The impact of Covid-19 extends well beyond the death and disease caused by the virus itself. Unemployment and job loss is one of the most severe immediate impacts of Covid-19 crisis around the world. According to International Labour Organisation (ILO), there were almost 400 million full-time job losses in the second quarter of 2020 (ILO, 2020). Another study by ILO depicts that women can be disproportionately hit by the crisis as their representation in the worst affected industries are more than men (ILO, 2020). By the beginning of the second quarter of 2020, ILO published the possible impact of the crisis on all economic sectors. There are fourteen economic sectors and they are categorised in five affected levels based on the impact of Covid-19 crisis (Table 1). The categories are high, medium-high, medium, low-medium and low impacted economic sectors due to the adversity of the pandemic. Sectors like real estate, business – administrative activities; accommodation and food services; manufacturing sectors; wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles sectors are considered under highly disrupted economic sectors. Subsequently, sectors like arts, entertainment and recreation services; transport, storage and communication are considered as medium-high impacted sectors. The next set of economic sectors in this list are constructions; financial and insurance services, mining and quarrying which come under medium impacted sectors due to Covid-19 crisis. Agriculture, forestry and fishing are low-medium impacted sectors. At the last, the low impacted sectors are human health, social work activities, education, utilities, public administration, defence and compulsory social security.
Table 1: Impact of the crisis on enterprises (employers and own-account workers) in hardest-hit economic sectors
This article analyses the status of employed women in India during Covid-19 crisis using the latest figures on Indian employment while keeping the above mentioned report on economic sectors in the backdrop. By cmparaing Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), 2018-2019, and the ILO report on probable effect of Covid-19 on various economic sectors, this article lay out the possible hardships faced by Indian working women due to Covid-19 crisis.
 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), 2017-2018, is published by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Govt. of India. The number of households surveyed was 1,01,579 (55,812 in rural areas and 45,767 in urban areas) and number of persons surveyed was 4,20,757 (2,39,817 in rural areas and 1,80,940 in urban areas).
Economic Sectors: Gender Perspective
Figure 1A, 1B and 1C represent the percentages of employed women and men in five broad categories of affected levels, each of which signifies respective order of impact due to the pandemic. While Figure 1A indicates all India, Figure 1B and 1C describe urban and rural areas respectively. Figure 1A implies that 24 percent of employed women and 33 percent of employed men are working in highly impacted sectors across India. These percentages climb up in urban areas and decline in rural areas. In urban areas, 39 percent of employed women and 31 percent of employed men are part of highly impacted sectors (Figure 1B).
In rural areas, the percentages reduce to 14 percent for employed women and 20 percent for employed men who participate in highly impacted sectors. Such drop in highly impacted sectors is possible since major employment in rural areas occurs in agricultural sector and agriculture is one of the low affected sector around the world. This can be observed in Figure 1C. Figure 1C reveals that a major proportion of employed women in rural parts of India (68 percent) are part of agricultural sector which has low-medium impact due to the pandemic. The corresponding percentage for employed men in agriculture is 49 percent. In urban areas, low impacted sectors such as education, public admistration and health sectors consume a significant fraction (32 percent) of employed women (Figure 1B). In contrast, the percentage of employed men in these sectors is extremely low (13 percent). All the above mentioned three figures tell one statement consistently that the highest impacted sectors due to Covid-19 have more share of working men than women whereas the lowest impacted sectors have more share of working women than men. But, does this imply Indian working women are less affected than working men due to the pandemic.
A recent study by CMIE states that the recovery of jobloss among women is worse than men in post-lockdown days. Almost 22 percent of the women workars are still out of work compared to 15 percent men. Even in the pre-covid time, 95 percent women are employed in unorganized sector and they get 34 percent less wage than men. Though the share of women workers is lower than men in high risk affected sectors, but they are in much vulnerable state as opposed to men workers since their nature of work is mostly neither organised nor wage effective. Thus, the probable economic impact of Covid-19 on women workers need to be analysed in details.
 A Deloitte report titled, “Empowering Women & Girls in India”, 2019
 An Oxfam India report titled, “Mind The Gap-State of Employment in India”, 2018
Figure 2A and 2B represent the percentage of employed women in all the fourteen economic sectors which have been categorised based on the impact of Covid-19 crisis. In urban parts of India, education industry has the highest share of employed women followed by manufacturing; and arts, entertainment, recreation and other services. Among these top three sectors of women participation, two sectors belong to highly and medium-highly affected sectors. It is evident from the above figure that among all the high and medium highly impacted sectors, manufacturing industry has the highest share of working women (20 percent), followed by arts, entertainment industry (13 percent) and wholesale, retail trade industry (12 percent) during Covid-19 crisis.
