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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Female Work Force Grows

Between 1993 and 2003 the number of women in paid employment around the world increased by 200 million. Women represent 40 percent of the labor force in East and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the developed world.

Women still make up a third or less of the labor force in North Africa, Western Asia, and Southern Asia, as well as Central America.

Latin America has seen the largest increase in women's labor participation, from little more than 25 percent in 1980 to 33 percent in Central America and almost 40 percent in South America by 1997.

The U.N. report questions whether the increased numbers of women in the labor force translates into women being better off.

Workforce statistics, say the authors, fail to measure the kind of work women engage in, what they earn and what benefits they receive. Policies that focus on economic growth, they say, don't necessarily create jobs that will help lift people out of poverty.

The authors argue that what workers need--particularly low-wage female workers--are policies to help people in the informal economy, which has been growing in both the developed and developing worlds. In developing countries between 50 percent and 80 percent of nonagricultural employment is informal. When farming work is included, that figure can be as high as 93 percent.

As an example of salutary policy, the authors herald a 2003 labor law in Ghana that provides temporary and casual workers with the same medical benefits of permanent workers and requires any temporary worker who has worked for the same employer for more than six months to be treated as a permanent worker.

Working for Low Pay and Less Security

Sixty percent or more of women in the developing world who work outside of the agriculture sector are concentrated in the informal economy, where jobs such as domestic work, street trading and sub-contracted production of consumer goods tend to be low-paying and lacking in security, benefits and legal protections, the report found.

Women in the developed world also dominate part-time or temporary jobs--often doing clerical, industrial, or medical work--and receive less income and benefits as a result.

In the United States, self-employment, part-time work, and temporary work account for 25 percent of all employment. This informalization of employment around the world has been attributed to companies preferring a flexible work force to help them compete globally.

In order to cut labor costs and maintain a work force that can adapt to fluctuations in demand, private companies are hiring workers under insecure contracts or subcontracting work to individuals, particularly women working at home who have to bear the brunt of production costs, such as paying for their own sewing machines, electricity and water.

Within the informal sector there is a hierarchy as well, with employers who run small informal enterprises and their employees earning more than self-employed workers and workers who carry out sub-contracted work at home for garment, textile and electronic companies. Among these, women are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paying categories, and even within those categories they earn less than men, further increasing their risk of poverty.

"Whatever the causal factors, this pattern of feminization of the labor force is not conducive to reducing poverty or enhancing equality," the U.N report concludes.

Bojana Stoparic is a New York-based journalist who often writes about international women's issues.  

For more information:

Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work, and Poverty:

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing:

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