New Delhi: M's* husband was a good-for-nothing drunk, and with three children to send to school, she had no choice but to work in other people's homes, washing dishes and clothes, dusting, sweeping and swabbing. It was hard work and she would wake up at dawn, finish her own household work before rushing off to various part-time jobs that only got over at about 5 p.m., and then hurry back home to get the dinner ready.

Then, a neighbour in her basti told her about a driving school for women where the fee was subsidised and she could get a driver's licence after six months. The organisation also helped with job placements, guaranteeing a starting salary of Rs 10,500, significantly higher than the Rs 6,000 she made in her current jobs.

Armed with this knowledge, M walked into the Azad Foundation office in Jagatpuri, east Delhi and signed up to learn. It was March 12, 2020.

Twelve days later when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown with just four hours' notice, M was, like the rest of the nation, caught off guard. How was she to commute to work? Would she get paid? How long would this lockdown last? What about the driving course?

The answers came soon enough. No work, no pay. Even when the lockdown eased up, many gated communities barred the entry of outside workers. M had no savings. Azad Foundation gave her basic rations. And, when she called some of her former employers, they wired her small sums of money, Rs 500 here, Rs 1,000 there. But really, she was on her own. All dreams of becoming a driver lay forgotten.

Over two years later in a post-pandemic, post-vaccinated world, M has gone back to work to pay off the loans she had accumulated during the months of unemployment. She has no time for driving lessons even though she knows that it's her ticket to a better-paying job. "Once I save enough, I will go back. But right now, I am just trying to keep my kitchen running," she said.

This is the first of a six-part series, Women at Work 3.0, a follow up to our award winning work on women' labour force participation in India. Over the next four months, we will cover a range of issues post the Covid-19 pandemic from social security for women, to violence, and domestic responsibilities and their impact on women's work outside the home.

Reading the data

Estimates by private research firm Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) that has collected weekly, national-level data from 175,000 households since January 2016, put women's workforce participation at a grim 9% between January and April 2021. As many as 21 million women had quit the workforce between 2017 and 2022, and worse, said CMIE managing director and CEO Mahesh Vyas, most were no longer even looking for work. "When jobs are scarce, women simply stop looking," he said.

But if CMIE's data-point of 9% was one end of the shock spectrum, then the release of the government's Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data in the middle of June 2022 for 2020-21 was the other end of that spectrum.

Himanshu, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, analysed PLFS data for Mint, and found that the total number of workers in the economy at 539.5 million people reflected an increase of 26.2 million workers from 2019-2020: 15.3 million women and 10.8 million men. A person is considered to be in the labour force when she is either working or looking for work.

This increase is driven by rural women's labour force participation, from 32.2% in 2019-20 to 35.8% in 2020-21, amongst those with the lowest education levels.

According to the PLFS, labour force participation by women (usual status, +15 years) at 32.5%, is at its highest level in four years. That this happened in the aftermath of the lockdowns and the second deadly wave in March 2021 made the figure even more startling, given the research and data on how Covid-19 had disproportionately impacted women in terms of job loss (see, for instance, here, here, and here). IndiaSpend's second Women at Work series also looked at the particular challenges women faced during the pandemic.

Between January and April 2021, CMIE data say 18.4% of urban women who wanted to work were unemployed as were 11.5% rural women. The corresponding data were 6.6% for urban men and 5.8% for rural men. The PLFS numbers for 2020-21 says 12.2% of women in urban areas (9.4% for men) and 4.8% in rural areas (7.2% for men) were not employed for even one hour in the last seven days preceding the survey.

The chasm between CMIE and PLFS data is caused largely by the different definitions of employment by both, said CMIE's Vyas. "CMIE considers a person to be employed only if she is employed on the day CMIE interviews her while the PLFS considers those who have worked even for an hour in the past seven days as employed.

Moreover, added Sona Mitra, principal economist at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), the rise in women's workforce participation is largely attributable to an increase in rural women's workforce participation. "Agriculture was a sector from where women were moving out, but last year and even this year, there hasn't been a significant decline in women's labour in the sector," she said. "On the other hand, there are marginal increases in non-agricultural sectors."

According to the type of employment, a large increase, added Mitra, is in women's own-account enterprises–small businesses like papad and pickle making that are run by a single woman from the house in a bid to boost household income.

Economist Mitali Nikore who heads think-tank Nikore Associates, agreed, "Self-employment, particularly own-account enterprises and unpaid helpers in household enterprises largely accounts for the increase in women's workforce participation," she said. Of those employed, as many as 64.8% of women in rural India were self-employed as were 38.4% in urban areas, PLFS data show.

But, said Himanshu, PLFS data are consistent with earlier periods of economic crisis. For instance, he pointed out, during the agrarian crisis between 1999 and 2004-05, there was an increase of 60 million workers. "Households have an idea of what they see as a minimum income to survive," he said. "When this income drops, they push potential earners, including women and the elderly, into the labour force."

