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. …