The Multinational Monitor


G L O B A L   N E W S W A T C H

Firms, Fathers in Alliance

Textile industry exploits women workers

Women comprise the bulk of the workforce for many multinational corporations, particularly in the textiles and microelectronics industries. Why is it that these companies hire women? How are the women recruited? Do they benefit from the jobs? And are Third World women jostling Western women for the very same jobs?

These are some of the questions that a group of 26 women from 14 countries addressed at a recent conference called "Women Textile Workers in the International Political Economy of Textiles. "

The conference, held in Amsterdam from October 21-24, was sponsored by the Feminism Project of the Transnational Institute, an independent research group affiliated with the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Participants at the conference took a "feminist approach to the topic" of women in the international economy, says Cynthia Enloe, a professor of government and coordinator of the women's studies program at Clark University in Massachusetts. "Nothing is natural" about the division of labor, says Enloe, who helped organize the gathering and was one of three U.S. representatives to attend. "No labor force is constructed naturally; every division of labor is socially constructed."

Women "are the backbone in the textiles and garments industries," Enloe claims, pointing out that women make up 80010 of the workforce in garments and 40016 in textiles.

One of the chief concerns arising at the conference, according to Enloe, was that Third World women and Western women were being played off against each other.

"So many of the companies, so many of the governments, and so many of the unions" are blaming Third World women for "stealing jobs" from women in Europe and the United States, says Enloe. This notion is "really distortive" and "bad for women's international unity," she says adding that "it's the companies that are making these international decisions" about where to set up shop, "not the women."

The conference participants discussed the merits of textile and garment jobs for Third World women. In many Third World countries, occupational safety and health standards are not nearly as stringent as those in the West. Consequently women in the textile industry in the Third World "suffer," says Enloe, taking the risk that their "eyesight or lungs will be destroyed" and that they will end up "in much worse shape" than they'd have been in if they didn't have the job.

How is it that corporations can get women to work for them, under poor conditions and at very low wages?

The conference delegates examined this issue closely, says Enloe, and concluded that "things on the work floor" are to some extent "the product of what goes on outside the gates." Multinationals take advantage of "the sexual power relationship within homes," Enloe maintains.

"A lot of women that are deliberately recruited by multinationals are recruited as daughters, whose fathers have a stake in their working." According to this analysis, the men in the family - the father and brothers of the women workers - act as enforcers of labor discipline. Since they want or need their daughters' or sisters' pay, the men will allow poor wages and working conditions to prevail as long as the managers supervise the daughters and keep them "pure."

There is an "amazingly explicit alliance between personnel managers and parents, especially fathers," says Enloe. The personnel "managers play on fathers telling daughters what to do," she adds. It's a "happy complicity.

As an example of how corporations use family sexual politics to keep women workers in line, "a woman from Hong Kong at the meeting, Choi Wan Cheung, pointed to what had been happening in South Korea during the Control Data hostilities (see MM, September 1982). "She said the workers as men were saying they have a disciplinary role to play," Enloe recalls.

A similar tactic is being used by the Levi's company in Tennessee, said Corky Jenning, a union organizer of women workers in that state. Levi's uses husbands, older brothers, and fathers to oversee the women workers, Jenning said, according to Enloe.

Multinational corporations' attempt to employ women as a docile workforce may backfire, however.

"Women are not being passive," says Enloe, pointing to the summer strike at the Bataan Export Processing Zone in the Philippines. The Filipino delegate to the conference, Salvacion Bulatao, who works for the Manila-based research group IBON, remarked that the strike at the predominantly female zone came as a rude awakening for managers and for Marcos. "It was really ironic," says Enloe. The Export Processing Zone was "defined around a domestic ideology with the

women in secure areas living in greatly supervised dorms. But it turned out to be a place where women's solidarity grows.

Partly out of fear of growing militancy among women workers, and also as a cost-saving measure, many multinationals are no longer establishing factories. Rather, they are relying on outwork - garment sewing in the home. "Isolation, low wages and a lack of social welfare benefits" characterize this return to "homework," says the Transnational Institute's press release on the conference.

The trend appears strong. For instance, "in France 70% of fashion garments are produced at home,' according to the Transnational Institute, and "Naples has not a single glove factory but produces 50 million pairs of gloves a year."

The organizers of the conference intend to produce a book on the subject of women in the textiles and garments industry. "The intention is that it be an accessible tool for further feminist analysis and strategy around issues of women workers in the international economy," the Transnational Institute says.

World's Leading Fiber Producers by Sales, 1979

(U.S. $ million)
Approx. fiber sales
Fiber as % of total sales
Du Pont (United States) 4,161 33.1
Akzo (Netherlands) 2,121 33.4
Celanese (United States) 1,816 57.7
Toray (Japan) 1,702 79.6
Rhone-Poulenc (France) 1,607 19.1
Courtaulds (United Kingdom) 1,413 36.0
Teijin (Japan) 1,310 73.1
Hoechst (Federal Republic of Germany) 1,162 7.4
Asahi Chemical (Japan) 1,113 46.2
ICI (United Kingdom) 1,105 9.3
Monsanto (United States) 1,069 17.2
American Cyanamid (United States) 960 30.1
Allied Chemical (United States) 940 20.7
Unitika (Japan) 740 84.9
Kuraray (Japan) 642 75.8

Source: Computed from data in Chemical Week, 23 April 1980 and 2 July 1980;
company annual reports; and trade sources.

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