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Feminist Language and the Exploitation of Women Workers

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I go into this a bit in Out of Sight, but Hester Eisenstein goes into much greater detail into how the global export industries have engaged in the widespread exploitation of women, often using the language of feminism to justify them doing so. Eisenstein also notes how many scholars have fallen into this trap, assuming that the limited gains women might make from a job in an apparel factory is a real path to women’s liberation. That’s not because work, even low paid work, can’t play a role in women’s liberation, but because the global economy simply does not provide a path for most of the world’s workers to improve their lives anymore.

There is no doubt that working in EPZ factories, which provide young women with an independent income, can have a liberating effect. These women are following the path prescribed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: instead of doing unpaid and exhausting work on a farm, subject to feudal and patriarchal controls, seek employment in factories, which can bring economic autonomy and a consciousness of one’s capacities. But what may be true in theory is often less so in practice, especially given the harsh conditions under which most women in EPZs work.

Conditions in EPZs vary from country to country, but nearly all are exempt from national labor laws, and as a 2004 report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions shows, employers are ruthless in crushing unionizing attempts and in going after labor organizers.

Even if they don’t try to unionize, female EPZ workers face constant harassment. At CODEVI, a company located in Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone, workers producing Levi’s jeans for the clothing group Grupo M have experienced “abductions, beatings, arbitrary dismissals, verbal abuse, unpaid overtime, intimidation with firearms, and interrogations.”

In Mexico, workers are usually on short-term contracts, with no job security. Women applying for jobs can be subjected to health tests, including pregnancy testing, which can involve being examined naked and “asked intrusive personal questions such as, “‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘How often do you have sex?’ and ‘Do you have children?’”

Jeremy Seabrook, who has also observed factories in Bangladesh, agrees with Kabeer that the women workers of Dhaka, Bangladesh go through epic struggles to get factory jobs, having to overcome the obstacles placed in their path by patriarchal families and communities. But he argues that the women have no power to decide which industries settle in Bangladesh to take advantage of them.

They work fourteen-hour days, with wages often delayed, and endure brutal overseers and extremely dangerous working conditions; he witnessed a fire in Dhaka on August 27, 2000, that killed a dozen people and in recent years, more than two hundred factory workers have died in fires. More recently, the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse outside Dhaka killed more than one thousand workers. As Seabrook remarks, “This is scarcely a model of self-determination.”

Any reasonable definition of feminism must support the right of women to organize unions, to not be sexually abused on the job, to not have employment hinged on pregnancy tests, to make a living wage. Certainly we must be willing to read through how corporations co-opt the language of feminism (feministwashing???) in order to justify and even promote how they exploit women. Walmart, Gap, Target, and the many other western corporations operating in Asia and Latin America absolutely could ensure that the women their contractors hire do use those jobs to live a better life that not only emancipates them from reliance on men for income but also allows them to have dignified lives at work and home. They choose not to do that. We should recognize that and call out those who use feminist language to justify the exploitation of women.

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  • Bitter Scribe

    This sounds like another verse in the same old song: “Be grateful you have a job.”

  • Thom

    By the way, there is a storyline in the new season of Orange is the New Black about female prisoners doing sweatshop labor.

  • CD

    Is this recycled polemic? I’m struck by how old most of Eisenstein’s references are … and yes … checking further suggests that this is adapted from a book published in 2009 and hence probably finished in 2008.

    Eisenstein offers the narrowly political reading that any scholar who finds that in a particular place and time women have actively sought out factory work is doing so to “justify brutal exploitation.” This is nuts.

    Her reading (in the full Jacobin piece) of Feldman’s 2001 _Signs_ article responds only to its most polemical elements, and ignores the careful work Feldman does to critique specific interpretations in the literature against what is actually going on in Bangladesh, where she has done decades of fieldwork.

    If Eisenstein were writing anew and not just recycling, she might have come across Feldman’s 2009 JIWS article “Historicizing Garment Manufacturing in Bangladesh: Gender, Generation, and New Regulatory Regimes” (http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1160&context=jiws) another nuanced and specific piece.

