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Promoting a female labour force in Malaysia and China

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A woman works at a factory in Port Klang, Malaysia. The Malaysian female labour force participation rate has increased over the years, from 50 per cent in 1990 to 55.2 per cent in 2018, but much can still be done. AFP

Promoting a female labour force in Malaysia and China

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused much economic and social hardship, including an increase in domestic violence compounded by limited mobility and social isolation.

As some women are forced to lock themselves up at home with their abusers, they are socially fragile and experience conflict and have a limited ability to overcome their situation.

This ultimately means that they are in a condition of significant risk to both physical wellbeing and mental fortitude.

In addition to the pandemic, fundamental challenges to gender equality persist in Malaysia, where women are loaded with the double burden of employment and housework.

With affordable childcare still elusive and out of reach, women in Malaysia are also often denied necessary opportunities for education and skills attainment in male-dominated sectors such as machinery operation, information and communications technology,and craft related jobs.

School closures under the movement control order further worsened the situation, as many women had to bear additional domestic work on top of their professional responsibilities. On average, women put in 1.4 hours of extra unpaid homemaking work each day relative to men and this led to many women leaving their jobs as they struggle to meet the demands of both work and home duties. Additionally, women also tend to be paid less and assigned to lower-skilled positions.

Many female employees – in particular rural-urban migrants employed in Malaysia’s fast-growing service sector – face prevalent discrimination, labour standard violations, and lack social protection.

Greater policy intervention is needed, such as targeted support for women and more stringent enforcement of anti-discrimination rules. To its credit, the government has implemented flexible work and return-to-work policies to enable smoother transitions for women returning to the workforce. This is especially important when it comes to helping caregivers transition back into the workforce. That said, the implementation of existing rules still requires improvement.

The Chinese context

China is one of the countries with relatively high female labour force participation rates, due to the Chinese government’s focus on safeguarding women’s privileges and interests. More Chinese women, at 51.7 per cent of the labour force, are now working in skilled jobs compared to men, putting China first on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, based on the Professional and Technical Workers Indicator.

The Chinese government has also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and enshrined gender equality as basic state policy in the Constitution of China. These are part of its general plan for economic and social development.

Examples of this development include the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests and its 2005 amendments, the new anti-domestic violence law, adoption of the Beijing Declaration, and the Platform for Action. This shows China’s determination to make women equal beneficiaries of economic and social development.

In promoting gender equality, Malaysia can take a few lessons from China. The Malaysian female labour force participation rate has increased over the years, from 50 per cent in 1990 to 55.2 per cent in 2018, but much can still be done.

Recent innovations by the Chinese government in improving female labour force participation rate include tax concessions. From June 1, 2019 to the end of 2025, business remunerations of China’s elderly care, childcare, and domestic services are excluded from value-added tax (VAT) in addition to a 10 percent tax deduction in payable earnings. Malaysia can emulate this to ease the household burden of women.

Furthermore, China has implemented anti-discrimination from 2019 which ban employers from asking women about their child-rearing plans in occupation interviews, as well as prohibit any bias towards male applicants during recruitment. There are also proposals for re-employment training and public services for women whose careers were interrupted by childbirth. Employers are also encouraged to introduce measures to aid work-life balance for workers and adopt flexible working arrangements. Likewise, Malaysia can do more to ease workforce re-entry for women with families.

Societies or non-profit organisations such as LeadWomen, National Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Malaysia (NAWEM) and the Institute for the Empowerment of Women (NIEW) help by delivering coaching for women and advocating greater female representation in senior leadership and on corporate boards.

How the BRI can help

Through overseas investment projects, the Chinese government and private sector play important roles in enhancing the overall quality and social value of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which align China’s goal for gender equality with those of other emerging nations. From China’s viewpoint, encouraging adoption of BRI international human rights standards and gender equality policies are in line with the idea of “a community with a shared future for mankind.”

China has promoted and funded multilateral conferences promoting gender equality among the BRI participant countries. Furthermore, $10 million has been pledged to UN Women to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and to attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In the next five years, China will implement 100 health projects for women and children in developing countries, as well as 100 happy campus projects to finance schooling of poor girls under the BRI. It will also provide 30,000 women from developing countries with training in China, as well as 100,000 skills training program places in local communities. With a poverty reduction campaign targeting rural women, the All-China Women’s Federation has helped 3.6 million individuals in improving their earnings, which is something that Malaysia could emulate.

At the end of the day, levelling the economic playing field would benefit not only women but also the entire economy. China and Malaysia are two countries with similar economic contexts. This presents some learning opportunities on Chinese women’s access to the labourmarket which could fuel further Malaysian economic growth.


Cheong Jia Qi is a Senior Lecturer at University Malaysia Sabah and Research Fellow in the Centre for Economic Development and Policy


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