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Report: Asian women workers risk "persistent vulnerability, poverty and exploitation"

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 29 Apr 2011 03:05 GMT
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BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Women workers in Asia face the risk of “persistent vulnerability, poverty and exploitation” despite a recovering economy and their huge potential due to prejudice, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation and Asian Development Bank.

A large majority of women here are stuck in lower-end, lower-pay jobs in vulnerable, informal and insecure sectors with little social protection and at the lowest rung of the global supply chain, it said.

While progress has been made in past decades addressing gender inequalities, “discrimination against women remains pervasive throughout the labour markets of the region,” Women and labour markets in Asia: Rebalancing Gender Equality said.

According to the report, the Asia Pacific region is losing $24 billion to $47 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities and another $16 billion to $30 billion as a result of gender gaps in education.

“Gender inequalities are not only rooted in the socio-cultural norms of countries but also entrenched in the policy and institutional frameworks that shape the employment opportunities of Asia’s female labour force of 734 million,” it said.

ILO and ADB are urging governments and employers in the region to take into account inequality between male and female workers in terms of pay, working conditions, nature of work and protection as they attempt to shift their economies from public spending to private and domestic investment and consumption.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

Wage gaps between men and women, a bias toward males as perceived breadwinners and the multiple roles women play today have made female workers more vulnerable and an underutilised labour resource in many Asian economies.

“Forty-five per cent of the productive potential of women in this region remains untapped,” Gyorgy Sziraczki, a senior economist at the International Labour Organization's Asia- Pacific headquarters told TrustLaw.

“In other words,  around 586 million working-age women in Asia are not economically active. This translates into a waste of talent, untapped ideas and lost productive capacity.”

Of those who are in the labour force, only about 7 million women (1 percent of all employed women in Asia) ran their own formal business with paid employees in 2009, partly because “many are not able to get equal access to resources such as land, credit, technology, networks, information and markets,” Sziraczki said.

In addition, women’s wages generally are between 70 and 90 percent of men’s wages, entry-level wages tend to be lower for women and there is a persistent pay gap between men and women doing similar work, especially in professional and executive-level jobs.

The 2008 economic crisis also disproportionately affected working women in the region, both professionally (job losses) and personally (reductions in quality and quantity of food consumed, efforts to keep children in school, and greater incidence of psychological stress and domestic violence). 

Yet such vulnerabilities have not been taken into account in economic stimulus packages unveiled by governments, the report said.

QUALITY AND QUANTITY

“Gender inequality means not only limits to women’s fair access to employment,” Sziraczki said.

“It also affects their choice of occupation and means many experience worse working conditions, lower wages, and more insecure employment. Many also struggle to balance competing burdens of work and family responsibilities.”

Especially in developing countries, women are disproportionally represented in low-productivity agricultural work and informal economy where they are vulnerable and low-paid with less social security coverage, leading to higher poverty levels, he told TrustLaw.

For example, women represent only a third of India’s workforce yet 96 percent are informally employed, according to the report.

Similarly, despite being only a quarter of the labour force, 91 percent of Bangladeshi women workers are in informal employment.

But female internal migrants, a growing phenomenon, seem to be at the bottom rung of the ladder, facing double or triple discrimination.

“As women, they face gender bias, as migrants they face social barriers and many are entering the job market for the first time with little experience or information to guide them,” Sziraczki said.

“Often, the only jobs they can get are traditionally feminized occupations such as maids, caregivers, domestic helpers, cleaners, salesgirls, or work in small unregistered industrial workshops with deplorable working conditions, or in the entertainment industry.”

Migrant women can easily become victims of trafficking and violence, especially if they are illegal or lack the right documents.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The report identified policies to support women workers that ILO and ADB said will help ensure that future development in the region will be more sustainable, just and inclusive.

They include supporting women entrepreneurs to establish formal businesses, assisting women in agriculture to boost productivity and income, and equal access to education and training for women and girls.

It pointed to India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, which gives poor households a legal entitlement to 100 days of work per year, as a good example. The programme reserves at least one-third of jobs for women, gives equal wages for work of equal value and provides child care when there are five or more women on a project.  

The report also cautioned the regional bloc of Southeast Asian countries known as ASEAN regarding the group’s aims of regional economic integration.  

With women dominating the lower end of supply chains, the informal economy and many export manufacturing sectors, “if competition focuses on lower wages and poorer working conditions – or a ‘race to the bottom” --it would make women workers’ situation worse, Sziraczki said.

The benefits of tapping into women’s potential will not be limited to developing countries.

If Japan could increase its female employment from 60 percent in 2009 to match men’s employment rate of 80 percent, the report said the country would have 8.2 million more workers to replenish its rapidly aging population and raise its gross domestic product by as much as 15 percent. 

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