Third World women, mostly between the ages of 17 and 21, have become the world’s new industrial proletariat … an exploited class.
Light industrial manufacturing jobs, in textiles, computer components, toys, and appliances, are shipped to Third World countries where safety regulations are limited or non-existent, labor in cheap, and people are willing to do repetitive, monotonous assembly line work.
Eighty to ninety percent of the low skilled assembly jobs are performed by women because in many Third World countries women can be legally paid less than men. It is also believed by management that only women will do this kind of work. The personnel manager of a light assembly plant in Taiwan told anthropologist Linda Arrigo, “Young male workers are too restless and impatient to do monotonous work with no career value. If displeased, they sabotage the machine and even threaten the foreman. But girls, at most, they cry a little.”
Women do not last long at their assembly-line jobs because of ill health due to poor working conditions. Some of the worst health hazards have been documented in South Korea in the garment industry which is composed largely of local subcontractors to large American chains such as J.C.. Penney and Sears. Workers are packed into poorly lit rooms where temperatures in the summer rise above 100 degrees. Textile dust, which can cause permanent lung damage, fills the air. Forced overtime of as much as 48 hours at one stretch is required by management when deemed necessary to meet rush orders. When women are too tired to work, pep pills and amphetamine injections are provided.
The electronics industry, where women are required to peer through microscopes 7 to 9 hours a day, results in another kind of health hazard: women commonly lose the 20/20 vision necessary to keep their jobs. One study in South Korea found that most electronics assembly workers develop severe eye problems after just one year of employment: 88 percent had chronic conjunctivitis; 44 percent became nearsighted, and 19 percent developed astigmatism.
It is estimated that the multinational corporations already have used up as many as six million Third World women — women who are too ill, too old (30 is considered over the hill), and too exhausted to be useful anymore.
Governments, who court multination investments, often advertise their women openly. An investment brochure by the Malaysian government tells multinational executives: “The manual dexterity of the Oriental female is famous the world over. Her hands are small, and she works fast with extreme care … Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance, to contribute to the efficiency of a bench-assembly production line than the Oriental girl?”
The media’s failure to cover the role of American multinational corporations in the exploitation of Third World women qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” of 1980.
MS. Magazine, January, 1981, “Special Report: Life on the Global Assembly Lines” by Barbara Ehrenreich and Annette Fuentes.