The Future of Work for Women in the Pacific Islands
March 17, 2021
In April of last year, Arundhati Roy challenged us to see the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” At the time of her writing, global infections had just reached the unimaginable milestone of one million cases. Nearly a year later, that number is approaching 120 million. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devasting impact around the world, affecting every individual, community, and country, exposing social and economic fissures, and exacerbating existing inequalities and gender-based violence. It has disproportionately affected women, who are at the frontlines as caregivers, nurses, community workers, and mental health practitioners. It has made people yearn for a return to “normal.” But what does this mean? The “old normal” didn’t work for large swathes of society, particularly women and other marginalized populations. The pandemic is a critical juncture, a chance to reset to a “new normal” that is green, inclusive, and equitable.
The Asia Foundation’s new report The Future of Work for Women in the Pacific Islands looks at the challenges and opportunities facing Pacific women in the context of the pandemic, climate change, and technology-led change. Across the Pacific there are pronounced gender disparities in labor market participation, the work men and women perform, and the wages they earn. There are also significant gender gaps in unpaid work. Pacific women are overwhelmingly employed in the informal economy, and the combination of Covid-19 and climate-related events has laid bare the vulnerability of these workers, many of whom have lost jobs and income due to mobility restrictions, the decimation of the travel industry, and a dramatic drop in demand.
Covid’s impact in the Pacific was felt most quickly and dramatically in tourism. The closure of borders and cessation of travel led to massive layoffs in the tourism industry and the loss of livelihoods for the many workers who rely on it, including taxi drivers, handicraft vendors, cleaners, fishers, farmers, and restaurant workers. Despite the importance of tourism for employment in the Pacific Islands, many in the industry have irregular or precarious work arrangements, including seasonal employment, part-time or excessive hours, and informal hiring.
In Fiji, women account for nearly two-thirds of university students in tourism courses, yet they hold just one-quarter of the professional and managerial jobs in the industry, with most instead working in minimum wage positions such as cleaning and front-desk work. Those with informal jobs linked to the industry, such as the production and sale of handicrafts to tourists, found themselves in an even more vulnerable position during the pandemic: they had no income or social protection to fall back on. A rapid assessment of market vendors in Fiji, 85 percent of whom were women, found that most did not have enough savings to withstand an income disruption of more than two weeks.
Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of workers in the “old normal” to unexpected shocks like the pandemic, as well as to known and escalating pressures such as climate change and automation. Most workers in the Pacific are employed in the sectors at greatest risk of climate impacts: agriculture, fisheries, and tourism. Technology-led change is putting further pressure on women’s labor force participation, as automation disproportionately affects the sorts of routine jobs in which women are disproportionately employed.
So, what can be done to rethink “normal” and plan for a more equitable future of work in the Pacific in the Covid and post-Covid era? There are a number of emerging opportunities for quality employment and entrepreneurship for Pacific women both locally and abroad. Fields such as education, healthcare, and community service, where women predominate, are expected to grow. New jobs will also be created in green energy, infrastructure, ICT, and other STEM-based fields, and women will need new skills to benefit from these more secure, more influential, and higher paying positions. Technical and vocational training should focus on projected growth areas like sustainable agriculture and fishing, green design and building, and other emerging industries within the green economy. It will also be essential to train women in ICT for work in all sectors and to support access to opportunities in outsourcing and other remote work. Entrepreneurship training should similarly be provided across sectors, given the large number of informal and own-account workers in the Pacific. This entrepreneurship training could include a focus on bringing niche products such as artisanal tea, coffee, chocolate, sauces and condiments, and natural skincare products to market.
Governments, educational institutions, and development actors should make sure that reskilling and upskilling programs reach women workers affected by the Covid-19 economic downturn, including those in the informal economy. It is essential to train women in ICT and create pathways into jobs that rely on technology so they will not be left behind as the economy adapts in the wake of the pandemic. There is an immediate opportunity to train workers who are currently unemployed or underemployed, particularly workers in industries such as tourism that have severely contracted and where jobs are not likely to be added in the near term. Skill-building programs can focus on technology, nursing, community services, healthcare, construction, and other fields where demand has not waned during Covid-19 and where there is significant growth potential. Training programs should be paired with childcare, eldercare, and disability support and subsidies so that mothers, fathers, and others with caring duties can participate.
In concert with training initiatives, new policies should ensure that more women enter STEM education and develop the qualifications for skilled employment in the green economy and other emerging STEM fields. Proactive measures such as the establishment of a STEM equity fund could help close the gender gap in STEM, including in leadership and management roles. The fund could take a holistic approach, from education to labor force participation, offering scholarships, leadership development, networking, mentoring, and career counseling for students so that they can envision themselves in STEM roles. Also important is employer socialization, including programs that help employers understand the value of women’s contributions, and targeted recruiting and employee support to attract and retain women employees. Employer socialization can be supported with apprenticeship programs, internships, and hiring incentives to bring women into STEM positions.
It is equally important to address the increase in gender-based violence that holds women back from participating in the economy. Policies and programs must address patriarchal norms that sustain power imbalances and violence that have an intergenerational impact on women, their families, and entire communities.
As governments plan for changes in the nature of work, women must play an active role in leadership bodies in education, training, labor relations, social protection, economic development, and climate and energy policy. NGO leaders, women’s groups, networks, business councils, and other stakeholders with insight into women’s economic engagement should be represented on these bodies. Having diverse women in leadership and decision-making will help ensure that the “new normal” will be a greener, more resilient, and more equitable Pacific.
Read the report, The Future of Work for Women in the Pacific Islands.
Ellen Boccuzzi is a senior advisor to The Asia Foundation, Imrana Jalal is an international human rights lawyer from Fiji, Sandra Kraushaar is the Foundation’s Pacific Islands director, and Jane Sloane is senior director of the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Program. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
The authors wish to acknowledge Amber Parkes, Anam Parvez, and Dana Stefov, “Coronavirus and the case for care: Envisioning a just, feminist future,” From Poverty to Power blog, May 7, 2020.
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