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Female labour force participation: conceptual framework
Farzana Naim

          THE concept of 'active labour' in an economy has been simultaneously defined by orthodox economists and non-orthodox economists. The orthodox economics defines economic activity as the process of capitalist growth and accumulation. According to orthodox economists (Smith, Robin etc.), market is the basic source of information for a quantitative evaluation of society's output, and through it exchange values of goods and services take their concrete form. The price of a goods or a service is considered as an indicator to judge its relative worth.
Hence activities outside the mainstream market are considered peripheral to economic system and not defined as 'economic'. Thus a significant portion of women's work remains unrecognised under economic system. Economic system only considers those home-based production as economic function, which can be exchanged in the market, and these functions are considered as income earning activities and the labour engaged in them is active labour.
Non orthodox economists such as Marx defined 'economic activity' in a similar way, but there is a basic difference between these two approaches. Orthodox economists make no clear distinction between use value and exchange value of goods and services produced by people assuming that exchange value itself represents use value. Non-orthodox economics brings the issue of use value separately from that of exchange value and discusses the political implications of use value separately. Marxist literature discusses the significance of unpaid household production which is mostly produced by women and cheapens the costs of maintenance and reproduction. Thus household production reduces labour costs in commodity production. This approach mentions it as exploitation of capitalist production and, under this system, women being producer of household products and services are being exploited along with cheap labour. Household production therefore has indirect effect on growth and accumulation. Thus this approach emphasises on women's roles in economic system.
Marxist analysis further highlights that exchange value only represents quantitative relation between people and economic goods and services whereas use value represents social relation underlying the commodity exchanged, which is a part of the economic system. Marxist analysis though considers a broader definition of economic categories, there is relative negligence of non-market production like that in subsistence economy which is emphasised by modern economics. Nowadays, the economic literature of developing countries emphasises on the significance of subsistence economy within the larger economy as there exists a high interconnection between subsistence and capitalist sectors because the latter feeds upon the former. Hence it is important to consider use value production outside of market exchange, which takes place both in the household and in the subsistence sector.
Female employment share between agriculture and non-farm is changing. Non-farm sector is generating female employment at an increasing rate due to increasing landlessness, restricted capability of agricultural employment generation and introduction of new technology. Moreover, government and non-government interventions for employment generation is more concentrated in the non-farm sector. Though a shift from unpaid family helpers to wage based employment is found, still the number of female unpaid family workers is significant.
Employment in formal manufacturing industries has opened up new opportunities for women, and has also led to occupational shifts from low paying jobs such as domestic service, paid agricultural work, brick breaking, earth removing. Increasing participation of women is found in different kinds of productive activities outside home, as wage labour and also as self-employed. Credit schemes have increased self employed activities.
Potential sectors for generating female employment are readymade garments, electrical workshops, traditional cottage industry (embroidery, handicrafts, bamboo and cane products, earthenware, Shrimp and fish processing, pharmaceutical industries and electronic industries). Movement of women workers is found in certain activities traditionally falling within male domain (e.g. earth work, construction work, agricultural labour).
Though quota for female recruitment in the public sector organisations is one of the major contributing factors for an increased trend of female participation, still quota fulfillment is far short of the target. (10 per cent quota for class I officers and 15 per cent quota for class II officers have been filled to the extent of only five per cent and eight per cent as per 1992 data).
The share of female wages is seen to be lower compared to that of male wages in total employment i.e. changes in female share in employment are not associated with changes in share of female wages. Employment opportunities particularly in industrial sector are more inclined towards younger and educated women. In rural areas, currently married women with young children are engaged in employment outside home indicating a growing economic pressure and need for increased income for family survival. It also indicates the erosion of traditional beliefs and norms of behaviour regarding employment outside home for married women. A significant part of the female labour force is casualised with no regular contracts.
Female participation in the labour market needs to be defined by demand and supply factors, like poverty, landlessness, government interventions; social sector investment, vulnerable development programmes, NGOs interventions, international forces' competition and demand.
Besides, women's participation in formal market, the realistic estimation of the labour time provided by them particularly in the non-market sector is important for few reasons. Realistic production statistics highlighting women's contribution to national income, determining the economic importance of non-market work for ensuring optimal resource allocation, understanding trend of the labour force, measuring household income and standard of living and analysing technological options are essential for planning employment generation programmes.

(The writer is the Governance Advisor of Manusher Jonno)


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