Rural people are generally engaged in different types of activities, and they can be segmented broadly into two groups. There are household-level work, often labelled as 'domestic activities', such as processing of food, cooking, child care, educating children, house-keeping and cottage industries. These activities are undertaken for producing goods and services, and mainly for household consumption. Household-level activities are also called 'expenditure saving' or conventional activities, largely carried out by rural women. Unfortunately, these are rarely documented or shown in national statistics. If one can compute value of household-level activities, the national income will increase substantially, and women's contribution to national income would become highly visible. Interestingly, men are also increasingly getting involved in household activities.
The second category relates to economic activities against which some monetary payments (wage) are attached, the so-called 'income-generating' activities which include crop and non-crop production, working in others' land, and business, services, agro-processing and cottage industries. These activities are undertaken for producing market-oriented goods and services.
In this write-up, we have defined a worker or labourer as a person who is engaged at least for one hour in activities that increases or saves income for the household. Under this definition are included both full-time and part-time labour whereas we usually deal with only full-time workers. Under this new definition, the number of working members per household is reported to have declined from 2.65 to 2.59. But while the number of male working members showed a downturn, female working members depicted 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 abroad, and increase in participation in secondary and tertiary levels of education.
It also appears that in the comparable periods of last two decades, the duration of economic labour performed by an average worker has been reduced substantially from four-fifths to three-fourths. 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 to this trend. First, men have growingly 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 labour force to engage in economic activities and, for those in active age groups, to put in longer hours to earn a subsistence wage. Eminent economist late Abdullah Farouk (1980) called them 'the hard working poor'. In recent years, the subsistence pressure has eased somewhat with improvement in poverty situation. Hence, with growing economic solvency, poverty-induced longer work-hours have waned. Besides, the older people take retirement if they can afford, and the young ones go to schools abandoning child labour.
During the period under study, the duration of work effort has declined for both male and female labour force - from 9 hours/day in the base year to 8.5 hours/day in recent periods. The change is remarkable in the case of women workers as they put in 8.35 hours now compared to 9.20 hours before. This 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 for women the time for involvement in childcare. Second, from some hard but cost-effective engagements, such as boiling paddy, paddy husking through 'dheki' and other manual works - women have reduced the level of involvement as new technologies have entered the market. Now mobile threshers are at the doorstep to substitute women's efforts for 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.
It can be observed that economic activities have become more full-time pursuits for men where 7.7 to 7.8 hours/day has to be spent. The economic activities were mostly part-time work for women two decades ago. Even now they are engaged in part-time work, but the duration of labour has increased from 1.9 hours/day to 2.3 hours/day. It implies that with the passage of time, women have got the opportunity to divert a part of the 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 or pond aquaculture or social forestry.
Thus, there has been a change in the involvement of men and women in daily chores of life in rural Bangladesh. Women used to work for more hours in the past --domestic and economic activities together--than men; now men work more than women.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Jahangiranagar University.