Changing faces of rural labour  

Abdul Bayes   | Published: July 23, 2018 22:06:46

An array of activities is being carried out in the rural areas by labourers accounting for nearly half of the country's total labour force. Their varied activities can be classified broadly into two categories.

First, there are household works - often labelled as 'domestic activities', such as processing of food, cooking, child-care, educating children, housekeeping, and cottage industries. These activities are undertaken for producing goods and services, mainly for household consumption. In economic books, household-level activities are also called 'expenditure saving' or conventional activities, largely conducted by the rural women. They are rarely considered to be a component of gross domestic product (GDP). These are rarely documented or shown in other national statistics. If one could impute value to them, the national income would increase manifold. More importantly, such an attempt would show women's contribution to national income. It is interesting that men are also increasingly getting involved in household activities by putting in more hours in these activities than in the past.

The second category relates to economic activities against which some monetary payments (wages) are made - the so-called 'income-generating' activities, which include crop and non-crop production, working in others' land, businesses, services, agro-processing and cottage industries. These activities are undertaken for producing market-oriented goods and services. In other words, most of these are profit-maximising activities.

In this context, readers could be reminded about the theoretical foundations of the supply of labour. First, demand for labour is a derived demand indicating that the demand comes from demand for other things such as construction, baking bread etc.  Second, labour and leisure are two substitutes or mutually exclusive events. Third, there are determinants of labour supply, such as economic condition, wage rate, stability in society, infrastructure and communication etc.; but the most important one is wage rate having a positive functional relationship with supply.

The shape of the supply curve in the market depends on two important influences: income and substitution effects. With a rise in the wage level, a worker can earn more by putting in less hours of labour. The residual time may be used for rest or entertainment. Initially, however, labour hours increase with increase in income as labour substitutes leisure for work (called substitution effect); but, at a later stage, that could decrease with a rise in the wage rate (called income effect). That is why the supply curve of labour may not rise smoothly upwards, but could bend at some point to reduce the supply of labour hours. This is called backward bending supply curve of labour - the negative income effect from higher wages outweighing the positive substitution effect. Empirically speaking, the substitution effect tends to be stronger for lower economic segments and the income effect stronger for the high income groups.  Another reason could reduce the supply of labour: a negative cross-substitution effect between, say, the rise in women's wage and husband's hours of work. As women work more, and when the husbands' and wives' times in home-work are substitutes, part of the decline in male labour force participation would reflect a reallocation of time for men's time from market to domestic work. Of course, such a situation could arise in societies having high income levels.

A worker or labourer may be defined as a person who is engaged at least for one hour in activities that increases or saves income for the household. This definition includes both full-time and part-time labour, whereas we dealt with only full-time workers. Under this definition, the number of working members per household is reported to have shortened marginally over time. But while the number of male working members showed a downturn, female working members recorded a marginal rise. The reasons for the decline in the number of workers include, inter alia, a reduction in household size (effect of fertility reduction), migration of working members to cities and overseas, and increase in participation on receiving secondary and tertiary levels of education.

It also appears that in the last two decades, the duration of economic labour performed by an average worker has shortened substantially. Obviously this has happened due to a reduction in labour force participation by men, the share of women in the labour force remaining almost the same. Two factors could be adduced from this trend. First, men have increasingly been attracted to domestic activities, and hence their relative contribution to economic activities has gone down. Second, the subsistence pressure of the households in the past forced young and old workers to engage in economic activities, and for those in active age groups, to put in longer hours for earning subsistence wage. Eminent economist late Abdullah Farouk (1980) called them 'the hard-working poor'. In recent years the subsistence pressure has eased somewhat with improvements in poverty situation. Hence, with growing economic solvency, the poverty-induced longer work-hours have waned. Besides, the older people take retirement if they can afford, and the young ones go to schools by abandoning child labour. 

As the duration of work has shortened for both male and female labourers, the change is remarkable in the case of female workers, as they put in 8.35 hours now compared to 9.20 hours earlier. That means, women used to work for more hours in the past (domestic and economic activities together) than men. Now men work more than women. The apparent 'magical' change deserves an explanation. First, the reduction in the fertility rate has saved time in childcare for women. Second, women have reduced their level of involvement in some hard but cost-effective engagements like boiling paddy, paddy husking through 'dheki' and other manual tasks - as new technologies have entered the market. Now mobile threshers are at the doorstep for substituting women's efforts in milling rice early in the morning with dheki. Rice mills for parboiling of paddy and processing of rice are easily accessible. The house-floors are paved, and hence women do not have to spend too much time for clearing the dusts.

With the passage of time, women have got the opportunity to divert a part of their time from household to economic activities.  We presume that women are now giving more time to homestead-based activities, such as livestock and poultry-rearing, vegetable gardening in the homestead, pond aquaculture or social forestry. Keeping that in mind, necessary incentive structure for inputs and outputs need to be developed to make women's activities more visible and include those in national statistics.

Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirannagr University.


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