Lack of women-friendly policies shrinks labour force, population in Asia

South Korean women are boycotting marriage and childbirth to avoid the double burden of caring for young children and aged parents-in-law, exacerbating the country's problems of ageing population and dwindling fertility, issues which are also faced by several Asian countries.

Scholars at the Nikkei Future of Asia Conference yesterday spoke about the need to increase welfare spending and boost social services to counter the resulting effect of a shrinking labour force.

Seoul National University social welfare professor Ahn Sang Hoon said South Korean women are among the most highly educated in the world, but many quit their jobs after marriage to care for their family.

"There is great disparity between men and women in the labour market, such that we are unable to tap the full potential of female workers," he said.

Thailand and China face similar challenges, and reforms are necessary to drive change, scholars said during a panel discussion on rapid ageing and low birth rate.

Seoul National University social welfare professor Ahn Sang Hoon said South Korean women are among the most highly educated in the world, but many quit their jobs after marriage to care for their family.

China, which ended its longstanding one-child policy last year, needs to increase its labour supply and workforce participation rate to counter a greying population and slower economic growth, said Dr Cai Fang, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chulalongkorn University's dean of the economics faculty Professor Worawet Suwanrada said Thailand is now relying on immigrants to make up for the labour shortfall, but more needs to be done to address the problem in the long run.

Immigration may not be a welcome option for largely homogenous countries like South Korea and Japan, noted World Bank lead economist on the East Asia and Pacific region Philip O'Keefe. In that case, the most effective way to increase the workforce is to lure the women back with incentives like flexible work arrangements.

"One question raised is that if more women go to work, would we have fewer babies? Won't that be a trade-off? Going by OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) experience, if there are good policies in place, like in Norway and France, this will not only increase labour participation rate but also increase fertility," he said.

Chang May Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Lack of women-friendly policies shrinks labour force, population in Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe