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

31st May 2016

Asia's economic success has been at the expense of poor women, who work long hours for low pay and do the majority of unpaid care work, according to a new report by Oxfam today.

Oxfam's report, published at the start of the World Economic Forum for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Malaysia, 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 while 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 then 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, forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions and subject to sexual harassment. 

Many UK high street fashion retailers source clothes from factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh as well as increasingly from Myanmar where recent Oxfam research found that garment workers - mostly young women - struggle to survive on average wages as low as $1.50 per day.

Oxfam is calling on government and business leaders attending the ASEAN World Economic Forum to support a living wage for all, and to invest in services that will help lift the burden of care from women's shoulders. 

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 By comparison, women in developed economies spend an average of 2 hours per day more than men on unpaid care and domestic work

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 three 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

Many garment workers - particularly young women - in Myanmar describe having to work long hours on low wages with no safety training. Some commented that they become weak and lightheaded due to overtime; there were reports of workers fainting. Photos of garment workers available here

Female dairy producers in Bangladesh report working all day on household chores, before starting a long evening's work in the dairy. Photos and stories available on request.

The full report, 'Underpaid and undervalued: how inequality defines women's work in Asia' is available on request.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) takes place in Malaysia on 1 - 2 June.

60 percent of the world's garment production comes from Asian countries:


Mustafa Talpur, Pakistan: +92-51-2653341-41 or mobile + 92-345-5576460, or Skype: mustafatalpur

Meg Pruce, UK: +44 (0) 1865 472240 / +44 (0) 7824 824359 /