Women at Work: Breaking through Asia's Glass Ceiling

Economic growth in Asia and the Pacific will only translate into more and better jobs for women when legislative, economic, and social reforms are introduced.

Date: 22 April 2014

  • What can be done to make more jobs available to women across Asia and the Pacific?
  • How can education reduce the gender gap?
  • Are gender divisions in domestic labor hampering women from succeeding in the workplace?
  • How can governments tap women’s potential for employment without having them leave their homes?

Send your questions in advance to our experts though Facebook, Twitter or via email.

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Sylvia Inciong: Good afternoon and welcome to today's ADB live chat, "Women at Work – Breaking through Asia's Glass Ceiling". I am Sylvia Inciong of ADB's Department of External Relations and I will be your moderator for today's live chat.

I'm joined today by Imrana Jalal, Senior Social Development Specialist on Gender at ADB and Nelien Haspels who is a Senior Specialist on Gender and Women Workers Issues of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Bangkok.

Our discussions will focus on, but will not be limited to, the five joint publications of ADB and ILO, which analyzed and made suggestions for improving gender equality in the labor markets in Cambodia, Kazakhstan and the Philippines. The publications also examined global best practices in law and social and economic policies, which have helped encourage greater equality in the workforce.

I am delighted to open the discussions to our online community.

Imrana Jalal: Hello. This is Imrana signing in from ADB and am looking forward to chatting and hearing your views!

Nelien Haspels: Hi. Welcome everyone. This is Nelien Haspels from the International Labour Organization (ILO). I look after gender equality and women workers' issues in East and Southeast Asia. I am signing in from the ILO Bangkok Office.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: Good afternoon. This is Swaraj, former Director-General, Civil Society Organizations (CSO), and India. Why is it that the Government does not introduce half-time work for women who cannot work on a full-day basis due to other social responsibilities and similarly introduce school hours starting from mid-day for girls who cannot attend classes during morning?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Swaraj. Yes, half-day work for women is one option especially since women are constrained by child care responsibilities. In Cambodia, the unpaid work gap between women and men is 3.5 hr/day. In Kazakhstan, this gap is 2.7 hr/day and in the Philippines, women provide 84% of all child care in the family.

These household responsibilities also lead to significant gender discrimination of women in the labor market, as employers prefer male workers without family responsibilities, above women who might get pregnant or have children. So, compensating women for sharing the bulk of these responsibilities is an option to consider.

Joanna: Is there a typical Asian issue or sets of issues when it comes to discrimination against women in the workplace? Or is the situation in Asia more or less comparable to the rest of the world?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Joanna. In our study on gender inequality in the labor market, we found what we are calling seven gender gaps or deficits. These are (1)the labor force participation rate; (2) human capital; (3) the unpaid domestic and care work burden; (4) employment rate; (5) share of vulnerable employment; (6) decent work; and (7) social protection.

Although some gender gaps have been reduced, women still suffer persistent gender deficits. Although these findings are specifically applicable to the Philippines, Cambodia, and Kazakhstan, their applicability is throughout Asia when you think about it!

I think that there are many things in common between Asia and the rest of the world.

Joanna: Which one of these seven gender gaps should be prioritized in terms of action to be taken to tackle gender inequality in the labor market?

Imrana Jalal: Other studies (e.g., from The World Bank) also show that these gender gaps persist throughout the globe regardless of whether it is the developing or developed societies. The gaps in the developed world may be narrower but they are still gaps which shouldn't be there in a gender equal world.

In addition, it is not possible to prioritize the gender gaps as they are interconnected and interdependent. Advancement in one promotes advancement in another. Countries may make choices based on the priorities of women, e.g., in Kazakhstan, one important priority appears to be child care. The same is valid for the Philippines where women do not find jobs because of their family responsibilities. In Cambodia, women need better access to decent and productive jobs, for example, in the public sector. Currently, they are only 13% of the civil service. In all three countries, action is needed to reduce vulnerable employment, so each should choose their priorities but women need to be consulted about these.

Marjorie Santibañes: Could you please give examples on how labor divisions (on gender) are actually hampering women in succeeding in the workplace?

