ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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'Invisibility' Continues?

While the NCEUS report on social security for unorganised workers acknowledges the existence of unpaid workers, the definition of the "informal worker" to determine social security coverage excludes them from its ambit. This elimination of unpaid workers from social security coverage has serious gender implications for women who overwhelmingly make up the numbers constituting unpaid family labour.

‘Invisibility’ Continues?

Social Security and Unpaid Women Workers

While the NCEUS report on social security for unorganised workers acknowledges the existence of unpaid workers, the definition of the “informal worker” to determine social security coverage excludes them from its ambit. This elimination of unpaid workers from social security coverage has serious gender implications for women who overwhelmingly make up the numbers

constituting unpaid family labour.


he report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) on social security for unorganised workers has raised the hopes of informal sector workers and those concerned with their social security issues. However, while the commission acknowledges the existence and contributions made by unpaid workers, they are kept away from the definition of informal workers when it comes to social security coverage. One fails to understand the rationality behind the elimination of unpaid workers, as the issues that the commission has itself laid down as a necessary background for understanding the need for social security is applicable to this category of workers as well.

The report has a detailed chapter on defining the unorganised sector and after taking into account complexities and definitional issues, it adopts an inclusive definition of the unorganised workers as “all those who are working in the unorganised sector and the workers in the formal sector without any employment security and social security provided by the employer”. The definition of the unorganised sector followed is “all unincorporated private enterprises owned by individuals or households engaged in the production and sale of goods and services and operated on a proprietary or a partnership basis and employing less than 10 persons”. The definition makes no distinction between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Thus, the definitions followed by the commission are much broader, accounting for the growing share of informal workers in the formal sector, which is definitely a welcome step.

On the basis of these definitions, the commission also arrives at estimates of workers in the unorganised/informal sector as well as those in informal employment, i e, 362.08 million workers. The estimation is followed by a detailed discussion on the insecurities of informal sector workers, which captures the various vulnerabilities, thereby contexualising the need for social security. The social security issues of unorganised workers are conceived by the commission at two levels. The first relates to deficiency or capability deprivation in terms of inadequate employment, low earnings, low health and educational status, among other factors, that are related to the generalised deprivation of the poorer sections of the population. The second focuses on adversity, the absence of adequate fallback mechanisms (safety nets) to meet contingencies such as ill-health, accident, death, and old age. The report subsequently examines in detail the main sources of insecurity for workers in the informal economy and clearly spells out the need to approach social security issues of the unorganised sector from the point of social upliftment.

In none of these discussions is a distinction made between paid or unpaid workers,

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 rather one tends to think that the commission is sensitive to the complexities and issues of the sector and the special vulnerabilities of different categories of informal sector workers. The approach of the commission takes a different turn when it comes to the proposed Unorganised Workers’ Social Security (Draft) Bill, 2006, which claims to cover all workers in the informal economy. The report elaborating on the coverage puts: “As per the computations undertaken by the commission by using NSS 55th Round Survey data on employmentunemployment there were 340.3 million workers in the unorganised sector. However, amongst these workers, about 4.02 million workers were in receipt of social security benefits from their employers and are therefore considered as formal workers. At the same time, there were about

25.8 million workers in the organised sector who were either casual or unpaid family workers or not eligible for any social security benefits. These workers are thus considered as informal workers. The number of informal workers to be covered for the social security measures thus totals 362 million. However, we exclude 85.58

million unpaid family workers and 20 per cent of farmers who are not either marginal or small farmers, whose number totals about

13.6 million, to arrive at the figure of 263 million as the total number of workers eligible for social security in 1999-2000. As per the bill, any worker, whose monthly income is less than Rs 6,500 and registered with the National Social Security Scheme for the unorganised workers, on payment of the prescribed contribution of one rupee a month (no contribution from BPL workers), shall be entitled to National Minimum Social Security benefits in health, life insurance and old age security.

Unpaid Workers

The benefits, are basic and minimum which should be open to all unorganised sector workers. But why are these basic minimum benefits denied to unpaid workers for whom the risks and crisis situations occurring due to the absence of health security, old age security or life insurance are equally evident? Why are these workers who are recognised as contributing to the GDP denied their rights as workers?

