Understanding the concept of employment

I have always found the official definition of employment to be extraordinarily lax. A person is considered to be employed if she has been employed for at least one hour during a week. The person could be desperately looking for a real job during the rest of the week but the one hour she worked supersedes.

This is a global norm, a recommendation of the International Labour Organization. India follows this global practice.

But, how can a person who has worked merely for an hour in a week be considered as an employed person?

In India, where the unorganised sector dominates and where people are engaged in work largely informally, a large proportion of people can get classified as employed even if they do not consider themselves to be employed in any sense of the term.

Imagine the household of a typical tea vendor. He sets up shop on the street and negotiates deals with the formal and informal enforcement agencies to allow him to do business. He organises raw materials and fuel, sets up the stove to brew the sugarshot, run the production operations, solicit customers and is the sales manager-cum-accountant. He spends a good 12 hour a day of hard work for six days of the week to earn a living and to ensure he does not lose his spot on the street to a potential competitor.

On the seventh day he replenishes stocks and cleans. On this day, his wife helps in the cleaning of the cloth used as the sieve in the operations, gives a wash to the equipment and refills stocks. If she spends an hour or more on that day on these activities and for the rest of week is fully occupied only taking care of the house, she is still considered to be employed.

If a surveyor asked the wife whether she was employed, her answer would be in the negative. And, it would be an honest answer. But, the official statistical machinery would dig deeper and discover that the wife should also be considered as employed.

We believe that this stretches the common-sense understanding of the term employment.

The tea vendor's household is not a rare phenomenon in a place like India. If the Ola cabby's brother who is still trying to find a job gives his brother's car a good wash every weekend, he could be classified as an employed person. If the village grocer's daughter who is still studying spends an hour a week tallying stocks she could be considered employed. If the milkman's wife washes the milk cans she could be classified as employed.

By classifying these occasional stints at work as employment, we could be overestimating the number of really employed people in the country. All of them did work but, it is debatable that all of them are employed.

It is easy to classify the salaried classes as employed. For the non-salaried classes, perhaps, it makes sense to classify a person as employed only if she has worked adequately to make her feel that she is indeed employed. I guess such a feeling would emerge only if a person works sufficiently to contribute meaningfully to the economic well-being of the family. It is this feeling that should be central to counting a person as employed.

We need not be judgemental about the minimum number of hours a person should work to be considered employed.

If a modern-day gig worker feels that a couple of hours of work a day is sufficient to feel employed, so be it. If another one feels its important to work 6 or even 8 hours to feel employed, who are we to lower the bar?

There could be differences in perceptions of employment across gender, age, education and most of all, need. Culture and evolution can shape perceptions regarding employment. These differences offer a rich insight into the nature of employment. Incorporating these into the definition of employment is a challenge worth picking up. To leave the definition at a ridiculously low level is to mock the importance of real meaningful employment and abandon the diversity in its interpretation.

CMIE's Consumer Pyramids Household Survey gives importance to the perception of the respondent regarding employment/unemployment status. Beginning September 1, 2019, it has also started capturing two additional pieces of information. First, it would distinguish between work and employment. And second, it seeks to capture the utilisation of time. These two additional pieces of information along with the perceptions-based responses on employment could help us unravel the nature of the perception of employment.

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