Nelien Haspels: Hi Marjorie. One of the main constraints is access to work and discrimination against women upon recruitment. Many employers prefer to recruit men because their idea is that women are not real workers and think about their families all the time when at work. This is of course a gender stereotype but still seriously affects women's chances at a decent job.

Poornima: Any particular reason for selecting Cambodia, Kazakhstan, and the Philippines for the gender equality and labor market study?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Poornima. We chose these countries to provide a comparative analysis and because each of the countries represent a different, unique, and interesting historical, political, economic and gender context. For example, Kazakhstan would provide an interesting comparator to the Philippines and Cambodia given that it was a former Soviet country in which gender equality appeared to be given significant priority during the Soviet era.

We also wanted to see if that equality continued post-Soviet era. The Philippines was another interesting choice, as it appears very high on the Gender Equality Indexes but it has a low labor market participation of women, high share of vulnerable work, and women do 84% of household/care work.

Why the anomalies?

Cambodia has a high labor force participation rate (LFPR) for women yet low prevalence of decent work. So these choices were interesting choices. Despite the different contexts mentioned, the same trends are revealed throughout most of Asia, beyond the three countries.

Alden: How does Asia fare with other regions in this regard? I understand that the unique cultures of Asia and the diversity of religion play a major role in this matter.

Nelien Haspels: Hi Alden. Culture and religion influence gender norms for sure and play a role in determining whether women can go out to work or are confined to the home. This is true in Asia as elsewhere. However, Asia is also a very dynamic region and ideas about men and women and what they can do are changing rapidly between generations.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: Is there any system of crop insurance in Cambodia or in the Philippines? Is it a fact that due to failure of agri-crops and absence of crop insurance, girl children are being sold?

Nelien Haspels: In the country studies, the researchers did not come across crop insurance schemes and the link with human trafficking. However, human trafficking is a problem wherever there are families in poverty and for this reason, the Cambodian government has a comprehensive anti-trafficking program in the tourism sector.

Michaela: What is the gender wage gap in the three countries covered in the study, and why do women on the average earn less than men?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Michaela. In the three countries, women's annual earnings amount to 71% of men's earnings. The main reasons for the gender wage gap are related to the discrimination that women face in the labor market, and the overall gender inequality in society. Because of this, they often can only find jobs in vulnerable employment, as unpaid family workers, or as own account workers; in temporary jobs; jobs in sectors with low pay, low levels, and lack social security; and jobs with difficult working conditions (such as domestic work, street vending, garment workers on the assembly line). Alternatively, women opt for part-time work or leave the paid labor market for some years to look after the family.

In addition, many Asian labor markets also informally divide up jobs into "women's jobs and men's jobs". There are more "men's jobs" available than women's jobs especially if we look at decent jobs such as in the public sector and at management levels. Where men and women are found in the same sector, such as paid domestic work, male domestic workers like security guards and drivers earn much more that female domestic workers who look after the household and care for people.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: It is said that Cambodia has high LFPR. It sounds good. But has anyone studied from a gender perspective, the living conditions of women especially working for export processing zones?

Nelien Haspels: Yes, the LFPR is high for women and men in Cambodia compared to other countries in Asia and also the Philippines and Kazakhstan. However, it is the quality of employment that is of concern and in particular for women. Women often predominate in export processing zones (EPZs), for example, in the Philippines and in Indonesia, or generally in labor intensive industries such as in the garment factories in Cambodia. It is vital to regulate labor relations in labor intensive manufacturing industries and ensure that minimum wage legislation and the freedom to organize are available to workers.

Alden: In the countries you mentioned, are women discriminated more than gays or homosexuals?

Nelien Haspels: Discrimination of gays or discrimination on the ground of sexual identity is only slowly being recognized in many countries in Asia. For example, ILO research on the employment situation of lesbians, gays, transgenders, and bisexuals (LGTBs) in Thailand show that they can work only in very few occupations considered suitable for them, especially if they do not hide their sexual identity. However, to say that they are more of less discriminated against women is not so interesting. Many groups face labor market discrimination. Many migrant women also face discrimination on multiple grounds like sex and race. It is important to analyze and then address all these forms, as societies and labor markets realize that it limits human potential and thereby productivity.

