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ARGENTINA: The Gender Roots of Labour Inequality

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 5 2010 (IPS) - Inequality and poverty in Argentina are explained to a large extent by a job market that discriminates against women, coupled with insufficient equal opportunity regulations and failure to enforce existing labour laws, experts on the issue told IPS.

According to Andrea Balzano, head of the gender division at the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) country office in Argentina, “entering the labour market is the only demographic and social event that enables households to escape poverty.”

But “women are much less likely to join the labour market, and even when they are able to find work, their opportunities are more limited because their insertion occurs through jobs in informal and low productivity sectors,” she explained.

Almost 14 percent of Argentina’s 40 million people, and 9.4 percent of its households, are classified as poor, according to data from the government’s National Statistics and Census Institute (INDEC) for the first semester of 2010. But private organisations place poverty at 31 percent and abject poverty at 11 percent.

Natalia Gherardi, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA – Latin American Team on Justice and Gender), says that “participation in the workforce and insertion in the job market are key factors in overcoming gender inequalities through economic autonomy.”

One of the most telling examples of how Argentina’s lack of regulations, large informal sector and gender discrimination shape the situation of women in the job market is the plight of paid domestic workers, a sector that accounts for 18 percent of all female employment.

Domestic work is carried out mainly by first and second-generation immigrants from the neighbouring countries of Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, and by women from Argentina’s poorer northern provinces where much of the population is of mixed indigenous and European descent.

In Argentina, nine out of 10 working mothers with more than four children are employed by private homes to perform cleaning tasks, according to information from the official 2006 Permanent Household Survey.

Men make up 10 percent of the labour force in this sector.

Gherardi described domestic work as being “regulated in such a way as to be discriminatory, granting these workers exactly half the labour rights legally enjoyed by all other workers.”

She said there are currently no legal maternity leave provisions for domestic workers, while the state covers three months paid leave for working women in all other areas of activity.

Even the small proportion of domestic workers who are legally registered are denied the 60-dollar monthly bonus per child that the state provides as a “family benefit” to other workers in the formal sector of the economy.

This is compounded by the fact that these workers are only entitled to half of the paid annual leave and severance pay granted to workers in other sectors.

But the worst aspect is that most employers fail to register their domestics in the social security system, so that only 20 percent of them are formally recognised as workers and covered by social security.

Although in “recent years, undeclared work in the sector has declined, going from 95 to 80 percent,” Gherardi said, “this is not very significant progress.”

Argentina’s labour market is characterised in general by a high rate of under-the-table work, according to data from INDEC.

In the first quarter of 2010, only 63.6 percent of the local workforce was registered. And in the case of domestic workers the percentage of registered employees is significantly lower (approximately 16 percentage points less).

“The main problem lies in the enforcement of regulations, and, of course, any change would also involve a cultural transformation,” said the head of ELA, one of the leading organisations that advocates in favour of women’s rights in the country.

However, the poor working conditions prevalent in domestic employment should not eclipse other forms of discrimination that affect all women workers, regardless of the sector they work in.

“The access and pay gaps reveal that women earn 30 percent less than men in the same kind of job and for the same kind of tasks,” Balzano said. “There are also barriers that prevent women from reaching managerial and executive positions, a problem that is seen across the region.”

The UNDP official noted that women bear a double burden, as “society expects them to take on the responsibility of caring (for children, the sick and the elderly) and keeping house,” without being paid for it. “Society is full of prejudices based on stereotypes that see women as exclusively responsible for reproductive work and put men in charge of productive work,” she said.

Argentina ranked 46th among 155 countries in the UNDP’s 2007 Gender-related Development Index (GDI), an indicator introduced in 1995, along with the Gender Empowerment Measure, to highlight the status of women in the U.N. agency’s annual Human Development Report.

The GDI is basically the Human Development Index adjusted downwards for gender inequality, measuring achievement in the same basic capabilities as the HDI does, but taking note of inequality in achievement between women and men, thus imposing a penalty for inequality. That means the GDI falls when the achievement levels of both women and men in a country go down or when the disparity between their achievements increases.

The greater the gender disparity in basic capabilities, the lower a country’s GDI compared to its HDI. In 2007, Argentina’s GDI was 0.862 (of a maximum score of 1), while its HDI was 0.866, but GDI figures for 2009 reveal that Argentina has dropped to 0.699, with the country ranking 49th among 177 nations.

In terms of literacy, the rate is 97.7 percent for both genders, while women have a higher life expectancy than men (79 against 71.5 years), and also do better than men in education, as the female population is better educated than the male population.

But when it comes to measuring how each gender fares in terms of average annual per capita income, figures reveal that men’s earnings almost double those of women: 17,710 dollars a year against only 8,958 dollars.

“Work and Family: Towards new forms of reconciliation with social co-responsibility”, a 2009 joint study by the International Labour Organisation and the UNDP, sees the insertion of women in Argentina’s job market as an “irreversible phenomenon.”

This statement is backed by the fact that the economic activity rate for men remained steady at 72 percent from 1990 to 2008, while for women it jumped from 37 to 47 percent over that same period.

But Balzano noted that female unemployment stood at 15.1 percent compared to 8.7 percent for men, and that women were also more heavily affected by underemployment: 13.1 percent against 8.2 percent for men.

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