Despite strong economies in the region, the report concludes that women still face “persistent vulnerability, poverty and exploitation”. Many women are employed in low-paid jobs which offer little in the way of benefits or protection and gender inequalities are rife. Typically, women in the region earn wages 70 to 90 per cent less than those of men and many struggle to balance long work hours with raising children.
Low-paid female workers are particularly vulnerable at the bottom end of supply chains for export sectors such as manufacturing and textiles. In a recent report by the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) quoted in ‘The Guardian’, Asian factories producing garments for top global brands were still found to be employing “shocking working practices” which breached labour rights. Factories were surveyed in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia and none were offering their predominantly female employees a living wage, with many workers not even being paid the legal minimum.
Employment for these low-paid female workers is also precarious, with many on temporary contracts rather than in permanent jobs. On average, a quarter of the factory workers in Indonesia were on short-term contracts. The ITGLWF report also found that excessive overtime was common in Indonesian factories producing sports and leisurewear for global brands, with many workers doing between 10 and 40 hours of overtime. There were even incidents of abuse where targets were not being met, with one factory locking workers in a room without food or toilet facilities for three hours. Picking out factories at random, the ITGLWF survey helps to highlight the ineffective inspection regimes which are failing to protect workers.
According to the ILO report, the global economic downturn has also hit female workers in Asia particularly hard, since export industries have seen a slowdown in trade. Many workers have had their wages cut and in Indonesia, some factories have used the economic crisis as the excuse to dismiss longer-serving staff and replace them with younger workers on lower pay or less favourable terms, including short-term and ‘apprenticeship’ contracts. Migrant female workers from poorer countries or rural areas are particularly vulnerable, since they have little knowledge or experience of job markets.
It seems ironic that many of the goods produced by poor and exploited Asian female workers in countries such as Indonesia are being bought by women along the high streets of the West, many giving little thought to how such low prices and frequent ‘bargains’ can be offered by the shops.