The International Labor Organization (ILO), in a new report, paints an ugly picture of East Asia's economic rebound, and electronics manufacturers would do well to pay attention. The report, “Women and Labor Markets in Asia,” found that women are twice as likely as men to be unemployed in Asia, and that global economic recovery is passing by Asia's female workforce.
“In some developing countries, particularly in East Asia, job growth is back, but the quality of jobs being created is a major concern,” the ILO found. “In particular, 45 per cent of the vast productive potential of Asian women remains untapped, compared to just 19 per cent for Asian men.”
That word, “untapped,” is a slightly more pleasant way of saying that unemployment for women seeking work in East Asia is nearly 1 in 2. Besides being devastating for the people seeking jobs, the argument from the ILO is that companies complaining about rising wages across the continent might do themselves a favor and target hiring at women, who are twice as desperate as men for work.
The statistics the ILO has dug up, if true, are pretty shocking. Before the crisis, they claim, Asia lost between $42 billion and $47 billion due to “limits on women's access to employment opportunities.” The continent lost another $16 billion to $30 billion more, because of gaps in education for girls — meaning many girls didn’t go to school, or went to bad schools, and later had trouble qualifying for jobs that comparable young men could do. The ILO based its analysis on statistics from a United Nations body, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
With that in mind it's not surprising that, while Asia's economy grew faster than the world's average by nearly 30 percent in the first decade of the new century, growth in women's employment in Asia didn't. It actually trailed the global average, leaving the female workforce behind, even as the whole world moved its manufacturing to Asia.
With that in mind, it's odd to hear electronics manufacturers worry about wage increases in Asia, while at the same time having a female labor force available that the UN estimates at 734 million people. That’s more than twice the entire population of the United States, and it's facing a 45 percent unemployment rate. I suspect that manufacturers should be able to find some among that three-quarter of a billion people willing to work for reasonable wages.
If, as the ILO reports, a key problem in Asian employment is a lack of schooling for girls, I can see only two possible responses to the situation. One is that the companies accept a lack of female employees, call it a problem for the local governments, and continue watching the spiking wage and inflation numbers with their hands clutching their wallets.
The other is for companies to demonstrate to the local governments why they want more female job applicants, and what level of education those applicants will need to be successful for themselves and the employer. And then the companies could — if no one else will do it — build the schools themselves and train prospective female employees.
So far, it seems the first option has been the more common. But the benefits of the second — of tapping into a massive idle group — are getting clearer.