Women in the construction labor force: women's participation in the construction sector in India

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Virginia Tech


Women are to be seen on most urban construction sites in India. While there is variation between countries as to how many women are employed as workers in construction, they are consistently confined to unskilled and low-paying jobs. We found little empirical work dealing with the factors that bring about and perpetuate the division of labor by gender on construction sites in India and elsewhere. This paper therefore attempts to identify the factors which make possible the participation of women in construction activity in India and which serve to perpetuate the division of labor that keeps women working at unskilled jobs. It argues that the structure of the construction industry in India and especially the practice of subcontracting provide incentives that make it attractive for employers to maintain women as a labor reserve to be used at certain periods of construction and to do tasks that men may refuse to do.

This paper proposes that the subcontracting unit plays a central role in the level of skills of women workers. Subcontractors have little interest in increasing worker productivity. Since most members of the subcontracting unit including the subcontractor come from the same village and social setting, traditional norms defining the roles of men and women tend to be reinforced in the urban setting.

The study is based on an extensive literature review and a field study involving interviews with twenty-three women workers on two construction sites in and near Bombay, India. The analysis of the data thus collected corroborates much of the information that was obtained through the literature review. Most of the women are unskilled workers Most of the women are associational migrants who came from rural areas and continue to maintain strong links with their native village. The influence of the subcontracting unit is seen in the presence of several families from the same village on the construction sites and in the reports of several women saying that they had been recruited by an agent. Experience does not give any occupational mobility to the women workers.

There have been few efforts to train women in construction skills. In the case of India, migrant households are likely to continue to be hired on urban construction sites. If mechanization increases, it is the women in the unskilled work force who are most likely to be displaced. To prevent this, it is important to equip the women with skills. Efforts to increase the women’s level of skills should be initiated at the level of the subcontracting unit. Policies should therefore be directed towards providing incentives for subcontractors to create a skilled female work force.