New Internationalist

Silicon Tricks And The Two Dollar Woman

Issue 227

new internationalist
issue 227 - January 1992

Silicon tricks and the
two dollar woman

Cynthia Enloe opens up the new high tech world of
global work to see what - or who - is inside.

A hundred Barbadian women sit at rows of computer terminals. They enter 300,000 ticket reservations flowing from 2,000 daily flights of just a single US airline. In the same building one floor above them other women enter data from American medical insurance claims. Their average hourly wage is only $2.50 compared with the same company's $9.50 hourly wage for its US-based employees.

If you make a plane reservation nowadays more than likely it will be processed by these women sitting at their work stations in Barbados, or their sisters in Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, Haiti, India, Singapore, China or Ireland.

Although low paid, de-skilling and eye-straining, data entry work is seen as a step up from work as a chambermaid in the Barbadian tourist industry. And these island women proudly distinguish themselves from their countrywomen working in dusty, hot garment factories.

Information processing is following previously feminized garment, textile, toy and electronics assembly lines in the Third World. Along with airline tickets and insurance claims, women in poor countries today are processing the First World's consumer warranty cards, phone books, scientific articles and pornographic novels.

It is hard to keep pace with these new twists in the First World-Third World relationship. Just as you get a handle on Levi's use of Filipino women for making jeans to be sold on London's Oxford Street, you hear that Hong Kong entrepreneurs are setting up their own assembly lines in El Salvador and Taiwanese investors are opening factories in Lesotho. What, then, is the 'Third World' in the 1990s?

Even the flow of management techniques no longer seems to run from North to South. Since the mid-1980s, companies have been taking their labour models perfected in Asia and Latin America and transplanting them to Ireland, Scotland, Eastern Europe and to the Chinatowns of North America.

Still, amid all of these surprising changes, one thing remains remarkably consistent: cheap female labour. It's as true under the New World Order as the old.

But let's look more closely at the glib phrase: cheap labour. Even the least internationally conscious television viewer of the 1990s knows that companies are forever on the global prowl for 'cheap labour'. It sounds as though there is some labour power out there that is inherently low-priced. More realistic - if longer winded - is the phrase 'labour made cheap'. It draws our attention to the making, to the actions needed to turn someone's labour into low-priced labour.

What makes one person's labour cheap - and another's not? Race and class are potent factors - but not by any means the only ones. If an airlines reservations processor's race is the key to her low wages and lack of promotion then why aren't there Barbadian men sitting there at computers entering airline reservations?

And if class were the sole explanation then why were the women going on about how this work suits their mothering duties? Class and race are not the only threads that have to be woven into the fabric of exploitation to make profits from blue jeans and computers. Gender is the most powerful determining factor.

So what does it take to cheapen a Barbadian, Jamaican, Chinese-American, or Scottish woman's labour? It takes belief that the work being performed is not skilled. It is natural. This belief relies on notions about women's natural inclinations - for example, their natural aptitude for sewing, food preparation, housekeeping or physical nurturing. A woman who sews Marks and Spencer's jeans or who cans Dole's pineapple can be paid as if she were doing something that took little or no skill.

Second, a woman's labour can be cheapened more readily if long stretches of routine, yet careful repetition - as in indexing the latest scientific texts or assembling silicon chips - can be presented as naturally suited to the feminine character. This denies the reality that both can take super-human patience, together with very unnatural levels of visual concentration.

Third, a woman's labour is cheapened if the employee herself and large parts of her community can be convinced that her wages are merely supplemental; that the 'real' wage in any Barbadian, Sri Lankan or Lesotho household is being earned by the adult man of the family.

This is not the end of the list. Women must be thought of as apolitical, docile, naive. Such a stereotype makes bosses think they can get away with paying women little to work in unsafe conditions.

But it's not enough to fix one's gaze on the factory floor if you want to find out how this unequal 'world order' is being sustained and expanded. Teaching and enforcing ideas about women's 'patience', about their 'reluctance' to unionize happen outside as well as inside the workplace. True, some patriarchal ideas are especially exploited by sophisticated managers and thereby gain new potency. But generally they derive from social practices and policies outside the workplace.

For this reason Third World feminists have been insisting that researchers look beyond the factory walls and become a lot more curious about the politics of marriage, parenting, sexuality. Each of these provides a plank in the platform for international economic relations. But this should not let the company executive or governmental ally off the hook. They should not get away with saying: 'Oh, it's not our fault; we just adapt to the local culture'.

A woman's own experience has to be taken seriously. When a Mexican woman working for the Johnson clothing company explains that she cannot come to a meeting of the new women-run union because her husband will be angry, it does not simply mean she is apolitical or docile. It means that the power relations inside the woman's marriage make it easier for Johnson managers to keep Mexican women workers' wages low. Likewise, when a Filipino woman working for Mattel - the toy manufacturing giant - explains that she prefers working in a foreign factory because she can send money home to her landless rural parents, it does not mean she is lacking in ambition. It means that the daughters' roles in the peasant economy help multinational factory operations in the Philippines.

