The COVID-19 pandemic of early 2020 caused a global contraction in economic supply and demand that saw hundreds of millions of workers around the globe stood down or only able to access reduced hours of work.
In research commissioned by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Investing in Women initiative, Professor Marian Baird, Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill and Dr. Suneha Seetahul of the Australian Women’s Working Futures (AWWF) Project have analysed the gendered impacts of the pandemic on private sector employees and employers in four South-East Asian countries: Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Analysis of employee and employer surveys shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had immediate consequences on the wellbeing of workers who faced disruptions in their professional lives because of changes in hours of work, pay and place of work. Differences in the structure of the economy and official pandemic responses mean results vary across countries.
In Vietnam, 50% of workers experienced a decrease in their hours of employment compared with only 27% of workers in the Philippines. In Indonesia, half of all workers reported a decline in income with very little differences between men and women.
Women were more likely than men to be working from home during the first few months of the crisis. Working from home was a common strategy used by employers in the Philippines in contrast to Vietnam where workers were more likely to remain working from their normal work place (see table below).
Changes in working hours, location and income combined to affect workers’ productivity. In the Philippines, about one third of all workers surveyed reported a decline in workplace productivity with more women (34.6%) affected than men (31.6%) whereas in Vietnam only one quarter of respondents reported a decline in productivity with more men (29.6%) affected than women (21.6%). In Indonesia, 17.1% of women and 24.9% of men reported a productivity decline.
The pandemic response by governments and employers also impacted unpaid work in the home. In all four countries, the amount of unpaid household work increased with pandemic-induced changes adding to the domestic pressure felt by women, and interestingly also by men.
In all countries, large proportions of respondents increased the time spent for food preparation (71.3 % of women and 62.7% of men in the Philippines), childcare (57.2 % of women and 65.8% of men in Vietnam) and cleaning (82.4% of women and 75.2 % of men in Indonesia).
This increase in unpaid domestic work for women was in addition to the pre-pandemic workload which was already disproportionally shouldered by women in all four countries.
Pandemic disruption to work and domestic life in Southeast Asia has had a significant impact on worker’s mental health. For instance, almost half of all respondents in Vietnam reported the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, women being slightly less impacted than men.
Conversely in the Philippines, more women (43.4%) declared their mental health was impacted compared to men (40.5%), similarly in Indonesia 39.2% of women and 32.2% of men reported an impact.
In order to mitigate the effects of the lockdown, declining demand, disruption of global supply chains while ensuring safety, employers have had to quickly adapt. Many employers in our studies have focused on supplying employees with personal protective equipment and ensuring flexible working conditions such as part-time work or remote work policies.
COVID-19 has also seen the companies studied in Southeast Asia reassess their priorities and processes, particularly around workplace flexibility. One company in Indonesia reported the pandemic experience has shown them new ways to support gender equality: “The work is not measured by number of hours the employee spends (at work) but the outcome delivered. This should enable women to work and contribute more.”
Elizabeth Hill is an Associate Professor within the Department of Political Economy.
This research was funded by Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government.