Address at the ILO/Ministry of Labour & Employment (MOLE) Technical Workshop on Women’s Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia

By Ms Tine Staermose, Director, ILO DWT for South Asia and Country Office for India at the ILO/MOLE Technical Workshop on Women’s Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia, New Delhi , India, 14 February 2013

Statement | New Delhi, India | 14 February 2013
  • Honourable Minister for Labour and Employment, Mr. Kharge,
  • Honourable Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, Dr. Ahluwalia,
  • ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Mr. Uramoto
  • Honourable Member of the Planning Commission, Dr. Jadhav,
  • Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Dr. Sarangi,
  • Deputy Director-General (Employment), Directorate General of Employment & Training, Ministry of Labour & Employment, Ms. Amarjeet Kaur
  • Council of Indian Employers, Mr. Wig,
  • National Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress, Ms. Amarjeet Kaur,
  • Other representatives of our constituents,
  • Representatives of diplomatic missions and international organizations,
  • Distinguished experts from throughout India and South Asia,
  • ILO colleagues,
  • Ladies and Gentleman,
On the behalf of the ILO and our joint partner, the Ministry of Labour and Employment, I am very happy to welcome you to this workshop on “Women’s Labour Force Participation in India and South Asia”.

We are here to discuss a very relevant and important topic: the trends in female labour force participation in India and the region, and the factors that drive participation or prevent women from accessing employment opportunities.

Female labour force participation is an important dimension of the labour market because it tells us something about a country’s growth potential. It also captures the nature of how household labour supply responds to changing economic conditions and the impact of shocks. As seen in other countries around the world, such as Indonesia and Turkey, women often take on the role of protecting family incomes and consumption during periods of crisis. Finally, and most importantly, it reveals something about the path to women’s economic empowerment through employment. To this end, the issue is not about participation at all costs, but, the ability for women to find decent work that helps lift themselves and their families out of poverty and provide the opportunity for them to live the lives they desire.

I should stress that when we talk about low female labour force participation, it should not be suggested that women are not working. Rather, women are working either in or outside the home, but it is poorly captured or classified as inactivity. Indeed, balancing home/reproductive and productive duties is the crux of the challenge facing women around the world.

The studies presented here are drawn from both an ILO project on female labour force participation, which we commenced last year, and work done by leading experts in this country and beyond. We started this project because of the puzzle that has emerged in recent years: employment grew very slowly from 2004/5 to 2009/10 (just 2.7 million net jobs added), while at the same time, the unemployment rate fell. This was explained by the fall in the labour force participation rate, which occurred among young men and women of all ages, especially in rural areas.

The fact the women withdrew from the labour force during a period when growth averaged at around 8 per cent came as a real shock to policy makers and academics a like. Much of the discussion that has taken place since has focused on a number of key explanations: 1) increasingly educational enrolment of young women; 2) effect of increasing household income; 3) lack of job opportunities; and 4) mis-measurement of labour force participation.

In terms of the last factor, many commentators feel that there are fundamental measurement issues, particularly in terms of the NSS data. Indeed, this issue is tackled in today’s and tomorrow’s deliberations. However, as presented later today, ILO’s research shows that the fall in female labour force participation in India has been driven by all factors.

Beyond the focus on what the trends from 2004/5 to 2009/10 tell us, there is, in fact, a far larger, and more important, question: have women in this region benefited from an era of globalization and growth? Moreover, how can women access more decent work in the coming years, particularly as they become increasingly educated and seek greater opportunities (and have higher aspirations)?

Overall, jobs have not been created for women in large numbers in South Asia, apart from Bangladesh, though the poor working conditions are a major concern in this country. More disconcerting is that, in most countries, including in India, it is unclear where and how jobs will emerge to absorb young women as they enter the labour market in the coming years. This must be the policy matter of greatest urgency, not only what has happened in the past, though of course the latter should inform the former.

What do we hope to get out of this workshop?

The objectives of this 1 ½ day workshop are to have a better understanding of the trends in female labour force participation and the factors driving women’s engagement in employment in India and across South Asia. Through the presentations and discussions, we hope to also identify knowledge gaps and areas that deserve particular policy focus.

Indeed, in the next stage of the project, together with the Ministry of Labour and Employment and other partners, we will finalize the studies, and work further on policy areas that should receive greater attention. This work will be presented in a report and a book to be released later in the year.

For this reason, I very much look forward to the rest of the workshop and wish you very fruitful discussions.

Thank you.