Guest: What is ADB doing in its own projects to promote women as employees, entrepreneurs or skilled workers?

Imrana Jalal: ADB has a gender policy and target for gender mainstreaming in its loans/investments. About 45% of loans must be gender mainstreamed. This means that we must have a gender action plan attached to the loan project which has direct gender benefits for women. These generally include jobs for women arising straight out of the project (e.g., construction jobs) or which will lead to jobs for women later on.

ADB has created thousands of jobs for women in construction and infrastructure. The technical vocational education and training (TVET) sector is one sector where ADB is investing in heavily. We have targets for scholarships for women/girls in TVET and also targets for jobs post TVET in the project gender action plan.

Karen: Hi Imrana. Your answer about ADB's activities is an interesting one. You mention that ADB has created thousands of jobs in construction but you also mentioned this notion of "women's" jobs and "men's" jobs. Are ADB's jobs on construction sites meaningful, or are women basically sweeping and picking stones?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Karen. The jobs are those of the companies that the borrower/country hires to acquit the government contracts. We don't hire women or men directly. However, it is more the money in women's pockets, which contributes to women's economic empowerment. We try to promote sound labor practices including equal pay for equal work. Our gender action plans try to upgrade women's skills and livelihood opportunities for the future. Our best bet are TVET opportunities and scholarships which will lead to less gender segregation in the labor market.

Bart: Hi, Nelien and Imrana. This is Bart Édes, chair of ADB's Social Development and Poverty Community of Practice. The topic you are addressing is "Women at Work: Breaking through Asia's Glass Ceiling." In the light of the slow progress in breaking through that ceiling, do you believe that Asian and Pacific countries should mandate female representation in corporate boardrooms and public bodies? In France, 40% of executive board members of the largest publicly traded companies will be female by 2016. By that same year, 30% of corporate board members in the Netherlands will have to be female, or companies that fall short of the goal must prepare a plan on how they will get there. For nearly two decades, Finland has required that 40% of those serving on indirectly elected public bodies must be female. Are these European practices transferable to one or more countries in Asia/Pacific? If so, which ones?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Bart. I am a steadfast believer in temporary special measures for women which must include time bound targets, as part of affirmative action measures. Quotas have led to significant improvements in the numbers of women in national legislatures and elsewhere. I do agree with targets for women on corporate boards. In fact, it might be marginally easier in Asia given the dynastic tendencies of corporations. Mckinsey, Grant Thornton and other organizations have shown the links between more women on boards, and greater profits and the bottom line. Why not Asia and the Pacific? Both Viet Nam and India have shown that more women on corporate boards have led to better performance.

Sukti Dasgupta: There is an increasing commitment to gender equality in the global and national levels, which however, does not get adequately translated into decent work for women at the local level, and individual employer's decisions to hire women. Often, we see that when women's labor force participation rises, their unemployment rate does too. Some of it has to do with macroeconomic issues of low rate of job creation, skills mismatch, etc., but hiring decisions are also influenced by perceptions of women's ability, commitment, cost (maternity benefits), etc. Advocacy helps. Are there good examples here we can learn from?

Nelien Haspels: Yes, Sukti, you are so right. It's the mindsets of people that need to change, of male and female employers, and of the men and women at the work floor. Overall, a good example of advocacy is the work that is done by an increasing number of individual companies and employers/organizations which try to attract talents irrespective of the sex of the worker. Another good example of advocacy is the turnaround on taking action against sexual harassment at the workplace. Some 20 years ago, it was not talked about and not acknowledged. Today, almost all countries in the region have legislated against it or are taking practical workplace action.

Wilma: Hi, I am Wilma Rojas of ADB's Central West Asia Regional Department (CWRD). Thanks Imrana and Nelien. For conceptual clarity, could you define what you mean by "decent jobs" for women?

Nelien Haspels: Hi Wilma. Decent jobs stands for: access to work that provides a productive income, respect for workers' rights at the workplaces, access to safe work and social security, and the ability to have one's voice heard and interest taken into account through representation.