This trait does not hold in rural India. Figure 2B represents the same parameters for rural parts of India. In rural parts of India, agricultural sector has the highest share of employed women (63 percent) followed by education (10.1 percent) and manufacturing industry (9.9 percent). Among these top three sectors of women participation, two sectors belong to low and low-medium affected sectors. It is evident from the above two figures that representation of working women urban India is much higher (56 percent) than rural India (19 percent) if only the high and medium highly impacted sectors are considered. Henceforward, only urban economy will be considered in the analysis since more than half of the working women in urban sector is under crisis as opposed to rural India.
Women at Work: Income Perspective
The women workers are on the edge of vulnerability if they belong to both high risk sectors due to crisis and lower income strata as meagre income or savings will not be able to provide sustainability during the crisis. Figure 3 portrays the distribution of five affected levels in each percentile of expenditure.
 Per capita expenditure has been taken as proxy for income as income data is absent in PLFS 2017-2018. Per capita expenditure is divided into five percentiles – bottom 20 percentile, 20th to 40th percentile, 40th to 60th percentile, top 20 percentile.
Among the employed women in bottom 20 percentile of expenditure, almost 44 percent are from the high-risk sectors and only 16 percent are from low risk sectors. On the other hand, almost 52 percent of employed women from top 20 percentile belong to low risk sectors and 27 percent of them are from high risk sectors. Therefore, higher share of working women from prosperous families have lower risky job during the crisis (52 percent) and higher share of working women from lesser fortunate families have higher risky job during the pandemic (44 percent). The share of working women in low risky job is the lowest in bottom 20 percentile of the expenditure and the share increases as the expenditure or the income strata increases. On the contrast, the share of working women in high risky job is more or less similar (more than 40 percent) in all the expenditure percentiles apart from the top 20 percentile of expenditure (27 percent). Almost all kinds of income strata other than the extremely prosperous ones have almost similar share of working women with high risky job.
The share of working women in all the fourteen economic sectors across the bottom and top 20 percentiles of expenditure is depicted in Figure 4. It states that manufacturing industry has the highest share of working women (28 percent) in the bottom income group and this sector is also at high risk during the crisis. Subsequently, arts, entertainment, recreation and other services has the second highest share of working women (19 percent) in the bottom income group and this sector is also at medium-high risk.
On the contrast, 32 percent of women worker from the top income group are into education sector which has low risk due to the pandemic. The next major participation of women (11 percent) in the top income group is from another low risky category, i.e., human health and social work activities. A distinct feature merges from the above comparison of bottom and top income groups. The feature states that almost 63 percent of working women in the bottom income group are in high risk and medium-high risk job whereas 39 percent of working women in top income group are in high risk and medium high risk job.
A further study on NIC code states that the manufacturing industry is a much broader area which includes manufacture of food products, rubber products, chemical prosucts and so on. The working women of manufacturing sector who are at the bottom of income strata majorly participate in the manufacturing of wearing apparel, textiles and tobacco in India (Figure 5). These jobs are menial, low paying and unstable in nature. Therefore, women from such industries receive inadequate wage rate which make them remain at the bottom of income strata and the very nature of their informal job status make them vulnerable under economic crisis. Like manufacturing industry, arts, entertainment, recreation and other services have various other classification under its wing and the classification, personal services, is one of them. The working women from the bottom of income strata are mostly part of the personal services. Here, personal services means governess, domestic help, masseuse etc.
The fear of contamination of the virus restricts people to opt for such personal services even till date. Hence, the job of all these working women are still at stake in urban India. At the bottom of income strata, wholesale and retail trade is another high risky sector where a significant share of working women (11 percent) are employed. A detail analysis on the subsets of wholesale and retail trade reveals that a significant portion of women under this sector run small shops or moving vegetables, fruits, jewelry, garments carts. These working women are not only find their selves at the bottom of income ladder but also find their selves with no income during the pandemic. The scenario has not been improved significantly in the post-lockdown time. As discussed above, the working women from the bottom of income strata with high or medium high risk jobs are the most vulnerable ones during the pandemic and afterwards.
