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Understanding the Market Landscape and Enterprise Readiness for Women-led Home-based Businesses

Women entrepreneurs contribute to the Indian economy in terms of GDP and employment. Despite this, they face gender specific barriers in labour force participation, such as, market, mobility, time, and credit constraints. These factors have been the driving forces behind the emergence of home-based businesses led by women especially in the informal sector. As a part of IWWAGE’s strategic vision to facilitate women’s economic empowerment through an evidence-based approach, Part 1 of the study aims to map the market landscape for home-based handicraft and handloom enterprises led by women, and assess their readiness. The subsequent study (Part 2) will look to answer critical questions related to credit access, and alternatives to existing credit scoring mechanisms.

To capture a granular perspective on the state of market access and supply chain linkages, 800 home-based women entrepreneurs were surveyed across Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. The study sheds light on the need for two approaches when designing policy interventions for improving the market landscape of female entrepreneurs. The first is the need for a facilitative and enabling ecosystem for home-based entrepreneurs because the market landscape itself lacks structure and formality with significant variations across the two states. Second, women entrepreneurs should not be approached as a singular segment but instead, need to be segmented according to their nuanced needs and strengths. A targeted approach through looking at personas or the type of entrepreneurs could be a great beginning. Based on insights from the survey, a diagnostic policy framework ‘Business Readiness Scorecard for Women (WBRS)’ has been developed to identify priority areas for intervention.


Policies and Programmes For Women and Girls

Bihar has the lowest female workforce participation rate (FWPR) among all states at 2.8 percent. The decline in FWPR has been shaper in rural areas as compared to urban areas, pushing a large number of women out of the workforce since 2007-08. With the decline in women workforce, there has been a substantial increase in the share of women in regular employment, in line with the national trend, and a significant decline in the share of self-employed, which is greater than the decline observed at the all India level. Women’s self-employment in Bihar is characterised by high incidence of own account work and low share of unpaid work, in contrast with all India figures.

Gig Study: Summary and Recommendations

‘Gig economy’ refers to labour markets characterised by independent contracting which happens through digital platforms. Since 2010, the gig economy has received much popularity and academic attention to study its extraordinary rate of growth and also to comprehend how the gig economy is impacting the participation of people. Available literature suggests that since gig workers do not have any standard employee contract, and also have limited or no access to labour protection/social protection, it exposes them to a number of challenges, such as failing to maintain regular income and facing a poor working environment. Besides, gig workers are unable to unionise and have low bargaining power, which makes them more vulnerable in the long run. While women are increasingly participating in the gig economy, however, new opportunities have been highly gendered. IWWAGE undertook a primary study of women service providers of Urban Company (a leading service platform of India), who are concentrated in the beauty and wellness segment. The overarching objective of the study was to investigate: these workers’ experiences, and the constraints they face, including issues of security, flexibility, labour processes and pay/conditions, and to assess the impact on women’s empowerment and agency. We adopted a threefold approach for doing this. We interviewed workers, who were approached through the platform directly. We interviewed platform managers for evidence. And we also interviewed domain experts, to gain insights into similar forms of platform work.

The Future of Work for Women Workers

World over, the technology-driven gig economy has been expanding rapidly over the past decade, in which digital platforms connect ‘workers’ with ‘requesters’ to facilitate on demand work. While the gig economy has also become a buzzword in India, particularly in the last couple of years, and is attracting millennials by offering alternative employment opportunities. However, literature is scanty when it comes to measuring its impacts on the gendered experiences of gig work or on gig workers.

This report aims to provide a comprehensive analytical overview of women’s engagement in platform work, and presents findings from an in-depth study of women’s work in one of India’s leading platform companies. It aims to understand the emerging forms of labour practices and the impact of platform engagement on workers’ experiences, challenges, and impact on women’s empowerment and agency. The findings are based on interviews with workers, platform managers, and other key informants, and comprehensive literature review. The study presents an in-depth and specialised analysis of the gig economy to explain some of the unique features of the labour practices and consequences of such practices on the overall labour relations. The study also makes specific recommendations and argue that policy makers and platforms have a key role in ensuring access to decent work and social protection for these workers.


Wage employment for women: Forgotten priorities

Low and declining women’s labour force participation rates in India have been a longstanding concern. Government policies for addressing this challenge have mainly emphasised promoting entrepreneurship among women. Designing skill development programmes (DDU-GKY, PMKY and so on) which also aim at building women’s skills to access technology; facilitating access to digital platforms and promoting partnerships with start-ups aimed at providing women with fintech solutions; and facilitating access to credit through extending low-value MUDRA loans have been some of the main interventions. All these programmes primarily aim at making entrepreneurs out of women as a way to achieving greater workforce participation of women – with a lateral objective of enhancing ‘Make in India’ efforts through greater entrepreneurial ventures by women.

