Nokia India’s shutdown of its factory, and the resultant unemployment status for the women who worked there should prod us into asking questions about how serious we are about closing the gender gap in our workforce
Livemint’s essay on the shutdown of the Nokia India factory in Sriperumbudur, was as much about gender relations in factory towns as it was about the closing down of a behemoth of a factory that along with its ancillary units employed more than 85,000 people. The story was of the loss of employment for the women who made up more than 70% of the 8000 people directly employed by the factory, and the loss of a vital industry for a town and the impact it would have on the local population. There is some merit, however, in isolating the issue of loss of work for the women and looking at it from a wider angle. The inability of the women in the story to find jobs that afforded them the same benefit that Nokia had given them, should be seen in light of the global gender gap report that was released on October 28th. The Gender gap report published by the world economic forum “provides a framework for capturing the magnitude and scope of gender-based disparities around the world”. India, according to the report has dropped to 114th place of 142 countries from 101th place last year. In economic participation, that measures labour force participation, wage equality and estimated income earned. India ranks 134 on that.
The Factories act of 1948 and subsequent amendments to it, were conceived with the intention of providing facilities, that would enable women to take care of their gender specific requirements, while continuing to be a part of the labour market. It would have ensure wage equality, equal opportunity in the market and an ability to work night shifts, and a secure work environment. In spite of the many changes provisioned, the act failed in its purpose. This was fundamentally due to the pressures of the unions, the employers, and vested interests to find ways and means to dilute the act, and misinterpret its various sections for their own parochial and ideological ends. The Factories act had done its bit to ensure that changing cultural norms and the role of women in society were reflected, but what was done was not implemented well. There was resistance at multiple levels and ignorance about the value that women would bring to the workplace. By observing the sections more in breach than in practice, the act and its improper implementation has ensured that the women would not be accorded the same degree of standards that were applied for me.
Multinational companies like Nokia that created and implemented policies that would ensure the employment and retention of women in factories, have changed the marketplace at the lower spectrum of the workplace. The rest of the factories by refusing to adhere to these norms or change their attitude towards diversity in the workplace continue to hold back women from advancing. If the factories act is implemented uniformly, then these issues can be mitigated to a very great extent. Additionally, labour whether men or women, have to be sensitized to the various welfare measure that they are entitled to by provisions in the law, so that they can ensure that they are not short changed by their employers. Employers also have to be educated about the positive aspects of ensuring that these women continue to remain in the workplace.
Cosmetic declarations of gender equality in private and public forums by various actors are more often than not oriented towards upper and middle management. They are directed towards IT, financial and city based industries, and changes in these industries are what is observed and dominates news channels. With very little trickle down effect, the women working in factories often end up as prisoners of narratives built for them. The basic education, lack of technical institutes that cater to this market, non-availability of opportunities, the refusal to implement women friendly policies, continue to put the women at a disadvantage. With the loss of income that comes from lay offs due to overnight shutdowns, and inability to find alternate jobs, the impact on the local economy also increases.
The vast majority of rural and contracted labour at the lower spectrum of the labour market will continue to remain in the cold, if the issue is not addressed at the various levels. The gender gap report has served as a reminder of how far the country still has to go in terms of providing equal opportunity. The Nokia layoffs offer a stark picture of what will happen to a workforce that cannot be absorbed back, due to negligence and willful ignorance at multiple levels of the state. This has to be addressed at different levels, and urgently and expeditiously to prevent class and gender divisions in society.