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.