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Finding Work for Asia’s Underemployed, Undertrained Women

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.

12 comments on “Finding Work for Asia’s Underemployed, Undertrained Women

  1. Nemos
    May 13, 2011

    “And then the companies could — if no one else will do it — build the schools themselves and train prospective female employees.”

    I believe also this option because is more viable,Also women is more diligent in production than men.

  2. SP
    May 14, 2011

    Your article beings in the truth. In Asis women are mostly seen as someone who should and can take care of home and kids. Its very difficult for asian men to agree and understand that women can deliver results profesiionally. I agree the wages are also biased.

  3. Anand
    May 14, 2011

    “And then the companies could — if no one else will do it — build the schools themselves and train prospective female employees.”

    This is really good idea. I think the best option would be local government and companies coming together to redefine the education policies so that it reaches all the section of the society. One more option would be companies getting some tax benefits for proactively participating in literacy programmes.

  4. Ms. Daisy
    May 14, 2011

    “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.”

    Wow! First these Asian women were marginalized by their own , now ILO in this statement suggests access for the undertrained women to employment is an option to employers who need “cheap” workers. 

    It is sad to imagine that these women would probably be hoarded into sweat shops.

  5. Jay_Bond
    May 16, 2011

    If these companies are serious about hiring women and they lack the skills or education required, their only bet is to train and educate the women themselves. The Asian governments and its people have looked at women as seconde class citizens for centuries. This is going to be a long process of changing their culture to accept that women are capable of doing the jobs that the men have.

    The ILO's statement about women being cheap labor is just another example of how women are viewed in that part of the world regardless of their capabilities. 

  6. stochastic excursion
    May 16, 2011

    Pointing to a non-salaried segment of society and calling them “unemployed” is painting with a broad brush and not in keeping with what is standard practice in the developed world.  For example, in the US, unemployment figures account only for those who are eligible for temporarily unemployment benefits. 

    As some pundits point out there is always work to be done, but usually a limited number of jobs.  The availability of jobs can be a double-edged sword.  The creation of a job usually means a good or service has been commoditized.  Does a family in possession of some land that sustains itself count as unemployed?

  7. Kunmi
    May 17, 2011

    There is nothing that demoralizes one than when you are classed to be a second hand citizen. In a culture where women are not recognized for being able to perform as men, women will tend to have low esteem, loose confidence in themselves. To train and get them to work, it is going to be a great challenge because they are not used to it. But that does not mean that it is impossible to turn situation around for Asian women.

  8. Marc Herman
    May 17, 2011

    What interested me about the ILO report wasn't the suggestion that there were missed opportunities for creating more sweatshops. What it said, to my reading, was that East Asia's labor market is badly distorted. If true — and how can it not be, if .75 of a billion people want to work, but face antiquated barriers — then the current discussions of wages are missing a huge part of the story. I'm not sure this needs to be read as a rich/poor issue necessarily. We know that the United States, the richest country, roughly doubled its available labor in the second half of the 20th century, when many more women entered the peacetume paid work force. That affected how we think about the meaning of “employment” and certainly affected the wage calculations for virtually everything.  What I took away from the ILO report was that when we talk about “Asian labor markets” compared to other markets, we're really talking, in one important way, apples and oranges, if 750million people are not part of the equation.

  9. hwong
    May 17, 2011

    This article is probably referring to the Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, bangkok. As far as I know, in Hong Kong, Singapore and even China, females are becoming even more prominent in terms of career. I believe that it is getting to a point of imbalance such that women these days in Asia do not rely on a men to support the family. Their average salary level is higher than men. Perhaps there are more jobs outside of manufacturing like finance and banking.

  10. stochastic excursion
    May 17, 2011

    Interesting comparison to post-WWII US.  The distinction there is that the war claimed the lives of so many soldiers. 

    This had to play a role to some extent.  Although the male population was probably seeing a higher demand for their labor, less of them could fully provide for a spouse, as is the custom in traditional society.  So women with marketable skills could also enjoy the ability to provide for themselves.

  11. hwong
    May 19, 2011

    In fact, it's very interesting that Hong Kong women cannot find their mates because now they are more picky in terms of physical look and wealthiness. They cannot settle for someone who is not good looking and not rich….

    At the same time, the men population is smaller than the women. So many women would rather remain single all their lives than to settle for someone not meeting their expectations

  12. stochastic excursion
    May 19, 2011

    That's true where a significant portion of the population is unemployed and the means to self-sufficiency are unavailable.  Good for a manufacturing-based mercantile system, but it does tend to isolate people.

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