 2019 period, the highest participation was in the 40-44 age group. This is in contrast to the national trend. Grassroots workers in Tamil Nadu feel that the female labour participation in states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala always tends to be higher Says Kalpana Satish of Roots, a womens’ organisation, “Increasingly the burden of providing for their marriages is falling on the young women. They are forced to seek employment just to save money for themselves and their marriages”.
Districts such as Tirupur, Erode, Namakkal and Dindigul have a huge concentration of young working women. Parents have become more open to the idea of their daughters leaving home before marriage, stay in hostels in a different city and seek employment for their own survival and to support younger siblings.
The vast majority of them come from the extremely vulnerable sections of society (SCs/STs and Denotified Communities) and even earning three square meals a day is a big deal. Employers too use this to their advantage.
Post marriage, about 70 per cent of them stop working either because the family disapproves or because they need to care for their children. Hence, the fall in numbers in the late twenties age group. This is particularly in rural areas, she says. Even so, the Tamil Nadu numbers are higher than the national average.
Young women entering the workforce find easy employment at the lower levels simply because companies find it easier to train them and because they are preferred over young men who are seen as less compliant and more prone to joining unions. Women are also paid much less than men.
Says SM Prithviraj, director, Care T, an organisation that works in the textile sector, employment is geography specific and industry specific. Even within an industry, certain activities see a higher concentration of women, certain departments will employ married women while others will prefer single women.
Married women tend to drop out also because a vast majority of them are employed in the unorganised sector and the private sector, and do not get the kind of maternity and other benefits government jobs provide.
In the textile sector in Tamil Nadu, which is the second largest employer (20 lakh people) after agriculture, women’s participation is about 50 per cent, but in the skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled labour and supervisory levels, not above this level, he says.
For example, in the thread making and spinning units, women account for almost 75 per cent of the workforce.
In Tirunelveli, over seven lakh women are employed in the beedi rolling industry. “There are brokers who approach parents of girls and offer employment.
Most parents are tempted to send their daughters,” says B Nala Chandra Sekaran of the Navajeevan Trust, which works with women and child workers.
The girls are signed on for a period of three years and promised a lump sum of Rs 50,000 or Rs 75,000 at the end of the period in addition to their daily wages, food and accommodation. This is tempting for the families to let go of the offer. But the amount is given only if the girl works continuously without a break except when the company declares a holiday.
Even if she is forced to take sick leave, the money is not released. As a result, barely 2 – 3 per cent of the women actually receive the amount. In some cases, the women also put up with harassment from their male supervisors just so they can collect the amount.
Sheelu Francis of the Womens’ Collective, says in and around Chennai, young girls are taking up employment in assembly units in Sriperambudur and in onion exporting units. A number of them are educated and want the freedom to leave home and earn money. “Typically they take up jobs in jewellery and clothes stores. In some units they are allowed to play film songs all day and they seem to enjoy that,” she says.
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