OPINION: Economic setback for women

Women in London take part in a global protest against sexual-violence and economic discrimination in 2019. Picture:Wiktor Szymanowicz/REX/Shutterstock

One of the sad impacts of COVID-19 in Fiji is that the slow economic progress of women over the past 30 in employment and incomes seems to be reversing in many key areas, although there is no national data as yet.

Keep in mind that the wealth of women (and men) is, except for inheritance, an accumulation of savings from past incomes.

One of the most fundamental causes of gender inequality is that the relative poverty of women, compared to men with the same economic attributes, despite the fact that they do on average far more work in terms of hours and days than men (last week’s article).

But despite their overall parity today in levels of education, fewer women are in income earning employment, they are more concentrated in lower paying occupations, they usually receive far lower incomes for similar work to men, and they are far more likely to be in less than full-time jobs which are always vulnerable to economic down-turns.

While I give some statistics in this article based on older data (2015-16), policy makers in Fiji (including government departments, NGOs, international organisations and donors) would gain enormously if they were to obtain ‘real time data’ from just a few important organisations, all within government control: Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF), Fiji Revenue and Customs Services (FRCS), and Fiji Bureau of Statistics (FBS).

Another possible source of useful data is the RBF which could aggregate data from banks on the ownership of time and savings deposits. All that is needed is the political will, encouraged by requests from all the stakeholders in women’s welfare, and especially the Ministry of Women and women-focused NGOs such as FWRM and FRIEND.


Women almost equally educated  

One of the most extraordinary gender revolutions taking place in Fiji virtually unnoticed and uncommented on by politicians preoccupied with themselves has been the enormous progress of girls and women in education. At primary and secondary school levels, girls have been out-performing boys in many subject areas. While they have been generally under-represented in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) they are catching up in these areas as well. More importantly, FBS data for 2015-16 indicates that females comprised 47 per cent of all those with certificates, diplomas and degrees. Given that this is the accumulated fi gure over time, then almost certainly there are more females currently graduating annually with higher qualifi cations than males. But, and this is the big but, far fewer of these qualified females are in paid employment, only 40 per cent as opposed to 85 per cent of males. Looked at alternatively, some 60 per cent of females with these higher qualifications are not putting them to full use in income earning activities, compared to only 15 per cent of males who are not using their qualifications thus. What an incredible ‘economic waste’ for Fiji. Of course, most of these economically under-utilised women are engaged in domestic work maintaining families, important in its own right. But I am sure some good curious econometric researcher from our three universities could estimate the monetary cost to the Fiji economy of gender stereotypes which leads to qualified women not using their qualifications in paid work,


Fewer paid women than men  

Feminists globally complain about the gender bias of the term ‘economically active’ as if those doing unpaid household work are not ‘economically active’ even though the time spent on this absolutely necessary work is higher in hours spent than paid work in the economy. Nevertheless, let us assume that ‘economically active’ refers to those who are in ‘paid work’, which is what gives rise to incomes which fund consumption and standards of living, and in turn gives rise to savings, whether in banks or superannuation accounts. Table 1 — gives you the negatives as well as the positives for females over the twelve years between 2004-05 and 2015-16 when the FBS conducted their national Employment and Unemployment Surveys. First, females were just 30 per cent of those in paid employment in 2004-05 with the proportion rising very slowly to just 33 per cent by 2015-16. Ipso facto, this fundamental lower involvement in paid economic activity sharply reduces the capacity of females to earn incomes and accumulate wealth, although the latter is even worse when one takes their lower average incomes into account But nevertheless, their share of paid workers was rising and probably still rising before COVID-19 struck in early 2020. I would surmise given that COVID-19 has devastated the female dominated tourism related industries, that female share of employment has gone backwards these last six months and will continue doing so until the economy recovers. The third column of ‘change between 2004-05 and 2015-16’ also shows that while women increased their number in paid work by 13 thousand, men in paid employment were unfortunately reduced by six thousand. Note however that this ‘negative’ aspect of women gaining ground ‘at the expense of men’ only becomes a socially undesirable ‘zero sum game’ because of insufficient economic growth and inadequate numbers of additional jobs being created. If economic growth was healthy, then women could progress without it being at the expense of men.


Fewer female wages and salaried persons  

While the Table 1 gives one picture of ‘paid workers’ in Fiji, unfortunately, many of the categories of workers in Fiji such as self-employed, family workers and community workers (while large in numbers of economically active) do not work the full 40 hour week (or 240 days in the year) and large numbers work even less than 20 hours per week (or 120 days in the year). It is these groups, a large proportion of who are females, have absorbed the large numbers of young people entering the workforce because they are unable to find solid wage and salaried jobs. They also earn terribly low incomes as well with women being much larger proportions of the lower paid workers, and who are vulnerable to economic downturns. These criticisms are less valid for those who the FBS classifies as ‘wage earners’ and ‘salary earners’ for whom Table 2 gives a very similar picture for each year, and the changes over the twelve year period. Again, the percentage of females who were wages and salaried persons raised from only 29 per cent in 2004-05 to 34 per cent in 2015-16, a small improvement. The gains in employment for women over this period were 15 thousands extra jobs, while that for men was a much lower fi ve thousand jobs (at least not negative). Table 2 With Wages and Salaries (000) (2004-05 and 2015-16) — Source: FBS EUS for 2004-05 and 2015-16. Note that while COVID-19 has definitely affected wage earners in the private sector, the majority of salaries persons in the civil service have not been affected as far as jobs are concerned although their superannuation contributions have been reduced.



