Jul 2, 1998




Geneva 1 July (TWN/Victoria Tauli-Corpuz*) -- Poor women from whatever part of Asia are the ones who suffer the most from globalisation.

Everywhere the liberalisation of trade and investments (particularly financial investments) which has led to the present crisis has exacerbated unemployment, underemployment, dislocation from traditional sources of livelihood, increased migration to urban areas and overseas, and worsening food insecurity. While jobs have been created for women because of the influx of labour-intensive industries to take advantage of cheap labour, these jobs are also highly insecure. The recent financial crisis has shown how fragile these jobs are. 

Testimonies on how globalisation and the crisis have affected women from various Asian countries were presented in two conferences held recently -- the 'Roundtable Discussion on the Economic, Social, and Political Impacts of the Southeast Asian Financial Crisis' held in Manila 12-14 April 1998, and another, the 'Rural and Indigenous Women Speak Out on the Impact of Globalisation', held from 22-25 May 1998 in Chiangmai, Thailand.

According to the information, based on official data, provided at these meetings, the crisis has forced many companies to shut down as they can no longer pay back their loans or acquire new loans to buy imported raw materials and machinery. While both men and women workers got laid off, usually, the women are the first ones to be laid off.  

In Indonesia, since the financial crisis began, the number of unemployed (March 1998 government data) has risen to 8.7 million, which is 10% of the 90-million-strong workforce; 18.4 million are underemployed, meaning they work less than 35 hours a week.

In Thailand, of a total workforce of 32 million, at the end of February, 2.8 million or 4.7% of the work force was unemployed; and around 1.3 million are seasonally unemployed.  

In the Philippines, the regional crisis has affected overseas Filipino workers (of which 55% to 65% are women) who are being sent home from Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. More than half of those sent back are women. And in Indonesia, thousands of migrant workers from Malaysia have lost their jobs but many of them choose to stay on illegally.  

In Korea, as of end March 1998, the number of unemployed workers went up to 1.5 million, raising the unemployment rate to eight percent. It is projected that with the advent of new legislation, relaxing the labour laws to allow employers to lay off workers more easily, the number of unemployed will go up to 3 million. While both women and men are laid off, the women are encouraged to resign first since they have husbands, brothers or fathers to rely on.  

Aside from being fired first, the women are also the ones pressured to help keep the family intact in these times of crisis. The Korean overnment came up with a national slogan, 'Get Your Husband Energised', calling on women to absorb and buffer the impact of the financial crisis on the men. Newspapers, TV shows and soap operas constantly portray the plight of unemployed male workers and male business owners who go bankrupt, are desperate and suicidal. The fact that the women are also fired from their jobs is not highlighted and their plight is completely ignored.  

Women are mobilised into national thrift campaigns; wives are instructed on how to catch signs of suicidal impulses of their devastated husbands; and mothers are instructed on how to encourage their children to still do well at school despite the shrinking family economy..." At the same time, women are also urged to look for jobs to meet their family needs. According to a recent government survey cited, the rate of women job-seekers is twice as high as that of men.

In South Korea and Thailand, women were called upon to donate or sell their jewelry to help ease the financial crisis. Newspapers showed pictures of women coming out in big numbers donating or selling their jewelry at cheaper prices to the government. Indonesian women with Dharma Wanita (Organisation of Wives of Government Civil Servants) took their cue from their Thai and South Korean counterparts and also came out to contribute their gold and jewelry. 

What is ignored in all this is the anguish and suffering that women are made to bear. The societal pressure on them is to be strong for the sake of others - the men and the nation. The family becomes the safety net for the negative impacts brought about by the financial crisis.

However, it is still the woman who is made to carry the heavier burden of keeping the family together. The fact that she has lost her job and needs support is apparently not important.  

Although globalisation resulted in some women gaining employment in the manufacturing sector, the majority of Asian women are still found in the informal economy, rural farming communities, and in subsistence economic activities. The shifts in production patterns due to globalisation, however, have led to the dislocation of women from their traditional sources of livelihood. Land and crop conversion schemes are being pushed to create the shift from subsistence to commercial crop production. Even commercial rice- and corn-growing are discouraged in favour of the production of 'high-value' (or globally competitive) crops like asparagus, bananas, eucalyptus, and cutflowers like orchids and anthuriums.  

Fertile agricultural lands, forests and rural communities in general have been transformed into enclaves to attract foreign investors to set up industries, real estate and tourism projects, and mining operations.  

In the Philippines, these enclaves are called regional industrial centres (RICS) and around 120,000 hectares of agricultural lands are included within such enclaves. One example of this is the CALABARZON area (covering the five Southern Tagalog provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) which is targeted to become an industrial enclave. Many peasant women and their families were displaced from their agricultural activities and became domestic help in the town centres, and service workers in restaurants and entertainment establishments like beer houses, nightclubs and karaoke bars (often as fronts for prostitution). They also work on the side as caddies on the golf courses.  

Participants from South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Cambodia presented similar pictures at the Manila meet. 

According to Yoon Geum-Soon, the Secretary-general of the Korea Women Farmers' Association, the Korean government, after adopting the economic strategy of export-led industrialisation, also shifted its support to large-scale commercial agriculture. Loans were provided to a few rich farmers and dependence on foreign capital developed. Heavy investments were poured in glass greenhouses and live-stock facilities which were inappropriate for Korean conditions.

With the concentration of large-scale agriculture in the hands of rich farmers, government support has diminished for small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women. Many of them have been reduced to the status of farm workers, and even then, they do not enjoy any rights as such. Since what they earn as farm workers is not enough, they work at other jobs in the service sector, like in restaurants, and even in the construction industry.  

The crisis has led to the bankruptcy of many small farmers and even some rich ones. The government's austerity policy has meant the cutting down of investments or subsidies and the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation has compelled farmers to pay their debts. The decline in the demand for agricultural products because of recession, the increase in prices of farm equipment and farm inputs, and the inability to repay debts, have resulted in many farming families going into bankruptcy. Even big farming-industrial complexes have closed down, which means the laying off of female farm workers.  

According to Sumika Perera, a peasant woman from Sri Lanka, all Governments since Independence up to 1977 have been supportive of small-farming agriculture. Subsidies, liberal credit, free irrigation and extension services, and the provision of land to the landless peasants were some of the support given. However, when Sri Lanka came under IMF and World Bank (WB) policies, most of these support systems were removed. The rupee was devalued from $1=Rs8 in 1977 to $1=Rs60 in 1998. Rural poverty increased from 13% in 1965 to 46% in 1988. A 1996 World Bank proposal has called for moving 1. 8 million small-farmer families out of the land they are tilling.

The migration of rural women to the urban areas and abroad has increased significantly as a result of the breakdown of rural agriculture and cottage industries such as handloom textile weaving.

Several hundred thousands of women went to work in the Free Trade Zones which were set up in 1978 and to work as housemaids in the Middle East.

The overseas migrant workers now rank as the main foreign-exchange earners.  

Since l977 large-scale foreign investments have been sought to be attracted into Sri Lanka by offering land, labour, and all other resources and infrastructure at cheap and attractive rates. And, in the name of rapid growth and development, whatever remained from an independent economy that people of Sri Lanka built and protected for thousands of years, and a way of life that they have evolved over these centuries, began to be destroyed.'  

Thailand's policy of promoting export of agricultural products to the world market has led to massive deforestation. The northeastern region of Isaan has been converted from a self-sufficient economy based on agro-forestry to a plantation economy of eucalyptus, corn, tapioca, cotton and other export crops. Many farmers got heavily indebted and, as a result, resorted to selling their daughters to brothels. The age of girls being sold is becoming younger because of the AIDS epidemic.

Men are demanding young girls who are still not infected with IV. 

The net result of these land and crop conversion schemes which are taking place in almost all the Asian countries, is worsening food security.  

The participants at the two conferences cited how staple food crops are now becoming scarce and how families are forced to buy these in the markets at prohibitive prices. The recent financial crisis has led to inflation and food prices have gone up by 200% to 300%.  

In some cases, like Indonesia, the supply of food has even dwindled; so even if people have the money, they cannot buy anything. According to an Indonesian participant in the Roundtable, there is a temporary scarcity of SEMBAKO (an acronym of 'Sembilan Bahan Pokok' which refers to the nine basic foods needed for living). The picture of people rioting because there is no more food in the supermarkets says it all. 

Indigenous and hill-tribe women participants from Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Japan talked about how globalisation has changed the lives of women in many of their communities.

While each country had particularities, in the main, the experiences of indigenous women were very similar.

The rights of indigenous women to their ancestral territories and resources have been seriously undermined because of the liberalisation and privatisation thrusts of most governments. Subsistence economies which have been developed and nurtured by indigenous women for centuries have been eroded because globalisation supports the development of economies of scale.  

This means large-scale mechanised farms which use agri-chemicals intensively to produce crops at less cost and greater profit. This also means large-scale commercial mining operations which exploit the rich mineral lands found in many indigenous peoples' territories. 

Although ostensibly designed to protect indigenous peoples' rights, the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA) 1997 in the Philippines has been rendered meaningless because of the existence of previous laws passed in compliance with World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO) prescriptions. The Mining Act of 1995 liberalised the entry of foreign mining investments and corporations into the country. Twelve million hectares of land or 40% of the total land area of the country are covered by applications for mining operations. More than half of these lands are found in indigenous peoples' territories. 

The IPRA provides that ancestral lands can still be exploited for mineral resources if national interests so dictate and with the prior informed consent of the indigenous peoples. Who will define national interests and how prior informed consent will be obtained remain problems.  

Another Philippine law, High Value Crops Development Act of 1995, provides incentives to agri-business corporations to shift to export-crop production. Tax holidays, infrastructure support and bank loans are some of the incentives offered. Big corporations like San Miguel Corporation, NestlePhilippines, Guthrie, Janoub-Malaysia, took advantage of this law and intensified their production of so-called 'export winners' or high-value crops (HVC) such as oil palm, mango and pineapple. Other high-value crops which are encouraged are cutflowers, broccoli, asparagus, pears, strawberries, peas and cauliflowers. Vast tracts of land devoted to staple-crop production were converted for export-crop production. Furthermore, land and production capacity got more concentrated in the hands of a few landowners or corporations. 

