Turkey’s biggest growth challenge is increasing women’s participation in the labor force. The total number of working women in Turkey is around 7 million, while we have a whopping 12 million housewives.
The figure has been stuck at this level for the past ten years. I wrote a piece two weeks ago in which I stressed this issue as an economic imperative for Turkey’s future. We simply cannot grow at our target pace without benefitting from the work of half of our population. That is why a news story in daily Zaman caught my attention: Nissin Foods of Japan has acquired a 50-percent stake in Turkish pasta producer Bellini. This may be the omen I have been looking for. Let me tell you why.
Have you looked at the figures for unpaid work? Asian men spend the least amount of time doing unpaid work, while Mexican and Turkish women spend the most. Turkish women on average spend more than 6 hours daily on unpaid work. Turkish men spend about a third as much, by the way, and European men about half. “Unpaid work” here mostly consists of household chores. For women, that includes cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly. Now, 6 hours of unpaid labor is too much. Half of this time is spent on cooking in Turkey, according to OECD data. Turkish and Indian women spend more time in the kitchen than any others. That is why I see Nissin Foods’ entry into the Turkish market as a good omen. Company officials may have thought that the more women work, the more Turkey will need instant noodles.
In fact, that is precisely what the Zaman story on Nissin Food entry is about. “Japanese food company Nissin Food has acquired a 50-percent stake in Turkish pasta producer Bellini Gıda, a subsidiary of food and beverage conglomerate Yıldız Holding, for an amount of $23.5 million, according to a press release.” Nissin Foods is active in 11 countries with 29 production plants, its objective is to tap into Turkey’s untouched instant pasta and noodles market, with such products estimated to become more popular among the country’s young population in the coming years. The increasing number of women joining the registered workforce supports that notion. Does that mean that Nissin Foods is betting that Turkey, like any normal developing country, is about to break the spell keeping women in their homes? It seems that way.
This unpaid work business is rather interesting. Studies show that women’s unpaid working time is negatively correlated with GDP per capita, while men’s unpaid working hours have the opposite effect. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: the wealthier you become on average, the more women participate in the workforce and the lower the unpaid female working hours drop. This does not mean, however, that men do more chores as a country’s economy develops. Men do more unpaid work the wealthier they become, like walking the dog and gardening, while the decline in female unpaid labor is more related to child care and cooking. Something deeply cultural is definitely afoot here.
Nissin Food’s entry into the Turkish market is a good sign for the female labor force participation rate. The transformation of the retail market and the growth of the ready-made foods business, frozen and non-frozen, are interrelated. Supermarkets are only good for the higher-income segments. For the poor, however, I see no signs of improvement. I wonder whether the six hours of unpaid labor includes time spent collecting support from Turkey’s dispersed, cumbersome and amorphous social assistance system. The system Erdoğan has built requires a daily effort on the part of poor households to coordinate various schemes: That is why they have to stay at home.