But data on entrepreneurship of women in India suggest that there is a long way to go. The economic census, last published in 2013-14, showed that women’s enterprises were only 13.8 percent of total enterprises and 84 percent of these were operating without any hired workers. The average employment per women’s establishment was 1.67 workers indicating low employment creation capacity.  Further, 27 percent of all non-agricultural establishments owned by women were operating from home – of which more than 50% were in manufacturing.

The periodic labour force survey (PLFS), 2017-18, shows that 52 percent of women’s workforce is in self-employment, which can be further disaggregated into three sub categories – own account enterprises (OAE), employers and unpaid/contributing family workers. The first two categories capture women’s entrepreneurial ventures best. Almost 32 percent of all women workers are engaged as unpaid helpers in household enterprises and only 19 percent run OAEs. These figures, coupled with micro-evidence from literature, show that the women OAEs remain trapped in low-scale, low-productive, low return ventures such as in rolling bidis and agarbattis, making pickles and papads, or mending clothes with a sewing machine.

But self-employment only captures one half of women’s work. According to the PLFS, 48 percent women are in wage employment. Of these, 21 percent are in regular employment and 27 percent work in casual labour. The impact of increasing wage employment on women’s empowerment is well-established. Still, there is no policy emphasis for this sector.

There are several mechanisms that can be employed to increase women’s wage employment opportunities. For example, the MGNREGA attracts a large number of women, with about 55 percent of total person-days of work created under this legislation accruing to women. There are a number of field reports to suggest that provision of equal wages for men and women, proximity of workplace, assumed safety at workplace and so on, makes MGNREGA a popular option for women. MGNREGA has the potential to attract even more women if all its provisions such as creche facilities, shade and water are also provided adequately. Unfortunately, the trend of provision of work under this scheme has been stagnant and there have been challenges of delayed wage payments.

Outside of agriculture, where the absorption of labour has been declining, women are attracted to jobs in providing public services. The PLFS data show that 29 percent of women working outside agriculture in rural areas are engaged in public employment. Large numbers work as frontline workers, particularly in public health and education. Some cadres such as anganwadi workers and helpers, mid-day meal cooks, ASHA workers, ANMs are exclusively women (estimated to be over 60 lakh). Nearly half of the total teaching workforce in elementary education in India are women.  In recent times there has also been an increase of women employed as police constables in many states.  But despite these opportunities, women remain concentrated at lower levels of the occupational hierarchy, mostly restricted to what are seen as ‘women’s roles’ (traditionally caregiving occupations). They receive low wages and work in poor conditions.

An agenda of universal provision of basic services such as health, education and social protection can not only contribute towards improving India’s human development indicators but also create millions of new jobs, more so for women. Some state governments have provisions such as reserving posts for women in government jobs. But such measures can have an impact only when there is an expansion in the total number of government jobs. Having said that, there is a need to hire more workers for public services, given the millions of vacancies that exist for these posts as per government norms.

Apart from casual wage work and regular public employment, women’s wage work includes work undertaken in factories, especially in garments, electronics and food-processing which have served as traditional sectors of women’s employment. While great emphasis has been on promoting ‘Make in India’, policies related to incentivising these sectors have been elusive. Recent subsidies announced for the textile sector aimed at generating employment are yet to show results.

Governments can push for multiple policies to create decent wage work opportunities for women, from expanding public works programmes such as the MGNREGA, to adding a cadre of public service para workers, for whom there is a crying need. Such interventions along with a focus on labour intensive manufacturing sectors can not only create employment and demand but also contribute to lifting the Indian economy out of its current economic slowdown.

This opinion piece is written by Dipa Sinha and Sona Mitra. Dipa Sinha teaches Economics at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and  Sona Mitra is the Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an initiative of LEAD at Krea University.

Voices from the Field

With approximately 67 million women mobilised into Self-Help Groups and federations, owned and represented by women, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) holds great promise for advancing women’s socio-economic empowerment and offering them resilience in times of crises such as the current pandemic. SHG federations across India not only offer means for many poor women to build sustainable households, but are also platforms for them to seek support, including financial, social and psychological support that they derive by associating themselves with others who are like them.

Stories from the ground during India’s lockdown phase are suggesting that Self Help Groups (SHGs) of women are being involved by state governments in the fight against COVID-19. SHGs across India have worked day and night to manufacture masks, run community kitchens and assist in health checks. They have helped spread awareness about the virus in the local language and in a culturally-sensitive manner within their communities. Yet, SHGs and their members have been impacted both socially and economically, with many reporting intensive losses to their work and livelihoods, increased drudgery and unpaid work burden and rising incidence of domestic violence. In line with IWWAGE’s core mandate of informing the policy agenda on women’s economic empowerment in India, this report presents a summary of insights gained from recent research and conversations around women’s empowerment collectives (WECs) and how women are dealing with the pandemic and lockdown in India. The report attempts to summarise the challenges women and their collectives are facing during the lockdown and concludes with a series of recommendations.