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Overcoming barriers to female labour force participation–I

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index and 7th among 8 South Asian countries, doing better than Afghanistan only. Half of Pakistan’s population is comprised of women. If engaged in economic activity, this percentage of the total population is high enough to promote sustainable economic growth in the country. However, female labour force participation (FLFP) rates in the country are meager (only 23%), particularly in paid employment, representing a massive loss of potential productivity. The low FLFP has implications not only for the country’s economic development but also for women’s empowerment and safety.

The World Bank Group’s economic memorandum 2022 for Pakistan states that Pakistan experienced some achievement in increasing FLFP rates over the past three decades. It showed an increase from 13 to 24% over the period from 1993-2019 (figure 1). Inter-provincial disparities, however, are high. For instance, Punjab has had higher levels of FLFP than Sindh, KP, and Baluchistan since 1992.

Pakistan has some success in increasing FLFP over the past three decades

Employment expansion for women in Pakistan was driven by an increase in self-employment and unpaid work. Unpaid work rose from 8 to 13% of the female working-age population while paid employment increased from 5 to 11% (mostly self-employment). However, waged jobs for women (better-paid and more productive jobs) remained stagnant since the early 2000s. This brings us to the conclusion that there is an existence of a trade-off between female labor force participation increase and job quality. On the other hand, quality jobs for men rose from 31 to 37% while the overall male labor force participation declined from 83 to 81% of the male working- age population between 1993 to 2019. Female employment was predominantly driven by more agricultural jobs, as the number of male jobs in agriculture declined.

Pakistan has failed to increase female participation in the labor force, while its regional competitors have increased better-paid jobs for their working women to ensure their contribution to economic growth and prosperity. Bangladesh, for instance, has 60% more women in employment than Pakistan. Although similar to Pakistan, female employment in the trade and hospitality sectors is low, Bangladesh has raised female employment in other sectors. This has caused a higher share of Bangladeshi working women in the agriculture, manufacturing, and personal services sectors.

The education gap between men and women in Pakistan is larger than in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, 63% of women and 66% of men have completed at least primary education, while in Pakistan only 35% of working-age women have completed primary education or above compared to 52% of men of the same category. Pakistan, however, has a relatively higher share of people with secondary and tertiary education than Bangladesh. Workers with medium levels of education are underrepresented in Pakistan compared to workers with low or high education levels.

Even among women having higher education, only 25% of those participating in the labor force have a university degree, which indicates that women with higher quality education do not enter the workforce after their degree completion, resulting in a significant loss of economic activity. The question ‘why most female university graduates do not enter the workforce in Pakistan’ requires more in-depth research and understanding, as it is crucial for the country to understand the nexus between economic growth and female employment to design policies to achieve greater gender justice.

Gains from closing female employment gap

If Pakistan closes its female employment gap with Bangladesh, about 7.3 million new jobs would be created. The share of working-age women in employment would rise from 22% in 2018 to 34%. According to ILO, if the gender gap in female participation is reduced by 25% in Pakistan, a GDP rise of 9% is estimated, which is an increase of around $139 billion. Agriculture would be the top sector with the newly created jobs for women (56% of the total increase in employment). Government, personal services, and manufacturing would be the next largest sectoral contributors of new female jobs adding 3.6 million jobs (World Bank Group 2022a). Thus, enhanced FLFP has the potential to significantly boost Pakistan’s GDP.

FLFP in the textile sector

Pakistan’s textile and garment industry employs around 45% of the country’s total labor force. According to the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), about 30% of the workers in the industry are women (GIZ GmbH n.d.). Leading textile companies in Pakistan are actively endorsing inclusive and diverse workforce by expanding opportunities for female employees and organizing dedicated technical training for their skill development. The industry is showing a strong commitment to gender equality by devoting efforts to create gender-balanced working teams in the companies. However, in order to effectively close the existing female employment gap in Pakistan, gender balance in employment opportunities at all stages must be ensured on a larger scale in the entire industry.

According to a study conducted by SDPI (2010), women are employed for very few trades in the textile sector (i.e. Stitching and quality assurance) due to low skill development and training. Women experience biased attitudes from employers and very few receive permanent contracts compared to male workers. Provision of female employee benefits such as maternity leaves are not effectively monitored and career progression is comparatively slow in low and medium enterprises.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) published its Social and Gender Survey Report in 2016-17 for one of its projects on the textile/garment industry. The findings reveal the top three challenges highlighted by the majority of women working in the textile industry. These include lack of transportation, distance from home, and working hours. Moreover, it was stated that female employees expect facilities such as separate toilets, separate workspaces and technical training as they help them perform better in a secure environment but are least considered by the management.

Importantly, the repercussions of the current grave economic crisis and low exports in Pakistan are experienced by the female workers in the textile industry. Many have lost their only source of income while others are paid low wages. Besides, a large number of home-based workers are involved in the industry, who remain deprived of regular capacity development trainings, and other employee benefits. But, with rising requirements on human and labor rights from the international community, the textile industry is increasingly allocating resources to increase female employment and provide a safe working environment and facilities to the female workers.

Shahid Sattar and Noreen Akhtar, "Overcoming barriers to female labour force participation–I," Business recorder. 2023-05-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Labour force , Sexual harassment , Public transport , Female employment , Employment growth , Labour markets , Pakistan , FLFP

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