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The burden of women in construction

In several parts of the country, especially in seasons when agricultural work is scarce, the construction industry becomes a vital source of employment for women. File
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

Low female labour force participation remains a pressing concern in India. Even among women who are employed, it is imperative that we ask how they fare in their sector of employment, in terms of the quality of employment, which includes parameters such as skill development and training, social protection, work-life balance, income, and employment security.

One sector that is often overlooked in discussions on women’s employment is construction, which is traditionally seen as a male-dominated sector in most parts of the world. In India, the construction sector is one of the largest employers of the migrant female labour force, especially those from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households. In several parts of the country, especially in seasons when agricultural work is scarce, the construction industry becomes a vital source of employment for women.

We reflect on the quality of women’s employment in the construction sector by combining data from a sub-sample of women workers in the 2019 Time Use Survey (TUS) with insights from ongoing primary research at construction sites. Analysing quantitative data from the TUS alongside qualitative primary data helps us scrutinise and understand not just how much time women spend on paid work but also the nature of their work in particular sectors. Subsequently, it can help identify potential interventions to enhance conditions of work and the overall quality of work.

According to TUS data, women in the construction sector spend an average of 483 minutes per day on paid employment, 240 minutes on unpaid domestic work, and an additional 111 minutes on childcare. Furthermore, about 18% reported performing simultaneous activities, that is, engaging in more than one activity in a 10-minute time slot.

Simultaneity stems from the disproportionate amount of time women spend on unpaid domestic work and unpaid childcare in addition to time spent on paid employment. There are several examples of this. For instance, women breastfeed or tend to their children while also carrying a bag of cement on their shoulders. This is the only way they can accomplish both tasks, given the long hours of paid work and the burden of domestic chores and childcare. In resource-constrained housing for construction workers, social protection measures such as availability of childcare at the workplace can provide critical support in reducing women’s burden of unpaid childcare responsibilities.

Comment | The measure of the working woman

The TUS also suggests that 84% of women engage in multiple activities. This is defined as engaging in more than one activity in a 30-minute time slot, with each activity being done for at least 10 minutes. On average, they engage in seven such multiple activity slots in a single day. Our primary research shows that employers in the construction sector often break down tasks to circumvent minimum wage requirements, forcing women to undertake multiple tasks throughout the day to meet minimum wage thresholds. These include menial tasks with quick turnarounds such as moving bricks, mixing, and sifting sand and cement throughout the day. These tasks, though considered unskilled, are extremely laborious and usually without safety equipment. Women are often paid by piece or the quantum of work completed. This means that these tasks necessitate women to do high-intensity work within short durations.

With greater use of technology and automation, many of these tasks may become redundant, potentially reducing opportunities for women. While skilling is critical to seek and sustain better forms of work in the industry, employers remain hesitant to train women, assuming they are incapable of operating equipment and machinery. Skilled work is critical for achieving better quality of work and improving wages for women in this sector.

Construction is among the fastest-growing sectors, employing approximately 4% of the female labour force in rural and urban areas. With better provisioning of social protection, skills training, and improved workplace safety, it has the potential to absorb a significant portion of the female labour force, especially migrant women, into productive paid work.

Namrata Chindarkar is Associate Professor at the JSW School of Public Policy (JSW-SPP), Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Divya Ravindranath is a Senior Researcher at the School of Human Development

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