 The National Industrial Classification Code (NIC Code) is a statistical standard for developing and maintaining a comparable data base for various economic activities.
Profile of Vulnerable Working Women
The employed women, who belong to bottom 20 percentile of income strata and have high risk or medium high risk job in urban areas, may expose to extreme poverty during the pandemic. This section elaborates on the profile of such vulnerable working women based on their social indicators such as social groups, religion, age, work status and enterprise type. This procedure helps to identify them easily and stimulus economic packages could be devised accordingly.
There are four social groups in India among which three are categorised as under privileged groups. They are Scheduled Tribe (ST), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Class (OBC). Anyone who does not belong to under privileged social groups are categorised as Other Castes (OC). In the above pie chart (Figure 6), the inner circle represents the most vulnerable group of working women who works in high and medium high risk job and remain at the bottom of income strata in urban India. The outer circle represents the group of working women in all economic sector and it plays the role of national standard. The inner circle states that around 25 percent and 43 percent of working women from the vulnerable group are SC and OBC as oppose to the national standard (15 and 39 percent). Hence, the most vulnerable group has not only low paid high-risk job but also a major percentage of them are socially unprivileged. Although the causality may work on the opposite direction where being socially unprivileged, the working women end up at the most vulnerable group.
Almost 73 percent of the vulnerable working women are Hindu whereas nationally, 76 percent of working women are Hindu. Around 6 percent of the vulnerable working women are Christian whereas nationally, 11 percent of working women are Christian. Therefore, both for Hindu and Christian, the share of women in vulnerable group is lower than national standard. This pattern changes for Muslim women. Almost 17 percent of the vulnerable working women are Muslim whereas nationally, lesser percentage (9 percent) of working women are Muslims. This indicates that there is a concentration of Muslim women in vulnerable group as opposed to its national standard.
Recently CMIE data states that since 2016, women, especially, the young women at workforce faced extreme difficulties in getting jobs. A similar picture is emerging from the above figure on the age distribution of vulnerable working women group (Figure 9). The above bar chart states that almost 63 percent of the young women aged 15 to 19 years and 47 percent of women aged 20 to 29 years belong to the vulnerable group. The median age in India is 24 years in 2011.
Therefore, the absolute number of working women within the age group of 15 to 29 years is a significant number and they are the future of the economy. If more than fifty percent of them are facing hardship in getting a suitable job or end up with a risky job with low wage rate, then the economy fail to secure the demographic dividend and its benefit on the GDP. The feature does not change much for higher age groups. On an average, around 40 percent of working women from each age group of 30 to 39 years, 40 to 49 years and 50 to 59 years are from vulnerable group.
 Census India, 2011
The working status could vary from self-employment to regular salaried to casual wage labour to many other works. The above bar chart shows the percentages of vulnerable working women under each working status (Figure 8). Among all the working status, regular salaried or wage employee is considered as one of the competent job status as it guarantees salary at end of the job. Unfortunately, almost 39 percent of working women from the vulnerable group are regular salaried or wage employee. This means the guaranteed salary is insufficient which can not capable of pulling out from the misery.
Around 35 percent of working women from the vulnerable group are self-employed at their own account. There is a higher possibility that these self employed women might remain in the vulnerable group for long since they face difficulties to access wealth and more so during any crisis. As per the International Finance Corporation study (2019), women entrepreneurs who applied for loans face more than twice the number of rejections (19 percent) than men (8 percent). Therefore, there is a very small chance that women with such background will be elevated from the misery unless policies enable them to perform so.
There are eight categories of workplace based on the governing body. These are female proprietorship, male proprietorship, employer’s household, public or private limited company, partnership with same house member, Govt. or local body, trust or non-profit institutions and others. Almost 39 percent of the vulnerable group works under proprietorship of women. This might indicate that the proprietor herself could be in economic distress which reflects through the employees. As per the same report by International Finance Corporation study (2019), over 70 percent of the total finance requirement of women entrepreneurs are unmet in India. The women entrepreneurs in this country not only face financial inaccessibility, but also absence of support network, bias social norms, restricted mobility and reluctance in coalition. Hence, these extreme hardship extend to their female employees too.
