Equal Pay/Fair Wage

Women's Paid Labor Keeps Door Open to Poverty

Monday, September 5, 2005

Labor Day finds women working in great numbers around the globe. But a recent U.N. report finds that women's higher work-force participation isn't a panacea for poverty, which claimed more than 14 million U.S. women last year.

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Martha Chen

(WOMENSENEWS)--Lucy, a 38-year old supermarket manager in South Africa, used to have a full-time job with health and retirement benefits. She was in line to be promoted to middle management. Most important, she was able to save money for her children's college education.

Then her mother-in-law had a stroke. In order to care for her, Lucy--whose story is included in a report on women and poverty released last week by the United Nations Development Fund for Women--shifted to part-time work, not only cutting her salary but also losing her pension. To make things worse, the loss of income reduced her children's education prospects, making it harder for them to look forward to a decent livelihood and build a better life for themselves.

For the authors of the report, Lucy's predicament illustrates both how women's employment can help keep a family out of poverty and the precarious nature of the jobs women in both the developing and developed worlds hold.

As the United States celebrates Labor Day today, the report's authors emphasize that too many of the world's women are ending up in low-paid, insecure jobs that don't keep them or their families from poverty.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that despite economic growth, an additional 1.1 million Americans fell into poverty during 2004. The number of women in poverty increased for the fourth consecutive year since 2000, reaching 14.3 million in 2004, according to an analysis of Census data released by the Washington-based National Women's Law Center. Meanwhile another 800,000 workers were left without health insurance.

Women's wages in the United States also continue to lag behind men's. In 2004, women who worked full-time earned 76.5 percent as much as men. The gap would be even wider if part-time workers were included in the analysis, since more women than men hold those jobs, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The U.N. report points out that because women in most societies are still expected to combine paid employment with unpaid caretaking of family members, they frequently take flexible, low-paying jobs, often in the informal sector.

Women's unpaid work in the home also often channels them into insecure and frequently unregulated occupations such as domestic work, child care and garment manufacturing work. As a result, women face a greater risk of poverty than men despite participating in the work force.

Focusing on Quality of Work

The report's authors argue that while many efforts to alleviate poverty promote the entry of more women into the work force, it is perhaps more important to focus on exactly what kind of work women are finding and address the gender inequality women experience through work.

"Globalization has created more jobs, some of them preferable to more traditional opportunities such as domestic work, but it has also created new forms of informal and insecure employment," says Martha Chen, one of the U.N. report's authors and coordinator of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a global research policy network at Harvard University.

She adds that companies often seek out female workers because they perceive them to be a source of cheap, unskilled labor, more docile and less organized than men.

Marked by small or unregistered enterprises, lower wages and work agreements that lack formal contracts or social protections such as Social Security, paid leave and health benefits, informal employment carries a greater risk of poverty than formal jobs with stable incomes and protections.

Official economic data on informal work is still hard to come by, but international organizations in recent years have started to pay more attention to the role that sector plays in development. Chen, however, says that women's role in the informal economy has not received much attention. Without accurate information on the costs and benefits of women's work in the informal economy, Chen argues that economic policies will be uninformed and misguided, undermining women's economic security.

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