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01 JUN 2016

Sweatshop wages and unpaid care work: the double burden on Asia’s women as the continent’s economy booms

Asia’s economic success has been paid for by poor women, who work long hours for poverty pay and do the majority of unpaid care work, according to a new report by Oxfam today.

Oxfam calls on government and business leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in Malaysia this week to support policies that will reverse the situation of working women, and stave off the worsening gender and economic inequality in the region. These include paying workers a living wage and investing in services that will help lift the burden of care from women’s shoulders.

Oxfam’s new report, ‘Underpaid and undervalued’, found that in Asia, women’s wages comprise between 70 and 90 per cent of men’s wages. It highlights how many Asian countries have maintained a competitive advantage in the global market place by driving down wages and working conditions – particularly in sectors that employ a high proportion of women to produce food, clothes and electronics for export around the globe. Women also continue to lead ‘double days’ – they perform household chores and run households on top of working outside the home, resulting in their ‘time poverty’

In recent decades, Asia has experienced remarkable levels of economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund, between 1990 and 2015, the region’s economy grew at an average of six per cent a year. But this growth has only widened the inequality between rich and poor people, and deepened the inequality between men and women.

On average, women in Asia do two and a half times more unpaid care work than men – this includes cleaning, fetching firewood and water, and caring for dependents. In Pakistan, women clock up to 4.3 hours more unpaid work per day than men. By comparison, women in developed economies spend an average of two hours per day more than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Globally, the time women spend on unpaid care work is valued at HK$77.7 trillion (US$10 trillion) a year.

Trini Leung, Director General of Oxfam Hong Kong, said: ‘High street retailers and Asian governments have built their businesses and their economies on the backs of low paid women workers across Asia. This has to stop. Governments and businesses must ensure all workers are paid a living wage so they have enough money to pay for essentials such as food, healthcare and housing.’

In its report, Oxfam challenged businesses to make the shift from minimum wages to living wages. A living wage factors in expenses for suitable housing, education, food, transportation, and health. It allows workers to set aside discretionary income for unforeseen events such as accidents and disasters.

The report also highlights how women are left to shoulder the burden of unpaid care work with little or no social support. Currently, spending on social services that could help reduce the burden on women accounts for less than 10 per cent of Asia’s GDP, but developed economies spend three times this amount.

Public investments on these services can create jobs for women and support economic growth. Research made by the UK Women’s Budget Group involving seven OECD countries showed that if two per cent of GDP were invested in the care industry, in this case social and childcare, employment would rise by an estimated 2.4 to 6.1 per cent.

‘Women are the backbone of the economy, yet they receive little support. Governments and businesses must help lift the burden from women’s shoulders by providing benefits such as maternity pay and childcare support, and by investing in basic infrastructure like clean water supplies,’ said Leung.

Governments can and must help pay for this by ensuring wealthy individuals and companies pay their fair share of tax. It is estimated that Asia loses HK$271.9 billion (US$35 billion) in revenues every year as a result of the use of tax havens by wealthy individuals.

- Ends -

Notes to editors:

The full report, ‘Underpaid and undervalued: how inequality defines women's work in Asia’ is available on request.

About Oxfam

Oxfam is a worldwide development organisation that mobilises the power of people against poverty.

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