Across Asia women workers have to navigate structural discrimination, patriarchal systems and inequitable business models- which is why they continue to be overrepresented in precarious, insecure and informal employment.

In different sectors ranging from garment to agricultural industries, there are discriminatory practices that undervalue women’s work, for example, women workers on palm oil plantations are deliberately hired on short-term contracts to avoid paying them employment and social security benefits.

The region faces a gender wage gap- where women earn 20-30% less than their male colleagues and this is compounded by the absence of living wages and a lack of social protection that puts women on the brink of impoverishment. The ILO reports that over 42% of workers in the region are in poverty and vulnerable employment has clear gender dimensions.

While the #MeToo movement spotlights sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women – like journalists in ASEAN, the reality is even worse for marginalized workers such as undocumented migrant workers who face even more barriers in accessing justice.

There is little space to speak out and workers that dare to report on unsafe or unhealthy working conditions face threats of dismissals, criminal defamation charges, and other forms of intimidation.

This is also against a backdrop of systemic attacks on civic spaces, collective bargaining and the rights to unionize and organize, despite this being a recognized channel to improve working conditions. There are laws that prohibit foreign workers or informal workers from joining or forming unions, such as in Singapore where foreign domestic workers are banned from unionizing. There is also pressure from employers to discourage unionizing and harassment against union members- particularly so for women union members and leaders.

This all points to the need to unequivocally put women workers’ rights on the business and human rights agenda.

States need to heed their duties under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other human rights and labour frameworks to ensure that women workers’ rights become a reality.

The political will to implement human rights continues to lag behind the motivations to prioritize the business elite and their interests, so there needs to be a shift in the unequal power relations between workers; business and governments so that States can ensure that national laws reflect progressive human rights standards; and so they can set up strong, independent and effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to hold business accountable for non-compliance. Central to this is creating an enabling environment for women workers to speak, organize and unionize freely and collectively without reprisals.

States also need to ensure policy coherence with economic and investment agreements, especially given that women dominate the labour force in export-driven industries but such agreements are biased heavily in favour of business interests. Women workers’ rights need to prominently feature in trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership currently being negotiated; and States need to safeguard their policy space and prioritise their human rights obligations instead of promoting a race to the bottom to attract foreign investment.

Business need to make their value chains transparent; and undertake rigorous gender impact assessments to identify the gender dynamics at recruitment, supervision, remuneration and complaint processes to ensure that they implement human rights based due diligence measures.

Given that gendered inequalities translate into women workers being more likely to experience violence, have short-term contracts, lower wages, less benefits, less social protection and less likely to access justice that upholds their dignity, it is time to put women workers’ rights on the agenda.