Labor and Workforce in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

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Labor and Workforce in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

In an era of globalization, labor and workforce patterns in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are linked to transnational trends and economies, as skilled and unskilled workforces compete in increasingly mobile and interconnected labor markets. A skilled workforce with strong female participation plays a key role in building a healthy economy, just as the buffering effects of long-term employment arrangements contribute to economic, social, and political stability. Conversely, extended periods of high unemployment and weakened economies can lead to instability. Women, children, and unskilled workers are the most vulnerable to exploitation in weak or failing economies.


Although the link between human development and economic growth is complex, many countries in these regions that have invested heavily in human development have reaped the benefits of skilled and diverse workforces able to compete in the global economic market. Other countries that were faced with a legacy of sluggish economic systems, outdated infrastructures, and weak human capital, are ill-equipped to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. To compete in an increasing global market and ensure economic growth, countries must invest in human capital and promote women's empowerment.

The East Asian experience demonstrated the effectiveness of economic models based on labor-intensive, light manufacturing for export that are highly reliant on female labor. Investment in the workforce contributed heavily to the strong economic growth of the Asian economic "Tigers"—Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea—beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the late 1990s. These export-driven economies required an educated, trained, skilled, and disciplined workforce.

Malaysia and Singapore heavily promoted science and technology for undergraduates, whereas approximately half Taiwan's university population studied engineering or business development. Improved education for girls from the 1970s through the 1990s played an important role in increased women's employment in Malaysia, where women account for just under 36 percent of the workforce. In Cambodia, women represent 84 percent of the garment industry workers—estimated at 200,000.

Because of the sheer size of its workforce, low wages, and new models of production, China has begun to impact global markets in a significant way. The restructuring and privatization of state-owned and urban collective-owned factories in the late 1990s initially brought about massive layoffs, but increased labor productivity. In the early twenty-first century China's manufacturing industry is among the most competitive in the world, albeit highly dependent on stable energy costs. The vast majority of China's manufacturing jobs lie outside city boundaries, while an estimated 100 to 150 million rural workers subsist on part-time, low paying jobs.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998 devastated many economies in the region, but most have since recovered despite lingering structural weaknesses. Between 1990 and 2002, increasing numbers of East Asian women have moved out of agricultural work and into industrial and services sectors. Cambodia saw an 8 percent increase of female employment in manufacturing, while Indonesia and the Philippines witnessed 10 and 6 percent increases respectively.

India is another economic giant in Asia. Unlike China's export-driven manufacturing economy, India's greatest strength lies in the service sector, catering to the information technology needs of other countries. At the center of India's success is a well-educated workforce, skilled in the digital world of information technology, and proficient in English.

By contrast, much of the Arab world suffers from sluggish economies that have failed to invest in human capital and integrate women into the formal sector. Education systems in the Arab world fail to consistently produce graduates with solid marketable job skills, and the influence of conservative Islamic influences greatly hinders the entry of women into the formal sector. Unemployment rates remain at double-digit levels in many countries of the Middle East: Yemen 35 percent, Libya 30 percent, and Algeria 17 percent. Over-reliance on oil production in the Gulf region has created lopsided economies, large and inefficient public sectors, and workers heavily reliant on government jobs. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, for example, depend greatly on imported labor from South and Southeast Asia to fill vacancies for jobs deemed undesirable or inappropriate by locals.

Research indicates that women traditionally work more than men in most environments. In developing countries, however, women's labor accounts for an even larger share of the workload: 13 percent higher than men in society as a whole, and 20 percent higher in rural areas. In more traditional Muslim communities, the bulk of women's work is typically unpaid and lies in the informal sector—agriculture and family enterprises, for example—while religious and cultural traditions prevent a high participation of women in the formal sector. In 2004, women only represented approximately 15 percent of the formal workforce in Saudi Arabia, 25 percent in Kuwait, and 22 percent in Egypt. Where Islamic restrictions on interaction between the sexes are strong, even in professional settings, men work almost exclusively in many service industries—hotels, restaurants, and retail shops. Domestic workers in Pakistan are routinely men, boys, or Christian women. Saudi Arabia and Jordan hire large numbers of non-Muslim women from South and Southeast Asia to serve as domestics.

