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INDONESIA: Women Still Pay Decade After Asian Meltdown

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 7 2008 (IPS) - Over a decade after the Asian financial crisis, Indonesian women are still feeling the pinch of losing their jobs, says a leading trade unionist from the archipelago.

The streets of the country’s capital reflect this reality, says Dita Indah Sari, during a telephone interview from Jakarta. ‘’Most of the women have ended up as street vendors after losing their jobs from textile and garment factories. They have done so using the little compensation money they got at that time.’’

These street vendors, however, are only a slice of the substantial informal economy that has taken root in South-east Asia’s largest country, reveals the woman who heads the advisory council of the National Front for Indonesian Labour Struggle. ‘’There are more women involved in other parts of the informal economy, doing service jobs, including migrant labour and prostitution, which has gone up by 25 percent in the last 10 years.’’

Currently, Indonesian women account for 65 percent of the country’s informal sector, where there is no job security, wages are low, workers’ rights are not protected and the women are denied social security benefits. ‘’These working women are also vulnerable to physical harassment and violence,’’ says Dita Indah Sari.

Her concerns were reflected in a report released Friday by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the eve of International Women’s Day, marked globally on Mar. 10. Indonesia has recorded the largest increase of unemployed women in South-east Asia a decade since the 1997 financial crisis, reveals the report. ‘’Young women’s unemployment rose from 17 percent to 33.9 percent between 1996 and 2006.’’

These numbers have consequently placed the region, which has 10 countries, from affluent Singapore to the poverty stricken Laos, in a labour league that is at odds with other regions of the world. ‘’The increasing unemployment rate for women (in South-east Asia) is a worrying trend that also goes against the decline seen in most other regions,’’ adds the report, ‘Global Employment Trends For Women – 2008’. ‘’In 1997 the female rate was 4.2 percent (3.9 percent for men) but in 2007 it was 6.9 percent (5.6 for men).’’


According to the ILO, the unemployment picture in South-east Asia is shaped by the figures from Indonesia, which accounts for 60 percent of the region’s unemployed. In most other countries, ‘’unemployment rates declined or remained fairly stable at around three to four percent,’’ states the Geneva-based global agency.

The region is also home to a ‘’massive’’ informal economy, despite ‘’robust economic growth of recent years,’’ adds the ILO. The informal economy accounts for ‘’an estimated 156 million people, or nearly 60 percent of (South-east Asia’s) work force in 2006.’’

‘’The informal economy has a female face, with more women in informal employment than men, indicating that women tend to have more limited employment opportunities,’’ the ILO reveals.

In Indonesia, which has a population of over 200 million people, nearly 40 million workers lost their jobs as a result of the financial crisis, which began in Thailand and then spread rapidly across the region. Consequently, the number of poor people jumped from 34 million in 1996 to 50 million in 1998.

Yet the country’s economic upturn since the financial flu – recording a six percent growth in recent years – has done little to help the vulnerable female labour force secure employment in the formal work sector. ‘’Recent economic growth has not created enough jobs in the formal sector to provide work for women, such as work in textiles and electronics,’’ Gyorgy Sziraczki, senior economist at the ILO&#39s Asia-Pacific regional office in Bangkok, told IPS.

‘’More and more Indonesians have access to better education, and that is creating higher expectations among the young people, but the economy is not creating sufficient jobs to absorb them,’’ added Sziraczki. ‘’The country has also not been able to attract enough foreign direct investments compared with other countries in the region.’’

Indonesia currently ranks fifth, following Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand, in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). Two years ago, it received only 27 U.S. dollars FDI per capita, compared with the affluent city-state of Singapore, which received 4,585 US dollars FDI per capita, or Thailand, which received 61.9 dollars FDI per capita.

No wonder a ranking official of a U.N. women’s rights agency says the prevailing global economic environment has come in the way of women’s economic advancement. ‘’The macro-economic and trade policies are marginalising women from formal employment,’’ says Jean D’Cunha, regional programme director of UNIFEM’s East and South-east Asia office, based in Bangkok.

‘’Governments in the region are aware of the problem and have put policies in place, but there is a lack of proper implementation and enforcement,’’ she told PS. ‘’Otherwise we see conservative attitudes displayed that seek to marginalise women.’’

And the cost of ignoring the economic potential of women is a substantial loss, states the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, a Bangkok-based U.N. regional body. ‘’The Asia-Pacific region loses 42-47 billion U.S. dollars annually due to women’s marginalisation from employment, and another 16-30 billion U.S. dollars per year because of gender gaps in education.’’

 
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