The impact of the global crisis on women workers – new report

March 30, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

A powerful new Oxfam report is released today, ahead of this week’s crisis summit in London. Written by my colleague Bethan Emmett, it pulls together preliminary research in 10 countries across Asia and Latin America to show that women working in export manufacturing industries, e.g. garments and electronics, are often first to be laid off, frequently without pay or compensation. In Asia, there are reports of sex traffickers approaching women who have been laid off from factory jobs, asking them if they want to go and work in the West. The behaviour of companies under pressure to cut costs, and the lack of support from governments, mean that the health and welfare of women and their families are seriously threatened.

Women often work in the most insecure jobs, with few rights. Many of them are migrants from rural areas, whose families back home depend on their wages to survive and to send kids to school. In Cambodia, for example, more than 90% of garment workers are women. Since the crisis began, 30,000 jobs in this sector have been lost, with companies frequently failing to give notice, pay compensation or settle outstanding pay. “We are just camping in front of the factory gates, waiting for the company to pay us,” former employee, Ms Kry Chamnan told Oxfam.

The story is the same in other countries, and the denial of basic labour rights – already common in export manufacturing in many countries – is intensifying. Suppliers feeling the squeeze of falling global demand and under pressure from companies in developed countries, are pushing costs down with direct impact on the most vulnerable. 

Employers are exploiting the second-class status of women to evade statutory labour rights – in some cases forcing workers to sign redundancy letters to avoid having to give severance pay. For those that remain, the pressure of work is becoming extreme.

“Now one person has to do three people’s work for the same wages and the employer is piling on the pressure – any small mistake is an excuse for dismissal. In this way it does not have to pay compensation and severance,” explained Ms Xiao Hong, from a factory in China.  

Fan, from another factory in China said: “I remember the employer was saying the factory would re-open again after the new year holiday. Go and take a look at the factory now, there is nobody there. The factory gate is locked. The security guard was changed. All the employers will tell you the factory is intact, is not closing down. Nobody will tell you the truth. You are stupid if you believe them.”

In El Salvador Ruth Cerna was one of 1,700 workers to be sacked in November when a factory making machine parts closed down: “Many women were pregnant, many are ill and are left with nothing. It’s been three months since the factory closed and we haven’t been paid anything, no severance, no social fund payments,” she said.

The crisis has a human face, and in this sector at least, it is female. I’ll be putting up more analysis of the human impact of the crisis over the next few days. For an overview, with lots of interviews with workers, migrants etc around the world, see here.