Conflicting Numbers

The curious case of recent government data on women’s labour-force participation

Although the quality of employment has worsened for men and women both because of the pandemic, the position of women remains far more vulnerable in the labour market. DEEPTI ASTHANA
28 February, 2022

In countries across the world, studies have documented the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women. The unemployment rate has been soaring and the quality of employment has worsened, for men and women both. But the position of women remains far more vulnerable in the labour market. According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Global Gender Gap Report 2021,” on account of the pandemic, the disparity in labour-force participation among men and women is likely to be between one and four percent wider than reported.

India usually performs poorly in female labour-force participation rates compared to most developed and developing countries. So, the broad trend of women’s deteriorating situation in the workforce, globally, was expected to be similar for India, if not worse. But the latest government report, the Quarterly Employment Survey, claims otherwise. The report says that more jobs were generated from July to September 2021 compared to previous quarters, and women’s share in employment also increased. This was during year two of the pandemic, and a little after a deadly second wave ripped through the country.

The QES assesses the employment situation in establishments that have ten or more workers. It covers nine sectors in the non-agricultural economy, including manufacturing, construction, transport, health and education. One of the limitations of this survey—as opposed to other forms of data-gathering, which rely on household surveys—is that it only provides data on the employed population and excludes the unemployed. And even here, it does not account for workers engaged in small establishments with employees in the single digits. Most significantly, it excludes workers in the informal economy—ninety percent of the Indian workforce.

The report was released by Bhupendra Yadav, the union minister for labour and employment, in January this year, and instantly caught public attention. According to the report, the overall percentage of female workers stood at 32.1 percent, higher than the 29.3 percent reported during the first round of the QES in 2021. The QES does provide important demand-side insights into the labour market, including information on the number of vacancies, skill development, persons recruited, jobs withdrawn and the number of persons retrenched. But the increase in the overall percentage of female workers that it reported—2.8 percent—means little.