Skip NavigationMenu

Insights and Analysis

Women’s Labor Rights: The Road Ahead

April 29, 2015

By Barbara Rodriguez

May 1 is International Workers Day. Its origins lie in a peaceful demonstration in 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square that turned violent as frustrated workers petitioned for an eight-hour workday. Since then, workers’ rights around the world have seen significant legal gains, including the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced labor, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in employment. Yet enforcement on these issues continues to lag in many nations, and, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, women have not experienced the same degree of progress as men in claiming their rights.

Photo/Kristin Kelly Colombano

In 2014, Euromonitor reported that women in the Asia Pacific region can expect to earn 41.2 percent less than men by 2030. Photo/Kristin Kelly Colombano

While national policies and sociocultural norms have shifted to allow women to participate in the work force at higher rates, the global workforce gender gap has not budged in the last two decades. Despite gains in participation, women across countries remain less likely to enter the labor force than men, with a female labor force participation rate of 67 percent in East Asia and the Pacific, and a mere 33 percent in South Asia, as compared to 83 and 84 percent for men in those regions respectively. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report notes that the Asia Pacific region has seen the least progress in closing the gender gap in economic participation of all regions surveyed.

In addition to the gender gap in workforce participation, the quality of participation is vastly different for women. Across the globe, more women than men work in the informal sector, which includes non-regulated employment without a contract or benefits (such as unpaid work in a family enterprise, casual wage labor, home-based work, and street vending). The informal sector serves as the main source of employment for women in the majority of developing countries. For example, in India and Indonesia, nine out of 10 women with non-agriculture jobs work in the informal sector. This leaves many women vulnerable, as the informal sector typically lacks the oversight, protections, and regulations offered to formal sector workers. Even when women are employed in the formal sector, they are often in smaller-scale and less profitable areas. In Mongolia, for example, while women’s economic participation is high, women workers are concentrated in a narrow set of occupations including retail, catering, and teaching, rather than higher-paying sectors such as mining, transportation, and energy, where prospects for advancement are greater.

The UN estimates that, as a result of the limits on women’s participation in the workforce across the Asia-Pacific region, US$89 billion are lost to the economy every year. According to the ADB, the Asia-Pacific region loses US$42–47 billion annually because of women’s limited access to employment opportunities, and another US$16–30 billion due to gender gaps in educational attainment.

Partly as a result of discrimination, and also due to women’s disproportionate representation in vulnerable, lower-paying, and low-level jobs, the gender pay gap persists. For example, in Bangladesh, the tenth largest tea producer in the world, women make up 75 percent of tea plantation workers, performing the most painstaking jobs in the field – including leaf plucking – and facing particularly hazardous conditions at work, while being denied a decent wage. In addition, women’s wages worldwide generally represent just 70–90 percent of men’s wages for similar work. In Asia, the wage gap can be even starker. In 2014, Euromonitor reported that women in the Asia Pacific region can expect to earn 41.2 percent less than men by 2030.

Globally, 117 countries have equal pay laws and outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace, but implementation falls short. For example, in China, the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women prohibits sexual harassment against women, while the Special Rules on Labor Protection of Female Employees require employers to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. Nonetheless, a 2013 study looking into workplace sexual harassment in manufacturing industries in China found that over 70 percent of female workers surveyed had been harassed by co-workers at least once in their lives.

Another gap between legislation and implementation is reflected in Pakistan, which, despite constitutional commitments to non-discrimination and fundamental freedoms, has one of the lowest levels of female labor force participation in the region, and where there are significant obstacles to citizens exercising their labor rights. Civil society organizations, like HomeNet, are working to increase awareness among women workers about their rights in the formal and informal sectors, and conducting advocacy centered on women’s rights in the workplace. However, there is still an urgent need to raise awareness of existing labor laws, strengthen monitoring of labor rights violations, and improve reporting and redress of work-related grievances.

To improve the quality of women’s labor force participation and close workforce gender gaps, The Asia Foundation is supporting an online legal aid portal in Vietnam that invites workers to ask questions about their rights. To date, 75 percent of the questions posed have been submitted by women, and addressed issues like overtime and medical leave. In Bangladesh, we will soon be working to increase understanding of labor rights and responsibilities among tea plantation workers, employers, government representatives, and union members, and strengthening the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, which represents tea workers. Though projections suggest the world will have to wait until the year 2095 for gender equality in the workplace, this International Workers Day, let us work together so that day will not be so far away.

Barbara Rodriguez is an assistant director in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223

The Latest Across Asia


December 7, 2022

Support Women Forest Defenders

Join us this holiday season to help untapped leaders like Sumini and the Women Forest Defenders battle rampant deforestation in Indonesia.