Women Migration

Women Migration and Work Complexities in Labour Market Participation

By: Arpita Banerjee
Women are employed both prior to and after migration to urban areas although they do not escape the stereotypical gender roles therein.
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Human mobility, when conceived under the ‘push-pull’ paradigm of migration to urban areas is essentially centred on economic aspects. As conventional bread earners, such ‘push-pull’ perspective depicts men’s dominance in migration studies – leaving behind or wholly ignoring women who are summarily clubbed as associational/dependent migrants, moving to urban areas on account of marriage or simply following their men folk for family reunion, often ignoring their working status, if any (Agrawal, 2006). However, an increased participation of women in urban labour market is observed—especially with the opening up of various opportunities for them in health, education, other service sectors or as domestic helpers, child care and full-time caretakers (Raghuram, 2001; Ghosh, 2002). Thus, migration provides women with various work opportunities that were hitherto not familiar.

The basic argument that runs through this article is that urban women’s migration is not entirely dependent on men as has often been preconceived. Even though women primarily move with men in associational migration, a probe into their employment pattern reveals that once they move to urban areas, their work participation rate (WPR) increases in the post migration period.

Drawing from our academic and ideological position that it is the relational domain within which women’s work needs to be placed, we look at migrant men and their work pattern even as women qua remain our prime concern. Accordingly, the article is divided into three sections. Following the introduction, the second section discusses the changing pattern of migrants’ labour market participation. The third section concludes the study.

For the present study, the unit level data of National Sample Survey (NSS) 55th(1999-2000) and 64th(2007-2008) rounds have been used, which are also the latest available data on migration. The study takes urban migrants as universe in the working age group of 15-59 years. Simple percentage figures are used to understand the changing employment pattern of the migrants during pre and post migration scenario.

As per unit level data of NSS, within the age-group of 15-19 years, about 32 per cent of urban men were migrants in 1999-2000 which marginally declined to 31.4 per cent in 2007-2008. Unlike their male counterparts, in case of women, more than half—55.4 per cent of urban women were migrants in 1999-2000 which further increased to 57.9 per cent in 2007-2008.

Spatial Variation in Migrant’s Work Participation Rate

Since men are considered to be the principal bread-earners in the family, their WPR remained almost constant over the years. The highest WPR of men in 1999-2000 was noted in Union Territories of Delhi and Goa (91 per cent) whereas the lowest of 65 per cent was in the state of Bihar. In 2007-2008, the two extremes were Punjab (90 per cent) and Bihar (69 per cent). Overall, lower WPR for men was observed in the economically backward and poor states of Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Lower WPR for men in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh should not come as a surprise as they are out-migrating states (Census 2001).

In case of women, highest and lowest WPR was noted in Himachal Pradesh (30 percent) and in Delhi and Goa (9 per cent) respectively. Findings from data reveal that women’s WPR was independent of the level of development of the States. For example, poor states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha shared low WPR with highly developed states of Punjab, Haryana. In general, states located in the north Indian plains and eastern India have lower WPR. On the other hand, the four South Indian states exhibit higher WPR of women.

Changing Pattern of Migrants Employment Scenario

About 3 per cent of women migrated for work in urban areas while nearly 65 per cent of the women moved for marriage in 1999-2000. The incidence of marriage migration was much higher among rural women migrants (67.9 per cent) as compared to urban migrants (57.4 per cent). Such a pattern continued over time.  However, a closer look at their WPR contests their overall role as tied migrants. Explicitly, about, 19.7 per cent of women migrants were workers in 1999-2000 which further increased to 21.1 per cent in 2007-2008. So the proportion of migrant women actually working was quite higher than the proportion of those who had reported employment as the reason for their movement (Srivastava and Bhattacharyya, 2003; Bhagat, 2017).This is mainly because women tend not to prioritise their economic activities. This is also because of the nature of work as marginal or part-time that their work status gets relegated. Therefore, while citing reasons for migration, women recognised associational character first followed by unsatisfactory nature of work in the areas of origin(Lingam, 1998; Rao, 2014).

Women Migration | Pre and Post-Migration Employment Scenario

Given the argument that a significant number of women enter the labour market after migration even if they are associational in nature, women migrants are divided into two types of workers: those who were working both before and after migration (henceforth termed as continuing workers) and those who entered the labour market after the migration for the first time—henceforth termed as fresh entrants (Table 1).

Women Migration Table

As a whole, migration does enhance WPR for both men and women. But at the all India level, slightly higher than 60 per cent of the women continued to work after migration. Those who opted out of the labour market after migration had lower literacy rate. For example, in India (2007-2008) about 66 per cent of women who continued to work after migration were literates as compared to 50 per cent who left labour market. It can be said that formal education is becoming a prerequisite to finding employment in urban areas (Kundu and Mohanan, 2009). Moreover, studies conducted show that the women who dropped out of the labour market tend to be in reproductive age group, have a higher family burden to take care of and were mostly self-employed—largely working as unpaid household helper. For example, in 2007-2008, 31 per cent of the discontinued women workers were in the age group of 20-29 and 48 per cent of them were self-employed prior to migration (Banerjee and Raju, 2009). In the case of men migrants, almost all were retained in the labour market.

