When Nimble Fingers Make A Fist

new internationalist
issue 263 - January 1995

When nimble fingers make a fist.
When nimble fingers make a fist
All is not well with the women who feed the Asian economic tiger.
But, says Daisy Francis, they don’t always put up with brutal jobs,
company goons and male domination.

On the night of 8 May 1993 a battered body was discovered in the back-streets of Nganjuk in eastern Java. The victim turned out to be a 25-year-old factory worker named Marsinah. She had been savagely beaten and raped. Marsinah had worked at PT Catur Putra Surya, a jointly-owned Indonesian and Swiss concern manufacturing wristwatch components for export. Most of the 500 people who worked there were women and Marsinah had been one of their leaders during a recent strike.

Marsinah’s brutal murder turned the unwelcome spotlight of international publicity onto Nanganjuk. An independent inquiry, conducted by a legal-aid institute, found that all the evidence pointed to KODIM, the local military command, as perpetrators of the crime: Marsinah was so severely tortured at the KODIM headquarters that she died at the hands of her torturers.

Her story gives a sense of the brutality that hems in the lives of the women who do the work behind the Asian ‘economic miracle’. The walls around the Export Processing Zones, the EPZs, are often topped with barbed wire. The places resemble huge labour camps. Inside them you find the women who were the linchpin of the first phase of the industrialization process in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and now south China and Indonesia.

The women come here when it’s boom-time, ‘to perform their national duty’ and work in the factories. But come ‘recession’ or ‘relocation’ and the welcome mat gets yanked in. Then they are reminded of their responsibility to home and children.

These women are still regarded – often even by themselves – as a secondary or subsidiary work-force. In Hong Kong – where nearly all low-wage production has moved into the EPZs of South China – uneducated women workers in their forties and fifties have been left behind as employment shifts to financial services and communications.

The EPZ economy is based on employing cheap labour for the assembly of high-volume standardized components. Such work is seen as particularly suited to women. Since the 1960s young women have been employed in EPZ factories on a large scale. They comprise the majority of child labour, often spending most of their teenage years in sweatshops making plastic toys or garments. By the 1970s they had moved on to more sophisticated assembly lines – particularly electronics and pharmaceuticals. By 1982, of the 62,617 workers employed in EPZs in Taiwan 85 per cent were women, three-quarters of them under 30 years of age. The Investor’s Guide in Taipei trumpets the advantages of hiring women workers: wage rates fixed at 10 to 20 per cent below those of men (and as much as 50 per cent in some Korean firms); a malleable workforce that won’t cause trouble.

Such hints did not fall on deaf ears. Companies sent tour buses to rural villages to persuade inexperienced young girls to leave home. A system of recruitment from junior high schools was approved by the Education Department – the jobs turned out to be a poor substitute for education. Simple assembly tasks left the women with few transferable skills.

Ah Lai is 18 years old. She has worked in Hsin Kwong Textile Factory, Taiwan, for three years. She is the eldest child in a family of five. She left school and started to work in this factory when she had to shoulder responsibility for the family. From the very beginning she hated the work. She had to stand all day. The noise and the air pollution were unbearable. Then she lost a hand in an industrial accident. The insurance company paid her $5,800 as compensation.

‘After I recovered I returned to work,’ she says. ‘The management put me in the same place, doing the same job. There was no rehabilitation training and the work was hard. I cried a lot.’

But that was not the hardest blow. A buyer visited the factory and Ah Lai was told to change her place and work somewhere more hidden. She asked why. ‘Look at your hand. It’s not good to let the guest see it. We would lose face,’ replied the supervisor. ‘So the company thinks that my crippled hand is a shame on the company. But why did this happen to me? Who brought me to this?’ asks Ah Lai.

Young women like her are under considerable pressure to contribute to the family income. Eldest daughters are expected to carry much of the responsibility for the education and welfare of younger sisters and brothers.

In the end Ah Lai had to swallow her pride and continue working at Hsin Kwong Textile.