Around 25 percent of the vulnerable group work under the proprietorship of men. Now, all these proprietorship is part of MSME sectors. It is evident that these sectors have been hit hard during the pandemic and still fighting its way back. Various relief packages are deployed to boost up the MSME sectors. This will be definitely one of the major area to look out in the future whether the status of working women from the vulnerable group under women and men proprietorship make any progress. Additionally, almost 20 percent of the women from vulnerable group works for employer’s household, i.e., 20 percent of women of this vulnerable group work as maid servant, cook, governess etc. The jobs of such categories completely disrupted during the lockdown and these jobs have never been equitable in pre or post-covid era.
There are 28 states and 8 union territories in India. All the regions are uniquely different in terms of socio-economic and political factors. Therefore, the situation of working women of each state is different than the other.
The percentage of working women in high risk sectors in each state is represented in the Map 1. Three groups are formed to colour code the states based on the order of percentages. The states where more than 50 percent of working women take part in high risk jobs are colored in red, more than 30 but less than 50 percent are colored in violet and less than 30 percent are colored in green. The states which have higher share (more than 50 percent) of working women in high risk sectors are mostly from southern part of India (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and Maharashtra), few are from northern part of India (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat) and the rests are from eastern part of India (West Bengal, Sikkim and Manipur). Therefore, all these states are at high risk to get affected considering the job of their working women. Only three states, Uttaranchal, Bihar and Arunachal Pradesh have less than 30 percent of working women who take part in high risk sectors. Hence, these three states have a lower risk at work considering women during the pandemic.
Diversity: Vulnerable Group
Map 2 shows the distribution of working women from the vulnerable group across states in urban part of India. The vulnerable group specifies all working women whoes job is characterized as high risk during pandemic and belong to the bottom 20 percent of income strata. The states are colour coded as red when the presence of such vulnerable group exceeds 50 percent of working women present in these states. There are seven such states, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Telengana, West Bengal, Manipur and Mizoram. The very low female employment rate in Uttar Pradesh (12 percent) and Jammu and Kashmir (8 percent) already showcase the adversity against working women. The higher presence of vulnerability group in a state makes it worse.
The two states, Manipur and Mizoram have high poverty rate which reasonably define the more presence of vulnerable group among working women. Interestingly, both Telengana and Sikkim have very high rate of female workforce participation and low poverty rate. Therefore, the only explanation of higher presence of vulnerable group can be elucidated by the gender seggragation at workplace. Though a larger propotion of women are working but they end up with high risky job and lower income. Both the states, Telengana and Sikkim, are example of women participation at work in India. But it is time to investigate more into the quality of work they are being offered. The state of West Bengal has average female workforce participation rate and a moderate poverty rate. The presence of vulnerable group is more than 50 percent of working women in West Bengal indicates that it simply has to elevate women’s working quality and participation.
The second wave of Covid-19 just hit the country. The economic parameters have not yet been recovered from the first hit. Unemployment rate was at 45 years high as per as the 2017-2018 annual PLFS data even before the pandemic. The pandemic might have made it worse only. According to NSSO, the female labour participation rate sharply declined from 31.2 percent in 2011-2012 to 24.5 percent in 2018-2019. After the pandemic, the participation of female in workforce has become more challenging like never before. Like traditional economy, the new emerging gig economy additionally employed too few women to the workforce. The curved income restricts the demand, in turn cut down many productions and services. Therefore, there is more job loss and threat of skewed wages. Under such circumstances, women are more vulnerable to loose job as opposed to men since majority of them equivalently deliver unpaid household work. In the days when economy experienced its sharpest drop, the only pandemic proof way out was selling vegetable.
Many have opted to sell vegetables after loosing their livlihood even knowing the little profit attached to it. Although vendors are entitlted to apply for Rs. 10,000 capital loan under the scheme of Pradhan Mantri Street Vendor’s Atmanirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) but they need to prove that they were vendor before 24th March, 2020 along with the other herculean paper works. As it is already discussed, being a woman poses even more difficulties to access that nearly unachievable loan. The painting below is a masterpiece by prodigious artiste, Amrita Sher-Gil where she meticulously capture the ache of a hard working woman selling fruits with her children by her side. The painting is shared with the readers to invoke their own thought about indefatigable working women in the background of Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
ILO. (2020). The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
ILO. (2020). The COVID-19 response: Getting gender equality right for a better future for women at work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
ILO. (2020). ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Fifth edition. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
*Dhritisree is a PhD in Economics from Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai. She did her Masters in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research areas include Development Economics, Gender, Health and Agricultural Economics.
Kindly note that the point of views expressed in the article are entirely the author’s personal views. IPD takes no responsibility for the same.