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The Asia Foundation’s new report The Future of Work for Women in the Pacific Islands looks at the challenges and opportunities facing Pacific women in the context of the pandemic, climate change, and technology-led change. Across the Pacific there are pronounced gender disparities in labor market participation, the work men and women perform, and the wages they earn. There are also significant gender gaps in unpaid work. Pacific women are overwhelmingly employed in the informal economy, and the combination of Covid-19 and climate-related events has laid bare the vulnerability of these workers, many of whom have lost jobs and income due to mobility restrictions, the decimation of the travel industry, and a dramatic drop in demand.

Covid’s impact in the Pacific was felt most quickly and dramatically in tourism. The closure of borders and cessation of travel led to massive layoffs in the tourism industry and the loss of livelihoods for the many workers who rely on it, including taxi drivers, handicraft vendors, cleaners, fishers, farmers, and restaurant workers. Despite the importance of tourism for employment in the Pacific Islands, many in the industry have irregular or precarious work arrangements, including seasonal employment, part-time or excessive hours, and informal hiring.

In Fiji, women account for nearly two-thirds of university students in tourism courses, yet they hold just one-quarter of the professional and managerial jobs in the industry, with most instead working in minimum wage positions such as cleaning and front-desk work. Those with informal jobs linked to the industry, such as the production and sale of handicrafts to tourists, found themselves in an even more vulnerable position during the pandemic: they had no income or social protection to fall back on. A rapid assessment of market vendors in Fiji, 85 percent of whom were women, found that most did not have enough savings to withstand an income disruption of more than two weeks.

Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of workers in the “old normal” to unexpected shocks like the pandemic, as well as to known and escalating pressures such as climate change and automation. Most workers in the Pacific are employed in the sectors at greatest risk of climate impacts: agriculture, fisheries, and tourism. Technology-led change is putting further pressure on women’s labor force participation, as automation disproportionately affects the sorts of routine jobs in which women are disproportionately employed.

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