The rise in employment numbers, particularly in rural India, farming and the informal sector, confirms a "distress-induced increase in employment witnessed in India", Himanshu said. "Unemployment is a luxury that few can afford."

Could we be seeing a reversal of the old story?

It's early days to draw a definitive conclusion, but PLFS data hint that two-and-a-half-years after Covid-19 hit our shores early in 2020, the world of work could present a very different narrative for women and workforce participation.

In the old story, women's employment in India was in freefall when Covid-19 arrived. The attrition had taken place over a period of time and, in under two decades from 2004 to 2020, an estimated 46 million women had fallen off the labour map. "The attrition happened over decades," said Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of the JustJobs Network which she co-founded in 2013. "And Covid definitely accelerated that trend."

[For IndiaSpend's earlier series on Women@Work see here.]

The PLFS findings of women's workforce participation at its highest in four years puts the old tale on its head. The early post-pandemic months were about how women were disproportionately impacted.

The current discourse, with an increase in women's labour force participation, with the largest increase coming from rural India, and our own anecdotal findings, hints that the lockdowns and its aftermath have resulted in such a scale of economic distress that women are looking for and, taking on, any kind of paid work.

Historically, women's workforce participation has been fluid as women exit and re-enter the workforce multiple times over short periods, write economist Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh of Ashoka University in an August 2021 paper, Dropping Out, Being Pushed Out or Can't Get In? Women's participation falls when there is unavailability of steady gainful employment, they write. And when there is high unemployment, women are "likely to be displaced from employment by male workers".

The story gets interesting when you plot a job recovery graph from April 2020 onward. Men's job recovery moved steadily up while women's re-employment hit bumps in October and November 2020, if you look at CMIE data.

By the end of 2020, the labour force across India had shrunk by 2% for men; 13% for women, according to an analysis of CMIE data by Nikore. But among recently unemployed men, 67% were actively looking for paid work and among women, only 37%. "There simply weren't enough jobs that paid decent wages. Women just gave up the fight to look for decent work," said Nikore.

But by May 2022, the percentage of women who were actively looking for work had gone up to 41%. Explained Nikore: "What this shows really, is a desperation to take any kind of work, no matter how low the salary or how terrible the conditions."

IWWAGE's Mitra said she was still studying the 2020-2021 PLFS data on earnings. The year before, we know that earnings had decreased and my hunch is that it is the same story this time as well, she said. "So, the increase in workforce participation is coming from the lowest paying, non remunerative jobs."

Fighting for survival

In the pre-pandemic world, Lakshmi Das had a reasonably good job at Kolkata's Burrabazar, India's largest wholesale market. The single mother of a 12-year-old daughter found the hours long, but the Rs 8,000 a month salary kept her household running.

When the shop where she was working shut down during the March 2020 lockdown, she thought it was a temporary blip and she'd get back to work soon. But when the lockdown eased up, she fell ill and had to get an emergency appendicitis surgery. There were no savings to speak of, let alone money for an operation. So, she took the first of many loans from a private money-lender.

Ever since, she said, "I have walked up and down Burrabazar looking for work, any kind of work." But the most that anyone is prepared to pay her is Rs 3,500, less than half of what she made earlier. "The shopkeepers know that people are desperate, so they make these offers. But I am alone and I have so much debt to pay off. How can this job even begin to sustain me?" she asked.

It's the same story elsewhere in the country.

Y* had a steady job, packaging toys at a toy factory in Kalkaji, Delhi. The Rs 6,000 per month salary wasn't great, but the factory was a 15-minute walk from her home and, so, she saved both time and transportation costs that made it worthwhile.

In March 2020, her husband died of kidney complications. Just weeks later, the lockdown was announced and Y was stuck at home minus any source of income.

Four months later, as markets began to open up, she found out that her job was still available--but there was a condition. Business was down and the owner could no longer afford to pay her a regular monthly salary. Would she accept piecemeal work? Desperate, she said, yes. On a good week--she can't afford to wait to be paid every month--she said, she takes home Rs 700. That's an average of Rs 2,800 a month, significantly less than what she used to make when the cost of vegetables and LPG cylinders was cheaper.

The silver lining

The PLFS findings confirm that it is the gendered burden of housework that is the single-largest reason that keeps women away from the workforce. Housework, including childcare, keeps 43% of women out of the labour force (just 1.5% of men), according to an analysis by Hindustan Times. Education is the second reason, and a good one, with 72.3% men and 33.2% of women saying they were studying and so couldn't work.

Women with higher levels of education actually quit jobs the fastest, as our first series showed. This is because when women with higher educational attainment do not get paying jobs that meet their expectation, they would rather stay home and chip in with household work, or home production, bringing up the children, caring for parents and so on, finds an April 2020 paper for IWWAGE by Farzana Afridi and others on What determines women's labour supply?

For one brief moment, the pandemic provided proof that gender norms aren't as embedded as we'd like to believe.

For the first few weeks after the lockdown, economics professor Ashwini Deshpande documented how men stepped up to spend more time on housework. But by December 2020, said Deshpande, this had quickly dissipated and men were doing less than even pre-pandemic levels.

