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    Jobs crisis has a woman's face


    International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2009

    © International Labour Organization Re-employment training services at a human resources development and employment centre, Tianjin, China.

    In Asia, the unemployment crisis poses disproportionate threat to women workers. Social equality and economic stability rely on policy-makers considering both genders in their response.

    In the Asia-Pacific, as many as 27 million more people could become unemployed this year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Some 140 million others in the region's developing economies could be forced into extreme poverty.

    While the deepening crisis will affect everyone, working women will be affected more severely, and differently, from their male counterparts, especially at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Failure of policy-makers to take this gender dimension into account could worsen the working and living conditions of millions, deepen economic and social inequalities, and wipe out a generation of hard-won gains in pay equity and workplace equality.

    Women workers are concentrated in labour-intensive export industries that feed into global supply chains. By contrast, male workers tend to be distributed across a wider range of economic sectors. Women are also concentrated in the lower levels of these global supply chains, in casual, temporary, subcontracted and informal employment, where work is insecure, wages low, working conditions poor, and workers least likely to be protected by conventional social insurance systems. As primary caregivers, they also tend to be stretched between conflicting responsibilities in tough times. It follows that shrinking global demand for goods and services means that women will be the first to lose their jobs.

    Asia's experience during the 1997 economic crisis provides evidence to back this projection. In Thailand, 95% of those laid off from the garment sector were women; in the toys sector, it was 88%. In South Korea, 86% of those who lost their financial services and banking jobs were female.

    Research shows that the poorer the family, the more important the woman's earnings are to the family's subsistence, children's health and education. And because women are concentrated in lower paid jobs, they tend to save less; so a small pay cut or price rise can severely damage them and their dependants. Again, figures from 1997 support this concern. In the Philippines, when a male worker lost his job, 65% of households reported a fall in income, compared to 94% when a woman was retrenched; the latter households also cut back on more meals.

    Since the 1990s, the governments of many Asian countries have strengthened their social protection schemes - a crucial tool in fighting poverty - but in many countries women still do not get equal access to social protection. In some cases this is because social benefits are uncommon in non-standard, low-wage and informal economy jobs. In others, it is because policy-makers assume women can rely on men, or because benefits are directly linked to keeping your job - for example, most maternity protection systems in Asia are paid solely by employers.

    This is not a simple issue. In some areas, men will bear the brunt. For example, demand for female workers could rise as regular workers are replaced by casuals. Among migrant workers in developed economies, skilled women who work as nurses, doctors or in other specialist health care jobs, or as domestic workers, are less likely to be laid off than their male counterparts, who are mostly in construction, manufacturing and agriculture. It is therefore crucial that governments, employers and workers' organizations approach policies from the perspective of women as well as men.

    Public infrastructure and investment programmes are common components of national crisis response packages. However, these programmes create mostly construction, engineering and technical jobs, the bulk of which tend to go to men. This is what we saw in 1997. Not only should efforts be made to ensure that these jobs are open to women, but the concept of what are public works should be expanded to incorporate social services, healthcare, education, child and youth development.

    Recruitment strategies must be created to reach women. Childcare facilities must be included. Initiatives specially targeting unemployed women are needed. Economic and fiscal stimulus packages must include support for microfinance - which has been extremely effective in helping women start small businesses. Women's own views must be included in the social dialogue. When it comes to the social aspect of policy responses, basic health care, maternity, and education must be included. Only then will the crisis response packages truly be effective.

    Amelita King Dejardin is the author of the paper 'Asia in the Global Economic Crisis: Impacts and Responses from a Gender Perspective', presented in February to a Manila conference on policy responses to the Asia-Pacific crisis.

    This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in 'The Japan Times', 8 March 2009.