DESPITE Asia's robust economic growth, many women, especially at the lower-income levels, have been left behind in the region's race for prosperity. Two sets of conditions divide the region's women workers. The first occurs in countries undergoing economic restructuring from labour-intensive industries, such as South Korea and Hong Kong. In these areas, women face difficulties such as higher lay-off rates, fewer opportunities to switch jobs and age discrimination. The second involves newly-industrialising countries such as India and Indonesia, where inadequate protection exists for women factory workers, who face lower wages, sexual harassment and poor industrial safety. For the Hong Kong-based Committee for Asian Women (CAW), these are issues which need to be tackled before women in the region can fully enjoy the benefits of the economic boom. A network of 28 women's groups in 13 countries, CAW has been a major mobilising force for women workers in Asia. It was formed in 1980 by Asian churchwomen and grassroots organisers to promote awareness and end exploitative practices at work-places and, since 1992, has been an independent organisation. The group uses publications and workshops to encourage women's groups in different countries to press for better conditions, set up co-operatives which allow women to avoid exploitation and provide leadership training. Next month CAW is organising a workshop in India to teach women how to pool their resources to form small-scale businesses that they can jointly run to support themselves. The group's executive committee comprises an international team, its eight members drawn from different countries including Hong Kong, who meet regularly to discuss and review strategies. Shum Yun-shan, a staff member in the Hong Kong-based secretariat, said many women workers are victimised by economic restructuring in booming Asian countries. In South Korea, women face large-scale redundancies as the country switches from labour-intensive industries to hi-tech or capital-intensive manufacturing. The lay-off rate for female workers in the country's electronics industry was almost three times that for men between 1987 and 1992. In Hong Kong, unemployment is also a major problem for middle-aged women, laid off from the fast-shrinking manufacturing sector. Among the 9,553 job applicants registered with the Labour Department in January alone, 3,676 were females, two-thirds of whom were aged 30 or above. Employment opportunities and job security are not easy to find for many Asian women workers, Ms Shum said. And while more women are drawn into the industrial workforce in India and Indonesia, they are often locked into low-paid, home-based work or manufacturing industries spawned by foreign investments. Protection for these workers is particularly lax in many Asian countries. Union activities are often barely tolerated. The latest issue of CAW's internationally-distributed newsletter reports the case of a Bangladeshi woman, a staunch advocate of wage increases at her factory, sacked without benefits after 17 years of service in 1991. After a battle, she was reinstated, only to find the factory closed down shortly after. Last November, the office of a newly-formed Bangladeshi union was raided by a group of thugs who attacked officers and members, most of whom were women. The international community has gradually become aware of the plight of Asian women workers but changes are slow in arriving. The Platform of Action that resulted from last year's United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women contained calls for better government protection for part-time and home workers. Agreed to by all government representatives attending the conference, it also encouraged parental leave (for both mothers and fathers) to promote the equal sharing of family responsibility, as well as a review and reformulation of wage structures in female-dominated professions. But the Platform of Action has no binding effect and it is up to governments to carry out its provisions. CAW is urging member groups to continue to lobby their governments for action. 'The platform is just a declaration,' said Ms Shum, 30, a philosophy graduate and a former worker for a non-governmental organisation. She is concerned that Asian women lack opportunities for personal development. 'For many, self-development is a distant thing as their main preoccupation is how to make a living.' Poverty is another pressing issue, delegates at the last UN Conference were told. In Asia, poverty has driven many young girls to become migrant workers. According to the CAW newsletter, they often become domestic helpers in more affluent countries in Asia and in the Middle East, and many suffer isolation, sexual harassment and a judicial system which is biased towards employers. Another publication notes that indigenous women in parts of Asia are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They suffer a high illiteracy rate, are subject to violence in the name of tradition, and have been made unpaid supplementary workers in, for example, rural projects in Malaysia. CAW is gearing up for further campaigns to promote better protection of women workers' rights. Its annual meeting, to be held in Nepal later this month, will map out plans for the years up to 2000, Ms Shum said. Locally, the CAW is adding its voice to a campaign launched by labour organisations and NGOs calling for better safety in overseas toy factories owned by Hong Kong businessmen. The groups became concerned following several fatal factory fires in Thailand and Shenzhen in 1993 and 1992. Pressure is being imposed on the Hong Kong Toy Council to enforce a Charter on the Safe Production of Toys through petitions, Ms Shum said. While CAW concentrates on women workers, other groups are concerned about the violence taking place against women in Asia. This may take the form of rape, female infanticide, forced prostitution, domestic violence, or as in India, the killing of brides who are unable to pay dowry.