    • DrDick

      Thank for the link. I may use that in my anthropology of gender class in the section on gender and globalization.

  • DrDick

    The ruthless exploitation of women is a feature and not a bug for these manufacturers, many of whom are contractors for MNC. They deliberately seek women employees, who are seem as more docile and easily intimidated, as well as being paid significantly less than men. Children are often put to work, as well.

  • xq

    This article is somewhat incoherent.

    Eisenstein argues that currently developing nations are following a more “free market” rather than state-led approach and that this cannot replicate the success of nations that developed earlier:

    The net result is a distorted development process that does not replicate the successful path taken by the original industrial powers of Europe and the newly industrialized countries of the post–World War II period (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). In today’s global economy, it is illusory to think that poor countries can eliminate poverty and ill health without genuine industrial and agricultural development.

    But all the developing countries Eisenstein mentions (e.g. Bangladesh, Malaysia) have seen rapid economic growth, wage growth, and poverty reduction over the last few decades. You can argue that this is not sustainable, but you need to at least address it.

    “Successful” feminist interventions, then, have ended up giving wealthy countries and international agencies like the United Nations a way to obscure this historical reality by pointing to women as the key to economic development. For example, UN chief Kofi Annan, in a speech marking the sixtieth anniversary of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, stated, “Study after study has taught us that no other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality.”

    It is gratifying for feminist activists that the former UN secretary-general recognizes the importance of supporting women and girls around the world. But his statement is deeply misleading.

    The international financial institutions and the wealthy countries have created the myth that helping individual women, one by one, is going to eliminate poverty, disease, and malnutrition. Referring to women and girls as the key to development is a sleight of hand, a way to turn the gaze of policymakers, activists, and working people away from the vicious actions of groups like the troika of “institutions” (the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) that are seeking to crucify Greece and the Syriza government in the name of the financial interests of banks, bondholders, and the rich lending countries.

    What a weird argument. Kofi Annan advocates for women empowerment in the developing world to distract people from Troika misbehavior on Greece (itself a rich country)? Huh?

  • J. Otto Pohl

    On a more general issue of development it is without a doubt better to have exploitive industry like Malaysia than no almost no industry like Ghana. Both Ghana and peninsular Malaya got their independence in 1957. At that time Ghana was actually richer than Malaya. Today Malaysia is much, much, much richer than Ghana and the existence of exploitive industry as opposed to no industry is the primary reason why. How to create value added productive industries in countries with none has been the major problem of development for many decades now. Undoubtedly there will have to be significant state intervention, but it seems highly unlikely that the creation of state industries for import substitution favored by people like Nkrumah will be revived anywhere in the unindustrialized world soon.

  • jben

    I kind of get what the article is saying even though I don’t really agree with it in all particulars.

    The employment of women in these industries has helped break down certain patriarchal structures, and has helped to give many women more independence. This is a good thing! However, this does not mean that the current set-up is good, either. It does not justify the sexual harassment and victimization that those workers undergo, nor the attempt by factory owners to exert more control over workers lives. It does not justify the various “preganancy tests” described, some of which seem actively sadistic. It does not justify the forcible suppression of labor organizing, or the beatings, or the denial of overtime, or any of the other things described in this article. Given that the current system includes all of these things, to describe it as “feminist” is rather perverse. While we should not dismantle the factories, or anything like that, these abuses should be eliminated as far as humanly possible, so that the women who work in these factories can have a decent life.

    Moreover, we should not praise these businesses as “feminist heroes” for employing women, given that they employ women because it lowers their labor costs, and that many of them actively mistreat women. It is good that women are being employed, but in order for “feminism” to have any real meaning, they must be able to live with dignity. Therefore, praising the kind of untrammeled, exploitative industrialism that happens in many Third World nations as a liberator of women is, at best, a half-truth.

    I would have thought this was obvious.

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