The discussion so far has raised few questions about the quality of female employment in the export-oriented industries where women have made significant quantitative inroads in recent decades (recent setbacks notwithstanding). Needless to say, many of the same concerns about working conditions would apply forcefully, almost by definition, to the informal economy (of agriculture, manufacturing and services) where increasing numbers of women and men are concentrated (often as part of household survival strategies). However, even if the distinction between “formal” and “informal” sectors was useful or relevant in the 1960s and 1970s (many argued then that the distinction was dubious), it has become even less useful as a descriptive and analytical device in the present era.
As it is widely known, since the early 1980s labour markets around the world have undergone profound transformations. There has been a massive trend towards casualization of the labour force: trade unions have been sidelined and coerced in many contexts, and labour forces have been deliberately casualized through sub-contracting arrangements and the like. At the same time there has been a continuing process of feminization of the labour force, where, as we noted earlier, feminization is understood to mean both an increase in women’s labour force participation, as well as a recognition of the fact that labour market conditions in general—for men as well as women—have deteriorated and become more like the precarious labour market conditions that have typically characterised many “women’s jobs” (Standing 1989). There has been a decline in the proportion of jobs that have security of employment, rights against unfair dismissal, pension rights, health insurance rights, maternity rights and the like, while there has been rapid growth in informal employment which lacks social protection (Elson 2002). In short, the increase in women’s economic participation in the global economy has coincided with a deregulation in the conditions of work and in work-related entitlements. This relationship must challenge the view that increased participation in global markets brings those outside citizenship into a situation where their economic rights can be exercised and entitlements accessed through labour market activity (Pearson 1999).
Women in many economic sectors today therefore rarely enjoy the wide spectrum of social rights specified in national and international legislation, such as the right to favourable conditions of work, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to social protection or the right to form and join trade unions—and increasingly the same description could apply to many male workers. The absence of many of these rights in export-oriented factories across the world is well-documented (UNDESA 1999) and does not require repetition here. What such evidence points to, however, is the questionable distinction between the “formal” and “informal” sectors when working conditions in much of the so-called formal sector barely differ from those found in the informal sector. The distinction between the two sectors is also ambiguous given the linkages between production processes in the two sectors (through sub-contracting and the like).
How has women’s intensified presence in the work force impacted on gender wage gaps? The availability, reliability and interpretability of the data on pay relativities by gender pose major problems. A UNIFEM report (UNIFEM 2000) made a heroic effort to tackle this question, but was constrained by the limited range of countries for which internationally comparable datasets were available (especially to assess change over time), as well as the incomplete coverage of different economic sectors, with a bias towards urban formal sectors. Despite such shortcomings, the report argued that in the late 1990s in the industrial and services sector, the gender gap in wages ranges from 53 percent to 97 percent, with a median of 78 percent; in the manufacturing sector the range is from 54 percent to 99 percent, with a median of 75 percent (see Table 4.2 in chapter 4 of the UNIFEM Report). As was noted above, in East Asia for which more reliable datasets are available, there is some evidence that the gender wage gaps narrowed in a number of countries during the 1980s and 1990s, but it must be underlined that even after some convergence the gender wage gaps in this region (the ratio of average female to male earnings in the manufacturing sector has risen from 47 percent in 1975 to 50.5 percent in 1990) (Seguino 1997) remains large by international standards (which according to the UNIFEM Report of 2000 stands at around 75 percent for the manufacturing sector). For many other developing countries the UNIFEM report cautions that data on the gender wage gaps is likely to reflect mainly the earnings of those in full-time formal employment, given the biases of statistical surveys in many countries.
One piece of research that is frequently cited is by Tzannatos (Tzannatos 1995). It asserts a positive correlation between trade liberalization and reduced gender wage gap, based on wage data for Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. The implicit assumption seems to be that with export growth (which is supposed to be facilitated by trade liberalization) the demand for female labour increases faster than for male labour, so that female wages also rise faster than male wages, and eventually converge. Leaving aside issues of statistical coverage and reliability, it is difficult to attribute the apparent closing of the gap in wages in these six countries to trade liberalization per se; the analysis, for example, does not take into account the rise in women’s educational attainment relative to men’s over the same period (Joekes 1995). Evidence presented by Joekes for a number of other countries reveals no systematic divergence or convergence over time.
