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India Must Protect the 150 Million Women in the Informal Sector

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India Must Protect the 150 Million Women in the Informal Sector

From sexual harassment protections to childcare and social security, women in India’s informal sector are often left outside the scope of government policies. 

India Must Protect the 150 Million Women in the Informal Sector
Credit: Depositphotos

As per a 2018 International Labor Organization (ILO) report, about 82 percent of the total number of working women in India are concentrated in the informal sector, working in fields such as domestic work, home-based work, waste picking, construction, street vending and so on. The eShram national database as of March 22 suggests that more women than men contribute to the total workforce in the unorganized sector – women make up 52.7 percent of the total 287 million registered unorganized workers. That means at least 151 million women are working in India’s informal sector, which is more than the total population of Russia – and this is likely an undercount, as not every informal worker is registered with eShram. 

Yet not many laws in India address the women in the informal sector. This article highlights the abysmal implementation of the very few existing provisions that encompass the needs of such women.

India’s Parliament enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (commonly known as the POSH Act) in 2013 to protect working women against any kind of sexual harassment in the workplace. The act mandates the formation of local committees by district administrations to attend to reports of sexual harassment from women in the informal sector and for workplaces with less than 10 employees. Similar to civil courts, the local committees are empowered to investigate complaints, facilitate settlement, and also order compensation for the aggrieved women.

Since there’s never been any dedicated budget from the center for the POSH Act, the local committees are either absent or dysfunctional. The act places the onus of providing grants for implementation on both central and state governments. Consequently, neither allocates a penny.

Experts working with women in the unorganized sector have found that most women workers are unaware of the provisions of the POSH Act due to lack of publicity campaigns. As per the act and a handbook published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the state governments are responsible for publicizing the provisions. The state governments are also responsible for monitoring implementation and maintaining a database on sexual harassment reports. However, there’s no available data on cases heard or pending in local committees, despite wide coverage of the issue flagged through the RTI report filed by the Martha Farrell Foundation with various states and union territories during 2016-17. (While the National Crime Bureau of Records also report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, it doesn’t take into consideration the cases reported under local committees.)

Furthermore, India hasn’t ratified the ILO’s 2019 violence and harassment convention, which conceptualized standards of responsibility to deal with violence and harassment at the workplace.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development formulated the National Creche Scheme (NCS) in 2017 to provide financial grants for daycare facilities for the children (aged six months to six years) of working women. This especially helps those women whose workplaces are not mandated to have creches or nurseries – any workplace that employs fewer than 50 employees is exempt – and women working in the informal sector. The fee per child varies from 20 to 200 Indian rupees per month depending on the economical status of the parents. The NCS has now been brought under an umbrella scheme called Mission Shakti.

Data from the Women and Child Development Ministry suggests a decline in the number of creches under the NCS across the country, even excluding the pandemic years. There were over 18,000 creches under NCS across the country in 2017-18 across the country. As per a response tabled in the Lok Sabha, there were 4,948 creches as of June 30, 2022. This dropped to 3,578 as of January 19, 2023, which is not even five creches per district.

Child-bearing leads to wage loss for most workers in the informal sector, as they are largely not protected by the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 since their workplaces generally do not have more than 10 employees. While the state building and other construction workers (BOCW) welfare boards provide financial aid to pregnant construction workers, there’s no such board for other women employed as domestic workers, home-based workers, waste pickers, street vendors, etc.

The Code on Social Security, 2020 recommends formation of the State Social Security Board for the unorganized sector. It would be the function of this state board to provide maternity benefits to the women in the unorganized sector, among other welfare schemes such as work injury benefits, housing, educational schemes for children, skill upgradation of workers, and so on.

While any scheme regarding the same would be framed and notified by the central government only, the onus of funding would lie on the center and/or the state. The BOCW boards accumulate funds through a tax collected from contractors building huge infrastructure projects such as buildings, highway overpasses, metros, etc. The financial scale of other informal sector work isn’t big enough to draw similar funding. Notably, women are more concentrated in other informal work than construction. Hence, the ambiguity on funding social security schemes is detrimental. As explained above for POSH Act 2013, when both center and state are deemed responsible for proving funds, neither will. 

Household duties including childcare and traditional social norms have restricted most women, especially those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to the informal sector. Official statistics suggest that this sector contributes more than half of the gross value to the Indian economy. Protecting the women working in the unorganized sector may positively impact the Indian economy.