Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).
Female farmers in Tamil Nadu after attending a farmer training session in the village.
In India, the state of Tamil Nadu has about 4% of the geographical area of the country, 7% of the population and only 3% of the water resources. Hence, it is one of the most water stressed states in India and its crops rely on river water and monsoon rains. Yet, Tamil Nadu is one of the leading producers of agricultural products in India, famous for its turmeric and rice among others. Thus the need to conserve and manage scarce water resources is critical to the success of agriculture of the state, which accounts for more than 20% of its economy.
In Unit #95 (Photo: Martje van der Heide)
“This is unit number 95”, Preeti told me. “It is the standard model.” Geeta Devi the owner shook her head. “Look up”, she said, “This is our house.” I looked up and saw what she meant: there was a beautiful lotus flower design in the ceiling. “My husband made it” Geeta said proudly. “This is our house”.
The tireless Preeti works with village communities to help them build back better (Photo: Martje van der Heide)
Preeti Bisht is the community worker for SUDHA who is mobilizing the victims of the Uttarakhand floods in this small village on the Mandakini River, well on the way to Kedarnath. She took me all the way to unit number 107 and in passing showed me the school. I soon discovered that none of the house units were standard. Some people added a room, others an extra window in the kitchen to show the amazing view up river. And the houses that were already finished were painted in every color imaginable as houses in Uttarakhand are meant to be.
The 10th South Asian Economics Students Meet (SAESM) was held in Lahore, Pakistan, bringing together 82 top economics undergraduate students from the region. The theme was the Political Economy of South Asia, with a winning paper selected for each of the six sub-themes. In this post, Rumela Ghosh presents her winning paper on the political economy of social security. Posts from the other winning authors will follow over the next few weeks.
Employment is one of the burning problems affecting South Asia. India now has a diminished growth rate below 6% per year. In recent years although the living standards of the 'middle classes' have improved, reform for underprivileged groups has not been so exciting. According to National Service Scheme (NSS) data the average per capita expenditure rose at the exceedingly low rate of 1% per year in India. There has been a sharp decline in real agricultural wages also. A quantitative assessment of the impact of various rural wage employment schemes during the last two five-year plans and the current one shows that the results in terms of employment generated have been steadily decreasing.
My paper looked at schemes to tackle unemployment in India. A Bird's Eye View into Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act firstly examines the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme (MEGS) introduced in the 1970s. It examines how at different time frames and contexts the elite managed to maintain their support base and reinforced its legitimacy by supporting a poverty alleviation program – the EGS. It also highlights the issue of gender concern and the problem of migrant workers.
Among various EGS, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is the flagship program implemented at the national level which achieved measurable success, though with some flaws. It guarantees every rural household up to 100 days of wage employment in a year within 15 days of demand for such employment. My study highlights the significant interstate differences in the supply of employment and tries to explore the reasons why. Supply falls far short of demand, particularly in low-income states, where the organizational capacity to implement the scheme is limited.
The paper examines the conceptual design and delivery of MGNREGA to assess its effectiveness against unemployment and poverty. I discuss existing labor laws applicable to workers in the unorganized sector covering wages, contract and poverty incidence. The paper also seeks to derive the short run and long run implications of a minimum wage law. A detailed empirical analysis of the spatial dimension of implementation, problems of funding, and budgetary incidence of MGNREGA.
A comparative study of MGNREGA scheme as implemented in Tamil Nadu where it is largely fair and corruption free with respect to that in Uttar Pradesh where the implementation has some serious flaws with corrupt practices of local officials paying wage payments to non-existing laborers has been illustrated. It studies the differences in utilization, extent of targeting, magnitude of income transfers and the cost-effectiveness of food subsidies.
I designed a game-theoretic model to design a near-perfect scheme with suggestions to eliminate the loop holes. Various falsified implementation strategies by contractors like fictitious names in muster rolls, commission to the contractor for partially/not working laborers has undermined the objectives of MGNREGA. This illegal money laundering from a subsidized scheme like MGNREGA digs a deep hole in India's economic pocket when the economy is reeling under inflation and rupee value depreciation pains. The model attempts a systematic game theory based solution approach for restricting these scheme implementation faults. A graphical presentation shows that, with such a policy laborers in the long run will have an incentive to deliver under MGNREGA only.
Guest workers have played an integral role in the Gulf since the 1970s where the demographic changes accompanying these labor flows occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace. The region’s aggregate population has increased more than tenfold in a little over half a century, but in no other region of the world do citizens comprise such a small proportion of the population. While this ‘demographic imbalance’ makes the Gulf unique, what differentiates it is not its economic and demographic expansion through migration but the degree to which the region’s governments have excluded foreign workers from being integrated into the national polity. This exclusion of foreign workers is a result of a conscious policy.
Labor migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are mostly governed under a sponsorship system known as Kafala. Migrant workers require a national sponsor (called Kafeel) and are only allowed to work for the visa sponsoring firm. The workers must obtain a no-objection certificate from the sponsor to resign and have to leave the country upon termination of the usual 2 to 3 years’ contract before being allowed to commence a new contract under a new sponsor. Tied to the sponsor, the migrants become immobile within the internal labor market for the duration of the contract. Consequently the sponsors benefit from non-competitive environments where they extract substantial economic rents from migrant workers at the expense of inducing significant inefficiencies in production.
The Kafeels pay workers an income above the wage in their country of origin and obtain economic rents equal to the difference between such earnings and the net marginal return from employing the migrant worker. Migrant workers are paid the initial nominal wage throughout the entire contractual period. They are even made to accept lower wages than contracted initially. Immobilized by labor restrictions, workers cannot command a higher wage even when there is demand for their services by rival firms willing to hire them in order to avoid the cost of hiring from abroad. Kafeels have also found other ways of extracting rents in recent decades by indulging in visa trading. They allow their names to be used to sponsor foreign workers in exchange for monetary gains.
Arguably, rents per-se should not directly create adverse effects because they are essentially redistributive transfers. Earnings paid to migrants are sufficient to motivate them to migrate. The migrants do not leave. But this view is over-simplistic. The combination of short contracts, flat wages, and lack of internal mobility kills the incentives for migrant workers to exercise higher effort levels in production and engage in activities that enhance their human capital. Any productivity gain would go to the sponsor in the form of rents. The system provides incentives to entrepreneurs to concentrate on low-skills, labor-intensive activities where the extraction of economic rents is easier. Such sponsor-worker behavior explains for instance why despite the massive investments in Dubai, the economy-wide efficiency levels (average labor productivity) have not improved in the last two decades while in Hong Kong, they doubled and in Singapore quadrupled.
Let’s say we are both girls born on farms in remote villages at the foothills of mountains, but you were born at the foothills of the Himalayas and I, somewhere at the foothills of the Swiss Alps. You are the first of five children and I have only one younger sister. What do you suppose our lives growing up would be like?
I have access to a road that leads me to school every day and to hospitals when I need it. I have electricity so that I can do my homework in the evenings and my mother can cook using a clean stove. We have heat. I even have telecommunication services for when I want to talk to my uncle who lives in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. And my bathroom is indoors because it separates us from our waste.