From daily wagers to tennis players, women are being paid less than men for the same or similar work

What is the worth of a woman's work in terms of monetary outcome? Is it on a par with her male counterpart?

The Human Development Report 2000 says that women constitute half of the world's population, perform a two-thirds of work hours, get one-tenth of the world's income and less than a one-hundredth of the world's property.

From daily wagers to lawn-tennis grand slam winners, women are being paid less than men for the same or similar work. Women remain the weaker sex with respect to pay-cheques and employment opportunities.

In India, though “equal pay for equal work” is not a fundamental right under the Constitution, it is a constitutional goal which colours the interpretation of Article 14 and 16 so as to be elevated to the rank of a fundamental right. Affirmative action implicit in Article 14 seeks to redress imbalances due to the disproportionate representation of underprivileged sections of society in governmental and educational institutions. Article 16 provides for the equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state. Article 39 clause (d) is a specific provision in the Constitution stipulating “equal pay for equal work.”

Specific legislation have been passed by Parliament to uphold the cause of equality of pay. One such prominent law is the Equal Remuneration Act 1976, which provides for equal pay to men and women workers for the same or similar nature of work. It also provides for not making discrimination in any condition of service subsequent to recruitment such as transfers, training and promotions. Gender equality quotient in legislation like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 9 (erstwhile NREGA) also needs to be mentioned. In this Act, there is no apparent difference carved out between a male and a female worker. It only talks about “adult members” who can volunteer to work as unskilled labourers and each such adult would be paid the wage rate fixed.

The judiciary has also tried to uphold the cause of equality of pay through its decisions as in the case of Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. Ltd. Vs. Audrey D'Costa (1987) 2 SCC 469. In this case, women stenographers were given a lesser scale than their male counterparts and that was found by the Supreme Court to be violating the provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act.

Despite the pro-activism of the judiciary and the legislature, economic equality is still an unrealised dream in our country. Even statutory requirements do not seem to solve this issue. In the Minimum Wages Act, which requires a statutory minimum amount to be given to both male and female workers, there is a provision for different categories of work for which the minimum wages are different.

The employers usually club together women in that category of work for which payment is less. For example, under the Kerala Minimum Wages Schedule, in agricultural work, women are primarily engaged in the category of ‘light work' for which the fixed minimum wage is Rs.72 even if they are physically fit to perform ‘hard work' for which the fixed minimum wage is Rs.125. So, on the face of it, there is therefore no inequality but effectively women are being underpaid.

In order to achieve real equality of pay for women, I think — in tune with international conventions like the ILO Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women workers for Work of Equal Value — any future revision of equal pay legislation should include a provision that has a wider framework than the “same” or “similar nature of work”. If the value of the work is made the point of comparison rather than the nature with objective criteria for evaluating this value, women would be paid equally for the same value of work though the nature of work might be different.

A major contention often raised is: if women's work is usually of equal value, why are employers not slashing their payroll costs by hiring women instead of men? If they are paying men more than women in a free market, there must be a reason. Conversely, it is argued that equal pay for women is not just an issue regarding pay/wages inequality between men and women but it reflects upon the social, cultural and political perception of women as being physically and intellectually inferior to men.

Let us realise that a comprehensive effort has to be made to subvert the male perception of women's economic worth and initiate the use of job classifications established on the basis of the work actually performed and the value of the work using objective criteria unrelated to the worker's sex.

(The writer is a former national general secretary, NSUI. email: ragini_nayak@yahoo.co.in)

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