EPZ jobs do offer some young women a way to escape restrictive social roles. But the zones have their own stringent social controls. The dormitories where the women live, as well as the factories themselves, are tightly supervised. There are few opportunities to socialize with young men. Security officers monitor workers during their non-working as well as working hours. In a typical dormitory there are six women to a room. Each room is made up of single beds or bunk beds and a shared common table or two. There is almost no space for personal belongings.

In the south China EPZs fires have killed hundreds of workers who had been locked into their factories and dormitories. Some of these casualties, most of them women, occurred in illegal ‘three-in-one’ factories. Here workers live on the top floors with the storage facilities while production carries on downstairs – giving new meaning to the phrase ‘living for your work’. One such fire burned 80 young female workers to death in the Xingye raincoat factory in Dongguan in 1991. The fire started on the bottom floors while the women were sleeping in their quarters on the top. In 1993 nearly 2,500 workers were burned to death in Chinese factory fires.

Many women workers are unaware of their rights and the existence of labour laws. They are raised to be quiet, gentle and subservient and thus do not ‘speak out’. They live in fear of blacklisting. The names of ‘troublesome’ employees are circulated among all employers. Unionization in Asian countries is difficult, with tight government curbs on independent organizing and the repression of labour groups. The problem is compounded by the marginal position of women within most unions themselves. Even in otherwise progressive circles, the notion that it is for ‘men to master the outside world’ continues to prevail.

Women active in organizing other workers often have to confront those all-too-familiar derogatory remarks from male fellow-workers. This despite the fact that in South Korea in the 1970s, for example, women textile workers led the first wave of militant unionism.

One important and bitter struggle was at the Dong-Il Textile Company. Han Myeing-Sook, who is today one of the leaders of Korea Women’s Association United, says she will never forget the day 70 women from Dong-Il Textile stood nude, forming a human wall in front of riot police – a very startling act in socially conservative Korea. The women were pelted with human excrement by company goons and male workers.

Dong-Il was just one of dozens of struggles led by Korean women workers. Nonetheless, since the struggles of the 1970s, it is male workers and their concerns that have come to dominate the Korean movement.

Throughout industrializing Asia, women activists have faced being called ‘loose women’ simply because of their union activities. Activists tend to be single women in their twenties, who may have completed only five or six years of primary schooling. They will tell you that the reason for their activism is that working and living conditions are so bad they have nothing to lose in the fight for a better deal.

Regrettably, some feminist movements in the region are too preoccupied with issues of middle-class career advancement to be of much use to working women. Young women from most of the Newly Industrializing Countries have, for their part, been slow to break free from their upbringing to take the hard road of union activism.

The obstacles to union activism are formidable. Union leaders are now being sued for strike actions. Arunee Srito, a well-known Thai woman activist, was one of those targeted by management at Thai Durable Textile for a strike in July 1993. Arunee, the chairperson of the Textile, Garment, Leather Trade Unions’ Federation, which has 26 textile-union affiliates, was a key leader in a maternity-leave campaign. She was also a member of the support committee for the Kader toy factory victims when she was dismissed – Kader was the site of one of the worst factory fires in Bangkok. The textile industry employs predominantly women workers and Arunee’s leadership had inspired many other women workers to join up. Management desperately wanted to break growing union militancy.

Thai Durable Textile decided to sue Arunee and five other union leaders for obstruction of production, which it claimed had led to a loss of at least $4.16 million by the company. The case is expected to reach court soon. This is the first time that a company has taken workers or unions to court over industrial action in Thailand.

If all else fails employers threaten to relocate their operations when workers press for higher wages and better working conditions. Among the many Asian nations – Indonesia, Vietnam, south China – aspiring to follow the development path taken by their more successful neighbours, there are sites of almost unfettered exploitation. The governments of these countries offer up their citizens – and particularly their women – as their cheapest and most abundant resource.

Daisy Francis is an Asian-Canadian and a member of staff with the Canada/Asia working group in Toronto.

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