New Internationalist

Cheaper than machines

Issue 086

Most of the silicon chip circuits used in the new mini-computers are made by young, rural women in Southeast Asia. Diana Roose looks at the dangers they face in their everyday work.

Kim Hai Kwee,19, sits tensely hunched over her microscope. Jaunty music plays in the background and her head aches dizzily from hours of soldering tiny gold wires to almost invisible chips of silicon. Kim is one of 100,000 workers in South Korea’s export-orientated electronics industry. Some 90 per cent are young women aged 18-23. They work 8-10 hours a day, six days a week. In 1978, the average wage in Korean factories with U.S. investment was about $92 a month, less than $4 a day. Basic living expenses of about $112 a month - which includes only one-half pound of meat and no medical care or entertainment - eat up Kim’s entire wage. And many women must support their families as well as themselves. In a similar Korean assembly plant in 1978, 95 per cent of the total work force developed severe eye problems during their first year of employment - 88 per cent chronic conjunctivitis, 44 per cent near-sightedness, and 19 per cent astigmatism. Virtually anyone who stays on the job more than 3 years must wear glasses, and is called ‘grandma’ by her friends.

The Malaysian government touts the ,manual dexterity of the oriental female’ in one investment brochure as an incentive for Western investors. In 1977 several women from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) visited the National Semiconductor plant in the Free Trade Zone in Penang, Malaysia. They talked with young women who worked in the plant, dipping the assembled units in large open vats of sulphuric and nitric acid. Heavy fumes were everywhere and the floors were wet and slippery. The women wear boots and gloves, which sometimes leak, causing burns. The workers in these plants are exposed to some of the most dangerous acids and solvents such as trichloroethylene, xylene, and benzene, which cause nausea and dizziness. They have also been linked to cancer and liver, kidney and lung diseases.

‘I am sick because of acid concentrated’, one woman, Maznah, revealed in broken English. She had been dipping components in acid rinse for three years. The company refused to allow her transfer to other work. When she visits the camp doctor, he tells her she has flu.

Photo: Camera Press
Tumble-down houses in Penang State, Malaysia. Young peasant women live together in these crowded conditions while working long hours in foreign owned factories turning out silicon chip circuits. Photo: Camera Press

Over 40 per cent of the women came from rural areas to work for the $2-a-day wages. When asked why they had left their families, they said there were no jobs back in the village. Most had never worked before. The electronics industry continually recruits young rural women-which does nothing to help relieve the steady build-up of jobless in the cities. Women workers have an average stay in the Malaysian factories of 1-2 years; the turnover rate is as high as 80 per cent. The electronics firms glamorize Western female stereotypes. They stress female passivity and emphasize a paternalistic discipline. One company organizes lectures on cosmetics as well as sports teams. Another offers free lipsticks for reaching production goals. Beauty contests (‘Miss Motorola’, ‘Miss National Semiconductor’) are common and reinforce the Western ideals of consumerism and quotas goad the women to ever higher modernity over traditional Muslim values. To meet production goals, many factories operate round the clock. Production quotas goad the women to ever higher targets. ‘If they say one hundred and we can do it, then next week they give us a lot more to do,’ Azizah, 23, told one investigator. These pressures pay off in profits. According to one plant manager in Malaysia, ‘One worker working one hour produces enough to pay the wages of ten workers working one shift, plus all the cost of materials and transportation.’

Another U.S. delegation from Clergy and Laity Concerned visited Taiwan in 1978 and found similar conditions in the electronics industry. Although Taiwan prides itself on its ‘economic miracle’ they found women workers living in shabby dormitories on the outskirts of Taipei. Temperatures were over l OOOF and there were no fans or adequate drinking water. The women were paid about $60 a month for working 8-12 hours a day, six days a week. Life inside the sweltering dormitories was bleak, with over ten people to a room and few opportunities to return to the countryside for visits with the family.

Factory managers praised the Taiwanese women workers highly. According to one personnel manager at the General Instruments plant: ‘This job was done by boys two or three years ago. But we found that girls do the job as well and don’t make trouble like the boys. They’re obedient and pay attention to orders. So our policy is to hire all girls.’

It’s no wonder the workers are praised for their docility. There is little alternative when strikes are forbidden and the death penalty invoked for inciting labour unrest. Performance bonuses, often as much as one-fifth of the monthly wage, are often revoked for one day of tardiness, sickness, or even personal leave or vacation. Despite these rules, in 1975, women in the General Instruments plant organized the first walkout of an entire production line when the company eliminated its bonus. When management realized the incident would damage the investment climate in Taiwan, they promptly negotiated a compromise and kept reports out of the press. Companies like Fairchild Instruments boast they will be automating their assembly plants in the next ten years. But as long as wages are low and workers available and docile, the chances of being replaced by automated bonding machines are slim. As Mae-fun, a Hong Kong assembly worker put it: ‘We girls are cheaper than machines. A machine costs over $2000 and would replace only two of us. And then they would have to hire a machine tender, for $120 a month.’

Diana Roose is a former staff member of NARMIC a research project of the American Friends Service Committee.

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