Women: Last in, first out

With a slack in export activities engendered by the growing financial crisis, more women workers in South-East Asia are joining the ranks of the unemployed. And, as Prangtip Daorueng and Kafil Yamin report, some are t

urning to prostitution.

SOUTH-EAST Asia's tiger-paced growth over the decades has drawn many women into the labour force, but they now find themselves at the front of steadily growing lines of workers laid off by companies across the once-booming region.

Turned out of factory jobs in countries from Thailand to Indonesia, a growing number of women are forced to look for poorly paid informal work to survive or even turn to the sex industry for work.

Whilst not many precise figures of joblessness among women are available, women workers are among the hardest hit in the new unemployment scourge because they make up 42.7% of the labour force in South-East Asia. The bulk of them work in industries like textiles, food processing, and electronics – pillars of the export industries that have been undercut by the economic crisis.

'It is known that if a woman and a man enter a factory at the same time, usually the man will be trained and promoted while the woman remains in the same job,' said Lae Dilokvidhayarat, Director of Labour Management and Development Centre at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. 'And when they have to lay off workers, of course the unskilled workers go first,' he said. The unskilled ones are often taken to be the women.

Indonesian women workers are reeling from unemployment because the majority of companies retrenching employees 'were in export sectors, such as textiles, garments and shoes, that employ mostly women', the Asian Development Bank said in a report released in April.

In Indonesia, the percentage of women in the labour force stands at more than 40% today, up from 30% in 1970. The International Labour Organisation in Jakarta estimates that of the 13 million unemployed in Indonesia today due to the crisis, 43% are female workers, said ILO programme officer Cecile de Boer.

In Thailand, half of the labour force has been made up of women for decades now. As in other parts of the region, some 80% of workers in its textile sector are women.

The next few years are not expected to be any easier, with unemployment rates in East Asia expected to reach 6 to 10% this year. Estimates for South-East Asia put the expected unemployment rate in Indonesia at 10% this year, and Thailand's at nearly 6%.

These trends represent a change with drastic social consequences for a region that has not known massive unemployment for decades. While the jobless rates are still below those of Europe, most Asian economies except for South Korea, do not have unemployment and insurance schemes. And far from being a slowly rising tide, joblessness has surged into affected Asian economies over a mere few months.

Labour experts and activists add that women bear a heavier burden in Asia's crisis because despite being thrown out of work, they are still expected to contribute financially to the family as well as tend households.

This pressure has forced a growing number of Thais and Indonesians into prostitution, they say. 'They cannot stand the hardship, which shakes their (Islamic) religious belief,' said Dr Leokman Soetrisno, director of the Centre for Urban Development Studies at the Yogjakarta-based Gadjah Mada University.

Sex-related jobs

A university study found that many sacked female workers in Indonesia's Java island have switched to sex-related jobs to survive. Soon after the Thai economy buckled last year, a Thai television channel reported that female factory workers were entering prostitution after being laid off.

'There have been reports on this problem. Last year, some female workers from Eden group (company) who were laid off decided to be prostitutes. This has become one of the very few ways out they could find to cope with their financial burdens,' Lae said in an interview.

He said that while women are vulnerable to being fired, they are still expected to carry on as before in doing housework, looking after the children and the family. 'When a woman is unemployed, she is also a jobless mother who still has to take care of her children, while an unemployed man doesn't have to bear the burden of this task as hard as a woman does,' Lae pointed out.

He says two factors put more women at greater risk of being fired than men. First, women have always had less chance to make progress in the workplace. Second, women are viewed as less deserving of a firm's investment or training because of the traditional expectation that their energies are divided with household work.

Yet Siriporn Meethammayukti, a 35-year-old female worker in a small rubber production factory in Thailand, says female factory workers often remain 'unskilled' not because they want to but are unable to move up. She says many firms put women in the same job for many years – thus preventing acquiring new skills – while training male employees to do new work like controlling machinery that pays more.

When a woman is laid off, Somyot said, 'it is harder for her than a male worker to find a new job'. As a result, many Thai women are forced to settle for low-paying, risky jobs. Activity in the Thai informal sector has increased sharply during the crisis, Somyot observed. 'Now former female factory workers who have lost their jobs are trying to find jobs they can bring back to do at home as subcontractors,' he added. 'That means they are burdened with both household and outside work at the same time. For some younger women who can't get new jobs, there are reports saying they have entered prostitution,' he said.

Lae said that if society continues to value men's work more than women's, 'I am afraid that female workers [will] still have to bear the burden of dual tasks while having less opportunity in their lives than men.'

Indonesian experts point to other social consequences that women experience during crises. Not least, the Gadjah Mada University study says, women are more likely to become targets of domestic violence by jobless, frustrated spouses.

Thailand's Somyot says the Thai government must try to reduce the burden of the economic crisis on women, if they cannot go as far as improving wages that are under spending limits under austerity programmes. 'I think good social welfare can help in reducing the burden felt by female workers in the country. If the government says workers can't be paid more than the conditions under the International Monetary Fund programme, there must be something to help them spend less money in their daily lives,' Somyot observed.

This could even include simple welfare assistance such as nurseries that would allow women to spend more time at work, says Somyot. –  [c] Inter Press Service, (Third World Resurgence No. 94, June 1998)