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Sorry picture for female labour-force participation

By: Tehreem Husain

KARACHI: I have been living in the UAE as an expat for the past three years and have seen both men and women from all over the world working in different service sectors as both white- and blue-collar workers. This is evident in the labour force survey for the Emirate of Dubai that recorded 52.1% of females in the non-Emirati category as economically active in 2012.

I have had multiple interactions with other expat women who are working as blue-collar and pink-collar workers (US-based etymology for service industry) and they have narrated that they have left their children to look for monetarily rewarding work elsewhere.

Mostly belonging to Philippines, they have a high labour force participation rate of 50% in their home country – the same as their participation in overseas employment.

These women regularly remit money home for their children’s education, improving the standard of living back home and saving to secure a better future for their family. However, observation reveals that there are hardly any Pakistani females in customer service/desk jobs.

Moreover, the presence of Pakistani male, let alone females, in these sectors is negligible. I believe that culture has an important role to play behind this phenomenon. This article makes an attempt to explore the relation between culture and female labour force participation.

Culture, defined as “the ideas, customs and art that are produced or shared by a particular society” is not a monolith, but interplays with institutions in the society to produce certain economic outcomes which lead nations to various development trajectories.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their popular book ‘Why Nations Fail’ have recognised the importance of culture and written about the ‘culture hypothesis’, which explains divergence in nations’ economic performances due to differences in cultural endowments.

The authors, who in economic terms view culture as a set of preferences, argue that two societies who have similar factor endowments, technology and market structure but whose preferences differ (in cultural values) would lead to different economic outcomes.

Case of Pakistan

Female labour force participation in Pakistan presents a bleak picture. Labour force participation in the age group of 25-54 stands at 27.9% in 2013. Although this has doubled over the past three decades, it pales in comparison to the country’s position in the region.

East Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific region have a high female labour force participation rate of more than 60% for the age group of 25 and above. In the same age group, Pakistan even lags behind the South Asian average of 33%. With such a poor labour force participation rate in the home country, the situation for overseas employment is no different. According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, 752,466 people in various professions were employed outside Pakistan in 2014, of which 46% are employed in UAE.

Categorising this overseas labour force participation, according to occupational groups, reveals that almost 43% are unskilled workers whereas 38% of the skilled mostly belong to the ‘labourers’ and ‘mason’ category. The fact that this bureau has no mention of the bifurcation of labour force on the basis of gender is testament to the fact that little importance is given to female labour participation in overseas employment.

Our society attaches the role of a woman to home-raising children and managing a household. Women have no role in decision-making and very few are allowed to work outside their homes to supplement the family income or pursue their careers.

This is in complete contrast to other countries in the region who have migrated abroad to find financially rewarding work. In the case of UAE, most of the blue- and pink-collar female workers are from Philippines both belonging to the Christian and Muslim faith whereas some are even from Indonesia.

They have learnt a new language, adjusted to a different cultural environment and most importantly, left their families in search for a better future. Does this make them any less motherly than the average Pakistani woman? Moreover, we have the advantage of being taught English at a young age but this has not been exploited to enter the global workforce.

Variations in cultural endowments have been one factor towards divergence in economic performance by the country as compared to its regional neighbours. Pakistan’s Gross National Income of $4,840 is almost one and half times less than that of the Philippines and twice as less as Indonesia.

Pakistan has produced exceptional women to the likes of Sabeen Mahmud, Malala Yousufzai and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who have excelled in their respective fields but have had done so after fighting a culture creating bottlenecks for them at different stages of their lives.

Culture, which often starts at a very basic household level, can perpetuate at an institutional level and become a social norm. However, it does have the adaptability to adjust itself with changing times and circumstances. The commencement of a change in cultural norms has to come from within before it can pervade to become a societal value.

Express Tribune