Since the capitalization involved in this kind of agricultural production is unaffordable to most indigenous peoples and since they cannot avail themselves of big loans from the banks, indigenous farmers often enter into contract-growing arrangements with big corporations.

In Mindanao, Dole Philippines, Inc. has entered into contract-growing arrangements with local farmers to grow pineapples. In the Cordillera, McDonald's has also made a similar deal for potato-growing with indigenous farmers. In the first case, the farmers suffered losses because of natural calamities and ended up leasing or selling back their lands to Dole. In the second case, import liberalisation of agricultural products allowed the entry of cheaper machine-sliced fried potatoes from the United States which are half the price of the local potatoes. This led to a loss of livelihood for around 50,000 indigenous farmers.

The Seed Industry Development Act, which prevented the importation of seeds produced locally, was also repealed and licence was given to foreign seed corporations to secure control of the production of seeds. Contract-growing arrangements are not only limited to food crops but extend also to seed production. This enabled Cargill-Ayala and Pioneer-San Miguel to have significant control over rice and corn-seed production.

The indigenous peoples in Malaysia are also undergoing similar experiences. The State Government of Sarawak has amended the Land Code and Forest Ordinance of Sarawak many times over to suit the economic programme of the government. Areas which are already demarcated under the Native Customary Rights (NCR) ancestral domain are being gazetted and reclassified as State Lands, and then reallocated to become development areas for large-scale commercial logging, tree plantations and agricultural plantations. This has led to many conflicts between the plantation owners and the indigenous peoples.

In Thailand, the hill-tribe women are going through harrowing experiences because of the development thrusts of the government.... The areas inhabited by the hill-tribe peoples are targeted for eco-tourism, commercial tree plantations, and mining and quarrying operations. According to some academics from the Chiangmai University who are supporting the hill-tribe peoples, this is part of the process of opening up the remaining resource rich lands to further exploitation. After the crisis, the trend was to intensify the exploitation of primary resources to generate more revenues for the government and the private sector. 

Sex trafficking is taking place among the indigenous and hill-tribe women of Burma, Thailand and Nepal.

The perspectives and experiences shared by Asia-Pacific women in the two meetings have strengthened the view that globalisation has had many negative impacts on the women, especially those who come from the poorer classes.

Globalisation has reinforced the existing inequalities based on class, gender, race and ethnicity. The disparity between rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor within nations has worsened. Food security, which is essential for any nation's survival and stability, is traded away. Export-crop production has taken precedence over domestic food crops and has led to the erosion of sustainable economic systems developed and nurtured by indigenous women.  

The increasing dependence on foreign capital and foreign technology, and the growing dominance of the Western consumerist culture and lifestyle have trapped many countries in an economic bind. Adherence to WTO rules, even at the expense of the welfare of the majority of the citizens in the country, has proven to be disastrous. The changes in legislation and government policies to allow the free entry of foreign corporations, to give more incentives to big businesses rather than to small firms, and to lift import controls on agricultural products produced locally have meant the marginalisation of rural and indigenous women.  

The removal of subsidies for staple-crop production has made the prices of staple food more expensive. Food security has been compromised because of the logic of global competitiveness and comparative advantage. This has allowed the entry of cheap imported food from Northern countries like wheat, corn and even rice which has to be paid for in foreign currency. The local production of these crops has suffered, and farm workers and peasants involved in this economic activity have been displaced. The subsidies which were offered to farmers to maintain stable prices for their products have been withdrawn. Consumers have suffered because although the prices of these products went down, during the financial crises they inevitably went up because foreign exchange rate went up by as much as 100 to 200 percent. 

The state has surrendered its right to regulate prices of basic commodities because of its commitments to the WTO agreements or to the World Bank and the IMF.  

Many lessons can be learned from this financial crisis. The roles played by the international institutions such as the IMF, WB and the WTO in this whole crisis should be exposed and made transparent. The governments should also be made accountable for what they did (and did not do) to contribute to the crisis.  

The extreme mobility of capital, which remains unregulated and which characterises the present face of globalisation, should be the subject of more discussions and negotiations at the international, regional and national levels. The operations of TNCs, likewise should not be left unregulated. They should be made accountable in terms of their practices in resource exploitation, production, marketing and labour relations.

The women's organisations and movements should exert efforts to increase their level of awareness on globalization, which includes understanding the WTO, the WB and the IMF, the roles played by the northern countries and the dynamics between the South and North. The particularities of how the forces of globalization are operating on the country level should also be understood.  

Finally, the women's movements should be able to join forces with other people's movements to collectively challenge the forces of globalisation at both the international and the national levels. The need to address the issue of inequities between nations, classes, genders, ethnicities, and races (all of which have been exacerbated by globalization) can provide the overall framework to guide the alliances between the various movements for transformation.  


[Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the Director of Tebtebba Foundation - Indigenous Peoples' International Center for Policy Research and Education. The above is extracted from The Resurgence No 94]