The other major problem with some of the evidence on wage convergence (including the study by Tzannatos) is that it does not make a distinction between convergence of
male and female wages through a process of “harmonizing up” and “harmonizing down” (Elson 1999) In other words, is the gender gap in wages narrowing because women’s wages are catching up with men’s, or is it rather because men’s wages are being levelled down? In some contexts, such as in Singapore during the late 1970s, successful export-oriented industrialization did create a tight labour market for both men and women, and women’s wages in particular did rise somewhat faster than men’s. But as Phongpaichit (Phongpaichit 1988) rightly argues, Singapore’s population is small and hence its experience somewhat different from that of many Asian countries which rely on migrant labour from a much wider rural hinterland. In Bangladesh, for example, the availability of a generally elastic supply of unskilled female labour has meant that wage increases in the highly feminized garments manufacturing have been more or less the same as wage increases across a wide range of other sectors, despite a substantial rise in garments manufacturing profit margins and real value added over the same period so that there is little evidence of male and female wages converging (Bhattacharya and Rahman 2002).7
Finally, it needs to be born in mind that the kinds of mechanisms that determine the value of labour in labour markets include important social and gender norms. This happens, for example, in how “skills” are defined and labour is categorisedprocesses which very often carry implicit gender biases. There is a real need for solid empirical work to fully quantify and understand the factors that contribute to wage differentials by gender. Based on macro-level data, a recent study on gender wage gaps in export manufacturing in Morocco found that education was neither valued nor rewarded in the female manufacturing labour force (women’s wages neither rose significantly with higher levels of education, nor did they suffer from lack of education) (Belghazi 2002). The lower wages that women often command in labour markets cannot be adequately accounted for simply in terms of workers’ experiences, skills and levels of education. There are both implicit and explicit exclusionary and discriminatory processes at work. The policy implication is that the norms and social mechanisms that shape and structure labour markets cannot be tackled through female education alone. There is clearly a need for gender-aware trade unions and women’s NGOs to contest the seemingly “objective” mechanisms through which women’s labour is devalued in labour markets.
The issue of gender wage gaps is clearly an important area of concern and a powerful indicator of gender inequality. However, monitoring and evaluating the broader conditions of employment is equally (if not more) crucial, especially from the point of view of women workers. The significance of this area stems from women’s centrality to the care economy, i.e. their socially-ascribed responsibilities for child care and elderly care, and how those prior obligations shape the kinds of work they are able to take up during different phases of their life cycle. Women’s groups have repeatedly emphasized the need to recognize that women stand at the crossroads between productive activities and the care of human beings. Subsidized childcare and elderly care facilities, public healthcare programmes, public transport and widely available and accessible piped water/electricity help women meet their dual responsibilities. As the literature on the gender impacts of structural adjustment has convincingly shown, when state resources are not channelled to such services, women must work more to compensate for the shortfall. In theory, women’s work in the care economy is central to economic activity and should therefore carry economic rights or entitlements. But attracting resources when there are many competing claims on budgets has been a major challenge for women’s movements worldwide. Thus, while young unmarried and childless women have been able to benefit from labour-intensive industrial strategies (albeit under working conditions that are far from ideal), in countries where those strategies have been successful (important qualification), these labour market opportunities have been far less open to older women with dependants. They have found it far more difficult to enter these industries in the absence of adequate social provision of childcare and other services.
4. Have Women Gained Welfare Entitlements Through Employment?
To capture the diversity of gendered constructions of labour markets and social policy arrangements and how these are in turn shaped by both government policy and global forces operating in radically different ways (in different contexts and at different times), a recent UNRISD research project examined the female employment/social policy nexus across diverse regional contexts. This section draws some useful pointers from the case studies that were commissioned by UNRISD, and our analysis of their findings (Razavi and Pearson 2003).8
The two East Asian countries in this cluster—South Korea (Hyoung 2003) and China (Davin 2003)—have been, relatively speaking, in a better position to exploit the opportunities offered by global economic integration. South Korea, along with a handful of other countries, was a pioneer in nurturing labour-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s, and today China seems to be following in its footsteps. In this process they have provided employment for a predominantly female work force. While there are serious questions about the terms on which women were included in the labour force (to which we shall return further below), it is nevertheless true that in terms of sheer numbers of jobs provided these two countries have been in a much stronger position, than say Mexico, Mauritius and South Africa where export-oriented production processes remain weak and fragile.
And yet neither in the globally “successful” countries, nor elsewhere, have labour markets been a site of gender equality. The ways in which labour markets are socially constructed—the sectoral distribution of women’s employment, the nature/size of the firms in which they are employed, the occupations in which they are clustered, the nature of their contracts, the definitions of “skill” and so on—reproduce gender inequality and embed those inequalities in access to both direct and indirect benefits of employment, including welfare entitlements. And yet despite persistent gender inequalities, it is important to ask whether women have been able to register some gains through the labour route.
In the case of South Korea, while labour markets and welfare entitlement remain unequal, it is nevertheless noteworthy that by the mid-1990s about 40 percent of female workers had obtained regular full-time jobs (even though more than 60 percent had temporary or daily work). While this record is far from ideal, the gains that women workers have registered are not negligible, especially in comparison to conditions prevailing in other countries. The serious challenge confronting Korean women workers is how to hold onto these gains in the face of increasing pressures for labour market flexibility. Ominously, the 1997 crisis represented a serious regression in gender equality: the ease with which enterprises rid themselves of regular workers during the crisis interrupted the slow progress that women in particular had made in accessing the more secure jobs so that by the end of 1999 women had a lower share of such jobs than in 1990.
