Over the past few years, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has ignited a debate among various sections of the Pakistani and international community. Economists, development practitioners, social commentators and academics have been among those who have commented on the supposed benefits and challenges that this massive 70-billion-dollar investment initiative presents.
Missing from these discussions, however, has been any concerted effort to discuss the possible benefits that the women of Pakistan will reap from this economic partnership, which seeks to create over 8000 jobs. Women have been left out of mainstream discussions of economic policy and investment for a long time, and gender mainstreaming has been a slow process in the policymaking landscape.
Can CPEC be a change in the direction towards correcting the economic gender imbalance in Pakistan?
Research shows that in previous periods of economic boom, such as the millennium boom, men were preferred over women for high skill work, particularly in the banking and telecommunication sectors, whereas informal, lower paid work within the textile and garment sectors was host to more female workers. There currently exists a structure of informal employment amidst a complicated and often inadequate legislative framework that could potentially serve to expose female workers to further vulnerability. We must see this economic partnership from the perspective of both challenges and opportunities, in order to ensure that all sections of society are able to benefit.
Among the most important stakeholders within the CPEC policy apparatus, the Joint Cooperation Committee as well as the Planning Commission of Pakistan occupy the most importance space where such an issue could be raised. However, external stakeholders, such as international development bodies (USAID, AusAid, DFiD), as well as local women’s rights organisations and academics have been the most vocal on the issue so far. In as early as 2016, external commentators and policy influencers began raising the very important issue of mainstreaming gender within the CPEC framework, and recommended the inclusion of a specialised gender committee within the higher ranks of the CPEC infrastructure. No such steps have been taken so far.
The new employment opportunities will be created within an already complicated policy landscape. Prior to the 18th Amendment, labour policy was within the mandate of the Planning Commission of Pakistan. Post devolution, the labour and gender policy framework has become further fragmented, with various provincial and local bodies carrying overlapping tasks, resulting in policy formation falling under the provincial labour departments, whereas implementation and monitoring fall under the Labour Welfare Directorate and the Minimum Wages Board.
A pertinent example of this complexity is the case of vocational training for women, which is spread across three or four departments. The Labour and Education Departments both work on vocational and technical education, and run parallel programmes. Additionally, the provincial women development departments also work on skill improvement, particularly for home-based workers. The lack of a centralised digital database that categorises across variables such as age, gender and location weakens the coordination between departments further.
The majority of economic opportunities for women in CPEC will be situated in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs), as opposed to the large infrastructural projects where the preferred workforce will most likely be male. Within these SEZs, high skill manufacturing, as well as services related employment opportunities could prove beneficial for women. Despite this, there has been no cohesive effort towards the mapping of labour force skills across variables such as gender and location, which could potentially serve as a huge tool for identifying the type of skill sets in different regions of the country. Such a mapping exercise would go a long way in utilising provincial skill development programmes in the most optimal way possible, and ensure that industries within the SEZs are able to adequately utilise the existing skill sets of the workforce in their regions.
Unfortunately, some 78 per cent of the non-agricultural female workforce is currently engaged in informal sector, which offers temporary, low paid jobs with a lack of skill development and average salaries of around Rs6000/month. Such low quality employment is in part a result of the preference given to industrial production over labour rights and welfare, and partly due to unsatisfactory implementation of labour laws. Pakistan’s previous experience with SEZs, most notably in the form of Export Processing Zones, leads us to speculate that corporate interest might override labour or gender concerns under CPEC.
The one interesting facet which may separate this case study from other previous economic partnerships and generate cause for hope is the unique history of the female workforce in China. One of the founding pillars of post revolution China was to view citizens as productive agents in the economy regardless of gender. This belief led to the abolishment of various traditional cultural laws, many of which are reminiscent of modern day Pakistan, which were viewed as a hindrance to women’s economic participation.
Today two thirds of Chinese women are engaged in the workforce. The key issue will be to see how much of this ideology the Chinese government applies to its foreign economic investments. If such a push comes from the Chinese stakeholders in CPEC, it could go a long way in securing a better deal for women in this massive economic shift.
Given the status quo, it seems the economic opportunities created through CPEC might overlook the female workforce, and gender might continue to be an obstacle in the livelihood opportunities for thousands of women in the country. As research continues to demonstrate, there isn’t just a moral or ethical case to be made for women’s economic participation but a compelling business case as well.
Financially stronger women are more likely to invest in the wellbeing and education of their children, make better financial decisions for their families and communities, which in turn safeguards and creates better opportunities for future generations. Companies with more diverse and inclusive workforces fare better than their male dominated counterparts on various indicators, such as innovation and competitiveness, and economically active women lead their companies and countries to greater business success.
Such a realisation on the part of the high level stakeholders within the CPEC apparatus, although unlikely, would prove to be a game changer for thousands of Pakistani women. In this regard, the push from activists and women’s rights organisations might prove to be the most significant factor which tips the scales in favour of Pakistani women.