Poornima: This question is related to one of Nelien's earlier responses regarding the discrimination against women upon recruitment and Imrana's response on "women's and men's job". If the employers do not perceive women as real workers, then why women are predominantly recruited for certain types of jobs? Apart from the social, cultural, and religious norms, what other factors have contributed towards this?

Nelien Haspels: Another factor is the gender stereotype that exists in society and the labor market about men's and women's physical and mental capabilities, i.e., men are preferred as managers and women are selected for care work or fine manual assembly line work because of their nimble fingers. Of course, women can be equally good managers as men and successful companies know this. One policy measure that is important to tackle is job segregation when boys and girls are studying. Both need to study fields that lead to productive jobs.

Alden: Hi Imrana. In the study you are citing, where you are getting the figures? Is it available online for public viewing?

Imrana Jalal: The series of ADB and ILO five studies on gender and the labor market are already on our website under publications - www.adb.org/gender.

Ivana: Women's issues usually surface during March which is the International Women's Month. How do international organizations such as ILO make a dent in the legislative agenda of governments for women-related concerns?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Ivana. Yes! Did you know that International Women's Day started in the USA at the beginning of the 1900s because a fire broke out in a garment factory which killed many women workers? Such types of accidents are still common if we think of the building collapse and fires in garment factories in Bangladesh. ILO urges all governments to create decent and safe work for women and men alike. It is also important to prohibit all forms of employment discrimination against women, for example - do away with discriminatory job advertisements seeking men only for the many men's jobs that are around, and women only, for the lower quality women's jobs. There also remains a need to take specific measures where gender gaps are pronounced, such as in the case of the gender pay gap and enable all, both male and female workers to balance work and family responsibilities.

Jennifer: Hi Imrana and Nelien. It is interesting that the Philippines appears high on the Gender Equality Index, and has legislation that aims to protect women in the workplace (I'm thinking about the recent Kasambahay Law to ensure that employers contribute to their househelp's Social Security System, Phil Health and Pag-Ibig payments). However, implementation of the law is so lax that it appears to be very ineffective. What do you think is the most practical way to protect and enforce the legal rights of this group of workers in the Philippines?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Jennifer. The Philippines is an interesting case. It has high levels of educated women, has women in the national legislature, and women in government (leading to a relatively high position on the gender inequality index), yet low LFPR which is a mere 49%.

In the Philippines, 31% of working-age women reported that they were not in the labor force in 2012 because of household or family duties, compared to only 3% of men who reported this. Women also provide 84% of the total household time allocated to child care/domestic work.

One answer to the plight of domestic workers is better and stronger labor inspectors who are skilled and empowered to work in this sector to enforce the new law designed to protect domestic workers.

Nelien Haspels: Yes, the Philippines for the most parts have its laws in place to promote gender equality. The ADB-ILO study shows that the big challenge is implementation. With regard to the protection of domestic workers, the Kasambahay Law that was adopted in the Philippines is a major legal breakthrough and can form an example for other countries. Of course, legislation cannot stand alone as it needs to be accompanied by practical policies and measures. For example, we understand that local governments are in charge of implementing the Kasambahay Law at the level where it matters most in the homes where domestic work for others take place. Domestic workers are also organizing with the help from the employers. This organizing work is important. We also need now to hear the voices of the employers of domestic workers so we can work with both parties to ensure a good employment relationship that benefits both groups.

Alden: What are the specific industries in the three countries where women have the highest participation?

Imrana Jalal: Agriculture is still one of the largest sectors of women's employment in all 3 countries, followed by services then industry.

Bart: Swaraj has highlighted the importance of crop insurance, which can mitigate social risks. In the Philippines, fewer than 1 in 10 farmers have crop insurance, with affordability being a major constraint. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the government-owned Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation announced that it would expand in 2014 to provide free policies to 800,000 farmers in the 20 poorest provinces, plus six provinces directly hit by the destructive typhoon.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: The size of informal sector is huge in Asian countries. Cambodia and the Philippines are no exceptions. What problems are faced by women in the informal sector?

Nelien Haspels: Generally, the informal sector is characterized by lack of protective labor and social security laws. Jobs are insecure, people earn little, and usually belong to the dirty, dangerous and demeaning category. Women often predominate in the lower level informal jobs, as unpaid family workers or in micro enterprises that are barely profitable. In addition, they are traditionally responsible for both the unpaid family work and earning money to put the daily bread on the table.

