The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on labour markets worldwide and Southeast Asia is no exception. Although both men and women were hit hard, the greater impact on women must be well understood and explicitly targeted in policies aiming at improving labour markets and people’s lives post-pandemic.
According to our research, the disproportionate impact on women is most evident in the area of job losses. At the height of the COVID-19 impact on labour markets in the second quarter of 2020, women represented approximately 91% of manufacturing job losses and 58% of overall job losses in Thailand.
Beyond job losses however, the differential impact was reflected in far more labour force exits among women, in all our sample countries and across nearly all ages, while men were more likely to become unemployed. This means that in contrast to men, most women who had lost their jobs were not searching for work and/or were not available to take up work.
Labour force survey data suggest that labour force exits among women were mainly temporary, and at least as many women re-entered the labour market in the second half of 2020 as those who had left in the first half of the year.
However, a close look reveals that many women who re-entered the labour market did so into ‘lower quality’ jobs than they had prior to the crisis, often informal, own-account or contributing family work. This is indicative of an ‘added worker effect’ or ‘distress employment’ whereby additional family members join the labour force to compensate for lost household income.
It reflects the fact that many low-income households in these countries – in a context of weak social protection and without savings to draw upon – cannot afford to stay without employment income for long. We should ensure that these female workers do not remain ‘trapped’ in lower quality forms of work, which would represent significant disruptions to their working lives, including potential ‘scarring effects’ for young labour market entrants.
The disproportionate impact on women reflected in their share of job losses is largely related to their sector of employment, and their occupations. In much of Southeast Asia, there remains a significant amount of gender segregation in employment.
The pandemic has painfully highlighted the vulnerability of women in Southeast Asia’s workforce.
Manufacturing – hit hard by the pandemic through supply chain disruptions and declines in global demand – constitutes an important source of female employment, and particularly of wage and salaried work in the region. However, much of this employment remains in lower value-added industries, where wages and productivity – although generally higher than in agriculture and low-skilled services – remain low.
In particular, many workers along global supply chains have temporary contracts, and informal employment remains elevated even within formal enterprises. As a result, they have high levels of job insecurity and limited access to social protection. This compounds the vulnerability of workers in these occupations at high risk from automation.
In the services sector, large shares of the region’s female workforce are in middle-skilled sales and service occupations and low-skilled elementary occupations, which were heavily affected by containment measures and mobility restrictions, and by the decline in aggregate demand and tourism.
In these occupations, physical proximity is key and few tasks can be undertaken remotely. Conversely, with the exceptions of health care and education, female employment in higher skilled services and in the professional and associate professional occupational categories remains limited in the region.
Beyond sectoral and occupational segregation are gender-specific barriers to female labour force participation, often rooted in social and cultural norms with respect to gender roles. As schools closed and the health emergency was maintained, women exited the labour market en masse to take care of children and ill relatives. The ‘care burden’ fell more heavily on women, along with its associated trade-offs as women transitioned from paid work outside the home, to unpaid care work within their households.
The pandemic has painfully highlighted the vulnerability of women in Southeast Asia’s workforce, and the growing inequalities across workers, based on skills and the nature of their working arrangements, among other dimensions. As technology and other factors continue to drive these inequalities, improving women’s access to decent work would have substantial spillovers effects for societies and economies.
As countries develop their post-COVID recovery strategies, both demand- and supply-side hurdles to the expansion of decent work for women must be addressed.
On the demand side, labour force activation measures and employment creation incentives must target women. On the supply side, women’s access to economic and productive resources and to skills development (including reskilling and upskilling in digital and technical areas) must be expanded.
Barriers to female labour force participation must be dismantled, through investing in family support services, and improving legal and institutional frameworks to tackle social norms that discriminate against women, eliminate gender-based violence, protect women’s rights, and recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work.
Additionally, social protection has a key role to play: as women face numerous disruptions to their working lives, life-cycle programmes and policies (including maternity benefits, unemployment insurance) can help limit these impacts. All of these constitute elements of the SDG 5 (gender equality) of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Another critical issue is how climate change affects men and women differently. With the strong impetus building to make post-pandemic recovery pathways green, there may be several opportunities to have a positive impact on both women and climate.
While the pandemic has cast a spotlight on persistent labour market challenges faced by women worldwide, it has also opened a window of opportunity to make decisive policy changes in many other areas as well that benefit women. It is time for policymakers and communities to take action.
Sameer is an economist who leads preparation and implementation of ADB loans and technical assistance projects in the areas of education, skills development, social protection and jobs. Prior to joining ADB operations in Southeast Asia, he was with the Macroeconomic Division of the Research Department at ADB. His research interest is spread across areas such as impact of technology on employment, innovation and structural transformation, industrial policy, enterprise dynamics and impact of COVID-19 pandemic on labour markets. Before joining the ADB in 2017, he spent close to 10 years at the International Labor Organization.
Souleima El Achkar Hilal
Souleima El Achkar Hilal is an economist and labour market information specialist, with expertise in skills development systems. Since 2010, she has worked as a consultant on numerous projects for the ILO, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. Her areas of interest include dual and informal labor markets, social protection systems, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), technology, trade and other drivers of structural change and their impacts on labor markets. Much of her recent research and publications has focused on the labor market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.