The growth of Asia is such that it has attracted praise, including the sensational ‘economic miracle’. And the numbers seem to tell the truth: Asia grew at an average of six percent a year between 1990 and 2015, based on data from the IMF.
But this growth had a dark secret: it was built on the backs of poor women labouring under abysmal working conditions for wages which were low by themselves, and were lower compared to men’s. In the words of feminist Gita Sen, women had become to multinationals a means to an end.
Government and business leaders meeting this week at the World Economic Forum on Asean, in Malaysia, must get behind policies that spur inclusive economic growth without leaving women behind.
Oxfam’s new report, ‘Underpaid and undervalued: how inequality defines women’s work in Asia’, recommends two policies that will promote the equality of men and women and help crush economic inequality between the poor and the rich: adopting the idea of the living wage, and redistributing women’s care work.
A living wage provides for expenses for housing, education, food, transportation, and health – expenses which present minimum wage average rates across Asia barely cover. The minimum wage has remained dormant all through these years while the cost of living has climbed sharply. A living wage is adjusted for inflation.
The minimum wage is also blind to disasters; a living wage gives workers the ability to plan for and bounce back from catastrophe. Governments and business must make the shift from minimum wage to living wage, and offer women (and men) a way out of poverty. Otherwise, as Oxfam’s research has found, women will continue to be poor, however hard they work.
Governments and corporations should also venture into unfamiliar but not unknown territory: the economics of care work, or running a household.
Care work covers a range of activities, from cooking to cleaning, to bringing kids to school and tending small vegetable plots, which economists do not assign an economic value. Care work is taken as a given – as part of the DNA of women.
But this ideological bias has consequences on the lives of poor women: Care work typically adds between two and four hours to a woman’s day, resulting in the so-called women’s double day, or time poverty. McKinsey and Co estimates the value the time women spend on unpaid care work at a staggering $ 10 trillion a year.
According to UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights M Sepulveda Carmona, accessible, gender-sensitive public services are the most “effective way to redistribute [the poorest women’s] heavy unpaid care workload, and reduce its drudgery and intensity.” Governments can impose progressive taxes on corporations and individuals to fund these essential services.
Investing government resources in the care economy will create more jobs for women, improve their livelihood and even put them in the same economic standing as men, and eventually contribute to inclusive growth. Only inclusive growth, paired with the tenets of sustainable development, has the potential to lay claim to the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats, which stand-alone economic growth has so far proved to be wildly untrue.
In Asia, between 1990 and 2010, the share of income of the bottom 70 percent of the population have decreased while the top 10 percent have seen large gains, based on IMF findings. This is part of a scandalous global pattern of extreme economic inequality where wealth is concentrated in a handful of individuals while poverty in the majority of the world’s population.
To improve women’s situation, businesses need to pay them a living wage, and governments need to circle back to where women’s subjugation starts: the home. In the worlds of work and home, women’s emancipation is the test of Asia’s economic miracle.
The writer is the director general of Oxfam Hong Kong.