Did Employment Conditions Worsen for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes before COVID-19 hit India?

Puja Pal[1] and Amit Kumar[2]

 The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionate adverse impact on the individuals from marginalized backgrounds especially Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. The plight of migrant workers, sanitation workers and safai karamcharis in the pandemic crisis is not a hidden story but majority of them belongs to SC and ST community. The recent survey of the Madhya Pradesh government shows that majority of the migrant workers returned to MP belongs to the ST, SC and OBC communities. The sanitation workers, manual scavengers and garbage pickers are among the frontline workers of the COVID-19 outbreak and are most exposed to the risk of infection. Various reports show that they do not have adequate protective gears, extra gloves, masks to keep them safe from virus. Apart from this, labour market inequalities that disproportionately affect workers from historically disadvantageous groups (ST and SC) makes their ability to deal with pandemic crisis more difficult.

The release of second annual report of Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) conducted during July 2018-June 2019, shows the marginal dip in India’s unemployment rate from record high 6.1 % in 2017-18 to 5.8 % in 2018-19. But the unemployment rates for historically discriminated people of Schedule Tribes (STs) and Schedule Castes (SCs) have gone up for the fiscal year 2018-19. The data shows the improvement in the worker participation rate (WPR) to 35.3% in 2018-19 from 34.7% in 2017-18, but for the ST urban female the WPR declined from 17% to 15.8 % and for SC urban male it declined by almost 1 percent point.

The latest PLFS 2018-19 shows the evident inequalities prevalent in labour market which continue to rise among the socially discriminated ST and SC individuals.

First, the data shows that around 40% of SCs and 30% of STs are employed as casual workers as compared to the low share of general caste people (12%) in 2018-19. Whereas the share of general caste people is 33 % in regular/salaried jobs which is tremendously high as compared to 13% for STs and 21% for SCs. The latest PLFS shows the improvement in the status of employment in 2018-19, as compared to year before as the share of regular/salaried jobs in non-agricultural increased to 23.8% from 22.8% and the share for casual labour declined to 24.1% from 24.9%. The rise in the regular/salaried jobs and the decline in the casual labour is primarily on account of general caste people as evident from graph.

The discrimination against the SC/ST is not limited only to the wage employment; it also exists in the self-employment. In self-employment it mainly manifests through consumers and credit market discrimination (Deshpande and Sharma 2015)[3]. Self-employed workforce is divided into three categories- own account workers (OAW), employers and helpers. Even within the self-employment the discrimination is clearly visible as some 4% of upper caste people are employers while the share for STs and SCs is less than 1%. This is due to the less access to land and capital for the socially discriminated groups. The larger proportion of STs and SCs remains outside the regular/salaried jobs which implies that they are ones who are part of the large pool of informal labour which are low paid jobs with precarious working conditions and have little or no access to social security benefits.

Second, the PLFS data provides information on the conditions of employment only for regular/salaried workers who are engaged in non-agricultural sector in terms of- written job contract, eligible for paid leave and access to social security benefits. In 2018-19, the share of regular workers without any written contract is higher for the ST (66.13), SC (72.69) as compared to the upper caste workers (65.57). A significant proportion of the regular workers also are not eligible for the paid leave and share is significantly higher for the ST (53.85), SC (60.35) as compared to the upper caste (49.11) workers.

The proportion of regular/salaried workers who have no written job contract has declined by almost one percentage point to 69.98% during 2018-19, then the year before. The data also shows slight decline in the percentage of regular/salaried workers without any paid leave in 2018-19. The noteworthy trend is when we look into the conditions of such employment for STs and SCs, the share for no written job contract and no paid leave have increased for them as compared to the fall witnessed for general caste people (graph). Thus the latest PLFS 2018-19 shows worsening of employment conditions for STs and SCs when the slight improvement can be seen for upper caste people. There are 52.55 % of regular/salaried workers who are not eligible for any form of social security benefits and the share has increased across all the social groups during 2018-19, then the year before.

Third, apart from concentration of socially discriminated groups (STs and SCs) in casual employment, they are also occupationally segregated in Indian labour market. Workers from the lower caste are mainly restricted to low paying menial jobs while upper caste people are concentrated in preferred occupations. And the upward mobility in the occupation for socially constrained people remains to the limited extend due to the institutional and social barriers faced by them in leaving their traditional occupations. The share of upper caste workers (27%) is significantly high for professional and official occupation as compared to the STs (6.8%) and SCs (10.13%) during 2018-19. These occupations are generally highest paid within the organizations. Even for the clerical and service and sales workers the share is more pronounced for the upper caste people. If we look at the regular workers in these well-paid professional and officials occupations across the social groups, then we will find that the share has fallen for STs, SCs and OBCs while the increased marginally for the general caste workers. Thus, the fall in the regular workers in the professional and official occupations is mainly on account of disadvantageous social groups.

Graph: Distribution of Professional and Officials across Social Groups

Fourth, as well-paid occupations or positions are generally being occupied by the upper caste people it is not surprising to expect the differentials in the earnings for similar workers across different social groups. During 2018-19 for the white-collar occupations (e.g. professional, legislators, senior officials, managers, technical and associate professionals) the daily median earnings of SCs and STs is significantly less than general caste people either they are employed as regular, self-employed or casual. For instance, the regular professionals and officials of ST groups are earning Rs. 667, the SCs earnings Rs. 587, OBCs earnings Rs. 667 as compared to the general caste worker earnings Rs. 800. Similar caste-pay gap is visible for self-employed professionals and officials where ST and SC daily median earnings half of upper caste workers. For the casual professionals and officials’ workers there is wage differential for STs and SCs.

Thus, the caste-based discrimination in the labour market in terms of employment status, occupation, working conditions and wages continues to be large. The slowness of the pace of this change in the employment conditions of marginalized workers is striking especially in the recent years where several policy changes are an upfront attack on reservation policy. The government policy of lateral entry into the civil services puts a dent on the reservation policy. NITI Aayog, the Think-Tank of the government has already identified 54 of the 516 total position which will be filled through the lateral entry (Mandal 2019)[4]. Another is the speed at which the government is privatizing the number of Public Sector Enterprises (PSU) which used to be source of public employment for the SC/ST/OBC candidates. As many as 52 PSUs are now listed in the stock market and management of many PSU has already been transferred. The representation of the SC/ST/OBCs is already low at the higher levels of bureaucracy. At the director and the above officers ranks the share of SC and STs is only 8 % and 3 % respectively. In this background the increasing privatisation and decreasing vacancies will make reservation redundant over time. The New education policy also puts much of its focus on making the higher education financially independent. It also has provision for helping the establishment of the private universities. The privatisation of education is also a move towards further exclusion of the marginalised communities/castes.

Even though employment situation improved marginally during 2018-19, before the pandemic hit India, the condition deteriorated for the discriminated ST and SC workers. The mind-boggling rise in the unemployment rate from 7.8% in June 2018 to 23.4% in May 2020 as per CMIE due to corona virus pandemic remains a daunting challenge for the government.  But the much harder impact of economic and unemployment crisis will be on the marginalized people. The virus will further segregate the labour market on lines of caste.


[1] Puja Pal is a PhD scholar in Economics at CESP, JNU.

[2] Amit Kumar is a PhD scholar in Economics at CESP, JNU.

[3] Deshpande, A. and Sharma, S. (2015), “Disadvantage and discrimination in self-employment: caste gaps in earnings in Indian small businesses” Small Bus Econ (2016) 46:325–346.

[4] https://theprint.in/opinion/subramanian-swamy-was-right-modis-lateral-entry-plan-will-make-reservations-irrelevant/250311/