Women’s Labour and Migration: The Missing Perspective

For economic and social empowerment, there is an urgent need to shift the narrative and focus on female perspectives and challenges faced by them.

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Discussion around labour migration has gripped the nation after lakhs of workers left cities to return to their villages for safety and familiarity in these uncertain times. Migrant workers from cities scrambled to get to their homes and avoid starvation due to loss of employment amidst the lockdown. The pandemic forced the country to acknowledge the presence of these invisible people and the vital role they play in boosting the urban economy and easing our lives.

The Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) organised a webinar “The Neglected Dimension: Gender in India’s Labour Migration Story” to discuss on issues surrounding female workers and migrants. The aim of the webinar was to highlight and discuss the prominence of female migrant workers, their importance and the difficulties faced by them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indu Agnihotri, an activist, researcher and former Director of CWDS moderated the webinar. She shared that migration as an issue has been studied for a long time, as it helps understand livelihoods and rural India. However, women’s migration in terms of work has not been probed and data have not been analysed. Migrations, whether they are seasonal, short-term or cyclical, provide a rich typology to study modes, patterns and routes of migration. Agnihotri further said that migration evokes a sense of nostalgia that is going back to the roots or serves as a marker of breaking from the social or historical past. In India, migration helps break away from rigidities and hierarchies. The need to study migration is important as it is dynamic and is affected by economic changes which significantly impacts women.

Lack of Data and Methodological Issues
Neetha N, Professor and the acting Director of CWDS, who has studied gender migration and labour issues, particularly focusing on domestic workers, shared that population movements are studied, but there is no separate study for labour migration. Hence, analysis of labour movements is difficult. The sources for studying the population are the Census and the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). Neither the Census nor the NSS provide a single definition to identify migrants. The latest data available on migration are from 2011 Census and 2007–08 study by the NSSO. This shows that there is a gross lack of surveys being conducted. Additionally, data on migration are always released late. These surveys fail to capture short-term and circulatory migration, which leads to an underestimation of migration by the marginalised categories like women, SCs and STs.


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The 55th NSS round collected data on short-term migration for the first time. It defined short-term migration for duration of 60 days or more for employment. In its 64th round, the NSS changed the definition and stated that a person away for a period 1–6 months for employment is a migrant. Regardless of the change in definition by the NSS, only 1 per cent of the total population which moved out of villages came under the category of short-term migrants. This shows the definitional weakness to identify short-term and circulatory migrants.

A study conducted by the CWDS found that around 58 per cent of the female migration was short-term. Male short-term migration was projected to be 64 per cent.

Another reason for the under-representation of female migrants is due to the mono-causal approach of collecting data by collection agencies. These agencies make a rigid distinction between migration occurring due to social reasons or economic reasons. The respondents are only allowed to give one reason for their migration. Invariably in the case of female migrants the reason is identified as marriage. Due to labour market segregations and concentrations, women occupy only a few sectors and occupations. Neetha explained that the chance of the two dispersed NSS surveys to undercount women increases as samples are dispersed and female labour is concentrated in particular sectors. Circulations of family units or male-female pairs for wage labour in some industries are completely dependent on migrants. CWDS studies found that sugarcane and brick industries are manned by jodis or male-female pairs. Therefore, the belief that migration is always an individual venture is incorrect. This is due to the lack of credible data for women’s labour migration.

Despite the fact that female migration outnumbers male migration, the proportion of female migrants moving for employment is insignificant in contrast to male migration, which is deemed significant in migration surveys. Hence, macro surveys and mono-causal approach are major factors in camouflaging some economic or labour-based decisions in women’s migration under social reasons. Hence, the under-estimation of female migration is in-built in data. The conclusion brought out by incorrect data is that migration is a male centric phenomenon. The Census of 2011 shows a rise in female migration of all kinds thus changes have to be studied due to the recent economic crisis as it seriously affects female participation. Employment rates have increased despite the rise in education levels. Female migrants and other marginalised groups are over-represented in categories like- manufacturing, domestic workers, nurses, construction sites and garbage collectors in urban areas. The macro data on migration due to many limitations conceals many features which operate on the ground. Hence, the data hide much more than what they reveal.

These pre-existing inequalities of the labour market will leave female workers particularly vulnerable in times of pandemic. The economic slowdown will lead to retrenchment of workers especially of female workers whose employment will be terminated or who will face salary cuts as compared to their male counterparts. As family incomes will shrink, many more women will join the labour market. Distress migration of women from rural to urban areas is bound to happen. However, the restricted entry of women will lead to massive unemployment and cutting down of already low wages.

Gender Dimension in Labour
Indrani Mazumdar who has a vast experience in studying women’s movements and worker’s rights spoke about the lack of gender dynamics present in the data. She explained that women’s migration lacks a labour perspective, despite the increase in female migration. There is a still a male bias in the structure of migration. This male bias reflects in the structure of the workforce which creates a hostile work environment. Hence, women are left with working in a few industries. This gendered division of labour thus pushes gender ideologies. Therefore, women are preferred in some sectors and only there can women secure employment. Employer’s benefits from this as they only have to pay low wages to men. Women enter the labour market to make ends meet, but they are considered as supplementary wage earners. Therefore, women’s wages are lower than wages of men.
In circular migration, the gender aspect is erased completely despite a lot of literature present. In construction sites and brick kilns the labour is casual but the industry is organised. This means that the unit of labour is family but wages are given at piece rate which means that women do not earn independent wages.