Women Migration and men Migration

Categories of Migrant Workers

The workers are classified into three categories of self-employed, regular salaried and casual labourers. Although diversities within these categories make it difficult to assign any hierarchical order to the type of work, casual work may be considered to be the most erratic employment due to the uncertainties involved, low bargaining power and no social securities to cover them. If so, it is inevitable that the women casual workers would have even lower bargaining power with poorer working conditions and no prospects of upward mobility as compared to their male counterparts. This category is followed by self-employment in household enterprise as paid or unpaid labour. Here, the risk associated with the nature of employment was entirely borne by the self-employed person. It is often argued, particularly in official and masculine discourses, that self-employed women, mainly working in household enterprises, are protected from the travails of the outside world and are therefore safer. However, scholars have routinely pointed out the work insecurities that these women faced (Srivastava, 2005). Thus, regular salaried jobs remained the best options available, with assured wages. However, it is necessary to see what were the avenues of employment even in regular salaried jobs.

Overall, in India (2007-2008), the share of self-employed, regular salaried and casual labourers among men were 31, 57 and 12 per cent respectively. The corresponding figures for women were 44, 36 and 20 per cent respectively. That is, firstly, more women were self-employed as compared to men in India. Withholding this general observation, a probe has been made into the category of work of three different types of workers – continuing, discontinued and fresh entrants.

At all India level (1999-2000), self-employment and regular salaried jobs increased among the continuing women workers with a subsequent decline in casual workers. However, self-employment remained to be the main avenue of employment among the fresh entrants. In 2007-2008, during pre-migration period women were almost equally distributed in as self-employed and regular salaried jobs, while a slightly higher proportion were casual labourers. The post-migration period revealed a decrease in casual labour, self-employed remained stable, while there was an increase in regular salaried jobs among women (Mahapatro, 2012). Like 1999-2000, in 2007-08, nearly half of the fresh entrants were self-employed—probably because of their lack of prior work experience.

In case of men migrants, whether continuing or fresh entrants, most of them were in regular salaried jobs in 1999-2000. Such a pattern continues in 2007-2008. Moreover, it needs to be mentioned that the post-migration period witnessed an increase in regular salaried jobs in case of continuing workers with a simultaneous decline in self-employment and casual labour (Figure 3 and Figure 4).

Types of Employment

The industrial classification of workers in pre and post-migration period reveals that prior to migration most of the self-employed persons (men and women) were engaged in primary activities such as agriculture (men – 43.3 per cent; women – 44.3 per cent) in 2007-08. However, the very nature of urban areas restricts such opportunities and it is not surprising that after migration, most of them shifted to wholesale trade, hotels, and restaurants, especially men. Women however, carried out agricultural work even within the realm of urban areas—most probably in the absence of any other alternative employment opportunities. 24.7 per cent of the continuing women workers were engaged in agricultural activities. More than one-third of the women, both continuing workers and fresh entrants were  in manufacturing. Within manufacturing, certain industries such as food processing and textiles seemed to attract them more.

In regular salaried jobs not much shift was observed in pre and post-migration period except in the case of men whose proportion had increased in manufacturing after migration—from 19.6 to 29.5 per cent respectively in 2007-08. Public administration was an important avenue for men and women. However, the proportion was higher among the workers with prior work experience than fresh entrants. Salaried women were largely concentrated in educational (more than one-fourth) and health sector (more than one-tenth) whether they had prior work experience or not. A large number of women also worked as domestic servants (Saraswati, Sharma and Sarna, 2015), especially among the fresh entrants (17.9 per cent of fresh entrants as compared to 16.0 per cent of the continuing workers).

The presence of domestic workers in the job market was not only on account of their illiterate and un-skilled status, but also due to lack of work experience (Kaur, 2006). As one group of women gets replaced by another, there is little threat of status quo. In other words, as hired help meet the gender-specific pattern of labour demand in the cities for household and child care on payment, the prevailing distribution of work between men and women remains unquestioned. Ironically, it is the same housework when performed within the confines of home carries no value, but becomes work and paid when removed from its original location (Mazumdar, Neetha and Agnihotri, 2013).

As with the case of casual labourers, most of them were agricultural workers before migration (men – 57.7 per cent, women – 84.0 per cent) in 2007-2008.  Post-migration period showed a shift towards manufacturing sectors, especially men (from 9.6 to 30.3 per cent in 2007-2008). Still some women carried on agricultural work in urban areas (46.5 per cent post-migration). The construction industry was another avenue of employment for casual labourers, both men and women. About 47 per cent each of both continuing and fresh entrant men workers were in construction sector. The corresponding figures for women workers were 32 and 24.3 per cent respectively. One point which deserves mention is that in all the three cases of self-employment, regular salaried and casual labour, manufacturing and construction sector emerged as one of the main avenues of employment. Therefore, one can suggest that urban areas with industrial development seemed to attract migrants in search of employment from far off areas.


Migration is an integral part of human existence and spatial relocation into urban areas definitely offers people with more work opportunities. A critical analysis of the WPR of the migrant workers revealed that men’s employment status depended largely on the economic development of the state whereas women’s WPR was guided by societal norms.

The study reveals that proportion of migrant women workers was much higher than the actual number of women reporting ‘employment’ as the prime reason for movement – thus, contesting their overall role as tied migrants. An in-depth analysis of the migrant women’s pre and post-migration WPR showed more than 60 percent of the women workers continued to be in the labour market after migration, while the rest opted out. Those who opted out were relatively young—suggesting higher reproductive responsibilities which might hinder their labour market participation. Moreover, lower educational attainments of the discontinued workers suggested that a minimum level of education is necessary in order to be gainfully employed in urban areas.

A higher proportion of continuing women workers were in regular salaried jobs, while the fresh entrants were mainly self-employed. Even if the women were gainfully employed, they were mainly concentrated in educational and health sector or as domestic maids – pointing out the transmitting of typical gender roles within the households to the realm of work
as well.

Acknowledgement: The author is grateful to Prof. Saraswati Raju, for her critical analysis, constant guidance and cooperation.


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