Michaela: Hi Imrana. You mentioned earlier that women are opting for part-time jobs or leaving the labor market to attend to family matters. Because of women's domestic roles in the household and the time required for family care, how can governments tap into women's potential for employment without having them leave their homes?

Imrana Jalal: Women's unpaid work for the family is not recognized and valued sufficiently, either by families or the State. As mentioned, the traditional unequal distribution of unpaid work between men and women in families, and women's added responsibility to earn an income in modern times, to enable households to meet their families' needs, means that there is no level playing field. If women sacrifice decent jobs, independence and financial autonomy to care for children and the aged, and/or must grow/tend subsistence food/livestock as unpaid family workers in agriculture, they should be compensated. They must be compensated first of all within the household, by the sharing of paid and unpaid work, and second, they should share equally in benefits, such as incomes.

Imrana Jalal: Further, it is important to provide state funded care or community supported care, e.g., create paid jobs in child care or pay women to look after people who are old, sick or disabled at home. They did this in Kazakhstan in the Soviet era, and in PR China. But this benefit is rapidly eroding. This is the single most cited reason why women in Kazakhstan are now leaving the paid work force, and why there are so few Filipino women in paid employment.

Some community child care facilities are covered in the publications. For example, the Philippines has set up promising child care services that countries like Cambodia and Kazakhstan could look at.

Sonomi: Hi Imrana and Nelien. Could you list some examples from the three country case studies of how public policies (whether macroeconomic, sector policies, or social protection measures) can provide incentives for the private sector companies to create more decent jobs for women?

Nelien Haspels: Hi Sonomi. It is important to develop sunshine sectors and industries that create productive jobs for women and men alike. Favorable macroeconomic policy for women is about policies that foster labor intensive growth that is gender inclusive. Fiscal incentives would include tax breaks or import duty concessions on raw materials in female-dominated sectors, creating a supportive physical infrastructure such as roads and utilities, and safe travel on them and a facilitating legal and institutional environment, such as one-stop shops for women's microenterprises in rural areas.

Most jobs are in the informal economy and women need to escape the poverty trap of informal income generation, for example, by ensuring that business development and financial services can effectively reach them. In the social protection field, basic health care, including adequate maternity protection and child benefits is vital. Policies to enable workers with family responsibilities to reconcile work and family are also important.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: How will this discussion help in advocacy for gender equality in the countries under study and all Asian countries?

Imrana Jalal: The studies provide data and evidence of why more attention is needed to promote gender equality in the labor market. It's smart economics. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) argues that gender matters for efficiency reasons because of the "misallocation of women's labor as a result of discrimination, social norms, and lack of opportunity which result in economic losses." Numerous studies show that not promoting gender equality cost billions of dollars in lost opportunities.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: How will women be compensated for their unpaid work? Mere introduction of law will not do.

Nelien Haspels: The first thing to do is not so much compensating women for the unpaid work thereby keeping the traditional gender division of labor. It is more promising to redistribute the paid and the unpaid labor and the benefits thereof more equally within families. It goes slow but men in modern economies everywhere are taking up household and caring duties. A help in making such a mindset change happen is to recognize unpaid labor in national systems of account, and to show the market value of unpaid care work. Finally, states and employers can promote family-friendly workplaces for both fathers and mothers.

Marjorie Santibañez: I am wondering how gender divisions in domestic labor hamper women from succeeding in the workplace? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

Juliana: Could you please provide some examples on how labor divisions (gender) have actually hampered success of women in the work place?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Marjorie and Juliana. One of the biggest domestic obstacles to women succeeding in the workplace is their significant domestic and child care responsibilities. As I said, women have the greater domestic and care burdens in their families. In Cambodia, the unpaid work gap between women and men is 3.5 hr/day. In Kazakhstan, this gap is 2.7 hr/ per day and in the Philippines, women provide 84% of all child care in the family. These household responsibilities also lead to significant gender discrimination of women in the labor market, as employers prefer male workers without family responsibilities, above women who might get pregnant or have children. If women's care burden was alleviated or shared or the State played a greater role in assisting women at home, then they would more likely succeed in the paid workforce.

