In theory, the expansion of the export industry is believed to spur economic growth in two ways: it enables economies to improve their efficiency by focusing on their comparative advantage, and it allows the free movement of direct investments and technology transfers (Zepeda, 2009). Through its supply of cheap labor, neoclassical economists believe that LDCs can benefit in export-led strategies by taking part in relatively labor intensive production. Increased employment can then lead to increased real wages and in effect, the reduction of poverty and income equality (Athukorala, n.d., p. 2).
While most LDCs implementing export-led growth strategies have registered increased income, actual studies show that this growth may be nominal at best. Reliance to increased export has exposed countries to price volatility - with every increase in income came an increase in prices. In effect, while salary levels of all employees have increased in recent years, very few have experienced increase in their capability to pay for goods and services. Aside from this, export- led growth strategies primarily focus on manufacturing and heavy machineries disregards the conservation of the environment and have rendered previously self-sustaining communities vulnerable. For example, the establishment of dams and factories have displaced families and lost them their source of livelihood. Both men and women are forced to migrate to the cities in the search for better opportunities.
In South Africa, the poorest continent in the world, export-led growth strategies have provided several opportunities for both men and women to earn income for their families. In the region as a whole, export expansion has empowered women and has provided them with livelihood but studies show (Kiratu, 2010; Thurlow, 2006) that the benefits of these policies are marginal for women, and are considered less than those accrued by men.
The Human Development Report 1999 (United Nations Development Program, 1999) stated that globalization, export-led growth and other strategies have failed address human concerns. From a gender perspective, the biggest problem with export-led growth is that it ignores the societal imbalances which may affect the distribution of benefits. The need for improved skill and higher capital has favored higher income households. It results in long term inefficiencies and will tend to ignore women's rights. For example, trade agreements (required components to properly implement export oriented growth strategies) afford governments with very little space in creating national policies. In most cases, trade agreements are indifferent to national policies promoting gender sensitivity but it leaves little room for bargaining as most LDCs are in dire need of foreign investments.
In every successful export industry, there is an increasing need for cheap and efficient labor. In almost every case, this labor is women's labor (Engender, 1998). In the case of Asia, export production meant the setup of export processing zones. Many companies in EPZs hire women as garment workers, vegetable packers and cotton harvesters (UN Platform for Action Committee, 2006). These are jobs which require long hours of work, and offers low wages. Women offered with part-time, temporary work under substandard work conditions (Moghadam, 2005, p. 7). They are not allowed to join unions and are rarely granted additional benefits such as maternity leave. Urban migration has disrupted established customs and traditions and has increased the tendency of depression to both men and women workers.
In a patriarchal society such as Korea, the influx of FDIs has allowed women to assert their rights. Yet there is indication that women are poorly paid. In a study (Seguino, 1995) of male and female workers using wage data from 1972 to 1989, it was found that only one-third of the wage gap can be explained by the disparity in the level of education, job experience and skills training. Figures show that Korean women earned about 46% of the income earned by men.
These conditions are even more exacerbated by the gender implications of poverty. In many developing countries including Korea and China, there is differential treatment of boys and girls in the household. Girls are also pressured by their relatives to marry quickly so as to ease the burden on their families; hence, many of them are uneducated and are incapable of getting high paying jobs. Those who possess the required educational degree may lack the skills needed to perform managerial jobs. Also, in cases where a male and female are vying for a promotion, it is almost always the male who gets it. Almost all women are vulnerable, and female poverty is possible even when a woman is working fulltime (UN Platform for Action Committee, 2006).
The movement of jobs to areas where labor is cheapest has also prompted the laying off of staff and reducing salaries and benefits. In many cases, this downsizing directly affects women. In cases when they get to keep their jobs, it is the women whose husbands lost their employment who are affected. Aside from looking for new ways to address their financial needs, women also have to provide emotional support to their jobless husbands. In Korea, for example, the government promoted a programmed named “Get your Husband Energized” which called on women to soften the impact of the Asian Financial Crisis on the men who were becoming depressed due to unemployment and bankruptcy.
But that's not all. With reduced spending on social services, women are forced to pick up the slack - they take care of patients sent home from the hospital, teach the kids topics they are not learning in school, they feed their families even when the resources have run out.
In conclusion, while export-led growth has succeeded in promoting economic growth, its' effects vary across countries. Many countries have been left vulnerable as their natural environments have been exploited and their traditional customs and traditions are disrupted. While both men and women are affected by these policies, it is the women who bear the heavier burden as they are tasked by the society to take care of their families even with little or no resources available to them. In many cases, export-led strategies have exacerbated their problems.
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