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Is WFH solution to India’s low female labour participation? Not really, says economist

Ashwini Deshpande of Centre for Economic Data and Analysis, Ashoka University, says ‘work from home’ isn't possible for many since 90% of India's labour force works in informal sector.

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New Delhi: Could remote working be the solution to one of India’s most persistent problems — its abysmally low female workforce participation? The question, according to Ashwini Deshpande, economist and director of the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis at Ashoka University, cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. 

According to the National Statistical Office’s Periodic Labour Force Survey, India’s Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) moved up marginally, from 17.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 25 per cent in 2020-21.

However, even this figure is low, especially in light of a World Bank 2022 study that found that in India, FLFP fell after per capita income surpassed $3,500.

Work from home has frequently been offered as a solution to the problem, but according to Deshpande, it is limited in its scope, especially given how large India’s informal sector workforce is.

“Work from home, as we see it, is applicable to a very small segment of female workers,” Deshpande told ThePrint. “From the spectrum of employment opportunities available, there is a very limited number of jobs that allow work from home of the kind that we think.”

Deshpande was speaking to ThePrint about a recent study conducted by a researcher at the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA). The study, conducted by Dhruvika Dhamija, highlighted how women formed only 19 per cent of the workforce in factories and mostly appeared in labour-intensive industries catering to the apparel, beedi, leather and other such low-monetary output sectors. 

Deshpande said the notion of ‘work from home’ — the term used often to describe remote working — has more than one connotation. 

“Home-based workers is something that women have always been, whether it’s making those bindi packets or matchsticks or incense sticks or things like that. These are very poorly paid, often exploitative and highly vulnerable contract-based jobs that women do for a pittance. This is also ‘work from home’, (just) not in the same way as we middle-class Indians think of work from home,” she said. 

Also Read: Does development mean more women in work? Yes in Pakistan but not India, says World Bank study

Cost to economic output

Acknowledging the effect of working from home in destigmatising high-quality service sector jobs, Deshpande said: Covid-19 has shown employers in the formal sector the kind of work we do, where we can possibly work from home. It has shown them that work can be done from home and to the extent that it destigmatises women.”

But, she also cautioned, “We should not think of work from home as a solution to women’s low labour force participation rate.”

This is because of the number of women employed in the formal sector.

“We have to think of our labour force, 90 per cent of which is employed in the informal sector — agriculture, construction work, selling things on the footpath. Working from home doesn’t work for these kinds of jobs. One has to reach a workplace to work,” she said.

So what is the economic cost of having low female participation in India’s workforce? 

“Different people make different assumptions while calculating, but you could possibly think of a 25-30 per cent increase in India’s GDP — if everything else was the same and the contribution of women at work went up,” said Deshpande, adding that India could potentially be a much larger economy than it currently is “because its women are not involved in productive work to the extent that they can be or they should be or they would like to be”. 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: India’s ‘salaried class’ shrank during Covid, Muslims hit hardest, govt data suggests


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