VARIOUSLY termed a ‘game changer’ or ‘game over’ for Pakistan’s economic development, few observers address the question of whether the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will contribute to women’s empowerment or exacerbate their marginalisation in Pakistan. This is a vital question in a country that is second-lowest in global rankings of gender equality.

The Planning Commission assumes CPEC will boost growth and create jobs for women and men alike, yet it seems unable to provide figures that support this optimism. Academic research — some of it produced at institutions funded to promote a positive narrative on CPEC — expects projects to create jobs in Pakistan as ‘China is losing its comparative advantage of low-cost labour’. These studies are silent on who stands a chance to be recruited for such low-wage jobs.

Our own research shows that women and men in Pakistan have experienced dividends of economic growth in different ways, eg, during the boom in the services sector after the turn of the millennium, men were favoured over women for employment in banking and telecommunications. In industry, in contrast, lower-paid female workers were hired in the textiles and garment sector. This enabled exporters to prepare for the more competitive global environment after the textile and clothing trade was liberalised in 2004. Thus, employment creation has not always been empowering: casual, poorly paid or even unpaid employment is likely to reinforce women’s marginalised position.

Will CPEC provide empowering jobs to women workers?

For a job to contribute to women’s empowerment, regular, formal and well-remunerated employment is of special import. The question is: will CPEC provide such empowering jobs to women workers?

It is mainly the special economic zones planned under CPEC which hold the promise of generating employment that also benefits women workers. The largest chunk of envisaged investments goes into the capital-intensive energy sector. Directly, this is unlikely to generate significant employment opportunities. The labourers building the roads and other infrastructure projects under CPEC are likely to be male and their employment temporary. The planned SEZs, however, involve labour-intensive assembly line work, such as in textiles, clothing and toys manufacturing that typically recruit a significant number of female workers. Currently, nine SEZs are planned across the country, with experts expecting this number to quadruple.

However, SEZ jobs’ track record in empowering employment is not impressive. About 60 per cent of all global employment in SEZs is hosted by China. There, especially in light manufacturing, women form the majority of the workforce. For a long time, wages in Chinese SEZs were kept low to attract foreign investors. Additionally, working 12 to 14 hours per day was common, without labour law protection for the bulk of the (migrant) industrial workforce, or representation by independent trade unions. But with the recent significant wage increases in its eastern industrial hubs, China is looking west — to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s own experience with SEZs does not offer much reason for optimism. While labour laws apply to SEZs, this is not the case for export-processing zones where trade unions and strikes are prohibited. Karachi’s EPZ is the oldest one, offering employment to thousands of women. Most are young, unmarried, and on temporary appointment without any written contracts. Many are, hence, fearful of dismissal in case of pregnancy.

Productivity is warranted by providing sick leave only at the cost of penalties from workers’ salary and strictly regulating visits to the restroom. In fact, most female employment in Pakistan’s export-oriented industries is casual, or informal and home-based where wages are even lower than in formal manufacturing. With an average of about Rs5,500 in 2015, women manufacturing workers’ monthly earnings can only be called sub-poverty wages. Such jobs may well be the ‘comparative advantage of low-cost labour supply’ that attracts Chinese investment.

Hence, if CPEC’s effects mirror the experience of Pakistan’s export-led development of previous decades, then the investment is unlikely to contribute to women’s empowerment. On the contrary, it will translate into the import of poorly paid and disempowering jobs.

Yet, for women to avail themselves of even such, or more attractive, job opportunities, the structural barriers that lower their labour participation must be removed. Here, placement of SEZs across the country, not just around major urban hubs, and the passage of the corridor through rural areas is a welcome feature of the proposed plans. While greater connectivity to markets may provide a catalyst for the requisite change in Pakistan’s patriarchal social set-up, creation of employment opportunities in relatively more remote areas will provide the economic impetus to attract women workers.

However, in order to ensure that CPEC can actually be a ‘game changer’ for gender equality in Pakistan, it has to be informed by gender analyses. A gender unit for the CPEC Secretariat could provide the required assessments of CPEC projects from a gender perspective. Similarly, while enforcement of existing labour laws is important, UN Women had earlier suggested that women’s employment can be promoted in CPEC projects through gender quotas and policies that protect against workplace harassment.

The CPEC optimism must be tempered with a dose of realism. True, we are looking at a massive inflow of capital that has the potential to transform the economic and social landscape of our country. Yet, we must delve deeper into the characteristics of the proposed plans and that of the jobs being promised. Only then can CPEC’s potentially significant economic dividends translate into positive and gender-sensitive social change.

Karin Astrid Siegmann is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague. Hadia Majid is an assistant professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2017