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Essential Matter: Work Intensity, Gender and Well-being

1 Jun 1998

  • Authors: Cecile Jackson, Richard Palmer-Jones


Employment is central to current understandings of poverty and well-being, as well as to prescriptions for poverty reduction. Labour-intensive growth, and greater labour force participation by women, are major policy recommendations in the New Poverty Agenda of the 1990s. They are also prominent elements in the discourse on Women in Development. But gender analysts paint a complex picture of women and work. They note that women often face social and ideological constraints when seeking, obtaining and performing work outside households, with responsibilities for child bearing and rearing generating particular problems. And the objective of increasing female employment can — in the context of long working days and added household duties — contribute to what has been termed "time famine", with negative effects on women's health and well-being. Finally, it is important to analyse the specific content and character of work — and especially its physical arduousness.

The Character of Work
The development discourse in general, and poverty and gender debates in particular, often treat "labour" more as an abstract category than as a physical experience. This means that there is very little useful literature on work intensity, let alone on gender-specific work intensities. Yet an analysis of varying levels of energy expended in carrying out different forms of work, as this is related to individual physical strength, shows that women and men have different capacities for physical effort at different stages in their lifecycles. Both biological differences and socio-cultural norms are significant in this regard. The concept of the arduousness of labour, which is determined not only by work intensity but also by other psycho-social characteristics of work, is an essential tool for understanding levels of nutrition, health and other central components of well-being (or ill-being), including productivity.

Work Intensity and Poverty Eradication
A focus on the issue of work intensity raises new questions about poverty eradication programmes. In fact, many of the policies espoused by the development community, and often assumed to reduce poverty, may worsen the conditions of the poor. Several examples of how this may occur are outlined below.

Agricultural extensification — increasing the size of a household agricultural plot — may be essential for improving the livelihood of those with infrasubsistence holdings. But it often increases the work load of women, who are likely in many farming systems to provide the bulk of the labour required to cultivate larger areas of land. This can have a negative effect on women's well-being and, as was recently shown in Zimbabwe, can also have ill effects on child nutrition and overall household well-being.

Effort-intensive growth policies — routes out of poverty through labour-intensive economic growth — generally fail to take individual capabilities for work into account and may thus have negative effects on well-being. It can also be asked why, when people throughout the world attempt to improve well-being through avoiding heavy physical labour, poverty alleviation strategies do not concentrate more systematically on generating acceptable returns for lower levels of human energy expenditure.

Uncritical support for environment-friendly and "sustainable" technologies should also be reviewed. Technologies which substitute human energy for fossil fuel-based production systems are often considered suitable for poor countries with abundant supplies of labour. A case in point is the use of a human-powered treadle pump, which is being promoted in Bangladesh for the irrigation of staple crops. Evidence indicates that such technologies can impose severe health risks on the weaker members of the household — women in particular — who assume the main burden of work.

Self-targeting through the labour test - offering employment to people at such low levels of payment that the non-poor do not compete for jobs - is another example of the lack of attention to work intensity and well-being issues in poverty alleviation strategies. Self-targeting is an important component of food-for-work programmes, but it may prove to be an "energy trap" for the poor, and especially for women who are ill-equipped to bear the physical cost of additional energy-intensive work without sufficient improvement in caloric intake or nutritional status.

Finally, since an individual engaged in arduous work needs time to recover, it seems logical that rest should be taken into account when discussing well-being. If economists were to treat rest as "productive consumption", they would have to revise the idea that the use of labour-saving technologies must be justified by showing the "productive" use of liberated time.

Throughout the discussion on poverty reduction, it is important to remember that women are not always disadvantaged in relation to men. Gender relations are extremely complex and culturally specific; and work capacities of women and men change during the course of a lifetime. Eradicating poverty requires understanding local situations and designing programmes that move beyond "labour markets" to the real world of work.

Cecile Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Gender Relations and Agrarian Change, and Richard Palmer-Jones is Lecturer in Development Studies, at the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia.