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BANGKOK (Reuters) - When a major swimwear factory in Bangkok found its sales plummeting in the downturn, it laid off some 1,900 workers, almost all of them women.
That didn't surprise labor activists who say women are the most vulnerable workers in recessions, especially in low wage industries in developing countries where gender equality lags.
"Even before the crisis, there were differences in the labor market situation between women and men," said Gyorgy Sziraczki, a senior economist at the International Labor Organization's Asia- Pacific headquarters.
"Fewer women are working then men, and women also have a much larger share of vulnerable employment. The crisis to a certain extent has widened the gap."
Garment worker Chalad Chaisaeng is a case in point. After working for 15 years at the Bangkok swimwear factory, she is struggling to support her two children, ill husband and parents with her severance pay of around 110,000 baht (around $3,300).
"I did not expect the company to do this. I am a good worker," said Chaisaeng.
Millions of female workers across the region will face Chaisaeng's plight, according to economists and activists who say women, especially those in low-skilled contract and temporary employment, are particularly susceptible to the downturn.
The latest figures for Asia by the International Labor Organization (ILO) project a 5.7 percent rise in unemployed women in 2009, compared to 4.9 percent for men.
Lucia Victor Jayaseelan of Committee for Asian Women, a Bangkok-based network of over 40 women's groups in 14 Asian countries, said women will form the majority of the up to 27 million expected to lose their jobs in the Asia-Pacific in 2009.
"Because the sectors that are affected are the manufacturing sector, tourist sector and migrant workers, it will be at least 80 to 90 percent women," she said.
"We have a growing informal sector and a growing migrant population (predominantly women), completely unprotected by legislation or any form of social security."
Exact country-specific unemployment figures are hard to come by as many developing countries do not carry out labor force surveys. In addition, in absolute terms, men still outnumber women in global unemployment.
However in Asia, the concentration of women in export-driven industries such as garments, textiles and electronics, which have been hit hardest by the crisis, is much higher than men.
Wage gaps between men and women, a bias toward males as perceived breadwinners and the multiple roles women play today have also made female workers more vulnerable, experts say.
Even for those who have found jobs after being retrenched, the work is usually more menial and even more poorly paid.
Former Thai textile worker Nongnuch Thansoongnern, 39, left her home in Lopburi province 11 years ago to work at Wa Thai textile company where her 5,700 baht (around $170) monthly salary was more than twice she could ever earn as a farmer.
Now, two months after she was laid off due to declining factory orders, the former quality control officer makes ends meet selling fruits and vegetables near her old factory.
She wakes up at dawn each day to buy produce at the market and then travels by bus to sell her wares at a spot in front of a local convenience store where she stays until nine at night.
"There are too many sellers and not enough buyers," says Thansoongnern. "But at least I can still eat something. It's better than eating nothing."
Women migrant workers such as Thansoongnern and Chaisaeng are stuck between a hard life in the city they now call home and few job opportunities in rural areas where they come from.
Many are the main breadwinners in their families, single daughters or divorced mothers and wives with unemployed husbands.
The same is true of the millions of female overseas migrant workers in the region. Families are being badly hit by falling remittances in countries such as Indonesia, where 80 percent of overseas migrant workers are women, and the Philippines, where remittances account for 12 percent of GDP.
Governments in Asia need to take this in consideration when proposing economic stimulus packages, said the United Nations fund for women, UNIFEM.
In its analysis of stimulus packages in 10 countries, the agency said most fiscal spending is directed toward male-dominated sectors and measures do not target informal sectors where the vast majority of workers are female.
Experts say whatever the shape of the recovery the labor market will take longer to recover and there are concerns that as female workers lose their jobs, any gains in gender equality will be lost.
"Women made some progress in terms of gender equality in the last decade or so," Sziraczki said. Women entering the labor force have changed the "status of the women within the family, within the society."
"If this trend of unemployment is long-term, if women cannot go back to their jobs soon, this process can come to a halt and reverse to a certain extent."
But for Chaisaeng her immediate concern is her next paycheck.
"I thought our jobs were secure," she said. "Now I don't know what to do."
Additional reporting by Kallayanee Cheevapanich, editing by Megan Goldin and Sugita Katyal