Sweatshop wages and unpaid care work: the double burden on Asia’s women as its economy booms

Asia’s economic success has been paid for by poor women, who work long hours for poverty pay and do the majority of unpaid care work, according to a new report released by Oxfam today. 

Oxfam is calling on government and business leaders attending the World Economic Forum on ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), in Malaysia on 1-2 June, to support a living wage for all, and to invest in services that will help lift the burden of care from women’s shoulders.  

Oxfam’s report, ‘Underpaid and undervalued’, highlights how many Asian countries have maintained a competitive advantage in the global market place by driving down wages and working conditions – particularly in sectors that employ a high proportion of women to produce food, clothes and electronics for export around the globe.

Asia’s ‘low wage’ economic model has created an inequality crisis with the richest in society accumulating wealth at the expense of the poorest. Over the last two decades the richest 10 percent of the population in China, Indonesia, Laos, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have seen their share of income increase by more than 15 percent – the poorest 10 percent have seen their share of income fall by more than 15 percent.

Due to a combination of discrimination and working in low pay sectors women’s, wages across Asia are between 70 and 90 percent of men’s.  In India, women are paid a third less than men on average and in Bangladesh women earn an average of 23 percent less per hour than men for the same kind of jobs.

Many women struggle to survive as the national minimum wage in many Asian countries - where it is paid - is on average a quarter of the amount required for a decent standard of living. Women workers are often denied benefits such as sick pay, are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions, and are subject to sexual harassment.

Trini Leung, Director General of Oxfam Hong Kong, said: “High street retailers and Asian governments have built their businesses and their economies on the backs of low paid women workers across Asia. This has to stop. Governments and businesses must ensure all workers are paid a living wage so they have enough money to pay for essentials such as food, healthcare and housing.” 

The report also highlights how women are left to shoulder the burden of unpaid care work with little or no social support.

On average women in Asia do two and a half times more unpaid care work than men – this includes tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, fetching water and firewood, and caring for dependents. In Pakistan, women clock up 4.3 hours more unpaid care work per day than men. By comparison, women in developed economies spend an average of 2 hours per day more than men on unpaid care and domestic work. Globally the time women spend on unpaid care work is valued at $10 trillion a year. 

Spending on social services that could help reduce the burden on women, accounts for less than 10 percent of Asia’s GDP - developed economies spend 3 times this amount. 

“Women across Asia are working a double day.  They work long hours in sweatshops as well as caring for their family and managing all the household chores. Women are the backbone of the economy yet they receive little support. Governments and businesses must help lift the burden from women’s shoulders by providing benefits such as maternity pay and childcare support, and by investing in basic infrastructure like clean water supplies,” said Leung.

"Governments can and must help pay for this by ensuring wealthy individuals and companies pay their fair share of tax. It is estimated that Asia loses $35 billion in revenues every year as a result of the use of tax havens by wealthy individuals,” added Leung.  

Notes to editors

Download the full report, ‘Underpaid and undervalued: how inequality defines women's work in Asia .

60 percent of the world’s garment production comes from Asian countries https://www.cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/asia-wage-report

Women in developed economies spend an average of 2 hours per day more than men on unpaid care and domestic work https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/do-women-work-longer-hours-than-men/

Over the last two decades the richest 10 percent of the population in China, Indonesia, Laos, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have seen their share of income increase by more than 15 percent.  The poorest 10 percent have seen their share of income fall by more than 15 percent: http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators

Spending on social services accounts for less than 10 percent of Asia’s GDP - developed economies spend 3 times this amount:  http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fm/2014/02/fmindex.htm 

Asia loses $35 billion in revenues every year as a result of the use of tax havens by wealthy individuals - http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.28.4.121

Contact information

Mustafa Talpur, Pakistan: +92-51-2653341-41 / + 92-345-5576460 / gtalpur@oxfam.org.uk 

Anna Ratcliff, UK:  +44 7796993288 / anna.ratcliff@oxfaminternational.org

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfaminAsia