Women’s work and growth

Published October 21, 2023
The writer is chair of economics at Lums
The writer is chair of economics at Lums

TWENTY-THREE per cent of women aged 15-plus are in the formal labour market. Much has been made of this statistic. It’s certainly among the lowest in the world. And it underscores the potential GDP being lost because of our sub-optimal labour force participation rates.

Yet, it does not adequately capture the real state of the labour market for women in Pakistan. Women’s work is hard to enumerate, particularly in a society that counts them as secondary workers. For instance, harvesting depends crucially on women workers. There has also been a steady and steep feminisation of the agriculture sector. We know that women are typically un-remunerated in family businesses and on family farms. And un-remunerated work, especially agricultural work, is not adequately captured in official labour statistics.

Similarly, estimates show that 78pc of all non-agricultural informal work is done by women. Informal work, particularly that which is taking place out of the home, is, again, often not counted. Clearly then, women are much more involved in our productive economy than what our statistics reveal.

The undercounting of women’s work owes to several interconnected factors. Women, who are usually the ones working from home, don’t see their own work as employment and so do not report it. Enumerators, seeing women at home during work hours, regardless of what they might be doing, mark them as unemployed in surveys. Survey design and work categories may be too biased to capture formal or regular work, and may leave out other types of productive activities that are often, predominantly, undertaken by women workers. Underpinning these factors in societies with strict gender orders like ours is the idea that women’s domain lies in the reproductive sphere, whereas men’s is in the productive sphere, leading to hesitancy, even a feeling of shame on the part of some family members to report women’s work. This results in massive underreporting.

The undercounting of women’s work owes to several interconnected factors.

But there is gradual recognition of the deficiencies in both general survey designs and enumerator training. Recent years have also seen the deployment of specific surveys, such as the Punjab Home-based and Domestic Workers Survey or the Time-Use Survey to capture various aspects of women’s daily activities as well as their work in different labour markets.

Similarly, the 2019 Sindh Women Agricultural Workers’ Act officially recognises the contributions made by such workers and contains explicit provisions for remunerating their work. There have also been similar bills recognising and protecting home-based and domestic workers. As we move towards greater recognition and enumeration of women’s work the question remains, why does this matter? After all, women are already working, why do we need to ensure that we’re counting this appropriately?

Improved records of various categories of women’s work would be reflected in GDP accounting, pushing growth figures upward. Besides, categorising and counting previously unrecognised work makes these categories of work visible. They also provide recourse to workers engaged in these types of activities when their state-recognised rights are violated. All this positively affects the empowering potential of such work. However, nothing is realised if statistical recognition does not translate into legal action which in turn does not manifest in implementation.

There has been a great deal of advocacy work around workers’ rights. In fact, the passage of several of the acts and bills I’ve mentioned owes to the work of these groups. These same groups have also spread awareness about workers’ rights enshrined in various labour laws and newer bills. Conversations with women workers who have been working with these advocacy groups reveal a greater understanding of their rights — both as workers and citizens. The women that I talked to who had been working with HomeNet knew how to approach officials and get their problems, regarding public goods and services in their homes and within the community, solved. They were also more aware of the various social protection schemes. Women who had worked with Mumkin Alliance knew about the CNIC’s pivotal role and their right as a citizen to get this issued. Undoubtedly, all these are positive changes. But how does this link up with Pakistan’s growth potential?

There are synergies between the specific rights I mention above and livelihoods. The CNIC for instance, is central to accessing a range of services across sectors, including the financial sector that has a direct impact on earning potentials. In fact, most employers ask for identification in the form of a CNIC.

In the same vein, the extent and quality of public goods and services within the community directly affects income generation particularly for those whose businesses are based out of their home. Besides, women’s work has been shown to affect their status. As recognition of their work spreads and their standing within the household and community improves, women’s ability to negotiate for essential services for themselves as well as others also rises. This creates multiplier effects leading to greater growth for the economy.

Yet, there are major caveats to what I list above. The most crucial is the scale of the impact. The types of work that women in our economy usually engage in, recorded or not, are pretty low on the productivity spectrum. In fact, a World Bank study on Pakistan’s productivity released a few months ago details how we have been left behind countries whose economy was at par with ours in the 1990s. While there are several reasons underlying these productivity differences, human capital levels and the nature of work remain key.

Given our macroeconomic situation and our persistent balance-of-payments crises, we need a major and simultaneous overhaul in any number of markets — crucially so when it comes to human capital and the labour market. It was an NRSP (National Rural Support Programme) field operative working in Balochistan who highlighted for me the tremendous business acumen of the young women in the community and the need to integrate them in better paying occupations. We need to boost women’s trainings and capacity development and involve women in higher value-added chains. Only then will we truly see women’s work accelerate growth.

The writer is chair of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2023

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