ASIA: Food Crisis Adds to Women’s Burdens

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 29 (IPS) - As if the burdens they shoulder are not enough, Asia’s women are being compelled to bear the additional weight of rising food prices, say women’s rights activists from across the region.

‘’With increasing prices of rice, oil, fuel transport and all basic commodities, women workers in Asia are the worst hit,’’ declared the Committee for Asian Women (CAW), a regional non-governmental organisation (NGO), at the launch of a campaign here Monday to seek higher wages for female workers.

‘’Workers who produce society’s food, shelter and clothing are, themselves, in a perennially vulnerable hand to mouth existence,’’ added CAW in its statement to push for better incomes for women in the formal and informal sector. This ‘Wage Campaign 2008’ is being backed by women’s organisations in 14 Asian countries, among which are Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

‘’Women are definitely the worst affected when food prices go up. They will have to bear additional burdens for their families,’’ Lucia Jayaseelan, CAW’s executive coordinator, told IPS following the campaign’s launch. ‘’They also end up making huge sacrifices, such as being the last to eat in a family that is suddenly faced with limited food at home.’’

In addition, women are driven to seek additional jobs in the informal sector, often compelling them to work for longer hours, she added. ‘’They take on more work, like tailoring or packing things into small packages in their homes. Some women end up having to do three jobs.’’

Compounding the problem is the lack of a basic minimum wage for such female workers, Jayaseelan said. ‘’In many Asian countries there is no minimum wage. And where they do exist, they do not take into account the rise in inflation.’’

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), women make up 38.7 percent, or some 730 million, of the Asia-Pacific region’s total workforce, currently estimated at 1.9 billion people. But close to 65 percent of female workers earn a living in the ‘’vulnerable’’ and ‘’informal’’ sector, where there are no steady wages or social benefits.

Typical among those in the vulnerable and the informal sector are women who are self-employed, working in homes to produce goods for sale, or the millions who works as food vendors in the streets of Asia’s major and minor cities and towns. South Asian women account for the largest share of these vulnerable women across the continent, some 82 percent, ILO’s research reveals.

‘’The women who work as street vendors are being directly hit by the increase in food prices, because they have no social protection nor benefits in times of trouble,’’ says Steven Kapsos, a labour economist at the ILO’s Asia-Pacific regional office, based in Bangkok. ‘’Even women working in the region’s garment sector will be vulnerable despite getting a wage, because they do not enjoy benefits to deal with such a spike in food prices.’’

Asia is also home to a large body of the working poor, some 900 million people, who live on less than two US dollars a day. ‘’This food crisis will hit many of them, living in poor households in urban areas,’’ Kapsos said in an interview. ‘’The average poor family in Asia spends a minimum of 50 percent of the household budget on food.’’

The Geneva-based labour organisation is calling for governments to respond to the galloping rise in prices of staples such as rice through both short-term and long-term measures. ‘’In the short term, governments must provide cash transfers to poor households or subsidise the price of food for them,’’ says Kapsos. ‘’In the long term, governments must invest more in rural areas, including in labour productivity for agriculture.’’

The food crisis in the Philippines, one of the worst affected countries in the region, is drawing much attention. After all, it is the world’s largest importer of rice, depending on the paddy fields of South-east Asian neighbours like Vietnam and Thailand. It needs to import some 2.2 million tonnes of the grain this year. Consequently, it has been hit by the rapid rise in the price of rice being traded in the world market.

And to be a female worker in such times is to shoulder a larger burden, Jurgette Honculada of the National Federation of Labour in the Philippines, said at the conference in Bangkok. ‘’Nearly 40 percent of the Philippines labour force is either unemployed or under-employed. They are under constant assault.’’

Women make up the majority of those in the informal sector, some 27 million, in the Philippines. ‘’They have no social security, no protection and have to find small jobs that keep them afloat,’’ she added. ‘’Workers in this sector are eating less and less these days.’’

Female workers in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, are not immune from the hike in food prices either. ‘’Women working in the informal sector are concerned about the rise in the cost of living. The cost of one meal with rice has almost doubled in some places,’’ said Wilaiwan Seta, chairperson of the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee. ‘’Some women say they cannot afford to give birth to a second child because they worry that milk powder will be beyond their reach.’’

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