Call for Papers

The report does not elaborate or give any rationality on its sudden decision to eliminate unpaid workers from social security coverage, who accounts for almost one fourth of informal employment (8.6 million out of 34.8 million which excludes large farmers). Given the socio-economic conditions, whether in rural or urban areas, unpaid workers would invariably be the most exploited lot of all informal sector workers as they are even denied of their right to wages or income.

The elimination of unpaid workers from the social security coverage has serious gender implications, as women tend to be over-represented in numbers of unpaid family workers. The commission does not give any account of the gender composition of informal workers, which naturally is not expected as long as it covers all sections of informal sector workers. But in the context of its elimination of a section of workers it is important to understand the composition of such workers across sex. It is well known that a significant share of women in rural and urban areas belong to the category of unpaid workers. As per the NSS 55th Round (1999-2000) data, in

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology British High Commission and the Environment New Delhi

National Workshop on NTFP Taxation Policies and Management

New Delhi, 20-21 November 2006

Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) are critical to livelihoods of forest dependent communities in India. They are also a mainstay for a large number of small to large-scale enterprises engaged in processing and/or trading of NTFP-based value added products (especially in food, medicine, aromatics and pharmaceutical sectors). On one hand the resources allocated for research and development (R&D) efforts aimed at making NTFP harvesting/processing sustainable are minimal (and declining); on the other hand, NTFPs and products derived from it are taxed heavily right from the stage of collection. Very little of the revenue from taxation of NTFPs and/or NTFP-based products gets ploughed back into programs that can enhance the productivity and sustainability of NTFP resources (and post-harvest value addition) to, inturn, enhance the well being of forest-dependent communities. Cess has been widely used as a mechanism to generate resources for pre-defined purposes. There is a possibility and need to develop a similar resource generation mechanism for NTFPs. However, it needs an analysis of several key economic, institutional and governance issues. The proposed national workshop will primarily focus on these issues.

Papers are invited for the following themes: i) Current scenario of NTFP taxation policies and practices in India, ii) Current level of revenue generation from economically significant NTFPs, iii) Current level of R&D investments on NTFPs, iv) R&D needs of the NTFP sector in India, v) Analysis of current cess mechanisms —the Agriculture Produce Cess Fund and Highway Development Cess, vi) Feasibility of an R&D Cess on NTFPs, vii) Setting up priorities for sustainability of NTFPs, and institutional and regulatory needs for utilization of a potential NTFP Cess Fund.

Abstracts of papers not exceeding 350 words should reach ATREE by 30th September 2006. Authors of the selected papers will be invited to participate in the workshop and ATREE will bear their travel expenses, boarding and lodging at the workshop venue. For abstract submission and further details write to:

Coordinator, NTFP Workshop, ATREE House, 431-432/D-22, Chhattarpur Hill, New Delhi 110074 Ph: +91-11- 26301044; Fax: +91-11-26301016; Email: Website:

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

rural areas unpaid family workers constituted for about 37 per cent of women while the proportion was 17 per cent in urban areas in the category of principal status workers. The sharp gender difference is evident when one looks at the shares for male workers, which is about 15 per cent in rural areas and 8 per cent in urban areas. When subsidiary status workers are also considered, the difference becomes all the more distinct with 21 per cent and 39 per cent for women across rural and urban areas while the shares are only 15 per cent and 8 per cent for men. Even if one looks at male-female share of unpaid workers, irrespective of the fact that the work participation rate is almost double for male workers, women’s share in total unpaid workers is 58 per cent. Thus, it becomes clear that by eliminating the category of unpaid workers one is knowingly or unknowingly eliminating a large proportion of women workers from the ambit of social security. The exclusion of this set of workers, whose existence and contribution is at least acknowledged, is especially worrying when one takes into account the otherwise general large-scale invisibility of women’s work and the whole debate around productive versus non-productive work of women.

Gender Concerns

Keeping this gender composition of unpaid workers in mind, the social impact of such legislation needs to be analysed. The neglect of the unpaid workers not only means that they are left out of the coverage of the scheme but this would also tend to reinforce their low status as workers. This is especially true as far as women are concerned. Many women workers who are unpaid are, in fact, the main breadwinners and it is only the status of the male worker as household head that gives the latter the paid worker status. This is particularly so with many household enterprises and other home-based work. In some cases, though the production of goods is entirely carried out by women unpaid workers, the male member gets the status of paid worker by just marketing it or acting as a middlemen. In agriculture, it is well known that women carry out the most difficult and strenuous operations but the income arising out of such labour is counted as the income of male household head. In the context of these realities, the recommendation of the commission to exclude unpaid workers would only help in reinforcing the patriarchal notions of the male breadwinner and the dependant women, irrespective of womens’ contribution to the household and economy, thus aggravating the low status of women both as workers as well as social actors.

Even if one assumes that all female workers are dependant workers or subsidiary to the male paid worker, the assumption that since the social security provisions are for the household, unpaid workers would get automatically covered is questionable. Firstly, this position tends to ignore the internal dynamics of the households. It assumes that households are welldefined units with clear-cut dependent and independent statuses attached to all members. However, anyone who is familiar with household dynamics knows well that many households do not fit into such welldefined categorisations. How would women who are widowed or deserted (who in most cases contribute to the unpaid lot) be covered? No one would be interested in considering the responsibility of such workers be it health problems or accidents or any other issues. Secondly, the assumption is that unpaid workers are attached to the household paid worker and that by covering the paid worker, all the unpaid workers of the household get automatically covered is flawed. In small enterprises, the system of trainee or helpers, which is seen as a method of skill impartment, is extensive. It is widely known that even after the necessary skill acquisition, many of them continue to work as helpers for long periods in the expectation of being absorbed at a later time as paid workers. These helpers are largely unpaid and women constitute a considerable segment.

Further, though health insurance and maternity benefits could broadly fit into the household coverage of social security, the other two, life insurance covering accidental and/or natural death and the old age pension are individual-oriented which means that unpaid workers are beyond coverage, even indirectly. This would amount to denying a large section of women workers these benefits. Many women retire from work at an earlier age, mostly due to ill health and this is an important risk for most of them. Old age pension is thus one of the most important requirements of women, especially for those who have had earned much during their working lives. The absence of old age security, thus, would imply leaving them at the mercy of the male household head/or other members in the family.

There are problems even in the channelling of maternity benefits to women workers through male workers. Maternity benefit could be available for women unpaid workers, who are dependants of male full time workers. However, this would again mean increased dependence of women workers on male workers for maternity benefits, which otherwise they are eligible as workers. For women who are already dependent on men economically and socially this would mean an additional dependency, which comes with a state tag.

Against this backdrop, the elimination of unpaid workers from the coverage of the bill is surprising, as it has larger social and gender dimensions. The report is silent on the logic of this exclusion and thus is open for presumptions. The main reason, which one could presume, is the need to reduce the number of eligible workers (meaning less financial burden to the state), so that the scheme gets implemented without much resistance. Being invisible and overwhelmingly constituted of women, the voices of unpaid workers are less represented and heard. If elimination is grounded on issues of identification of eligible workers, in the context of the failure of income cut-off criterion, the best would have been to include all unpaid workers who in any case do not earn. In fact, the report itself, in principle, argues for such an inclusive approach.

Yet another possibility to extend the coverage to unpaid workers is to cover all workers from those households where the monthly wage of the paid worker falls below the cut-off limit of Rs 6,500. Since unpaid workers are not able to contribute in the absence of any income, the state would have to take the responsibility of their contribution. If this means a huge addition to the state commitment, and if it was this that restricted the commission, then it would have been better to recommend contribution from the beneficiaries than to eliminate them completely from its coverage. This would, at least, make the scheme open to few lucky unpaid workers for whom someone else is ready to contribute. In any case, as far as BPL unpaid workers are concerned, the state would have to take the additional responsibility of financing their social security requirement. It is hoped that the government would consider the above concerns and interests of unpaid workers while formulating definite policy actions.



Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

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