Independent migration by women is viewed from the lens of trafficking.

Although there is exploitation, there are no trafficking states Mazumdar. Trafficking disturbs the analysis and does not give a clear picture of female migration. Trafficking stigmatises female workers. Skill training is seen as a positive to independent female migration which provides cheap labour to industries and benefits employers.
Mazumdar argued that labour rights need greater focus on wages, social security and industry relations. Presently laws exclude the private domestic households as workplace which disproportionately impacts women. Health and safety codes do not include sexual harassment in its purview. Therefore, women’s issue is segregated from labour perspective and the labour law machinery. The labour department has to become gender sensitive urgently.

Women’s Labour in Rural Context
Nitya Rao, Professor, of Gender Studies, University of East Anglia, who has studied land, agrarian migration and livelihood spoke about women’s labour in villages. Women’s unpaid domestic work is invisible, but so is the productive work that also remains invisible and unpaid. This is recognised by families, but there is no formal mechanism for women to access kisan credit cards or any other resources. Women do not own any land titles therefore they are marginalised.

The lack of recognition of women’s work is due to the difficulty in classifying their work which is then under-reported in surveys and official data. Their work is largely unpaid they have no tools, work long hours and have little to no support or information on schemes. Under Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Scheme, most households get one cylinder per year which is not sufficient so women are still dependent on firewood collection.


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Women in rural areas want to get an education as they aspire for white collar work. Opening up of Aanganwadis and ASHA centres has provided them with more opportunities but these are often low paid and voluntary services. Despite the inequality of work, there is a demand of this work because this type of employment offer status and dignity compared to other kinds of work. According to Rao, dignity of work and whether to move for work will dictate migration trends post the pandemic to secure respectable work.

Intersecting inequalities also hinder women’s chances to secure better work. Women from landless households, Dalit and tribal women face much more discrimination and marginalisation. They face greater barriers in terms of movement from low paid and unequal work. There has been an increase in women accessing MGNREGS for employment reducing their leisure time which is detrimental to their health. In the time of the pandemic indebtedness is increasing as women are taking more loans from moneylenders for their male counterparts who are stranded in different parts of the country to come back via Shramik trains or buses. Women are also mortgaging their jewellery for the same. Hence after the lockdown women will be completely asset less and vulnerable.
Rural consumption has decreased by 50 per cent, which will have disastrous effects on nutrition and burden of care which will overwhelmingly falls on women. Since the pandemic is getting all the medical attention, clinics have stopped regular medical care. Malaria prevention which used to take place in the months of April, May and June has not happened this time. Since women work in the fields during the monsoon for transplantation, they are highly susceptible to malaria. Rao fears fatalities due to malaria might increase this time.

Women’s International Migration
Praveena Kodoth, Professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, Trivandrum, who studies international labour migration spoke about women’s migration to the Middle East.

International migration is visibly male dominated because there is little information about women working in low earning categories such as domestic workers, retail shop workers, hotel staff and cleaners.

Indian regulatory systems enumerate migrants in low paying jobs who do not possess ten years of education. Additionally, restrictions imposed on women’s movement, mean that women’s migration is irregular as they do not get clearance and hence evade laws for migration. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between emigration and destination statistics. The bulk of less skilled female workers who migrate to the Middle East come from specific areas. Therefore, there is a spatial clustering of migrants. Poverty prone areas of Kerala such as the highlands and coastline account for majority of the migrants from the state. These migrants are usually Christian, Muslim and Hindu OBC women. Andhra Pradesh is the largest source of female migrants who work as domestic workers. These workers are clustered in prosperous agricultural regions but belong to marginalised sections like the SC’s. Hence, there needs to be a focus on spatial clustering from micro regions to understand migration.
As per the Emigration Act, Emigration Check Required (ECR), prohibits women below 30 years of age to migrate for work. This has not hampered the mobility of female migrants. Visit visas are digitally altered to become employment visas while appearing as regular visas. Bribing airport officials to ensure smooth migration is also rampant.

In the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, there is little information about women who work full time and live with their sponsors due to irregular migration. Living arrangements with sponsors is sometimes risky as sponsors could be abusive. Some generous sponsors have paid for their employees to return to India. Women who have taken up part-time employment are badly affected due to the pandemic because they cannot come back. They have lost their incomes due to the pandemic but they still have to pay their rent and manage other expenses. Kodoth concluded by stating that women who work low paying jobs cannot afford expensive flight charges and hence none of these women have been able to come back by the Vande Bharat initiative of the Indian government.

In his concluding observations, Nitya Rao stated that the pandemic can finally give a context to the vital duties of domestic workers. Provisions are needed to ensure that workers get proper wages and leaves. The visibility of female workers should create a space for negotiations for work equality, social security and protection. The pandemic has exposed the need for rights, the recognition to implement labour laws and legislations for ensuring proper working conditions.