2006 World Development Indicators
CountryEstimated Annual Wages for ManufacturingFemale Percentage of Workforce
East Asia & Pacific43.8
Hong Kong$10,35345.8
South Korea$10,74340.7
Middle East & North Africa27.2
Saudi Arabia14.8
Sub-Saharan Africa42.2

Under the 1996 to 2001 rule of the radical Islamist sect, the Taliban (meaning "the students," because they had formerly been educated at radical madrassahs in Pakistan proper and the Pakistani tribal areas, where they fled during the rule of the Afghan warlords following the collapse of the Soviet-dominated government), Afghan women suffered from extremist interpretations of Islamic norms. Officials from the government's Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice department—modeled after Saudi and Iranian virtue and vice law enforcement systems—enforced restrictions preventing women from working outside the home. Women caught in the street, shops, or taxis without a male family member escort ran the risk of beatings. Girls' education in many parts of Afghanistan was strictly forbidden. Female teachers and health-care workers forced out of the public's eye often provided underground services out of their homes. As a result, education and health care for girls and women suffered. By contrast, the Taliban recognized the indispensability of female labor in the agricultural sector, and women were regularly found in the fields.

In sharp contrast to the skilled workforce of the Asian economic "Tigers," gender inequalities related to education and formal sector employment have contributed to slow economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. According to one estimate, women perform 60 to 90 percent of the agricultural work. Women play a smaller role in the textile and garment industries, with the exception of a few African countries, such as Lesotho, Mauritius, and Madagascar. Women entrepreneurs also face a variety of gender-based obstacles. In Uganda, one study cited restrictive access to finance, assets, justice services, and information as a reason for limiting economic expansion.


Many economies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia rely heavily on remittances sent from abroad. Migrant workers often send remittances to their native countries to support families, construct homes, start businesses, and build "nest eggs." An estimated 20 million Asia migrant workers worked abroad. Migrant workers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and other countries migrate to the Middle East, Europe, and North America in search of better paying jobs. In 2000 alone, remittances to the Philippines amounted to $6 billion, while migrant workers sent $1 billion to Indonesia.

Oil-producing Gulf states have traditionally imported workers from other Arab countries, and from South and Southeast Asia to fill gaps in the labor market. Reliance on remittances from family members abroad has masked failing economies in the Arab world that otherwise would be vulnerable to unpredictable oil markets, economic shocks, and political uncertainties. Palestinian and Jordanian economies, for example, suffered after the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991. As a result of Palestinian and Jordanian support for Saddam Hussein, oil-rich Gulf countries, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, expelled 700,000 workers to return to their native countries to face high unemployment, low salaries, and limited prospects.

Although most adult, voluntary economic migrant workers find legitimate employment, others suffer various types of exploitation and fall prey to human traffickers. Women and children are often the most vulnerable. The majority of Filipino and Sri Lankan female migrant workers serve as domestics. An estimated 1.5 million Filipino women work throughout Asia, while 84 percent of migrant workers from Sri Lanka are women. Some 200,000 foreign domestic workers can be found in Hong Kong and 155,000 in Malaysia. The majority of the one million female workers in Saudi Arabia work as domestics. Sub-Saharan African women also work as domestics: Ethiopian and West African women migrate to Lebanon, and Ethiopians and Cape Verdeans can be found in Italy.

Female domestic workers may fall victim to physical and verbal abuse, long hours, sexual exploitation, low wages, and exploitative conditions in the Arab world and elsewhere, where employers are known to seize passports, intimidate, and threaten victims with deportation. In Singapore, an estimated 147 domestic workers died—most as a result of suicide or falling from buildings—between 1999 and 2005. Approximately 19,000 women fled their domestic employers in Saudi Arabia in 2000 alone.

The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 2.5 million victims of human trafficking suffer exploitative conditions. Most of these victims come from South and Southeast Asia—approximately 375,000 men, women, and children. Some 50,000 Africans are trafficked each year. Women and children from Nepal are routinely trafficked to the Arab countries, India, and elsewhere for commercial sexual exploitation. According to one estimate, between 100,000 and 200,000 Nepalese women and girls are forced to work as prostitutes in Indian brothels against their will. Indian and Pakistani women and girls are trafficked to the Middle East. According to an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Iraq, criminal gangs traffic local women through Northern Iraq to Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and other countries. Women and children from Eastern Europe, China, Thailand, Malawi, and Mozambique are trafficked to South Africa.


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                                             Craig Davis

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Labor and Workforce in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East

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