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LABOUR-PHILIPPINES: Meltdown – Women Most Vulnerable

Prime Sarmiento

MANILA, Mar 4 2009 (IPS) - Shaynar Bacon was working as a cashier in a shopping mall in Mindanao, southern Philippines, when she learned that an electronics manufacturing firm in Taiwan was looking for workers.

Bacon applied, got accepted and borrowed money from relatives and money lenders to raise the 2,000 US dollars as placement fee. She reasoned that the promised 500 dollar monthly salary would help her pay her debts, support her poor parents, send her siblings to school and finance her dream business: rice trading.

None of this was possible on her cashier’s salary of 100 dollars per month. "I didn’t plan to work abroad forever. I just wanted to save money to set up a business and to buy a house for my family," she said.

It was this personal dream that spurred the 25-year-old Bacon to go to Taiwan in June 2008. She worked long hours, endured cultural and language barriers and hoped that by the end of her two-year contract she could reap the rewards of her hard work.

But six months later, Bacon came home jobless and penniless, one of the thousands of workers who were laid off owing to the economic crisis.

The global recession reduced demand in developed economies such as the U.S. and Western Europe – the main export markets for manufacturing firms such as those in Taiwan. As businesses lost their clients, thousands of workers – most of them women like Bacon – lost their jobs.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) forecasts that the unemployment rate in most developing Asian countries will rise to 5.9 percent this year – with the number of unemployed people hitting 23.3 million.

Bacon’s case illustrates how the economic crisis is affecting one of the most vulnerable sectors in the labour force. Analysts say women – more than men – will lose their jobs and remain jobless as manufacturing firms shut down or ‘streamline’ their operations.

"We must be fully cognizant of the gender impacts of the global economic crisis. Sustained economic growth during the 2000s has brought new formal jobs for women in textiles and information technology, call centres, domestic care and social service industries abroad,'' said Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, vice-president for knowledge management and sustainable development at the Asian Development Bank, at the opening of the ILO forum, last month.

''Now they are among the first to get fired," Schaefer-Preuss said.

A study issued by the ILO in February revealed that women in developing Asian economies, including the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Thailand, are experiencing "the first blows of job cut’’.

This is because women dominate the workforce in the garment, textiles and electronics industries. Women also form a big part of the labour force of the tourism industry, another hard-hit sector. This, the ILO report said, will erode the gains achieved by women in paid employment in the past three decades.

"We always forget that it’s the women are who will suffer most in this crisis," said Nieves Confesor, associate dean of the Centre for Development Management at the Manila-based Asian Institute of Management (AIM), in an interview with IPS. Confesor said the same thing happened 10 years ago at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

The persistence of "gender bias" in the labour force is another burden that women workers have to face with or without the crisis, Nazrul Islam Khan, secretary general of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, told IPS. ‘’They were not prioritised in the hiring process, had lower wages and were often the first to get fired.’’

The ILO study noted this is because women are considered part of the so-called "flexible reserve’’.

"During normal economic times, the flexible workforce experiences high job turnover, moving from one factory or production workshop to another, or shifting between formal sector and informal activity. Thus, during economic downturns and recessions, they are most likely the first lose their jobs," the report said.

ILO also noted that women are perceived as caregivers while men are the breadwinners, which is why companies will rather pay women lower wages and fewer benefits as they are perceived as secondary income earners.

Such gender bias is now more glaring as companies get more hard up and let go of their employees, Nazrul said, noting that companies will rather retrench women as they usually enjoy added benefits such as maternity leave.

‘’The presence of a gender bias should be taken into account when forming a stimulus package,’’ said AIM’s Confesor. For instance, the stimulus package which aims to provide emergency employment should include employment of both men and women.

Most stimulus packages focus on the building of infrastructures to provide emergency employment. The construction sector, however, is dominated by men. This kind of stimulus package will not benefit women – and in the end, their families either.

"It’s the women who take care of the family. When the household budget isn’t enough, it’s the women who have to find a way to make ends meet," Confesor said.

The ILO has proposed that emergency job packages can provide employment for women if it includes programmes on social services and environmental protection. The U.N. body has also proposed that fiscal stimulus packages include the provision of microfinance, particularly targeted to women in poor households and communities.

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