Feminist Participatory Action Research for Change!

Support to Trade Unions, Workers’ Groups and Migrants Workers Organisations.

Feminist Participatory Action Research on Labour Rights 2020-2022:

“Women’s Labour Rights in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs)” 



Deadline [EXTENDED]: Sunday, 18 October 2020


APWLD invites women trade unions, workers’ groups and migrant workers groups in Asia and the Pacific to take part in this exciting Labour Feminist Participatory Action Research programme that aims to strengthen the organising power of women workers and their unions to demand their labour rights and to further a system change for economic justice. The FPAR journey will provide an opportunity to deeply investigate the situation of women workers in SEZs reflecting emerging challenges in the context of COVID-19 at local, national and regional levels.


 Asia Pacific sees a surge in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the recent decades, partially due to the promotion from neoliberal international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, which have provided assistance in forms of financing, technical support and promotion of such zones.[1] The main aim of the SEZs is to liberalise the national economies and attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by providing convenient access to cheap labour, infrastructure and favourable fiscal policies to investors.

Asia is the host to three quarters of all SEZs in the world, of which about 57 per cent of countries in Asia and the Pacific have national laws on SEZs in place.  Those national laws on SEZs commonly stipulate trade, investment promotion and facilitation, establishment of investment, providing convenient access to land, incentivising taxation schemes, as well as labour and environmental regulations.[2]

In 2017, the ILO concluded that “problems persist [in zones] in the protection of fundamental principles and rights at work, in particular freedom of association and collective bargaining, and gender equality” and that “other violations of workers’ rights are also common, especially concerning hours of work and safety and health.”[3] Reports by human rights organisations also report widespread instances of unpaid overtime, poverty wages, unremunerated work at night, precarious employment, gender pay gap, sex discrimination and lack of social security.[4]

ILO also noted that sexual harassment, are “common across regions, and have remained unchanged over the years”. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has noted the prevalence of sexual harassment of women in EPZs in Fiji and a number of countries in Latin America.[5] Research also documents that the violence against women, sexual harassment and even rape of women workers in EPZs goes unaddressed due to cultural norms which look down on young women travelling far from home. Other forms of gender discrimination in the EPZs includes discrimination against pregnant women workers, a lack of childcare and maternity leave, and greater discrimination in access to social protection.

Overall, SEZs contribute to the inequalities of wealth between countries, between rich and poor and between men and women and gender injustice through reinforcing the neoliberal economic rules and policies. The nature of employment in the zone which is vastly low-waged, precarious and flexible made labour organising challenging thus weakening the collective labour power. 

Compliance on labour rights could also be weakened through international investment treaties, which safeguards the investors’ profit over public interests and human rights, including labour rights. There have been at least 20 arbitrations to challenge diverse aspects of SEZs regimes, of which several cases stem from state’s withdrawal or amendment of tax incentives, while some relates to withdrawal of SEZ concessions. Measures to strength labour rights could also be argued to undermine the investors’ expected profits and subsequently trigger claims.

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has worsened the pre-existing inequalities with women workers being hit hardest. The triple (health-social-economic) dimensions crisis have made women workers in supply-chain-based manufacturing sectors as well as tourism sector to encounter precarity and devastating working conditions; while the absence of a strong, universal social protection system jeopardising their right to life and dignity. For instance, in the garment and textile sector, order cancellations and suspensions have created the domino effect on delayed wages or termination of employment of women workers in Asia and the Pacific region. In tourism industry, women are more likely to be self-employed and earn lower income, leaving them more vulnerable to the shock of losing their job without any chance to diversify their income, especially with the regions that have tourism as their main source of income/livelihood. Some have been relying on bank loans as a coping strategy because the wage is too low, which will soon deepen the private/household debt crisis.  There are also reports of workers, including health and care workers as well as SEZs workers, being required to work with extended working hours and insufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs). Some have been employed to be shift workers with 50 percent wage cuts. Conversely, this situation aggravates workers’ dependence on their employers, increasing their potential vulnerability.

In order to defy the oppression against women labour’s rights to organise and collective bargaining, decent work and living wage, and to work free from sexual and gender-based violence in their world of work, the workers solidarity and feminist movement should be strengthened by the capacities and evidence to  advocate governments regarding the SEZs policies. To address the gap on the investigation and to improve the evidence-based advocacy through women labours’ rights perspective, APWLD will support six to eight to conduct Feminist Participatory Action Research on Labour Rights: “Women’s Labour Rights  in the Special Economic Zones”.



6-8 partner organisations will be selected to work with APWLD for 15 months (2020 – 2022) to investigate the women labours situation in SEZs, particularly zooming into the following three focus areas: a) right to organise and freedom of association in SEZs; b) issues relating to Decent Work and Living Wage in the SEZs; and c)  sexual and gender-based violence in the SEZs.  All of our collaborative work will incorporate the impact of Covid-19 pandemic crisis in the situation of women workers in the SEZs.

APWLD will provide the selected organisations with a small grant to employ a young woman researcher and carry out the research including salary and on-costs with the approximate amount of US$ 13,000. Research partners will need to appoint a mentor to assist the young women researcher throughout the  FPAR process. 

APWLD will also support the young women researchers and their mentors to participate in capacity building workshops and provide advocacy or network opportunities. 

Selection Criteria of the Research Partners: 

APWLD will select trade unions/local women’s organisations who will lead the FPAR on labour rights in six to eight countries in Asia and the Pacific. Unions based in the Pacific are strongly encouraged to apply. We are seeking non-governmental, non-profit, local or national trade unions. APWLD will consider the following when selecting the organisations for this process: 

  • Sub-regional representation;
  • Recommendations/ references from  APWLD members;
  • Diversity of Trade Unions, Workers’ Groups and Migrants Workers Organisations in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Theme of the FPAR: (priority will be given to the FPAR that focus on SEZs) 


Interested organisations shall submit:

  • Completed Application Form
  • Budget proposal
  • Expression of interest
  • Recommendation / reference letter from at least two other women’s or grassroots organisations (preferably from an APWLD member). 

Please send completed forms by 18 October 2020 [Extended] to andi@apwld.org and risca@apwld.org or fax to +66(0)53 280 847. Please use the subject line: Application – Labour FPAR 2020_name of your organisation.

[1] World Bank Group. Special Economic Zones: An Operational Review of Their Impacts. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/29054/P154708-12-07-2017-1512640006382.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[2] UNCTAD. World Investment Report 2019 – Special Economic Zones. https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/wir2019_en.pdf

[3] Conclusions adopted by the Tripartite Meeting of Experts to promote Decent Work and Protection of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work for Workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) (Geneva, 21-23 November 2017) https://www.ilo.org/empent/Eventsandmeetings/WCMS_605081/lang–en/index.htm

[4] Asian Institute of Technology and Mekong Migration Network. Jobs in SEZs: Migrant garment factory workers in the Mekong region. http://www.mekongmigration.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Jobs-in-SEZs-23-Sep-2019.pdf

[5] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (A/57/38 (Supp.)), General Assembly, Official Records, fifty-seventh session.