What’s not working

By Sibi Arasu

29 February 2016

Looking at Tamil Nadu’s gender disparity in labour participation
Woman working by her sewing machine. Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Jorge Royan

Woman working by her sewing machine.
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Jorge Royan

When it comes to maternal and infant mortality rates, Tamil Nadu betters the national average by a large margin: its maternal and infant mortality rates stand at 90 and 21 respectively, almost half the national average of 178 and 40. Accompanied by a sex ratio of 996 with a female literacy rate of 74 percent (against the national rate of 65), these indicators make for a strong case for improved conditions for women in the state. However, the gender disparity in labour participation – the number of people employed or actively looking to work – in Tamil Nadu makes it clear that improvement on these other parameters have not translated to more women workers. One of the missing links here could be the lack of implementation of maternal entitlements of working women.

Take, for instance, K Kasthuri, a semi-skilled worker at a garment factory in Tambaram, a Chennai suburb. Whenever her four-year-old son falls sick, she faces the predicament of choosing between taking care of him and going to work. Usually, during her work hours she leaves her son at the creche at the factory, but not with absolute peace of mind since she grumbles about the lack of ‘supervision’ by the attendants. “The problem is that I have to take care of him and also go to work when he is ill. They don’t grant leave if your child is sick and I can’t afford to lose a day’s salary,” she says. Kasthuri’s employers, like most in Chennai, take advantage of a system which does not penalise employers who do not provide enough safeguards for working women who are expecting or have a child.

Anusha Rajagopal, who has worked in human resources in various IT and ITES organisations in Chennai had to quit her job and later join another company after the birth of her child. Rajagopal feels that even though the organisations she has worked for have all been supportive, it is still an uphill battle for young mothers: “In terms of opportunities, it does put you in a tough spot. Those who go on maternity leave are many times sidelined.”

In a country with a population of 1.25 billion people, 475 million people constitute the total workforce across sectors, in both rural and urban areas. Out of this, women make up only 29 percent, or 137.8 million working women across the country. India has one of the widest gaps in terms of male and female labour participation rates among the G20 countries, a whopping 50 percent, according to the last Census data. Among the Southasian countries, India fares worse than Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Bangladesh and ranks better only than Afghanistan and Pakistan. Apart from blatant gender discrimination and the presence of glass ceiling and so on, a key factor responsible for this is also that women have to choose between raising a child and their career.

Within this scenario, Tamil Nadu ranks high among the states when it comes to the number of women who could be working but are not. The state has the highest percentage of women in working age (15-59 years) who are dependants – a little more than nine percent, while the national average for this is 4.5 percent. A woman is said to be dependent if she does not have an income in cash or kind, and is wholly dependent on earnings of someone else. Out of the state’s population of 72 million people, women make up for roughly 36 million. Only ten million of these women contribute to the workforce.


A number of laws and legislations are in place both at the state and central levels to enable a more conducive atmosphere for working women. The Factories Act of 1948, the Plantations Labour Act of 1951, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996 and the Maternity Benefits Act of 1961 are only a few of the laws that state the basic requirements that need to be provided for a pregnant woman or a new mother at the workplace. Additionally, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), of which India is a member, also stipulates several conditions that should be in place for any organisation where a significant number of women, especially young mothers, are employed. ILO conventions such as Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 and the Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 are also meant to safeguard the rights, among others, of working women. The problem, in Tamil Nadu, is with the implementation of these laws and of prioritising.

“For instance, it is a statutory requirement that the workplace needs to have a crèche if a factory has more than 30 women employed, but it is rarely implemented,” says P Selvi, 45, an advocate at the Madras High Court with 25 years of experience in civil and constitutional matters. The provision for creches is stipulated in not one but five acts: Section 48 of the Factories Act, 1948; Section 44 of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979; Section 12 of the Plantations Labour Act, 1951; Section 14 of the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 and Section 35 of the Building and other Constructions (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. The law also stipulates other generic requirements like cleanliness standards, hygienic toilets and so on. Proposed amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 to increase the period of paid maternity leave to 26 weeks for all workers are up for the consideration of Union Cabinet. The proposals also include a mandate for all workplaces to have crèches if they have 30 women employees or 50 employees in total, whichever is the least, which will consolidate the different provisions for creches across Acts in one and will be applicable for any workplace.

But corruption, an ineffective labour department, and inadequate compensation to factory inspectors have led to poor implementation of provisions. “The problem is that the factory inspector is the one in charge of enforcing these. Despite statutory requirements, the violations persist because of the lack of oversight,” adds Selvi.

Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan, who has practised labour law at the Madras High Court since 1993, agrees with her colleague’s view. “In my two decades of practice, I have never come across a case where someone has asked me to file a complaint because there was no creche at their factory or workplace. It’s unfortunate but this issue is not high in the list of priorities,” she says.