Lower female shares of total income  

As would be expected from the above tables, the female share of total income earned by households was only 27 per cent in 2004-05, increasing to 29 per cent in 2015-16. Note that the $4 billion shown in this table is less than a half of the nominal GDP of around $10 billion between 2015 and 2016. Of course, corporate incomes are not included here. Table 3 Total Incomes Earned ($m) (2004-05 and 2015-16) — Source: FBS EUS for 2004-05 and 2015-16. Again, notice that of the increase in Total Incomes over this twelve year period, females gained proportionately more (35 per cent) of the increase than their normal share of income (29 per cent), suggesting that there was some improvement taking place at the margins. A very similar pattern but slightly better in terms of the percentage shares of females can be derived from the incomes of wages and salary earners.


But some good news for government 

One of the positive areas of employment for females is the public sector and the 2015-16 EUS data has some fascinating results, when they are differentiated from employment in the private sector, and private households (which is family concerns). While I am not sure whether all the public enterprise are included in this table for Row A which indicates that it some 50 thousand workers, an excellent outcome for females is that they comprised 41 per cent of these workers, as opposed to only 31 per cent of the 250 thousand private sector employees (Row B). As would be expected private households and family concerns had pretty good gender balance at 51 per cent. Table 4 Employment (type of employer) (000 and %) — Source: FBS 2015-16 EUS. But the good news for females does not end there. Table 5 gives the Average Annual Incomes for all these categories by gender. Females had lower average annual incomes by all the categories with a gender gap of -24 per cent (in other words, the female average income was 24 per cent less than the male average income. But surprisingly, the gender gap in private households was a very large -42 per cent, suggesting that female family workers were not being paid as well as the male family workers, despite most of them being members of the family. Females employed by the private employers had a very large incomes gender gap of -27 per cent. But the really good news again, is that the Gender Gap for females in the Public Sector was a mere -7 per cent, which could have been partly contributed by lower years of experience (also due to motherhood gaps when mothers are on leave to take of infants) and qualifications, and not just gender discrimination. Table 5 Average Annual Income ($ and %) Type of employer — Source: FBS 2015- 16 EUS. Isolating the impact of various factors in order to assess whether there is really any gender discrimination going on is a fascinating exercise which I am engaged in with Dr Neelesh Gounder (USP senior lecturer in Economics) with solid preliminary results. But overall, the really good news is that with the Fiji Government committing itself to many United Nations conventions and agreements for gender equality, these last two tables of statistics confirm that at least in its hiring and promotion policies, it is not just trying to achieve gender parity, but it is pretty close to it even by 2015-16. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Fiji Times news item a few days ago that the Auditor-General’s office was demanding to know the gender composition of staff in the Ministry of Agriculture! Of course, the private sector is far less amenable to government policies on gender equality. Sadly, if females have suffered relatively more during this COVID-19 crisis, then some of the gains listed above in the private sector will be reversed, although I suspect that the gains in the public sector will largely remain. So the real question for gender stakeholders, including the Ministry of Women remains: what exactly is the impact of COVID-19 on employment and incomes of women in Fiji?


Can Fiji see ‘real time’ data? 

 I would suggest that for there to be a solid policy to bolster gender equality after COVID-19, gender stakeholders need to urgently request the Fijian Government to obtain ‘real-time data’ on the current impact of COVID-19 on incomes and employment in Fiji. Individual surveys by interest groups such as the Fiji Employers Federation, the FHTA and FTUC can help, but they are no substitute for comprehensive national level data. The first port of call ought to be the FNPF which receives monthly returns from all the employers for contributors to FNPF. This institution is totally controlled by Government and ought to be able to provide timely data on losses of jobs and reductions in incomes for all the FNPF contributors. The second port of call, even if there will be some time lag; can be the FRCS which receives tax returns from wages and salaried persons and businesses. But both these institutions are focused on the formal sector and even the FNPF does not cover a very large number of people in paid employment throughout Fiji. It is here that the national sample surveys of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics (like the Employment and Unemployment Surveys and the Household Income and Expenditure Surveys) are absolutely invaluable. They provide treasure troves of data to government and civil society, absolutely useful for the formulation of evidence based policies, and assessment of the success or otherwise of government policies. I would hope that the Ministry for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation is dialoguing with the Minister for the Economy and donors, to provide the mere $3 million needed to conduct the 2020-21 EUS, which could be immensely useful not just for her Ministry but also several others such as Rural Development, Labour and SME development. 


Professor Wadan Narsey is an Adjunct Professor at James Cook University and a former Professor of Economics at the University of the South Pacifi c where he worked for more than 40 years. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily refl ect the views of this newspaper.

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