Kerala draft rules on labour codes: Does it liberalise women's economic opportunities?
The article has been authored by Anu Maria Francis, research associate, Centre for Public Policy Research
Over the past several years, the female labour force participation in Kerala has improved but it still lags behind compared to men’s participation in the labour force. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data in 2018-19, the labour force participation of women in Kerala was 28.3% compared to 69.8% of men. The gender gap in labour force participation has been more evident in the secondary sector.
In Kerala, an expanding industrial sector as indicated in the Kerala Economic Review 2022 is opening up more employment opportunities. Industrial sectors like chemicals, refined petroleum products, rubber and plastic products, are growing in size and constitute 18.82% of Kerala’s employment share. However, the unfortunate reality is that women face major legal challenges that entrench existing employment related inequalities. Identifying these barriers, therefore, is critical, which presents a strong case for decision makers to create an enabling environment through progressive legal reforms.
The Labour Codes 2020 are coming into force with the objectives of simplifying the multitude of labour laws, easing the restrictive labour environment and for a better rank in the ease of doing business index. The Code and corresponding Draft Rules 2021 by Kerala must be analysed in understanding how far it has empowered women in entering the workforce.
The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 [OSH code] enacted by the Union government superseded the Factories Act of 1948 [1948 Act]. For effective enforcement of the Code, the government of Kerala has brought out a draft of OSH Code Rules in 2021 [Draft Rules 2021] that repeals the Kerala Factories Rules of 1957.
The Kerala Factories Rules of 1957 had banned women from working in those factories that are notified as “dangerous”. The OSH Code lifts the ban on women to work in “dangerous” activities with adequate safety measures taken by the employer as prescribed by the State Rules.
Rule 45 of Draft Rules 2021 intends to open up all factories to women except pregnant women. The Rule provides for safety measures like personnel safety equipment and proper training. However, it has not made any significant changes in the Schedules when compared to the Schedules under Factories Rules 1957. A thorough analysis of the Draft Rules 2021 shows that women face restrictions from working in about 13 “dangerous” manufacturing activities. It is appalling to note that two more categories of restrictions are added and there are barely any relaxations. The new restrictions include factories involving manufacturing activity wherein noise levels are higher than prescribed levels. Thus, the Draft Rules 2021 have clearly overlooked the legislative domain by contradicting with the provisions of the OSH Code, nullifying the intended objective of easing the barriers of employment for women.
Another glaring restriction is the categorisation of the process of stencilling and dyeing of mats in coir factories as “dangerous” under the 1957 Rules. The advancements in science and technology has replaced the chemical dyes used for the process by water-based dyes that are less harmful. However, the prohibition of women from working in those industries continues in the Draft Rules 2021.
An interaction with chemical factory workers in Kerala revealed the fact that in those factories where hazardous chemicals are used, the housekeeping work is undertaken by women. In this context, the rationale behind differentiating between women and men is unconscionable and illogical.
The restrictions for women act as a catalyst to the gender biased labour market. For example, in the cashew sector, women are engaged on a large scale, with a low pay for the shelling of cashew nuts. All other related activities like roasting, scrubbing and extracting oil are categorised as “dangerous”, thus restricted for women. This so-called protective argument behind the law is prohibiting women from availing high paying jobs and upward mobility in their career.
In government PSUs like FACT, BPCL, women including those with technical skills and qualifications are employed in administrative departments. One of the reasons cited for not employing women on the factory floor is the restrictions imposed on women to work in dangerous factories.
This calls attention to the Kerala government to revisit the Draft Rules 2021 by giving equal opportunities to all individuals irrespective of gender. The state must move away from excess intervention that denies individual rights and choices, and rather act as a facilitator and a responsible regulator to ensure that the environment is conducive without discriminations.
(The article has been authored by Anu Maria Francis, research associate, Centre for Public Policy Research.)