Despite high growth, India faces unprecedented wealth disparities, joblessness, and ecological damage. Neglecting new workers' plight exacerbates these issues. Urgent measures needed for inclusive growth.

India’s growth masks deep inequalities, revealing an urgent need for inclusive solutions

Despite high growth, India faces unprecedented wealth disparities, joblessness, and ecological damage. Neglecting new workers' plight exacerbates these issues. Urgent measures are needed for inclusive growth.

Despite high growth, India suffers from unprecedented inequalities of wealth and income, persistent unemployment and jobless growth, deficiencies in human development, and ecological damages. Though these problems are discussed by experts/policymakers, the highly adverse impacts of this same growth on the new categories of workers, defined by ILO in Resolution on Statistics of Work, Employment, and Labour Underutilization, are neglected if not excluded by them. This paper studies these impacts and their implications for the Indian economy. It also explores pathways to inclusive and sustainable development in India.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines work as any activity, regardless of age or gender, aimed at producing goods or providing services for personal or others’ use. This encompasses various forms: own-use production work, employment for pay, unpaid trainee work, voluntary work, and compulsory unpaid work. Notably, ILO acknowledges unpaid services, including those by women, as legitimate work, a significant recognition given its prevalence in India.

Survey results

Time-use surveys (TUS) are the main data source, along with other data, to measure this work. The first all-India TUS was conducted in 2019. Considering some conceptual and methodological weaknesses, we use these data to understand the new categories of workers in India. One major inference of the time use of different categories of workers is that 80-90 % of men and women participate in work and put in an average of 6.5 hours (men) to 7.25 hours (women) work. This indicates that Indians are hardworking people. Men dominate in employment, and when they do not get employment, they perform unpaid work – production of goods for their consumption, unpaid training, or voluntary work.

Credit. Midjourney

Women spend maximum time on unpaid domestic services for their household. Another inference is that, on average, women work much longer than men.  However, their work is mostly invisible in data and is unremunerated. On average, women spend 70 minutes on remunerative work (less than one-fourth of men’s). The participation and time spent on other categories of work by men and women are very low. Finally, for men, who are unpaid producers of goods, a clear message is for rising productive employment.  And for women, their unpaid services need to be reduced.  Also, there is a need to raise the educational and technical capabilities of the population to increase their productive employment. 

The time use of the different categories of workers, as defined by the ILO, provide critical insights into the functioning of the economy that cannot be ignored for sustainable development.

Indira Hirway

In addition, the three major problems revealed are the crisis of care, unfair and unjust gender inequalities, and sub-optimal use of labour in our economy. 

Crisis of care

Care is for taking care of the physical, social, and emotional well-being of people. It ensures that people are well cared for, healthy, and educated. Care is indispensable for the well-being of people, for enhancing their capabilities, and for human capital formation and development. The unpaid care at the household level sustains the household (and the society), binds the family together, and subsidizes the private sector and the government in several ways.

The paid care system supplies health and educational services, other social infrastructure, and welfare services to people. 28 % of women participate in child care, and less than 1% participate in giving care to the old/sick/disabled. They spend only 40 minutes on child care and much less on others. Thus, India cannot provide adequate care to its people. Our study shows that the government is not committed to providing regular quality care to children and others. The main burden of providing care largely falls on women who lack enough time or ability, leading to a severe crisis of care in the country.  

Gender inequality

Though men spend more time on paid work than women, women are overburdened by total work, paid and unpaid work combined. Women’s primary role in unpaid services is notably undervalued compared to paid work. Often overlooked, this type of labour lacks recognition in data and policy, despite its essential contribution to households. It’s characterized by repetitive tasks, lack of career progression, and lack of retirement benefits. It is frequently a hurdle to women’s entrance into the labour market.

It is responsible for the inferior status of women in the labor market and for all-pervasive gender inequalities. This male supremacy, manifested in values and customs, ownership of assets and incomes, and legal, social, and political institutions, denies equal human rights to women as well as equal opportunities. A big challenge is how to address patriarchy upfront and reach gender equality.

Sub-optimal use of labour and sub-optimal development

The third crisis created by the lop-sided division of unpaid and total work is the sub-optimal use of labor in the economy, leading to suboptimal growth. The data shows that only 20 % of women participate in the labour market and spend one-fifth of the time on men. The burden of unpaid work and lower human capital result in women’s gendered choices of work in the labour market, causing their overcrowding in low productivity stereotype work, lower overall wages, and higher unemployment. Almost half the labour force in the economy thus is trapped in low-productivity work. This sub-optimal use of labor has led to the suboptimal growth of the economy. The IMF has estimated that India’s GDP can rise by 15% if women’s participation in the labour market rises.

We recommend three strategies to fight these crises and to move towards sustainable and inclusive development in India:

  1. Massive public expenditure on care is needed to meet care-related needs and create a strong foundation for equitable and sustainable development. Given that care is a fundamental entitlement, the government must guarantee high-quality care for all individuals, except for basic family care. This should be provided either free or subsidized for those in need through either market mechanisms or Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Key aspects of care include early childhood development, daycare services, support for the sick, elderly, and disabled, infrastructure improvements, and social welfare services. These steps will reduce women’s time on unpaid care by shifting some care to the mainstream economy and making unpaid work easy and less time-consuming. These steps may raise new employment opportunities for women.  
  2. Regulation of the labour market to move towards a gender equal labour market. This calls for equal sharing of domestic responsibilities by men and women. This may provide them equal access to capabilities and opportunities in the labour market. Achieving this goal remains a distant aspiration, given that women are primarily engaged in informal employment, often as domestic or home-based workers or as unpaid health and education volunteers. Unfortunately, these roles lack adequate protection under current labour regulations. Several small steps towards the long-term goals are (1) maternity benefits (leave and allowances) and childcare facilities for men and women, (2) equal pay and equal promotions for equal work for both men and women, (3) equal access to education and skill training, (4) flexible work arrangement to both of them to balance paid and unpaid work, (5) positive discrimination for women to help them to catch up, and (6) elimination of all discriminatory practices in the labour market.
  3. Enabling the macroeconomic environment is the third step towards sustainable and inclusive development. The mainstream macro-economy today is largely responsible for gender-related and many other problems.  We recommend some steps towards enabling a macro-economic environment: (1) the objective of development is not only growth but also productive employment with decent work conditions,(2) monetary and fiscal policies are also for development goals, (3) all major national policies need to be assessed based on their impact on women’s paid and unpaid work, and (4) Government’s responsibilities include care to all who need care.  

While concluding this paper, we observe that time use patterns of the new categories of workers provide additional insights into some of the most critical deficiencies of the mainstream policies. Ignoring these could cause severe crises in the economy. Extensive expenditure on household care and social care can go a long way to inclusive and sustainable development. 


Journal reference

Hirway, I. (2023). Work and workers in India: Moving towards inclusive and sustainable development. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics66(2), 371-393.

Indira Hirway is a Professor of Economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives (CFDA) and an Associate of the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, New York. She was a National Fellow of the Indian Society of Social Science Research, New Delhi, and served as the Conference President of the Indian Society of Labour Economics for the year 2014. Her Master’s degree in Economics is from the Delhi School of Economics, and her PhD from the University of Bombay, Mumbai. The major areas of her research interest are development economics, employment and labour market structures, poverty and human development, gender and development, environment and development, and time use studies.