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Economic and Financial Crisis

 
Economic Meltdown: This Crisis Has a Woman’s Face
By Amelita King Dejardin

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This article, originally publishing in The Hindu (March 7, 2009) is reprinted with permission.


The current economic crisis is unraveling before us faster than even the most pessimistic of experts predicted just a few months ago.


The effects are already trickling down to ordinary working people. In Asia Pacific the International Labour Organization has projected that as many as 27 million more people could become unemployed this year. One hundred and forty million others in the region’s developing economies could be forced into extreme poverty.


The numbers are staggering and without a doubt, everyone will be touched by this crisis. Yet what is so far lacking from many of the debates on how countries should respond is a realization that this crisis has a gender bias. In Asia, working women will be affected more severely, and differently, from their male counterparts.


For policymakers, failure to take into account this gender dimension, especially at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, could be a critical miscalculation, worsening the working and living conditions of millions, deepening economic and social inequalities, and wiping out a generation of hard-won gains in pay equity and workplace equality.


Why are women affected differently? One reason is that women workers are concentrated in labour-intensive export industries that feed into global supply chains. In 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, sub-contracted and informal employment, where work is insecure, wages low, working conditions poor, and workers least likely to be protected by conventional social insurance systems. It follows that shrinking global demand for clothes, textiles and electronics (as well as for related business services like hotels and restaurants) means that women will be the first to lose their jobs.


Asia’s Experience


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


The consequence of losing a job also affects women differently, and more severely. 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 workers in Thailand, the Philippines and Viet Nam – among other countries – 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 dependents.


The region’s experience in 1997 supports this concern; a survey in the Philippines found that when a male worker lost his job 65 per cent of households reported a fall in income, but when a woman worker was retrenched 94 per cent of households had less money. More households of retrenched women workers cut back on their meals than those where men had lost work.


Poorer households also rely more on unpaid care work (for children, the elderly or sick family members) which is almost always provided by women. So in tough times women tend to be stretched more between their conflicting responsibilities.


Since the 1990’s the governments of many Asian countries have strengthened their social protection schemes. This is a welcome move since a social floor is a vital tool in fighting poverty. However, in many countries women do not get equal access to social protection.


In some cases this is because of the non-standard, low wage and informal economy jobs they have are less likely to come with such social benefits. In others, it is because policymakers 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.

 

Not a Simple Issue


Of course, this is not a simple issue. In some areas or sectors men will bear the brunt. For example, demand for female workers could rise as regular workers are replaced by casual workers. Among migrant workers in developed economies, better-educated, 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 migrant worker counterparts – who are mostly in construction, manufacturing and agriculture.


It is therefore critical that when governments, employers and workers organizations sit down to discuss policies to combat the social and economic effects of the crisis, they do so from the perspective of women as well as men.


For example, public infrastructure and investment programs are common components of national crisis response packages. However, the bulk of jobs created by these programs could easily go to men because construction, engineering and technical jobs are dominated by and seen as more suitable for 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, health care, education, child and youth development.


Recruitment strategies must be created to reach women. Child care 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.


When it comes to the social aspect of policy responses, basic health care, maternity, and education must be included.


Inclusion in Dialogue Process


Finally, special attention is needed to ensure that women’s own views and opinions are heard. In 1997 women were not properly included in the social dialogue because — even in businesses that employed mostly women — the leadership of workers’ and employers’ organizations was dominated by men.

 

If crisis response packages are to be effective they must take gender differences into account. We must not repeat the mistakes of 1997. Crisis response measures must reach all those who need help, equally.

 

Human Rights and the Economic Crisis in the Philippines: An Organizer’s Perspective

 

By the Maquila Solidarity Network

 

Philippines
Philippines

The struggle for workers’ rights in the Philippines faces many challenges. Attracting investment from foreign multinationals has often meant commercial and political pressure to undermine and prevent workers from organizing, keep wages low, and suppress internal political dissent. Threats and violence against unions and labour and human rights advocates are commonplace, and tolerated – indeed even carried out by police and security forces.

 

With the global economic crisis, the situation is getting even more difficult as falling demand has led to worker layoffs and pressure on those workers who remain employed to accept further cuts. The ILO estimates that between October 2008 and February 2009 over 80,000 workers were displaced in the Philippines and around 5,000 overseas Filipino workers had been repatriated.

 

To get some firsthand insight on how the crisis is affecting workers and labour rights in the Philippines, Maquila Solidarity Network spoke with Cecille Tuico, a researcher and organizer with the Workers Assistance Centre (WAC).

 

WAC was established in November of 1995 as a social outreach program of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Rosario, Cavite.  The church was traditionally a place where workers would go to discuss the problems they were having with their employers, particularly foreign companies operating in the Cavite Export Processing Zone (EPZ), the largest in the Philippines. EPZs are zones designed for the assembly or manufacturing of goods for export which are exempt from normal duties and taxes in order to attract foreign investment. 

 

WAC eventually emerged from the Church’s shadow to become an independent non-governmental organization helping workers organize in the provinces of Cavite and Batangas.

 

Tuico sees both dangers and opportunities in the current economic crisis.

 

According to Tuico thousands of workers have been laid off in the EPZs in Cavite and Batangas as a result of the crisis. Many companies have shut down altogether,  most of them in the garment and electronics industries where women are most frequently employed. Exact figures are hard to come by as EPZs are guarded by private security companies and closed to labour rights advocate, and even to local government representatives. Based on daily surveys that the WAC has been doing with workers, they estimate 11,500 workers in Cavite and Batangas have been negatively affected by the crisis.

 

Intel, an international electronics company, announced recently that they will close down their operations in Cavite, physically demolishing their factories in the process to protect company secrets. WAC estimates that the closures will affect over 4,000 workers, a devastating impact on the already struggling province.

 

As women workers lose their employment the impact is felt not just by the workers but their families: less income for children’s school fees, medical costs, debt repayment, and more pressure on other family members to earn more in a shrinking economy.

 

Instead of focusing only on the problems caused by the crisis, however, Tuico says that WAC is using the opportunity to educate workers on their legal rights to severance pay and to give them advice on what they can do to improve their situation.

 

She says that the crisis has actually boosted worker organizing in the region. As workers have become more concerned about losing their jobs, they have begun to see forming unions as a way to guarantee entitlements such as severance pay that, although legally required, are rarely paid out.

 

But, Tuico warns that guaranteeing severance pay is not the purpose of a union and cautions that trying to form a union when a company has or is preparing to fold is often too late to guarantee workers proper wages and entitlement to benefits.

 

The repression of labour rights advocates, coupled with the economic challenges the country – and WAC – are facing, makes these difficult times indeed. Now more than ever there is a need for real solidarity from international organizations to face these challenges and allow WAC to continue its critical work on the ground.

 

Amelita King Dejardin is a senior technical adviser in the Policy Integration and Statistics Department of the International Labour Organization

 

 

 

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