Speech at the ILO/ATUC Women's Seminar on Women Workers in a Globalized World of Work

by Ms Mitsuko Horiuchi, Regional Director, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Hanoi | 10 July 2000

Ms. Nguyen Thi Hang, Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs;
Mr Zainal Rampak, Secretary-General, ATUC, and ILO Governing Body Member;
Ms. Cu Thi Hau, President, Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour;
Mr Venkateswaran;
Mr Sebastian;
Distinguished resource persons and participants

It is a great pleasure to join you here at this ILO/ATUC Women’s Seminar, as you tackle one of the most pressing – but still under-recognized – questions of our age. This is also something that ranks high on my personal agenda – and I congratulate Zainal Rampak on taking the lead in this field of gender. This seminar’s theme, women and globalization, is an issue that grows more important every day. The Beijing Plus Five Special Session of the UN which took place in New York last month highlighted this issue. It is an area that we must explore, and in which we must find new answers, if we are to achieve our overarching goal of gender equality. It is an enormous challenge, but the commitment that you demonstrate by your presence here today is, likewise, enormously encouraging. I am also convinced that Viet Nam is an ideal venue for this seminar – and that the examples we see here will help stimulate your discussions. I say this for two reasons. First, Viet Nam is the only country in Asia, and one of only 16 in the world, to attain a level of women’s representation in the national parliament of more than 25 per cent. Indeed, you can see this morning on the podium two of this country’s women’s leaders. Second, Viet Nam has been undergoing a process of far-reaching economic transition. Foreign direct investment made up 40.6 per cent of GDP in 1996. Viet Nam stands out as a major FDI recipient.

We have learned - particularly in East Asia – of the volatility that comes with globalization, and how events like the financial crisis can disrupt economies and nations. Globalization brings both opportunities and risks. Globalization has significantly increased women’s employment. Indeed, we can even use the phrase, "the feminization of labour", underscoring the gender dimension of changing employment patterns. However, the benefits of globalization are not reaching enough people. Inequality between and within countries is widening. Poverty is also rising. Ordinary people have made their voices heard to increase the caution with which their countries approach globalization. This is particularly the case in our region, with our painful experience of the Asian financial crisis. And, the nature of employment is changing. There is a "flexibilization" of employment worldwide. Part-time, informal sector and home-based work makes up a much greater proportion of women’s employment in the service sector. We still tend to occupy low-skill, low paid and labour intensive sectors. Redressing the imbalance between the genders is a tall order. Globalization is making it even taller. Globalization involves technological changes that favour workers with higher skills, and this further widens the gap between women’s wages and men’s. Growing numbers of women and girls are joining the ranks of migrant labour. Many are destined for unskilled work, many will be undocumented migrants, and still others will be vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of abuse. The tripartite participants at the ILO Asian Regional Consultation on Follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action highlighted these issues in their common understanding. That understanding is helping guide the ILO’s work in this region. Its themes are also to be found in Beijing +5 final outcome document. In today’s interconnected world, the call that the Beijing Platform for Action made for women’s empowerment remains essential. The ILO’s goal of decent work is based on respect for and promotion of fundamental human rights – and gender equality plays an integral part in achieving those basic human rights.

Looking back along the road we have travelled, we can see progress. Still, we have a long way to go. At the beginning of this century, most efforts to achieve gender equality focused on women’s legal rights. In the 1960s, as the United Nations intensified its efforts in the development field, the role of women began to be considered, too. As you know, the UN gave more impetus to promoting the advancement of women (I dare to say this because it was not in fact at that time called gender equality) in 1975, International Women’s Year. Since then, the focus has shifted from the "integration of women in development" (WID) to "Gender and Development" (GAD). Now, "gender mainstreaming" is emerging. This revolutionary strategy turns the spotlight on the unequal power relations between women and men, and not just on women’s status. It involves re-examining every structure, every policy, from the perspective of gender differentials. And it shows that achieving gender equality requires fundamental, and transforming, change.

I believe that all of you have a clear understanding of the enormity of the challenges we are facing. The changes we need to bring about must take into account women’s reproductive roles, and their work caring for family members. Because it is unpaid, the real costs of this kind of work remain invisible. These tasks have traditionally been taken on by women, and therefore reinforce gender inequality. Unpaid work and sharing of family responsibilities between the genders are becoming important issues to tackle. Most recently, the adoption of the Convention on Maternity Protection at this year’s International Labour Conference will help us move closer to achieving a world in which women are not disadvantaged by their reproductive role.

As we seek to redress inequalities, partnership and solidarity are important. The role of workers’ organizations is crucial. All of the ILO’s eight decades of experience tells us that this will not be achieved without workers’ organizations. Organizing women is a crucial part of the process. And there are some very noteworthy developments. Although trade unions are often seen as male preserves – this is changing – and rapidly. Indeed, I need look no further for an example than my companion on this podium, Ms. Cu Thi Hau, who was elected national president of the VGCL in 1998. Women must take on decision-making roles in trade unions. Equal power sharing between the genders is a must. We need to ensure that workers’ organizations meet the needs of women in a globalized world – women who, because of their limited access to education and skills training, are less able to capitalize on globalization’s opportunities.

There are no easy paths to follow. And yet, we must do it. Public opinion on the role of women is changing. Kofi Annan reminded us of the words of the women who met in Beijing: "We are not guests on this planet, we belong here." Five years on, he told us, that not only do women belong on this planet, but the future of this planet depends on women. And, indeed, it does.

Your work here over the next three days will help us move closer to our goal – of a world in which women and men will live and work as equals. I look forward to sharing your ideas, your insights, and your commitment to achieving this common goal.