Covid-19 may be a great leveller when it comes to correcting the skew in India’s labour force participation.
Men have reasons to worry.
The Covid-19 pandemic is devastating job markets everywhere, including India, but there are two trends that may play out on a large scale. Both have negative and positive features.
The negative (and partly positive) phenomenon will be an acceleration in the already evident trend of wage polarisation. This means that jobs with high skills – your artificial intelligence and cloud programmers, your cyber security experts, your top salesmen, your product and other designers – will see wages go through the roof, if they haven’t already begun to do so.
At the bottom end, with the rise of technology platforms, logistics, warehousing and retail front-end work – your Uber, Ola, Amazon, Flipkart, Swiggy, Jio Platforms, et al – there will be work aplenty. Technology platforms reduce the level of skills required of the user, which is why lower-wage work will proliferate.
Your average Ola driver does not need much more than an ability to drive and read Google maps to get a job. Your Swiggy or Flipkart delivery guy can earn reasonably high wages as long as he is willing to ride a bike in the sun for long hours. Not a great job, but the pay isn’t bad at all.
The problem will be in the middle segment, middle-skill jobs – your administrative and HR workers, your factory shopfloor workers, your bank counter employees and average insurance salesmen – where technology will rapidly replace workers. Your bank is now in your mobile, and term insurance will largely be sold online. Most factory jobs are being automated.
This trend, which has been seen for some time now, will accelerate as Covid-19 forces companies to see the hiring of more human workers as risky and expensive, what with the need to daily monitor worker health and ensuring physical distancing.
Covid-19 will also see the rise of gig work (part-time or project- or output-based work), and work-from-home. It will also see a huge rise in work related to healthcare, online learning, etc.
This is where the good news comes in.
Women are grossly under-represented in the Indian workforce, thanks to many factors, including unhelpful work conditions, low pay, and employer assumptions about the likelihood of having to pay wages during pregnancies.
While this does not apply to the informal workforce, where benefits like maternity leave and creches near workplaces do not exist, in the organised sector this builds resistance to the hiring of women workers. Add fears of sexual exploitation and harassment, and women themselves avoid office and factory work where redressals are poor.
This is why women’s work participation rates are very low. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in September-December 2019, the labour force participation rate for men in urban areas was 68.8 per cent but only 9.5 per cent for women.
In rural areas, the differences were starker: 72.5 per cent for men and 11.6 per cent for women. The labour force participation rate is the number of people already employed and those actively looking for work divided by the total working age population above 15 years of age.
However, workplace trends that are being accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic, will likely to see women coming to the force. Here’s why.
First, women are more willing to accept gigs and part-time work and also more used to (and willing to) work from home. Employers may prefer to hire them.
Second, women often are willing to accept the same work a man does for lower pay. This may get feminists gnashing their teeth, but economics works this way. If an equally competent person is willing to work for lower pay, the employer will opt for the latter.
Third, fears about having to foot pregnancy costs will be lower when women work out of home and accept part-time work. A pregnant woman will thus need fewer days off for delivering her baby. She can work in her spare time, and be at home to take care of the child in the early months without feeling guilty about leaving them with domestic help or creches.
The Covid-19 scare will make women more reluctant to leave their children in creches of doubtful quality, thanks to fears of infection.
Fourth, Covid-19 will speed up expansion in jobs where women have traditionally dominated – healthcare and education. The shift to online health consultation and education will throw up large numbers of jobs for women.
Another statistic should worry men, and this is directly related to Covid-19. World-wide, even though men and women have equal chances of getting infected, men have a higher mortality rate.
This is because women have higher natural immunity, and men are more likely to indulge in risky behaviour which jeopardises their health. The World Health Organization has said that in Europe, 63 per cent of the Covid-19 deaths involved men. In New York City, the epicentre of the infection in America, there were 43 Covid-19 deaths per one lakh men while for women the death rate was just over half that – 23.
Overall, Covid-19 may be a great leveller when it comes to correcting the skew in India’s labour force participation. Men have reasons to worry.