Women in India Face a Jobs Crisis. Are Factories the Solution?

Before her husband died, leaving her to raise their 2-year-old daughter alone, Sarika Pawar had never imagined working a regular job. Like her own mother and most of the women she knew in rural India, she spent her days confined to her village. Her hours were consumed with looking after her toddler, boiling water to drink and fashioning an evening meal.

But with her husband gone, eliminating his wages as a server, she was forced to earn money. She took a job at a nearby factory run by a company called All Time Plastics in Silvassa, a city about 100 miles north of Mumbai. A dozen years later, she is still there, plucking newly molded food storage containers and other household implements off a conveyor belt, labeling them and placing them in cartons bound for kitchens as far away as Los Angeles and London.

Ms. Pawar earns about 12,000 rupees per month, or roughly $150, a meager sum by global standards. Yet those wages have allowed her to keep her daughter in high school while transforming their everyday lives.

She purchased a refrigerator. Suddenly, she could buy vegetables in larger quantities, limiting her trips to the market and giving her more power to bargain for better prices. She added a stove powered by propane — liberation from the wood fire that filled her home with smoke, and an escape from the tedious work of scouring the ground for branches to set alight.

Above all, Ms. Pawar, 36, described horizons that had expanded.

“When you come out of your house, you see the outside world,” she said. “You see the possibilities, and I feel that we can make progress.”

As international brands limit their dependence on China by shifting some manufacturing to India, the trend holds the potential to generate significant numbers of manufacturing jobs — especially for women, who have largely been excluded from the ranks of formal Indian employment.

“There is a huge reserve army of female labor in India who would work if they were given an opportunity,” said Sonalde Desai, a demographer at the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi. “Whenever jobs open up for women, they take them.”

In many Asian economies over the last half-century, the rise of manufacturing has been a powerful force of upward mobility. Incomes rose, poverty lessened and working opportunities opened. Women were at the center of this transformation.

In Vietnam, where a factory boom has been especially momentous, more than 68 percent of women and girls over 15 are working for some form of pay, according to data compiled by the World Bank. In China, the rate is 63 percent; in Thailand, 59 percent; and in Indonesia, 53 percent. Yet in India, less than 33 percent of women are engaged in paid work in jobs counted in official surveys.

The vital labor of women in India is evident from their homes, where they handle nearly all the chores and child care, to the agricultural fields, where they tend to crops and raise animals.

“You’re raising chickens and raising children, and it all goes hand in hand,” Ms. Desai said. “People find work, but it’s not hugely remunerative work.”

Where Indian women are largely missing is in the ranks of businesses that offer regular wage-paying jobs, covered by government rules that offer protection over pay and working conditions. Their absence partly reflects social factors, from gender discrimination to fears of sexual harassment.

One of India’s most high-profile foreign investments, a factory that is operated by Foxconn and makes iPhones, has avoided hiring married women because of their responsibilities at home, according to a Reuters investigation published last week. Indian agencies said they would look into the reports.

Yet more than anything, the dearth of women in the Indian workplace is a testament to a scarcity of opportunity. For decades, economic growth in India has failed to translate into jobs. What positions exist tend to be monopolized by men. With key exceptions such as the technology sector, jobs open to women frequently pay so little that they are not worth the strain of challenging the social norms that frequently confine women at home.

If jobs were available, more women would confront social strictures in pursuit of economic advancement, economists say. This is especially so as India has, in recent decades, significantly increased investments in education for girls.

“The supply of young women who want to work is very high,” said Rohini Pande, an Indian labor expert and the director of the Economic Growth Center at Yale University. “In all the surveys we see, women want to work but find it very difficult to migrate to where the jobs are, and the jobs aren’t coming to them.”

The consequences of this reality are stark: the perpetuation of poverty amid a lost opportunity for betterment.

In a pattern repeated in many industrializing societies, when more women gain jobs it prompts families to invest further in education for girls. It also lifts household spending power, fueling economic expansion that prompts investors to build more factories, creating additional jobs — a feedback loop of wealth creation.

This is the dynamic that India missed as it failed to participate in the spread of manufacturing that bolstered fortunes in many Asian economies.

And this is the prospect that is suddenly imaginable as geopolitical forces like trade animosities between the United States and China generate fresh momentum for factory work landing in India.

In the industrial enclave of Manesar, about 35 miles south of Delhi, Poorvi, who goes by one name, spends her days inside a factory that makes toys — kits that children assemble into items like pinball machines — at a fast-growing start-up, Smartivity. She inspects the final products for defects, earning about 12,000 rupees per month.

When she was growing up, her mother stayed home. Recently married, Poorvi views her factory job as a pragmatic way to deal with rising living costs in a fast-growing urban area.

“Now, one income is not enough to run the family,” Poorvi said. “So women are coming out and working. It’s progress, but also a necessity. Women are doing lots of things. Why not me?”

Her bosses, two male graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology, which is something like the country’s version of M.I.T., have a predisposition toward hiring women.

“Some parts of the job women are better at,” said Pulkit Singh, the company’s chief of staff. “Women can concentrate for longer hours than men. They don’t need as many smoke breaks, or breaks in general. Women are definitely more hardworking and productive than men.”

Some 40 percent of the nearly 200 jobs on the factory floor at Smartivity are now held by women, and that percentage may increase as the business grows.

Ashwini Kumar, the chief executive of Smartivity, said the company was in talks with Walmart to sell its products on store shelves in the United States — a development that could more than double the number of jobs.

“They want to diversify,” Mr. Kumar, 35, said. “They want to shift their supply chain to India.”

At All Time Plastics, the company near Mumbai where Ms. Pawar is employed, 70 percent of the roughly 600 factory workers are women. The percentage rose sharply last year, after the local government changed the law to allow women to work on the night shift. The factory runs buses that pick up and drop off women at their homes to alleviate safety concerns.

Among the women working inside the factory on a recent morning was Smita Vijay Patel, 35. A mother of two, she stopped going to school after eighth grade because her parents lacked the money for tuition and books. Her own daughter, 15, remains in school and plans to continue to college, a prospect made possible by Ms. Patel’s factory wages. Her son, 19, is already at university.

Ms. Patel is now effectively working two jobs: She is a quality control inspector at the plant, and she cooks for her family and looks after the house, waking up at 5 in the morning to get to her 7 a.m. shift.

“It’s hard, but good,” she said. “I didn’t get education, so I’m thinking that my children should get education so they will make more progress.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

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