cheap labour, cheap products
… and women workers
Many young women migrated from rural areas to live and work in the
zones and surrounding urban areas, seeking work, to support themselves
and their families in the villages. Structural Adjustment Programmes,
the increase in agribusiness companies and the worldwide drop in
commodity prices made it difficult for families to support themselves
in rural areas.
“Because I am working in the factory I get a salary.
With this salary I help my family. Even though we produce a lot
and the quality is high we do not get our rights. We produce goods
that bring foreign income into the country and both ourselves and
the country benefit from this. I came from an agricultural background.
Our farmers even though they produce they can not sell their production
because of imports. The crops that the farmers are growing get a
low price from the dealers and there are instances where products
are imported from other countries even though farmers in Sri Lanka
produce the same crops. However they can not sell because of the
free import of these crops and this is very unreasonable”.
(From an interview with S.A. Chandrawathie, Free Trade Zone worker
and President of the FTZ&GSEU in 2003.)
Workers’ wages generally constitute a tiny fraction, between
0.5% to 4%, of the retail price of garments and sportswear. Dignity
of women is a big issue. Women come to the urban areas to work,
initially to raise money for their dowries (South Asia) and support
their families economically (across Asia). Their image in the eyes
of society is generally poor, though improving, as a result of campaigns
aimed at raising awareness of the difficult issues faced by women
garment workers and the valuable role play they in society.
Women workers are under unorganised and are perceived by TNCs,
as a cheap, flexible, compliant and an easily manipulated workforce.
They do low skilled, repetitive jobs in unsafe and insecure conditions,
face gender discrimination and have little opportunity for skills
development. Women work long hours are forced to do overtime and
face inhumane restrictions such as time limits on going to the toilet;
unrealistically high production targets; sub standard accommodation
(with inadequate sanitation, electricity or running water); poor
transportation and sexual harassment both inside and outside of
the factory is common. Salaries are low.
While work is precarious and conditions grim for women garment
factory workers in urbanised areas there are advantages. Women who
come from rural areas leave behind them strict family and paternalistic
structures and enjoy some freedoms, including limited economic freedom
when they leave home to work. This limited economic freedom can
give women some choice over who they marry and when, especially
in countries where women pay a dowry for marriage. Some women by
virtue of the support they give their families enjoy increased status
in the family. Of course patriarchal and kinship like structures
are replicated in the factories by mostly male owners, managers,
supervisors, male work colleagues and sometimes within unions themselves.
The alternative choice for many women workers is in the informal
economy, which has even less workers protections and rights. Nonetheless
this limited freedom comes with the price of constant violations
of workers and women’s rights and the long health of women.
This subcontracting system specified the amount, type, quality,
period of time for production and price that would be paid to supplier
factories – collectively known as purchasing practices. There
are often several layers within the manufacturing sub contractors
and brand label TNCs may contract to TNCs in Asia who have their
own network of manufacturing contractors or to small or medium size
factories in specific countries who may then sub contract out to
very small enterprises and/or to home based workers.