Written by Chin-fen Chang.
Image credit: Women at work by Mat Distef/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The female labour force participation rate in Taiwan has in recent years increased and is now over 50%. Women account for 44% of total employment and the proportion of women holding degrees of university education is almost equal to that of men. The socio-economic and legal status of Taiwanese women has improved over the past few decades and Taiwan’s Gender Equality in Employment Act was implemented in 2002. Global gender equality indices show Taiwan ranking high and topping East Asian states. For instance, the Gender Inequality Index shows Taiwan (9th) to be more friendly to women than Korea (11th), Singapore (12th), Japan (22nd), and China (38th). The index includes in calculations the death rate of pregnant women, teenage fertility rate, the proportion of women in legislatures, the rate of finishing middle-school education, and labour force participation for both sexes.
In Taiwan, women’s educational attainment converged with that of men around 1991 and the expansion of higher education since the end of the 1990s has accounted for increasing gender equality. However, women’s share of educational attainment decreases with the advancement of educational degrees. The high proportions of women appearing in service and sales (55% women vs. 45% men) and clerical and assistant jobs (78% women vs. 22% men) shows the concentration of female job opportunities in the lower- to middle-white-collar jobs despite their collective educational achievements. Furthermore, women are paid less than men in all occupational categories, especially those in lower white-collar jobs where female labourers are dominant. Intra-occupational wage discrimination indicates the likely existence unequal pay for equal work between men and women in Taiwan.
The gender wage gap has been narrowing over the past few decades in Taiwan. But the average results leave many statistics unexplained. Why have women have earned only 80% of men’s wages while the former’s educational achievements and labour force participation rate has significantly increased? One of the explanations for the persistent gender gap is the concentration of women in low-paid jobs. In 2018 Taiwan’s mandatory monthly earnings was NTD 22,000, about GBP 564, but many women are paid not much better than this basic salary. Half of female employees earned less than NTD 31,000 (GBP 795) monthly in 2018, while the median earnings for men was about NTD 37,000 (GBP 948). Furthermore, female workers suffered more than men during the 2008 recession. Both men and women experienced income reduction but women’s average earnings dropped more than men’s. Women’s job security was also more seriously affected as many private businesses used forced unpaid-leave practices. Female employees were more likely to be asked to take temporary leave than their male colleagues. The on-leave employees had received only the basic wage at best and a substantial proportion were unable to go back to the same workplace.
The improvements in aggregate socio-economic statistics for women also tell little about the unequal division of domestic labour between husbands and wives and the continued dominance of patriarchy at home in contemporary Taiwan. Even though women’s participation in production has been increasing, they still shoulder a larger share of reproduction work than men. Wives with full-time jobs do about one hour per day more housework than their partners. Men mostly do traditionally male work such as repairing appliances or changing lightbulbs, which happens infrequently and takes little time to finish. Women are responsible for housework such as childcare, laundry, and cooking, which takes time and energy and has to be done almost every day or frequently.
While Taiwanese women working in the lower white-collar jobs received poor and unfair treatment in the workplace, female caregivers from Southeast Asia were ranked at the bottom in the hierarchy. The needs of long-term care for the elderly, the physically challenged and the sick prompted the number of ‘social-welfare foreign workers’ to consistently increase and now rival the size of blue-collar labour working at construction sites and manufacturing plants. The number of foreign caregivers working in private households and nursing homes surpassed 250,000 people in 2018, which is about 6.1 times that of 20 years ago. Even though these female migrant workers help support the welfare system of elderly care in Taiwan, their labour market treatment has been unfair in many aspects.
Foreign caregivers on average receive earnings lower than those of migrant industrial workers. While the latter can receive a basic salary, the former are paid only 80% of that salary. In addition, foreign caregivers are never paid for working overtime in private households, usually work all day until the patients and/or the elderly go to bed, and they are seldom allowed to take Sundays off from caring work. The language barrier and the lack of social networks makes it difficult for victims to ask for help. The treatment received by female migrant workers in Taiwan demonstrates a clear example of labour exploitation by the state, the system and employers.
Aggregate statistics on the social and economic conditions of women and the global gender index provide an overall view of gender equality in cross-national comparisons. Highly educated women have taken advantage of increasing job opportunities and legal protection from gender discrimination in the workplace by getting jobs with greater social status and payment comparable with male counterparts. But many other working women are only able to find low-paying, unstable jobs, and suffer unequal treatment by employers depending on their nationalities. Since many women can find only low-paying jobs, it is hard for them to remain economically independent or to have extra money to save. Thus, economic insecurity makes it difficult for single women and female-headed single-parent families to have a decent living for themselves or for their children.
Chin-fen Chang is a Research Fellow/Professor, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan.