Why have women been the preferred labour force by the multinational corporations operating in export-oriented industries producing garments, electronics and toys in the “Third World”? There are many reasons why women are the preferred labour force by the multinational corporations operating in the export oriented industries. In industries such as textiles, clothing, and electronics, stereotypes of women being cheap labour, docile, flexible and having nimble fingers allows the multinational corporations to devalue the work of women into low-paying and menial positions.
One social system that describes the gender differences in the third world is the concept of social stratification, which exists in most societies, and distinguishes between individuals and/or groups according to their socially defined attributes, and gives them different statuses according to these attributes. This type of discrimination is especially predominant in the less developed countries. Throughout the world, businesses exploit women workers by labeling some jobs as “women’s work”, and then assigning them lower wages because women perform them.
Women are therefore paid a lot less, not for the type of work they do, but because they are women. Multinational corporations in the export processing zones face a competitive world market. In the export processing zones, export industries are exempt from import and export duties. The multinational corporations are also permitted to have one hundred percent foreign ownership. Governments in developing countries such as Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Morocco, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few, promise large pools of women workers to multinational corporations in export-processing zones.
One of the main goals of the multinational companies is to produce the largest volumes at the lowest possible cost. Women in these countries are usually the cheapest source of labour. The young women work in dangerous conditions for extremely low wages to produce goods for the First World while governments and businesses alike violate their human rights. They also work six or seven days a week, ten to fifteen hours a day, but they do not even make enough money to afford decent meals; many are malnourished. For the most part, women do not control their earnings, and their wages are again considered supplemental to those of their husbands.
Women workers in many of the countries we have looked at are also constrained from realizing economic and social independence by the state. Researchers hold different opinions the role of paid work in women’s lives, the ways in which it enhances or marginalizes their socio-economic position within the household, and the methods used by women to gain a measure of control over their lives at home and in the workplace as they move from under the authority of fathers and families into industrial plants that have male managers and limited advancement opportunities for female laborers.
Ultimately, authors have argued that multinational corporate-led development increases economic opportunities for women and frees them from patriarchal constraints of the household and local community. While multinationals do sometimes create new work opportunities for women, these jobs do not provide women with the means for long-term empowerment. The multinational corporations are attracted to countries with low operating costs, where the bargaining power and earning potential of laborers is restricted.
In order to minimize wages and the threat of unionization, many of these corporations bring costs down further by subcontracting work to informal factories or home-based laborers. It is usually women who labour in unregulated factories or at home-based production. Some of the authors argue that informal labor does not enhance the position of women economically or socially. Women are paid up to 50 percent less than male counterparts and are usually expected to remit their wages to their husbands or families.
Corporations justify paying women below-subsistence wages by claiming that they are only secondary wage earners, adding to the primary income earned by the men of the household. Third World women can benefit from some of these changes, but not without cost. If they ask for more money or better working conditions, their companies may close the factories and give the work to sweatshops, where wages and working conditions are even worse, or they may pull up stakes and move someplace else.
Even if the workers don’t organize to improve their conditions, their companies may move because they can get a better deal elsewhere — a factor that neither the workers nor the host countries can control. When factories leave, the consequences aren’t pretty — the families have become dependent on those wages. So how do such workers replace their lost wages? Many women must resort to earning a living as domestics or sex workers or run small businesses.
Large numbers of women must migrate internationally to find employment. Workers in these countries have no recourse. Their governments won’t take their side – they can’t afford to offend the corporations – and there is no safety net. Government funds that could provide for housing, health care, education, fuel and food subsidies must go instead to pay off loans from international bankers. The demands of debt repayment also eat up revenues the governments might have invested to create jobs in their own economies.
The industries themselves will continue to exist because of governmental support. They provide jobs and at least a little income, thereby lessening the chances that the poor will join together and oust their leaders. And migrant wages, sent back home, help countries pay off debt and buy imported goods. Given the powerful institutions that have vested interests in the status quo, change will be difficult to achieve.
Nor should policy makers try to make changes without taking into account the complex links between Third World work and world realities. For women working in the multinational corporation it is some times hard to determine the positive or negative affects involved in working for the multinational corporations. They are often forced to work long hours with insufficient pay but they are also given the chance to earn some wages and socialize with other women. Third World women can benefit, but not without cost.