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Role Reversal: When it comes to who works the longest hours, many Philippine women are the global exception

A new ILO study says men average longer working hours in paid work than women in almost every country around the world for which data are available. The sole exception to this pattern is the Philippines where employed women were two to three times more likely than men to work exceptionally long hours of over 64 hours per week. Minette Rimando of the ILO’s Subregional Office in Manila reports from the Philippines.

Article | 08 June 2007

MANILA, Philippines (ILO Online) – When Liza’s 5-year old son starts crying and begging her not to leave for work, her heart bleeds. Everyday, the marketing executive travels one hour to a Manila hotel where she works more than 60 hours a week preparing client presentations and sales reports. Back home, a nanny spends the day looking after her son. And at days’ end, Liza finds herself with little time left for the family.

Celine, on the other hand, is another story. After working 15 years as certified public accountant and bank manager, she quit the corporate world for her two daughters after her husband urged her to stay home due to concerns over the girls’ poor performance in school.

Liza and Celine are two examples of how women in the Philippines are struggling to balance work and family life. Most would be willing to work if they had no family obligations. But for others with children at home, the conflict between working time and family life is a heart-wrenching choice.

“Compared to men, working women tend to spend more money on education and better nutrition for their children. At the same time, they help to create jobs for domestic workers”, says Linda Wirth, Director of the Subregional Office of the ILO in Manila.

In the Philippines, women increasingly work in services, call centres and the electronics industry. Employers think women have better skills and aptitudes for this type of work. Driven by the lack of other opportunities, women tend to accept long working hours to earn more.

“Overtime often doesn’t draw any extra pay, driving workers to work even longer,” says Ms. Wirth. “In the Philippines work is often paid at a daily instead of an hourly rate.”

“Gender gaps” in working time

Yet women in the Philippines are not the only ones accepting longer working hours. A new ILO study (Note 1) says an estimated 22 per cent of the global workforce, or 614.2 million workers, are still working more than 48 hours a week – considered excessive – often merely to make ends meet.

What’s more, the study also finds a clear “gender gap” in working time.

“Men tend to work longer average hours than women worldwide, with women working shorter hours in almost every country studied. Moreover, men are more likely to work longer hours than women, while women are far more likely to work shorter hours (less than 35 per week) than men”, says Jon Messenger, Senior Research Officer for the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme and a co-author of the study.

According to Mr. Messenger, the Philippines are an exception to this rule. The new ILO study finds that employed women are two to three times more likely than men to work exceptionally long hours in paid work, sometimes more than 64 hours per week.

“I think the situation in the Philippines is a very interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, we do not have the gender gaps in working hours that exist in most countries. However, given the long hours of paid work of many Filipino women, an important question is how they can balance work and family. We want to see both women and men working reasonable hours, and in the case of countries like the Philippines, that means fewer hours for both sexes,” Mr. Messenger says.

He refers to the double burden women carry with their paid jobs and unpaid domestic work: “It is crucial to provide men with incentives to share these family responsibilities more equally.” Shorter hours, the report says, can have positive consequences including benefits to workers’ health and family lives, reduced accidents at the workplace, as well as greater productivity and equality between the sexes.

The study suggests reducing long working hours lessens the risk of occupational injuries and illnesses, and their associated costs to workers, employers, and society as a whole. It also calls for policies to help workers combine paid work with family and domestic obligations. These include flexi-time, emergency family leave and high-quality part-time work in line with the ILO Part-Time Work Convention.

“Almost a century ago, the ILO adopted the first international labour standard on working time. Today, the question of working time is still as pertinent as it was in 1919. We have to be aware of the detrimental effects of long working hours for families, children and society. Working women like Liza and Celine should not have to choose between their career and their family. It is a matter of creating an adequate work-life balance for both women and men”, concludes Linda Wirth.

Note 1 - Sangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann and Jon C. Messenger, Working Time Around the World: Trends in working hours, laws and policies in a global comparative perspective, ISBN 978-92-2-119311-1, ILO, Geneva.