Policy-makers and opposition activists alike will happily pretend that these women workers are marginal to the country's development. Meanwhile women's labour is supporting the larger system of production and privilege.

Can this be changed? I think so. There are working women's movements emerging now in the Third World that have been profoundly influenced by feminism - both the practice and the analysis. These movements know the need to juggle the double burdens of home work and factory work. So, for instance, meetings are scheduled at times when women can get away from cooking or childcare. They also take on difficult, personal issues like domestic violence and how to change men. The Mexican garment workers' September 19th Union made both of these a high priority after men had objected to their women companions going out in the evenings and threatened them with beatings if they weren't home to cook dinner.

What is deemed a 'union issue' is changing too. For example, the Korean Women Workers' Association has been challenging companies' reasons for paying male employees more than women because the former were, the management argued, the 'breadwinners'. And sexual politics at work have come out of the closet.

For years women who have been pressed into having sex with a foreman or manager as a condition for keeping their job or getting a promotion have been told that they were to blame. Other women on the assembly line often ridiculed the harassed women for being the object of favouritism.

But Sri Lankan factory women's groups have made sexual harassment a major issue. They have linked it to problems such as the threat of rape facing women who have to work night shifts and travel home in the dark. In feminist unions sexuality and violence are now considered as political as wage rates and the right to strike.

Mind-bending revolutions are happening in the global economy, involving more and more women. But there is one innovation that might prove to be the most far-reaching. It has little to do with computer technology - but a lot to do with feminism. Feminist research is revealing what is really going on. And feminist strategies are challenging the means by which women's labour is made cheap; the way a job is turned into 'women's work'.

Finally, feminism is clearly saying that we won't ever get to know about how international politics works or find ways to change it if we are not prepared to take account of the personal life of the Mexican garment-maker or the Barbadian data-processor.

Cynthia Enloe is author of several books including Bananas, Beaches and Bases (Pandora, 1989).She teaches at Clark University, Massachusetts, US.

 

Cheryl

When I was very young I worked in the sex industry. I am not going to describe the type of work I did, 'mainly because it would sound coy or worse. Many women would prefer to say they were prostitutes than to describe some of the extraordinarily silly activities in those grey areas of the sex industry which straddle entertainment, catering, theatre and therapeutic services.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY Anyway, I was also a student and a passionate feminist. A sex worker, a feminist lawyer and I established the sex workers' rights movement in our city, Melbourne, in 1979.

We were laughed at by the media, ignored by sex workers and vilified by some sections of the women's movement. The organization which we began, the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, now has offices and staff. It provides services and information to female, male and transexual sex workers and it is now well supported by Australian feminists.

Those women who regard sex workers as collaborators in male sexual power and violence or as victims of the same are much quieter now than they were in the 1970s. This is the result of changes that have occurred both in the women's movement and the sex workers' movement.

For us the first decade was one of struggle. We struggled to place ourselves in the women's movement and to develop a feminist analysis of sex work. A major change that occurred during this time was the extension of the feminist right to be heard and the right to self-determination to include sexual minorities and sex workers.

Today sex workers are usually asked to participate in most forums where sex industry issues are being discussed. No longer are 'feminists' invited to speak 'on prostitution' in the absence of sex workers and, thankfully, there are no more debates set up with sex workers on one side and feminists on the other.

So far so good. But when we get down to practical matters things have not greatly improved. Anti-prostitution laws and the persecution of sex workers created by the whore stigma remains in virtually all corners of the world.

The exploitative nature of sex still concerns feminists. And rightly so. Sex work is extremely exploitative in industrialized countries and even more so in developing countries. But is exploitation an inevitable feature of selling sex?

Sex workers say 'no'. They say that the exploitative aspects of sex work are legal and industrial matters. When clients and bosses urge the sex worker to have sex without a condom this is a health and safety issue akin to those faced by workers in many other industries. The same when sex workers are forced to work long hours in substandard conditions and are not allowed to refuse certain clients or are subject to curfews and other abuses. Bosses - both male and female - are often to blame for these exploitative industrial conditions, although it is clearly criminalization and stigmatization of sex work that creates conditions of systematic exploitation.

The process of developing worker solidarity and making collective demands remains the best course in any industry for eliminating exploitation.

Or in the words of Brazilian activist Gabriella Leite: 'I look forward to the day when every prostitute can put their hand on their heart and say "I am a worker", and every worker can put their hand on their heart and say "I am a prostitute".'

Cheryl Oven is now a consultant on HIV, Aids and sex work. She is based in Paris.

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