On the ground though, the realities are far from ideal. “In a profit-driven enterprise, child care or facilities for the working mother are not factored in. More often than not, they are done away with to reduce costs,” says Sujatha Mody, long time labour-rights activist and co-ordinator of Malarchi, a women’s resource centre in Chennai. Through the Penn Thozhilalar Sangam (Women Worker’s Union), Mody and her colleagues ran creches at various construction sites for 15 years from 1999 till 2014. “We took care of the day-to-day affairs of the creches while the employers provided the funds and infrastructure. But we had to discontinue this since employers stopped taking responsibility after a while, without facing any consequences. It became too much for us to handle,” she adds.

While for construction workers or other blue-collar workers, the poor quality of the facilities available or the complete lack of it affects livelihood, for women with white-collar jobs, the absence of a supportive workplace compels them to let go of opportunities, promotions and even job

In Chennai, there are about 160 government-funded crèches run by four major NGOs: the Indian Council for Child Welfare, the Indian Red Cross, Womens’ India Association and Womens’ Voluntary Services. The creches are meant to be used by all working mothers but it is usually the blue-collar workers who avail its facilities.

A fully-functional creche can make a substantial difference for a working mother. As Pushpa V, a link worker at The Banyan Mental Health NGO, corroborates, the government-run creche near her home in Chennai’s Thirumangalam area is of great support for her. “I leave my five-year old son, Yogeshwaran, at seven in the morning and pick him up only in the evening. My husband has a hazardous workplace as he is a carpenter and so the child cannot be left with him. Without this creche, it would have been difficult for us to take care of our child,” she says. Pushpa has been depending on this arrangement for four years now. “They don’t charge anything and provide the children wholesome lunch and snacks such as sundal in the evening and kanji for breakfast in the morning,” she adds.

There are more than 1004 creches that are functional in Tamil Nadu under the Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme for Children of Working Mothers that is run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Apart from this, the Integrated Child Development Services also started about 211 creches in the state in 2015, out of which 12 are located in Chennai. According to UNICEF’s health specialist and officer in-charge Dr M Jagadeesan, “Women with government jobs fare better than the ones in the private sector when it comes to maternal entitlements.” In Tamil Nadu, like the rest of the country, female government employees can avail paid leave for childcare for up to two years in various phases at any point till their child turns 18 years old. These incentives are still a pipe dream for those employed in the private sector and other non-government jobs.

While for construction workers or other blue-collar workers, the poor quality of the facilities available or the complete lack of it affects livelihood, for women with white-collar jobs, the absence of a supportive workplace compels them to let go of opportunities, promotions and even job.

Dr S Subramanian, who runs the Mothers’ and Infants’ Lactation/Breastfeeding Care Centre, in Mylapore, Chennai sees many such women at his clinic every day. “I have seen a lot of women give up their jobs after delivery. The choice for them veers between either looking after the child and focusing on their career,” says Subramanian. “The pressure is definitely more acute for the mother and she’s expected to give up everything to take care of the child,” he adds.

Institutions such as Infosys, one of India’s largest employers in the IT sector, claim they are trying to buck the trend. The multinational company has more than 55,106 women on its payrolls across the country as of March, 2015 –  35 percent of its entire employee strength. Over a telephonic interview, Aruna Newton, Head-Diversity at Infosys said, “We recognise it’s an important stage in a working woman’s life. We have been taking several steps to make it easier for women to return to work post-pregnancy.” Newton feels flexibility has been the key requirement for their employees who are starting a new family. “We give them a variety of options, including extended work from home options, flexible work times, identifying nearby creches and provide them some flexibility in the kind of projects they would like to take up. We also ensure that their performance appraisal is safeguarded,” she adds.

However, according to their latest annual report, the return-to-work rate at Infosys – women who went on maternity leave, resumed work and continued employment for a year – was 69 percent for 2014-15 as opposed to 74 percent the previous year.

Lavanya Balram, 42, who has worked in human resources for various firms in Chennai over the last eight years says, “From what I understand, people work towards an arrangement from the time they conceive. They talk to their managers, try to get into roles where they can work from home and other preparations.” Balram says her experience has been largely positive but she has heard of friends and colleagues having a highly stressful time during pregnancy and after childbirth. She adds, “I’d say the bigger challenge is when children start going to school. While companies do give a lot of incentives like summer camps for children, they last for only a few hours in the day and unless there’s another adult who can pick them up after their classes, the onus again falls on the parents. At the end of the day many women inevitably take a break.”

For the majority of young working women in IT and other private sector jobs, having a child is more often than not a career-breaker. For women in blue-collar jobs, a child is an inevitable extra hurdle that the woman is expected to overcome by herself without any institutional support. While empowerment through legislation is a necessity, unless the government and private-sector employers prioritise and implement the laws effectively, Tamil Nadu’s positive maternal and child health indicators and high female literacy rates will not be complemented with more women in the workforce.

~ Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. This article was produced with assistance from Building a Voice for Children, a PII-UNICEF fellowship. He tweets @sibi123.

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