By Sara John*

The Model Shops and Establishment Act is a bold step taken by the Central Government purported to bring about a boost in employment generation. The Act falls under the category of 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. The 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.

The Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of women in India is a dismal 23.7 per cent as against 75 per cent 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, which is 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 per cent of its women involved in informal jobs in the manufacturing sector compared with 31.7 per cent of men. The share of women with an informal job in the manufacturing sector is 94 per cent in India (Labour Statistics, ILO, 2012).

It is to be noted that the employment of women is restricted to certain sectors and occupations. More than one third of women (33.9 per cent) are employed in wholesale and retail trade services and manufacturing sector (12.4 per cent) in upper-middle income countries. Health and education sectors are the major source of employment for women in high-income countries, whereas women are mostly employed in agriculture sector in low-income countries. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, over 60 per cent 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 able to do 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.

The Economic Review, 2016, of the State Planning Board of Kerala states that women outnumber men in seeking employment through employment exchanges. Almost 60 per cent of the total work seekers are women. The findings of the National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2010 avow that the unemployment rate among women in Kerala[1] is 14.1 per cent, whereas it is a paltry 2.9 per cent 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 rubric of protective discrimination. The Constitution of India does not discriminate 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 night, laws restricting them from doing so are irrelevant. Many believe that prevention is better than cure. However, crimes against women are 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 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 train. Change is inevitable and let it happen for the betterment of all.

[1]http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/Unemployment-largely-a-problem-among-women-in-Kerala/articleshow/50062049.cms

*This article is written by Sara John (Project Associate, Centre for Public Policy Research). Views expressed by the author is personal and does not reflect that of CPPR.

This article was first published in The Indian Economist, click to read: Tapping the Untapped Potential: More Opportunities for Women