By Sara John
The Model Shops and Establishment Act is a bold step taken by the Central Government that is proposed to bring about a boost in employment generation for women. It falls in the concurrent list of the Constitution of India, wherein the Central Government and State Governments have the power to modify the labour laws. The State Governments can either adopt the Model Act or bring necessary changes to the existing act in their states.
The Model Shops and Establishment Act permits shops and establishments to operate 24/7 with flexibility in working hours. Proponents of the Model Act expect that upon its implementation, women will have more job opportunities, as it allows them to work in night shifts. However, the employer is expected to provide transportation facilities and adequate safety measures to protect the dignity and honour of women.
Women’s employment: A dismal state of affairs
The Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of women in India is a dismal 23.7 percent as against 75 percent for men (Labour Bureau Data, 2015-16). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) ranked India’s Female Labour Force Participation (FLFP) rate at 121 of 131 countries in 2013 — one of the lowest in the world. ILO attributes a number of reasons to the low FLFP rate including rising income, higher educational enrolment of women and decreasing employment opportunities for women.
The participation of women in manufacturing activities, in the informal sector, is higher than that of men in developing countries. Brazil has 48.6 percent of its women involved in informal jobs in the manufacturing sector compared to 31.7 percent of men. The share of women with an informal job in the manufacturing sector is 94 percent in India (Labour Statistics, ILO, 2012).
However, the employment of women is restricted to certain sectors and occupations. More than one-third of women (33.9 percent) are employed in wholesale and retail trade services while 12.4 percent work in the manufacturing sector, in upper-middle income countries. Health and education sectors are the major sources of employment for women in high-income countries, whereas agriculture provides the major source of livelihood to women in low-income countries. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, over 60 percent of all working women are engaged in agriculture, where their wages are negligible (Women at Work, ILO, 2016). Globally, there is a difference in the wages paid to men and women. Since women are mostly engaged in low productivity activities — which are mainly in the informal sector — women on an average earn only 60 to 75 percent of the wages of men (World Bank Gender Data Portal).
The Malaysian Government is planning to introduce the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect the female workforce in the country. The US has already adopted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ensuring that employers do not refuse to hire pregnant women if they are capable enough for the job. India has more restrictive laws for women working in night shifts than other developing countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Africa, where women are permitted to work during night subject to certain conditions. All these countries have a higher FLFP rate than India.
A matter of discrimination?
The Economic Review 2016, of the State Planning Board of Kerala states that women outnumber men in seeking jobs through employment exchanges. Almost 60 percent of the total work seekers are women. The findings of the National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2010 asserted that the unemployment rate among women in Kerala is 14.1 percent, whereas it is a paltry 2.9 percent among men. Apparently, less labour force participation need not indicate gender inequality, as women may choose to either enter the labour force or remain at home, depending on various factors. An increase in the number of women in the economically active population searching for jobs could be one of the reasons for increasing unemployment among women. However, the higher unemployment rates of women over men are an indicator of gender disparity.
Gender discrimination against women comes under the rule of protective discrimination. The Constitution of India does not discriminate against anyone. However, laws restricting women to work in night shifts are discriminative, though it is vouched that it is being proposed to ensure the safety of women. In effect, laws do not promote the cause of safeguarding the interests of women but reflect and uphold the social norms and mindset of the people in the society.
The Model Shops and Establishment Act offers an opportunity that is conducive for progressive change in the existing scenario of job opportunities for women. If women are willing to work during the night, laws restricting them from doing so are irrelevant. Many believe that prevention is better than cure. However, crimes against women have been reported during daytime also, and the solution to this is not restricting women’s freedom to move or work. The onus is on the government to provide a level-playing field to all the citizens of the country. The onus is also on the society to bring about an attitudinal change and ascertain that women feel safe to come out and work during the night. The progress of a nation entails progressive changes in its laws that suit the present scenario, where the advancement of technology, education and the mindset of the people are constantly in motion. Change is inevitable and it must happen for the betterment of all.
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