Women and Globalization in South East Asia: New Strategies for New Times

By Chew, Lin | Conscience, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Women and Globalization in South East Asia: New Strategies for New Times


Chew, Lin, Conscience


FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS, FAST developing global economic trends and policies have negatively impacted women workers all over the world, especially in the fast-developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Globalizing trends have exacerbated inequalities between women and men, reflected in the existence of what Harvard academic Gita Sen has described as a gendered labor market. This market is related to the gender-based division of labor, in which women and men do different kinds of work, have different pay levels and experience ongoing segregation and hierarchy. This division is underpinned by the way in which society views gender roles, ideologies and norms and has given rise to the phenomenon of subcontracting and demands for increased demands for casual work and flexibility in the workplace, especially in the sectors where most women work, thus subjecting women to further exploitation or lack of access to any form of legal and social protection or benefits. (Gita Sen, "Gendered Labour Markets and Globalisation in Asia," UNCTAD/EDM/Misc.133, p6.)

CREATING THE "INFORMAL" ECONOMY Working women in East and South East Asia are systematically pushed into the informal sector of the economy, or rather, the sectors of the economy which are undergoing "informalization." This has happened as many social structures have withered away, increasing their burden of economically and emotionally sustaining their families.

The precarious position of Asia's women workers is compounded by persisting discriminatory and patriarchal value systems throughout the region. In particular, the persistent patriarchal ideology which designates the male as "breadwinner" and the income of women as merely supplementary has maintained the devaluation of women's work and is used to justify the employment of women as short-term, irregular (euphemistically called "flexible") workers, with low wages and no protection or security.

Almost all new jobs for women are in this "informal economy," particularly in the so-called care industries: domestic work, entertainment, nursing, teaching, the sex industry, outsourced back offices and call centers. In manufacturing, they are concentrated in food processing and the garment and textile industries, which more and more are being transformed into home-based sub-contracted units.

These industries, increasingly organized by transnational networks of agencies and contractors, are typically defined by the absence of government and legal regulations and protections leading to loss of the protections historically gained in formal sectors.

The characteristics of this work are well-known: short contracts overseen by an intricate system of subcontractors, rampant exploitation of migrant workers, an absence of unions and working conditions aptly described by the three Ds: dirty, dangerous and demeaning.

MIGRATION

Globalization is characterized by the relatively fluid movement of capital, technology and information between markets. This has lead to increased disparity between and within nations, providing the stimulus for rapidly increased migration. In the search for better opportunities for themselves and their families, women are looking farther and farther afield, crossing internal and external borders. In general there are many more legal opportunities for men to migrate, due to bilateral agreements in traditionally male industries (construction and agriculture), but few regulations for the above-mentioned care professions in Asia, where women migrants find themselves disproportionately represented.

In addition, while there appears to be a demand for migrant labor in developed economies, there are also increasing moves to close borders even more tightly and to restrict the movement of people. This adds to the vulnerability of migrants in search of work, especially women, pushing them into more and more dangerous methods of migration and encouraging the involvement of transnational organized crime, resulting in exploitation and trafficking. …

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