The other encouraging development in South Korea—again in relative terms—is that rather than retrench the different social insurance programmes that are in place, serious efforts are being made to consolidate different groups of beneficiaries into a unified system to facilitate pooling and cross-subsidisation. Again, the extent to which women stand to gain in this process is an open question and much will depend on how strictly benefits are linked to labour market contributions. But the general direction in which social policy is moving seems to be far more enabling here than in countries like Mexico where there has been large-scale employment related welfare retrenchment, in favour of narrowly targeted poverty alleviation programmes.
The situation of Chinese women workers in the current era also looks less encouraging than their Korean counterparts (Davin 2003). In addition to the fact that large numbers of female employees from the SOE have lost their jobs and their work-related welfare entitlements, the largely migrant female work force that is now being recruited into the export oriented industries has little or no entitlement to social protection or welfare benefits in its place of work. This marks a serious regression as far as gender equality is concerned.
Developments in Mexico (Brachet-Marquez and de Oliveira 2003) have been highly contradictory. During the period of welfare state expansion women were largely excluded from labour-based welfare entitlements given their low levels of labour force participation. However, the period of economic crisis and welfare state retrenchment has coincided with women’s large-scale entry into the labour force in both export and non-export sectors with little or no welfare entitlements. Needless to say, in a period of economic stagnation and welfare retrenchment, labour force entry has neither facilitated accumulation nor acted as a conduit for welfare entitlements. As such it has tended to be of a “survivalist” nature.
A very different scenario emerges from Mauritius (Bunwaree 2003). Welfare entitlements in Mauritius were won through a non-labour route, and the welfare state was largely a response to divisive ethnic politics. This citizenship-based model facilitated women’s access to welfare entitlements. While wages in the EPZs where women are employed remain low, women workers are nevertheless able to enjoy certain social provisions thanks to the inclusive way in which the welfare state was constructed. While Mauritius seems to have maintained its welfare state relatively intact, it has been far less successful in coping with global competition. In recent years levels of unemployment in the export-oriented manufacturing sector have soared as local women workers are displaced by more “flexible” migrant workers.
In South Africa (Hart 2002) too the export oriented manufacturing plants remain highly fragile under the dual pressure of global cost competitiveness on the one hand, and the locally and historically constructed system of labour reproduction marked by brutal processes of dispossession and commodification, on the other. This set of powerful constraints fuels intense labour unrest and conflict that threatens the viability of these export-oriented production processes. It is in such contexts of profound social inequalities that the contradictions of the neo-liberal project emerge most sharply.
So to answer the question posed in title of this sub-section—whether paid work can be the route to welfare entitlement for women in developing countries—we can say that in the five countries included in our cluster only Korea comes close to answering this question positively, and even so the answer must be qualified with the important proviso that while a section of the female work force has managed to attain welfare entitlements through the labour route, a larger proportion has not and many more women remain outside the formal labour force, as wives and mothers. In the other four countries a combination of factors—the powerful ways in which gender inequality is constantly embedded in labour markets as well as the global and local pressures for welfare retrenchment—have denied women industrial workers the opportunity to obtain welfare entitlements through the labour route. In places like Mauritius where inclusive welfare states have been constructed, women have been able to access certain welfare entitlements, almost by default rather than design. Elsewhere the pressures for labour market “flexibility” and fiscal restraint combine to deny vast numbers of women—regardless of their employment status—any meaningful access to welfare.
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1 The paper draws on a variety of statistical sources, but mostly from the World Bank, and underlines the need for caution in interpreting the available data, as well as the clear lack of comparability.
2 Note that the data refer to the pre-crisis period in East Asia, and hence the Asian financial crisis and its recessionary aftermath are not responsible for these rates of growth in manufacturing employment.
3 The extent to which the more informal type of manufacturing labour (say, home-based work) is captured by these official statistics is not very clear (and probably varies from country to country); such biases may lead to an underestimation of labour forces engaged in manufacturing production.
4 But an important counter-trend has been taking place in the countries of East and Central Europe, where women’s formal employment has fallen since the on-set of economic reforms. The female labour force participation rate was lower in 1997 than in 1985 in all transition countries, and the drop in female employment was as drastic as 40% in Hungary UNIFEM. 2000. Progress of the World's Women 2000. New York: UNIFEM., although this may hide the increasing informalization of female labour not only in Hungary but also elsewhere in the region.
5 Women’s participation in the agricultural sector, as wage workers (often casual, part-time and seasonal) and as unpaid “family labour” was recognized in the gender literature (as well as in some of the mainstream literature), while most authors drew attention to the under-recording of such work in official labour force (and agricultural) statistics.
6 Among those who provide a positive assessment of these new forms of work, Naila Kabeer’s analysis is one of the most persuasive Kabeer, N. 1995. "Necessary, Sufficient or Irrelevant? Women, Wages and Intra-Household Power Relations in Urban Bangladesh," in IDS Working Paper No.25. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies..
7 Even the small rise in wages in the garments industry, the authors note, may have been eroded by the demand for longer working hours.
8 The case studies were on: South Korea, China, Mexico, Mauritius, South Africa.