Wilma: If we want more women in better-paying and high status jobs, shouldn't governments and ADB be investing in scholarships for girls in traditionally male fields of study, such as engineering, science and technology courses? Earning a degree in these courses facilitates women's entry into male-dominated fields. As mentioned earlier, advocacy work is essential to counter socio-cultural beliefs and practices about women's place and status in society. In countries where gender roles are sharply defined, supporting initiatives that project positive female role models (e.g., women who work outside the home and rise as leaders) serve to inspire the younger generation while challenging hard line views about women's supposed "place in society"

Wilma: Please allow me to add that we need to educate men as well, make them more gender sensitive in the home front. Where unpaid reproductive work (e.g., care for the young old, cooking, washing, etc.) has been identified as a deterrent to women's participation in productive work, men should learn to share these responsibilities. Otherwise, even if our policies succeed in generating jobs for women, they will still end up double, triple burdened.

Jeff: Women are physically less strong than men. However, women perform most agriculture-related tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, etc.). How can this given physical structure of women adapt to agriculture while being gainfully employed by the sector?

Imrana Jalal: Hi Jeff. This question raises important points. Actually, research in sports has shown that overall, men have more muscle power but women have more endurance. Such endurance comes in handy as much agricultural work involves many long hours of back bending work, if there are no machines. However, this is only part of the story. It is also evident from research that individual physical differences within one sex are more important that physical differences between the sexes and this depend on the work they do.

For example, male and female construction workers, nurses or janitors (cleaners) are generally much stronger than male and female office workers and managers. Another point relates to changes in jobs and the work environment, and advances in technology. Nowadays, when we are speaking of decent work, there is not much work out there that women can't do anymore! Even if some women may have less muscle power than some men, what does it matter when so much work is mechanized? How strong do you have to be to push a button or flick a switch?

Guest: In developing countries, women are involved in multifaceted jobs within households leaving very limited time to go for wage earning. We can we recommend to countries to introduce half time based work for women and work from home with social security.

Swaraj Kumar Nath: Can we make vocational training as a part of school education so that the women can earn their livelihoods in doing work from home?

Imrana Jalal: TVET a critical strategy as I indicated earlier. It is a pathway to better jobs. By introducing more labor market connected education and training into high school; by channeling women into more science, technology, engineering and mathematics from high school through to tertiary education, gender divisions in the labor market can be minimized in terms of the types of work available to women. These can evolve into better pay and more decent work anyway.

Vocational training is vital to open up a wide range of potential occupations for women. It must be free of prejudice based on stereotypes. An example is a situation in which certain trades or occupations are reserved for a particular gender. Early vocational guidance for women and girls should aim at widening the scope of available training so that it is not confined to typically "female" spheres of employment (domestic service, needlework, cooking, care work, etc.).

Thus, supporting women's transition into occupations and industries traditionally perceived to be male-oriented is a pathway for increasing women's wages and decreasing the gender wage gap. This strategy requires not only ensuring women have the skills to undertake the jobs, but also requires reducing the resistance to hiring women from employers, and even customers as well as reducing sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace.

Sylvia Inciong: We are running out of time. We would like to thank everyone for their active participation. Till the next live chat!

Nelien Haspels: Equal pay for work of equal value, action against sexual harassment at the workplace and adequate maternity protection for women and paternity leave for fathers will go a long way for effective gender equality promotion. Our work is not yet done but we have set a few steps today. Thank you for your contributions and looking forward to speak to you again.

Imrana Jalal: I apologize for not being able to answer all the questions posed. I could not type fast enough! Thanks so much for tuning in and taking the time for this live chat.

Sylvia Inciong: Thank you for your active participation. Have a nice day!

Imrana Jalal
Imrana Jalal is Senior Social Development Specialist (Gender) at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). She has Bachelors and Masters degrees in law from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a Masters degree in Gender Studies from the University of Sydney, Australia.
Nelien Haspels
Nelien Haspels is Senior Specialist on Gender and Women Workers Issues, International Labour Organization (ILO). She holds a Master of Arts in Socio-Cultural Sciences from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.