Demands and counter-claims have characterized the debate over the employment and unemployment scenario in the country. Government and private agencies present various shades of data and information to prove a point. Based on the official dataset, it is seen that the government collects and collates employment data using various methodologies, one of them being in the form of periodic survey on the active population (PLFS).
The survey provides annual and quarterly indicators of employment and unemployment. This raises interesting and intriguing dimensions that merit discussion. We looked at unit-level PLFS data for the period 2017-18 and 2019-20.
The overall employment rate was in a stable range of around 47% to 51% over the period 2017-18 to 2019-20, implying that half of those aged 15 and over are employed in one form or another.
However, when analyzing employment rate data, we found some startling revelations. The employment rate for women is one-third of the employment rate for men over the period from 2017-18 to 2019-20. In other words, for every three men employed, there is only one woman employed.
The stark difference is undeniably depressing. Here, the usual rural-urban dichotomy is absent – a similar pattern of lower female employment rates existed in both rural and urban areas. The low labor force participation rate of women remains the dominant factor in the Indian employment scenario.
If we look at the growth in the overall employment rate, we see that it increased by around 9% in 2019-20 compared to 2017-18. Interestingly, this growth has been led by the growth in the female employment rate. It increased by around 31% against only 3% growth in the male employment rate. This is something to celebrate and it is a positive development, even if it happened in a context of low employment rates for women.
Curiously, when we drill down into employment data, we found that the phenomenal growth in female employment rates was largely due to the increase in the number of unpaid family workers. Unpaid female household members are those who have contributed to the functioning of economic activity in agricultural or non-agricultural activities of the household. This category of workers has increased by 49% in rural areas and 17% in urban areas.
The question that torments us is whether we are entering a scenario where unpaid women workers contribute strongly to economic activity without being paid, without improving their financial situation? We are not hazard guesses at this time. This would require further analysis.
Our current findings can be summarized roughly as follows: (i) the overall employment rate in the country is around 50%, but the employment rate for women is only one third of the employment rate of men, and (ii) the increase in the growth of the employment rate of women The employment rate is largely attributable to unpaid female workers.
If this phenomenon persists, timely and adequate policy initiatives should be put in place to compensate these unpaid workers to improve and enhance their financial well-being. Their productive contribution to economic activity must not remain without financial reward.
(Baruah is Senior Research Analyst, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi. Wankhar is a retired Indian Economic Services Officer)