Asia's dark secret: Impressive growth is built on the back of poor women

By Trini Leung*, Thanh Nien News

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Workers ride bicycles to work at an industrial park in Vietnam's southern province of Binh Duong on June 3, 2014. Photo credit: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg Workers ride bicycles to work at an industrial park in Vietnam's southern province of Binh Duong on June 3, 2014. Photo credit: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg


The growth of Asia is such that it has attracted praise, including the sensational "economic miracle."
And the numbers seem to tell the truth: Asia grew at an average of 6 percent a year between 1990 and 2015, based on data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But this growth had a dark secret: it was built on the backs of poor women laboring under abysmal working conditions for wages which were low by themselves, and were lower compared to men’s. Women had become to multinationals a means to an end, in the words of feminist Gita Sen.
Government and business leaders meeting this week at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations), in Malaysia, must get behind policies that spur inclusive economic growth without leaving women behind.
Oxfam’s new report, "Underpaid and Undervalued: How Inequality Defines Women's Work in Asia," recommends two policies that will promote the equality of men and women and help crush economic inequality between the poor and the rich: adopting the idea of the living wage, and redistributing women’s care work.
A living wage provides for expenses for housing, education, food, transportation, and health – expenses which present minimum wage average rates across Asia barely cover. The minimum wage has remained dormant all through these years while the cost of living has climbed sharply. A living wage is adjusted for inflation.
The minimum wage is also blind to disasters; a living wage gives workers the ability to plan for and bounce back from catastrophe. Governments and business must make the shift from minimum wage to living wage, and offer women (and men) a way out of poverty. Otherwise, as Oxfam’s research has found, women will continue to be poor, however hard they work.
Governments and corporations should also venture into unfamiliar but not unknown territory: the economics of care work, or running a household.
Care work covers a range of activities, from cooking to cleaning, to bringing kids to school and tending small vegetable plots, which economists do not assign an economic value. Care work is taken as a given, as an obligation, as part of the DNA of women.
But this ideological bias has consequences on the lives of poor women: Care work typically adds between two and four hours to a woman’s day, resulting in the so-called women’s double day, or time poverty. McKinsey and Co estimates the value the time women spend on unpaid care work at a staggering US$10 trillion a year.
According to UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights M. Sepulveda Carmona, accessible, gender-sensitive public services are “the most direct and effective way to redistribute [the poorest women’s] heavy unpaid care workload, and reduce its drudgery and intensity.” Governments can impose progressive taxes on corporations and individuals to fund these essential services, which include universal access to education, health, drinking water, and sanitation, according to the Institute of Development Studies.
Investing government resources in the care economy will create more jobs for women, improve their livelihood and even put them in the same economic standing as men, and eventually contribute to inclusive growth. Only inclusive growth, paired with the tenets of sustainable development, has the potential to lay claim to the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats, which stand-alone economic growth has so far proved to be wildly untrue.
In Asia, between 1990 and 2010, the share of income of the bottom 70 percent of the population have decreased while the top 10 percent have seen large gains, based on IMF findings. This is part of a scandalous global pattern of extreme economic inequality where wealth is concentrated in a handful of individuals and poverty in majority of the world’s population.
To improve the situation of women, businesses need to pay them a living wage, and governments need to circle back, to end it, where women’s subjugation starts: the home. In the two worlds of work and home, women’s emancipation is the test of Asia’s economic miracle.

*The author, Trini Leung, is Director General of Oxfam Hong Kong. The opinions expressed are her own.

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