Gender roles are deeply ingrained and women's 'real' work was, and is, understood to mean looking after her family: Raising children, taking care of the elderly and the unwell, cooking, cleaning, fetching water, firewood, looking after livestock and tending to small subsistence farms. This work has no financial remuneration. No days off. No labour regulations. Yet, women who carry out its wearying, unrelenting demands often describe themselves as 'not working'.

Several studies put forward an array of reasons and IndiaSpend's own year-long investigation pointed to a complex network of reasons. Women lacked agency and mobility. While a sustained campaign by governments and activists--bicycles, free midday meals, even more toilets--had made it more acceptable for girls to go to school, the euphoria evaporated when it came to employment. Degrees were not transitioning to jobs, and India's most educated women were quitting the workplace faster than others.

Challenges of breaking glass ceilings

Traditionally, skilling programmes for women have failed to make the imaginative breach beyond pickle- and papad-making, embroidery and beauty work.

"There's nothing wrong with this work, but these jobs don't pay," said Surabhi Yadav who has degrees from IIT, Delhi and University of California, Berkeley, and in 2020 set up a non-profit, Sajhe Sapne (literally, shared dreams) near Palampur in Himachal Pradesh.

Yadav's organisation prepares rural women with the skills needed in a modern workplace--coding, for instance, and project management. The focus is on improving five key areas: agency, skills, salary, satisfaction and support.

India's performance in skill training of women is dismal, with "only about 9 per cent of young females in 2011–12 reported that they had received some form of formal or informal training, which leaves a vast majority of women rendered unemployable for the job market", finds an April 2021 paper, Working or Not: What determines women's labour force participation in India, published by IWWAGE and Lead at Krea University.

The central government's flagship programme on skill development, the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (Prime Minister's Skill Development Programme), which started with an ambitious target of skilling about 11 million youth over four years, from 2016 to 2020, "failed miserably" continues the paper.

By July 2019, only about half the target was skilled with a meagre 1.3 million placed in jobs, notes the paper. "Simultaneously improving education, skills and vocational training programmes to provide better quality training to a wider population can considerably improve female labour force participation rates," it states.

Government policies have a big role to play in staunching the loss of women from the workforce. For instance, said Mitra, if research shows that women are spending huge amounts of time on housework, then a policy mandating child-care facilities, through subsidies or incentives, will help. Government can also ensure household infrastructure–access to piped water, electricity, clean fuel–that will reduce the time spent on household chores, she said.

It is the Azad Foundation's mission to teach women skills in the more remunerative but non-traditional area of driving. With women-run taxi services, "there is far greater acceptance of women drivers", said Dolon Ganguly, national lead at the Azad Foundation that has already trained 3,000 women drivers across India since 2008. "But convincing families that driving is respectable work is a challenge." After they join, domestic violence can increase and women find it difficult to continue, said Ganguly.

When the lockdown was announced, many women drivers placed by the foundation in private homes, organisations and hotels, were summarily sacked. The foundation suspended classes and began distributing dry ration kits.

But after the economy began to open up, many small businesses, including hotels, were hit, and the women who were sacked never got reinstated, said Ganguly. "Women are first to get sacked and the last to get reinstated," she said.

Those who had signed up to learn to drive but had not yet completed the course found they had no time to learn as they took on whatever jobs came their way. "Many of our learners are single mothers and come from difficult backgrounds," said Ganguly. "Almost everyone had taken private loans at exorbitant interest rates [during the pandemic] and these now have to be paid back."

But some stories do have a happy ending. At 42, Shakeela Banu, a barely literate widow with two school-going children, lives with her brother and his family in a basti on the outskirts of Jaipur. After her husband's death 13 years ago, she said, she began working in people's homes. Then her neighbour asked her if she wanted to learn to drive.

At 42, Shakeela Banu, a barely literate widow with two school-going children, drives a vehicle with advertising hoardings in Jaipur. Post pandemic, Banu gets paid less than she used to earlier, but she is one of the lucky ones to keep her job. Many Indian women have been pushed into low quality jobs just fighting to survive Covid-19's economic distress.

It wasn't easy. The learning process was slow and the six-month programme took her nine months to complete. "I kept having to go back to work," she said.

But when Covid arrived, she already had a job, driving vehicles with advertising hoardings for an ad company making roughly Rs 9,000 a month. For four months during and after the lockdown, there was no work.

Then the company called and asked her if she'd like to come back to work. There were conditions. Business was down, but she could probably swing 10 to 15 days of work a month on a daily rate of Rs 300. "At least I can make sure my kids are fed."

"It's always been my hobby to drive," she said. "Things are bad for the company too, and I understand that they can only give me as much work as they get. But someday things will soon get better."

[*Whenever asked we have granted anonymity to the women interviewed for this story.]

This series is a collaboration with the Initiative For What Works To Advance Women and Girls In The Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at KREA University.

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