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Women's work: Never done and poorly paid

By Nirmala Banerji

Jayati Ghosh’s new book on women’s work in globalising India reveals the Indian state’s patriarchal attitude towards women’s work

Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India, by Jayati Ghosh. Feminist Fine Print. Published by Women Unlimited, an affiliate of Kali for Women, New Delhi 2009. Rs 250  

In writing about women’s issues, scholars often tend to dwell on the specifics of the problems being discussed and ignore their wider context. Ghosh is a welcome exception to this because she has squarely put the issue against the backdrop of the fast globalising international economy and, within it, India’s experiments with the process.  

The first chapter of the book provides the international context; the second deals with trends in India, particularly in the years 1991 and onwards when the country formally embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation. However, it is a little frustrating to find that India is generally treated as just another case of development under the growing economic imperialism of international capital. From a scholar of Ghosh’s stature, one would have expected a more nuanced analysis of the structure of the Indian economy, and the special baggage of the past the country bears vis-à-vis its labour force and especially its women.  

Compared to many other newly-developing countries, especially in Asia, India carries a huge load of uneducated, unskilled labour due mainly to past policies which have been assisted or pressurised by the unholy alliance between class, caste and political power.  

Although international capital has many ways of keeping labour vulnerable, Indian capital has a long history of exploitative labour practices in all sections of the economy, by routing work to home-based workers and combining this with a hold on them through provision of credit. International capital is merely finding new uses and users for such practices. One really has to take into account Indian capitalism nurtured by the Indian state in the first 50 or so years after Independence. The complexities of the Indian situation deserve a more sensitive approach, especially from an Indian scholar.  

The third chapter is an assessment of work by women. It seems rather unfortunate that Ghosh has ignored the huge amount of past work, particularly measurement of women’s work and worker status, which has been done in this country over nearly 30 years. There has been work to show that there is a qualitative difference in the nature of men’s work and women’s work, arising chiefly from the fact that women are usually not in control of their own labour. Especially in rural areas, decisions about the deployment of women’s day-to-day labour are most often based on traditions or the requirements of family authorities. That is why even when women work on productive tasks they have to combine those with housework. This makes it difficult for standard employment surveys to assess the distribution of women’s time between economic tasks and household tasks; as a result, women tend to get labelled ‘housewives’ even if their total time spent on productive tasks is substantial.  

In India, these controls are especially strong on young women workers and, unlike in Asian countries outside South Asia, young Indian women even today face a lot of resentment against their appearance in public. The age profile of women workers in India has therefore always been distinct from that of most developed or developing countries. In the conceptualisation of women’s work in the Indian context, it is impossible to ignore the patriarchal controls under which women work. 

The book has an interesting way of dividing chapters. According to me, the best chapter is the one on women in public employment; it paints a vivid picture of the ways in which the state has increasingly put the burden of providing social services -- health and education -- on women. Ghosh offers a detailed description of the items of work that ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers or ASHAs are supposed to perform, and the terms and conditions on which they are expected to work. ASHAs are in fact supposed to be voluntary workers! The picture reveals how the state is short-changing the poor as well as women workers, and exposes its little regard for the legitimate claims of the poor for provision of basic services. It also shows how the state is a major party to women’s disempowerment; their hard work is still dismissed as part of their ‘caring’ nature. The state’s excuse that it does not have money to pay better wages for this work is astounding when one sees how money is being squandered on repeated awards of pay commissions to bureaucrats. This reinforces the theory that in India the state is in cohorts with patriarchal authorities in order to offload its legitimate work for women.           

Overall, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India makes interesting reading, with a good analysis of the available official data. My objections, such as they are, have to do with the diversion of the author’s analysis into channels that are not as fruitful as they could have been. Still, the book provides a useful background for future work in the field.      

(Nirmala Banerji is a feminist economist formerly with the Centre for Social Studies, Kolkata)  

Infochange News & Features, July 2009