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Putting more women to work in South Asia

Shobha Shetty's picture


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).

A Bird's Eye View Into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

Rumela Ghosh's picture

World Bank / Curt Carnemark
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.

Putting Food on the Table

Naomi Ahmad's picture

Halima Khatun never had to worry about putting food on the table when her husband was alive. Her husband had a business which provided enough for their four children and they lived fairly contented till seven years ago, when her husband suddenly passed away.

As the years went by, one by one the children married, moved out and had their own family to take care of. Halima was left alone, fending for herself, and took up weaving mats and embroidery to help get by. But then her daughter, who used to work at a garments factory in the city after her divorce, suddenly fell sick and unable to work, she moved back in with her four-year old son. Halima was thrown into utter desperation and knew not how to make ends meet.

Getting to Work: Tackling Youth Unemployment in South Asia

Mabruk Kabir's picture

 “Young people ought not to be idle,” quipped Margaret Thatcher, “It is very bad for them.” That was twenty years ago. With over a million youth currently out of work in Britain today – 21% of the population – her words remain unfortunately prophetic. And it’s not just industrial countries that are in a funk. The “arc of unemployment” does not discriminate: it cuts across southern Europe through the Middle East to South Asia. Almost half of the world’s young people live along this arc, and it is a demographic dividend that is quickly becoming a demographic liability.

Consider South Asia: a region home to the largest proportion of unemployed and inactive youth in the developing world, a whopping 31%. Many attribute this to social norms, as many South Asian women do not work for cultural reasons. But with a growing middle class, gender norms are rapidly evolving.

More and Better Jobs in Bangladesh

Sanjay Kathuria's picture

We launched South Asia’s first regional report, ‘More and Better Jobs in South Asia’ in a series of events in Dhaka early last week.

Through events including a seminar with youth at the University of Dhaka, a formal report launch the next day, a TV interview with the South Asia Chief Economist, Kalpana Kochchar, and an op-ed in the leading English language newspaper, the report helped  generate discussion on core economic challenges facing Bangladesh, as job creation are highly correlated with the challenges of faster growth.

Bangladesh, along with other South Asian countries, has seen steady job growth and a substantial decrease in poverty over the past three decades. The country has added nearly 1.2 million new jobs every year over the last ten years, and this has been accompanied by increasing real wages and declining poverty amongst all categories of workers. This performance will have to be improved in the future, owing to Bangladesh's early progress in its demographic transition. With substantial reductions in infant and child mortality following a significant decline in fertility rates, Bangladesh's working age population is growing more rapidly than its young and old dependents. In turn, this can be attributed to Bangladesh’s success in nurturing the desire for smaller families, through its reproductive health program as well as its emphasis on girls’ education.

What Does More and Better Jobs in South Asia Mean?

Pradeep Mitra's picture

The Track Record

Imagine adding the population of Sweden—somewhat under 10 million— to your labor force year after year for a decade. Insist that the wage workers among them earn increasing real wages and that poverty among the self-employed decline over time. What you have just described is not quite South Asia's record on the quantity and quality of job creation between 2000 and 2010. The region has done better.

Poverty has fallen, not only among the self-employed, but among all types of workers—casual laborers who are the poorest, regular wage and salary earners who are the richest and the self-employed who are in between. This hierarchy of poverty rates among the three employment types has endured over decades. Thus improvements in job quality have occurred predominantly within each employment type rather than through movement across types. The composition of the labor force among the employment types shows little change over time. The self-employed, many of whom are in farming, comprise the largest share, reflecting the predominance of agriculture in much of the region. Casual laborers make up the second largest share in rural areas.

First Semester: The Challenges of Growing Up

Lauren MacDonald's picture

International Youth Day is a time to celebrate the youth of countries from around the world. The United Nations announced the theme for this year as Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, emphasizing the importance of communication not only within their generation, but among different generations as well. Only through conversation and open dialogue can opinions and perspectives be understood, cultivating ideas for change and developing aspirations for the future.

Employment Programs By Any Other Name...

Maitreyi Bordia Das's picture

Is it an employment program? Is it an anti-poverty program? Is it a safety net? Is it a disaster management program, is it…..? Actually, it’s all of these. Public works programs are both good development and good politics. India’s National Employment Guarantee Scheme (now called the Mahatma Gandhi EGS) , despite its implementation challenges, is fast becoming the stuff international lore is made of.

Demographers talk of the diffusion effects of ideas of low fertility and other behaviors. And while South Asian countries have a history of public works programs as safety nets – a history that actually goes back to the Maurya Empire in circa 3rd century BC - the diffusion effect of NREGS across South Asia is apparent. This is as much due to the urgent employment needs in all countries in the region, as due to the fact that the Congress victory in India was purported to have hinged significantly on NREGS.

International Women's Day: Why Aren’t We More Concerned About Women’s Physical Safety?

Maitreyi Bordia Das's picture

Fundamental rights in most South Asian countries include freedom of movement – you can go where you want, when you want within a country. But for the majority of South Asian girls and women the reality is very different – they need permission to go almost anywhere. Now, does this stem from norms of patriarchal control or a rational response to threat of physical harm? I like to believe the two are mutually reinforcing. When families are afraid of what will happen to their daughters when they go out alone, they tend to be over-protective or over-controlling. This is certainly what happened to me and my peers as we grew up in Delhi in the 70s and 80s. While many more women are out in public spaces now, the very fact of this visibility is often a trigger for violence. Fewer than half of married women surveyed in Pakistan or Bangladesh feel safe moving alone outside their village or settlement, even during the day (World Bank 2006, 2008).

Safety and security of women in public spaces is seen often as a right, which indeed it is, but, lack of it is also a huge impediment to accessing a range of services and markets – for instance, health care, education and employment. In Pakistan and India, one of the reasons why girls drop out of school after puberty and especially when secondary schools are located a long walk away, is the fear of violence en route.

Global Financial Crisis: How should South Asia respond?

Sadiq Ahmed's picture

The global financial crisis hit South Asia at a time when it was barely recovering from a severe terms of trade shock resulting from the global food and fuel price crisis.The food and fuel price shocks had badly affected South Asia, with cumulative income loss ranging from 34 percent of 2002 GDP for Maldives to 8 percent for Bangladesh. Current account and fiscal balances worsened sharply and inflation surged to unprecedented levels.