What Lies Beneath Gender Equality, Labor, and Migration in the PRC

Women comprise 67% of the workforce in the PRC’s textile and apparel sector.
Women comprise 67% of the workforce in the PRC’s textile and apparel sector.

By Imrana Jalal

A new ADB-ILO joint desk review analyzes what the PRC’s transition to a new growth model means for women in the labor market.

The population of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is rapidly aging. So, who will look after the growing numbers of elderly in the future? Mainly women, of course.

It is likely that this work will be unpaid or underpaid, and many women will have to withdraw from the paid labor market. Female caregivers will probably lack social protection and work long hours in a country where the gender gap in time spent working without pay is almost 2.5 hours.  

These are some of the findings of a new ADB-ILO joint desk review that analyzes the implications for women in the labor market of the PRC’s transition to a new growth model.

The PRC has made significant progress on gender equality in the labor market over the last three decades at the policy and practical levels. The country has one of the highest female labor force participation rates in Asia and the Pacific at around 64% in 2013.

[tweet="#PRC female labor force participation steadily falling since 1990 @ilo #orangetheworld" text="PRC female labor force participation steadily falling since 1990"]

However, the female labor force participation was 73% in 1990, so the rate has in fact been steadily falling. In 2015, the PRC was ranked 91 out of 145 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, but dropped to 99th place in 2016.

This data signifies deeper problems, and only more gender analysis can uncover what lies beneath, to stop the trend.

Why? Not only is women’s economic empowerment critical to their personal growth and autonomy, there are also significant economic benefits. Per capita income would rise by 30.6% in a single generation, and by 71.1% in two if women fully participated in the paid labor market.

The report attempts to explain some of the changes by analyzing the labor market through a unique prism of four separate but interconnected transitions. These transitions—market, structural, growth, and demographic—have had a combined gendered impact on women’s work, and on female migrant workers in particular.

Gender wage gap

Of course, the impact is shaped by social and gender norms as well.

The first of these transitions is the market transition, which began in 1978. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) declined in urban areas, and there was a move to market mechanisms for wage setting that led to increased gender wage gaps and gender wage discrimination.

The gender wage gap reached 33% in urban areas, and 44% in rural areas. Over 90% of these gaps has been attributed to gender wage discrimination. The weakening of state sponsored care services, a feature of the market transition, contributed to the increased “motherhood” or “caregiving” wage penalty, estimated to be around 37% of the reason for the wage gap.

The structural transition started in the 1950s and intensified in the 1990s with migration. There was a shift away from the primary or agriculture sector toward the secondary and tertiary sectors (industry and services). This is linked to the export-led development strategy that increased demand for labor in manufacturing in coastal provinces, and the shift was greater for men than women.

[tweet="ADB expert: Women migrant workers are at bottom of the ladder in #PRC labor market #orangetheworld @ilo" text="Women migrant workers are at bottom of the ladder in PRC labor market"]

Thus, the lowest productivity primary sector accounts for a greater share of women’s employment than men’s employment.

The shift was also accompanied by industrial gender segregation, with women typically concentrated in the lowest-paid industrial sectors. For example, women’s wages are only 81% of the sector average in textiles and apparel manufacture, where women comprise 67% of the workforce. Women’s self-employment earnings in urban areas were also on average 42% of men’s.

In 2014 the PRC had 274 million migrants (34% of the economically active population), a third of which were women. Women are more likely than men to migrate to earn money to support the family and then return to unpaid care responsibilities.

Women migrant workers are at the bottom of the ladder, as they have higher rates of vulnerable employment, earn less than male migrants, have less social protection coverage, face a glass ceiling that prevents occupational advancement, and endure poor working conditions including in the “dormitory labor regime”. Also, migrant mothers have a hard time combining paid and unpaid work.

Impact of eldercare

The impact of out-migration is significant in rural areas, with greater increases in work time for elderly women and girls than for elderly men and boys. About 70% of female factory workers in the southern city of Guangzhou said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2013 study by the China Labor Bulletin.

The growth transition refers to the shift in policy toward less reliance on export-led growth and a greater role for domestic demand-led growth, and is marked by a rise in service sector employment. This work is segregated and reinforces gender norms and stereotypes.

The PRC underwent a fourth demographic transition over the past 30 years that took most industrialized countries took over a century to complete.

Over the past 15 years, the elderly dependency rate increased by about 40%. In 2010, there were 178 million people in the PRC aged 60 and over, which will increase to 340 million by 2030 (accounting for 24% of the population), and to 440 million by 2050.

[tweet="Eldercare to further reduce female labor force participation in #PRC @ilo #orangetheworld" text="Eldercare to further reduce female labor force participation in PRC"]

We all know that eldercare will be done mainly by women. Gender norms have assigned females greater responsibility for unpaid domestic work that has affected work time. Women take on 85% of household chores, and the gender gap in unpaid work time is 2 hours and 24 minutes per day.

As state support for childcare declines, eldercare is likely to increase women’s unpaid work burden, intensify their paid–unpaid work conflicts, and reduce their labor force participation rate. It is also expected to lead an expansion of female-dominated paid care employment, which is characterized by low pay and poor working conditions.

This transition shows some of the drivers of the gendered labor market, and how the 4 transitions often interact and may be mutually reinforcing. For example, market reforms and gender wage discrimination interact with the demographic transition to entrench gender inequality.

More gender analysis is needed to uncover what lies beneath gender inequality in the PRC (see infographic showing key sex-disaggregated data). This would drive commitment to reforms that address women’s falling labor force participation rate and their lack of decent paid work.