The Multinational Monitor


W O M E N   I N   T H E   F R A Y

The Dark Side of Industrialization

by Leung Wing Yue

In the last two decades, an economic revolutionspurred by foreign investment and export-oriented industrialization-has been reshaping the economies of Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Dubbed newly-industrialized countries (NICs), today these four countries share a common experience of increasing economic wealth and industrial output, and a common goal of replicating Japan's economic successes.

By developing export-oriented light industries, notably textiles, garments, electronics and plastic goods, all four countries achieved high growth rates by the beginning of the decade. Low tariffs, low taxation, a cheap and easily controlled labor supply and export-processing zones (EPZs)-helped attract significant foreign investment.

But the backbone of the export-oriented economies that have transformed Southeast Asia are the industrial women workers for whom the promise of industrialization has brought few benefits.

Most of these women have been deprived of even the most basic labor rights-neither the right to strike nor the right to a minimum wage are standard policies. Less than 20 percent of the labor force is unionized, due in large part to political repression and government control over union activity. In the EPZs of Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, even the limited labor rights which are normally granted vanish in order to protect "essential industries."

Before the era of export-oriented industrialization, most women in Asian NICs worked with their families until they married. With minimal or no formal education, they typically married in their twenties and became unpaid wives and mothers.

Since the 1960s, young women have been employed in factories on a large scale. They formed a majority of the child laborers, starting work at the age of 13 and spending most of their teens in sweatshops making plastic toys or garments. By the 1970s, these women workers were employed on the more sophisticated factory assembly lines and became the backbone of the modern exportoriented light industries of the NICs.

Industrialization in these countries has prompted NIC governments to implement compulsory education to equip the new generations with the basic skills needed by the new industries.

Although employment has brought some independence dence for women, the increase in job opportunities still falls far short of the ideal of "equal opportunity and equal pay." Jobs that are available to women are usually only unskilled and poorly paid; technical and managerial jobs are either tacitly or explicitly reserved for men.

A 1983 survey by the National Youth Commission in Taiwan found that 66.9 percent of the women they interviewed had experienced sexual discrimination in salaries, job responsibilities and promotion opportunities.

Similarly, in Korea, a survey of 724 firms by the Korean Employers' Federation in 1984 showed that 33 percent of the employers interviewed flatly ruled out promotion prospects for their female employees, while only 2.1 percent said they would hire female college educated workers for technical jobs. Another 17.4 percent of the employers interviewed said they avoided women employees because of such extra costs as maternity leave, limited career commitment and legal limits on total hours, overtime and nightwork.

Not surprisingly, studies of tens of thousands of women factory workers in the NICs show that these women have gained few transferable skills from their jobs. According to a study of the International Labor Office: "Promotion prospects for unskilled female workers in the EPZs are usually restricted. The skills which they learn from their jobs are acquired in a matter of weeks and peak productivity is generally reached after only a couple of months. There are also very few transferable skills which might give the outgoing female workers a competitive advantage in the ' search for alternative employment."

In Hong Kong, electronics assembly operators are paid a monthly wage of $250, regardless of the number of years they have been employed at the plants.

Longer Hours, Half the Wages

Wages paid to women in these NICs are generally only I about half the wages paid to men. Women in South Korea i are farthest down the ladder, making an average of 44 percent of what men earned in 1984. Singaporean women, who make 70 percent of what their male counterparts take home, fared the best.

In Singapore, consistent labor shortages have bolstered the salaries of factorv workers. `A woman worker with 10 years seniority in a multinational electronics factory can earn as much as a recent university graduate," an International Labor Organization study found.

Not only do women earn much less than men, in many instances they work longer hours. Female workers in South Korea work an average of 238 hours each month compared with 229 hours a month for male employees. At the same time, 40 percent of female employees are paid less than $116 a month, compared to 6.1 percent of male workers.

Runaway Plants

In the 1980s, women garment and electronics workers in the Asian NICs have faced another major threat to their livelihood, which echoes the experience of their colleagues in Europe and the United States during the previous two decades. Many textiles and electronics companies have begun to move large parts of their labor intensive assembling operations away from NICs to poorer and less developed neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and China where labor is cheaper and less organized.

In the last year, as the electronics industry has bottomed out, unskilled women assembly workers throughout Southeast Asia have lost their jobs. The Singapore operation of General Electric, the largest private-sector employer in the country, laid off 1,000 workers in 1985-nearly 10 percent of the company's Singapore workforce. Most of them were production or maintenance workers. The company area relations manager, Mr. S.K. Lee, attributed the mass layoff to automation and the market slump.

With massive layoffs in the electronics and assembly factories, unskilled and unorganized women workers have found themselves under the constant threat of plant closings, often with little or no notice or severance pay.

Unionization among workers in Asia is low, in large part because of tight government curbs on independent organizing and government repression. Governments in most Asian countries, including Singapore, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Korea, either control their national unions directly or supervise them tightly via legislation. In all EPZs in Asia, labor activity is tightly restricted or banned. In South Korea, a special labor law prohibits any industrial disputes from taking place within foreign companies.

While female membership in unions in the NICs is proportionally high, their participation in the established union hierarchy is minimal. Although membership in the textile and electronics unions in Hong Kong and Singapore is overwhelmingly female-women comprise up to 80 percent of the total-it was not until 1984 that the first woman was appointed to the position of executive-secretary for an industrial union in Singapore.

In South Korea, women industrial workers have been waging some of the most active labor struggles in the Asian NICs. Although only 25 percent of the textile workers are unionized, according to the Federation of Korea Trade Unions in Seoul, these statistics omit independent labor movements. Since the 1970s, independent unions, mainly led by female textile and electronics workers, have emerged to fight for union rights and better wages and working conditions against brutal suppression by both the government and their employers.

The struggle put up by South Korean women workers at Y.H. Textile (1979), Control Data (1982) and Daewoo (1984) were among the most acclaimed and significant in recent years, despite the fact that strikes and collective bargaining were made illegal in 1971 under the National Defence Act.

In August 1979, 200 young women employees of the Y.H. Textile and Wig factory staged a peaceful vigil and fast to protest the company's closure of their plant. On the fifth day of the vigil, more than 1,000 riot police, armed with clubs and steel shields, broke into the building and forcibly dragged the women out. One 21-year-old worker was killed during the incident. It was her death that touched off widespread rioting throughout South Korea and crystallized the opposition that eventually forced President Park Chung Hee out.

Women workers at the U.S. electronics multinational Control Data, and textile workers at Daewoo Apparel Co. and the Chunggye garment complex in Seoul have waged vigorous and courageous campaigns to protest union busting, unfair labor practices and job losses over the past two years. In most cases, their sit-ins and peaceful hunger strikes were met with brutal violence and suppression by the police and the management.

It is ironic that despite clear evidence that women workers have played a crucial and central part in the industrialization process in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan over the past three decades, they are still regarded by society, and still regard themselves, as a secondary labor force.

Leung Wing is a writer for Asia Labour Monitor. A version of this article appeared in the Asia Labour Monitor.

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