PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The Asian industrialization of the past decades is happening on the backs of women. With the manufacturing sector paving the way for material advancements and development, are women being remunerated fairly for their immense contribution to Asia’s economic flowering?
The tragedy of Rana Plaza and the recent upheaval in Cambodia by factory workers against the government provide clues to how workers in industrializing Asia are resenting their working condition. Since there is no neoliberal trend in Asia to encourage foreign investments, in many countries trade unions, minimal workers’ welfare, tax exemptions, market deregulation, privatization of public utilities and loose environmental laws are installed to make them more attractive destinations for foreign investments. Furthermore, with the ongoing recessions in Western markets, women workers are being abused in the name of business survival as investors struggle to remain competitive and expand their profit margins.
However, the consequences of being a competitive manufacturing and exporting country more often than not befall upon the workers, many of whom are women. In many countries of South and Southeast Asia women represent a large portion the country’s major economic sectors, such as the garment industry and firms that are trying to remain competitive by cutting costs and increasing productivity. The result of this is many workers are put on short-term contracts, rendering their livelihood precarious. Moreover, factories set up rapacious production goals that workers have to meet, a practice which is detrimental to the workers’ health. Thus, women in industrial labor and manufacturing often find themselves expending their health, working insecure jobs with little remuneration.
Furthermore, the work environments in many countries are filled with hazards. High temperatures, dust particles, inadequate fire exits or fire-fighting equipment and overall faulty structural safety of their work venues are some of the dangers that women have to face on a regular basis.
In Bangladesh alone, it is estimated that 3.5 million workers—most of them young women—are employed to work around the clock in the high-rises of Dhaka and the city’s surrounding districts. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which took the lives of 1,129 people, serves as a bleak reminder of the exploitation of the women of Bangladesh. In this incident, 80% of those killed or injured were women—many of them illiterate migrant workers from the countryside. This horrifying tragedy, however, could have been prevented. Large cracks began to appear a week before the collapse of the structure and engineers were issuing warnings. Despite this, workers were threatened with dismissal if they would not return for work.
Unfortunately, Rana Plaza was not the first incident. Fire is the cause of death of many garment workers in Bangladesh every year. Earlier in 2012, another factory in Bangladesh went up in flames while the manager ordered the workers to be locked inside. This incident left 112 workers dead. A month before the fire, workers were protesting to demand their unpaid wages. During the fire, survivors claimed that the managers ordered the exits to be shut.
The negligence and the shear lack of apathy for the wellbeing of the workers demonstrated in these two incidents go to show how women workers are trapped between poverty and labor violations. For many women in low-income countries, going to work in a factory presents their own ticket to economic independence and social mobility. Uneducated and often undervalued in the villages, many are forced to take up jobs as garment workers in the cities. Once in the industry, not only do they find themselves poorly paid, poorly treated and overworked, after sending the remittances back to their families they are often left to struggle to make ends meet in big cities.
In Bangladesh the minimum wage for a garment worker is $68 a month, in Cambodia it is $75 and in Sri Lanka it does not exceed $91. By far and large, the majority of the garment workers in these countries are female and many have health problems. In addition, these are not living wages. Living away from their families, these workers have other costs that need to be covered and often times it is the case that they are supporting their families as well. Lastly, the garment industry is a significant sector in many Asian countries’ economies, why then are one of the principle income earners being poorly treated and disproportionately underpaid?
Thus, although women should take part in the workforce, they should be fairly paid and justly treated. Should the solution then be with the consumers of these mass-produced clothes? What if we, the consumers of these products, concern ourselves less about our own sartorial ego-aggrandizement and become willing to pay more to prevent “the race to the bottom” of suppliers? Sure, those jeans might cost $120 instead of $100 per pair but by not demanding cheaper products we are stalling the race down the production cost abyss that millions of women are subjected to.