90 percent employed women are working informally in NepalWomen informal sector workers share a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work and family responsibilities that limit their job opportunities.
At around nine in the morning, Gyanu Dawadi reports to work—a house under construction. She changes into her work attire—old tattered kurta suruwal layered with an oversized cotton shirt, a shawl tied tightly behind her head covering her hair, and a pair of gumboots covered with woven polypropylene cement sacks, held with a rusty annealed wire—before she takes charge for the day.
Dawadi, 40, in the past crushed stones and carried cement bags and other construction materials. Gradually, she learned masonry and has been building houses for the past two decades.
“If you look around these houses in our neighborhood, I’ve worked on every single one of them,” says Dawadi, a local resident of Chandragiri Municipality. “Despite the risks involved, I’ve never received any protection gears, helmets, or gloves. And social security or any form of protection is far-fetched.”
Dawadi is one of the majority of women in Nepal who are in the informal sector. A lack of education, family responsibilities and restrictions have limited women’s economic opportunities to informal sectors. Hence, women informal workers are concentrated in types of employment with lower remuneration, less visibility, and fewer rights at work.
“I needed an income source. As the eldest daughter in the family, with no education, the only option for me was to start working by transporting heavy weights,” said Dawadi. “If I don’t work daily, it’ll reflect on our meals.”
Among the total employed population in Nepal (7.1 million people), 84.6 percent (6 million) engage in informal work. And 90.5 percent of women workers in Nepal engage in informal employment.
In the agriculture sector, which is the most informalised sector in the country (97 percent of agricultural workers are engaged informally), women workers occupy the majority of informal employment.
A report published by the Center for Social Change (CSC), a Kathmandu-based social think-tank on “Under The Shadows of Informality: A Vulnerability Assessment of Informal Sector Workers of Nepal,” says lack of education among women has primarily limited them to informal sectors for employment.
SM runs a tea stall in Chobhar, Kirtipur.
“What else would I do? See, these thumbprints are all I have. No educational certificates,” she said. “The only work I’m fit for is, perhaps, just this tea stall,” added the woman whom the Post is identifying only with her initials at her request.
She says she knows how to ride a bike and she is a novice taxi driver.
However, she isn’t optimistic about any job prospects that’ll stem from her acquired skills.
“My husband taught me how to ride a bike and I learned driving because of the generosity of these trainers who impart driving lessons in Chobhar,” said SM. “But I won’t be able to get a drivers’ licence because how will I pass the written test?
Also, who will give me a taxi anyway, and who will manage my household responsibilities if I go around roaming?”
Labour experts say that in addition to a lack of education, gender-specific constraints and inequalities are other root causes of the staggering number of women in the informal sector.
Informal sectors dominated by women revolve around caretaking—as domestic workers, gardeners, masseuses—reflecting the preconceived notion that women are good at care work.
“Traditional gender perceptions maintain socially constructed norms that define women as caregivers. Under such norms, unpaid household work typically falls disproportionately on women, limiting the type of remunerated jobs they can take on and often leading to informal employment participation,” said Shusuke Oyobe, Project Technical Officer at International Labor Organization (ILO) Nepal.
Home-based workers and domestic workers employed by households—most exposed to informal employment status—are predominantly occupied by women.
Many women work as unpaid contributing family workers, largely contributing to their high informality ratio, accounting for 29.2 percent of the total informal employment of women in Nepal.
Experts find that family restrictions on women informal workers heavily limit their economic opportunities.
“In the course of our research, we saw that women informal workers faced a lot of restrictions in their families,” said Shraddha Khadka, a research officer at the CSC. “Some family members didn’t approve of their work, and some didn’t allow them to take on any work that involved travel. They are mostly permitted to take on work that is available at a walking distance, heavily limiting the kind of work that they could take on.”
The informal economy, also known as the ‘shadow economy,’ is the diversified set of economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state.
According to Nepal Economic Census 2018 published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 49.9 percent of the total establishments in Nepal are not registered and are considered informal enterprises.
However, the CSC report finds that the CBS excludes unregistered establishments which are mobile in nature i.e., they keep on moving from one place to another without having a fixed location to operate their activities. In addition, it also excludes domestic paid helpers, transportation drivers, street vending, transportation helpers in loading and unloading, construction workers and so on.
The majority of unregistered establishments operate in accommodation and food service activities, wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles industry, and manufacturing industry.
According to Oyobe, ILO Nepal's informality projects done from 2012-17 provided an estimate that the informal economy contributed 38.4 percent to Nepal’s gross domestic product.
Despite the fact that informal workers provide indispensable services to communities—as agricultural workers, transportation workers, domestic workers, and street vendors, among others—their health, safety, and wellbeing are close to invisible to government regulations.
The CSC report says informal workers are highly exposed to extreme and harsh weather conditions excessive and unattainable work demands, unsanitary workplace, and discriminatory work environment, exposing them to physical and mental health problems.
“The typical challenges that informal workers face include the absence of employment contracts, remuneration below minimum wage, poor working conditions, the inaccessibility to social protection and benefits, and the lack of organisation, representation, and advocacy,” said Oyobe. “However, these challenges haven’t been addressed by the social security system.”
Both SM and Dawadi work without signing any formal contracts with their employers or the local government.
Khadka says a lack of defined duties and responsibilities often leads women informal workers to be overworked and underpaid.
“The local Aama Samuha collects money from those of us who operate tea stalls here, and the local ward office asks for fees. Who am I supposed to pay? I can’t afford to pay both the parties,” said SM. “In addition, the locals are averse to me working here because I’m a migrant and not a local. There’s no authorised place for me to complain about their discriminatory behaviors.”
Dawadi, on the other hand, is subject to overwork, gender wage gap, and low remuneration at her workplace.
Over 66.8 percent of Nepal's entire women informal workers earn below the minimum wage standard, compared to 31.6 percent for men informal workers. In the case of domestic workers—that are majorly women—over 90 percent of them are paid below the minimum wage.
In the agricultural sector, 76.6 percent of women informal workers earn below the minimum wage. In all cases, the remuneration to the informal agricultural workers is being paid daily based on unclear verbal contracting.
The Labour Act 2017 that provides national labour and employment standards comprehensively fails to define the informal sector and informal employment.
“The Act does not distinguish between or define the formal and informal sector or formal or informal employment,” said Oyobe. “Also, a large proportion of workers such as workers in unincorporated enterprises, home-based workers, and self-employed workers, which all have a high tendency of informality, remain outside the scope of the implementation of the existing Act.”
Such exclusion results in rampancy of verbal employment contracts among these workers, increasing the risk of informal employment and poor working conditions.
Had people like Dawadi not worked daily in building these concrete houses in Kathmandu, the people here wouldn’t have roofs over their heads. Yet, their needs have been neglected by the state.
“Every day we are exposed to so much dust, but no one cares about our health,” said Dawadi. “We too have families to feed and provide for. I can’t afford to break a leg or catch a disease. Who will earn meals for my family then?”