The Union and state governments are perhaps facing one of the biggest economic challenge in Independent India’s history in terms recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s employment with female labour participation rate (FLPR) in India falling to 16.1 percent during the July-September 2020 quarter — one of the lowest in recent times. As India plans for rapid economic recovery, the governments and policy makers need to ensure women are not left behind.
Most women in India are employed in informal sectors such as farm labour, allied activities, construction and domestic work. Even before the pandemic, factor such as gender wage gap, unpaid care work, lack of childcare at work, and workplace safety issues kept India’s FLPR one of the lowest in South Asia.
Recognising these factors, the Union and state governments have taken several steps to improve wage gaps. But various indicators show that it is yet to be realised on the ground. The ‘Inclusive by Design’ report reveals informal women workers in India’s construction sector earn 30-40 percent less than their male counterparts.
Local Bodies And Equal Wages
Article 39 (d) of the Constitution directs states to make provisions so that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Gram sabhas, set up under 73rd amendment of the Constitution, can be effectively used to push for equal wages for women at the local level. In Odisha, forums like palli sabhas or gram sabhas have been traditionally used by people’s movements to push for progressive agendas, and people’s rights. In 2013, 12 palli sabhas from tribal areas of Rayagada and Kalahandi in Odisha rejected a mining project. In 2017, a palli sabha was called to approve the construction of a POSO steel plant in Gobindpur.
The Orissa Grama Panchayat Act, 1964 empowers communities to hold palli sabhas, and give recommendations to the gram panchayat for several developmental- and budget-related work. It is essential to leverage such constitutional mechanisms at the local level need to be used for women’s right to equal wages.
Take the case of the women from the Goudkela village of Madanpur Rampur block who are engaged in construction work along with their husbands. The employment in brick, cement and sand factories give them Rs 150 as a daily wage. This is Rs 100 less than what men get. Such gender-based wage discrimination is rampant in Odisha’s construction sector.
Even government-run employment programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) continue to face a challenge in providing discrimination free workplaces to women migrants, many of whom have returned from urban centres after the COVID-19 related lockdowns. The lack of crèche facilities, rest rooms at work-sites, and skills are hampering women from negotiating for better wages. This reflects a larger trend of gender discrimination in the MNREGS through studies such as Sameeksha-II.
Wage Disparity Discussion at Pallisabha
Many women candidates in Odisha joined the grassroots politics at the Panchayat Raj level, but in reality, due to patriarchal and social norms, the elected women representatives have hardly organised a palli sabha to discuss issues on wage disparity. For the first time Oxfam India and the Madanpur Rampur panchayat jointly organised a palli sabha on the topic of ‘Gender wage gap and role of Pallisabha’ at Goudkela village to sensitise women. Villagers from seven adjacent villages participated in the palli sabha. To ensure equal wages for equal work a resolution was passed in the palli sabha.
The village sarpanch also urged women to report wage discrimination so that necessary action could be taken. There are also plans to open a grievance cell at the panchayat office where villagers can approach for government entitlements, and report wage discrimination issues. These learnings from the palli sabha on equal wages and gender issues can be replicated across India to improve the FLPR at the grassroots level.
Such mechanisms at the village level are required to realise the government’s vision to prevent gender-based discrimination in wages, recruitment, and conditions of employment as per new code on wages 2019. In August, the Parliamentary Committee on ‘Impact of COVID-19 on rising unemployment and loss of jobs/ livelihoods in organised and unorganised sector’ recommended improving women workers' ability to negotiate wages. Palli sabhas and the gram panchayat can be a good starting point to implement these codes, and recommendations.Rakhi Ghosh is Bhubaneswar-based journalist, and Akshay Tarfe is a media specialist at Oxfam India. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.