Asian Working Women and Agency: Their Voices

Article excerpt

Introduction

'It is close to 7pm and as the sun sets on another ordinary day Shanti and her colleagues prepare to close down their machines to complete the day's work. But they will not be going home. They will not be paid for the entire day's work. They have already punched their time cards at 5pm. They will eat their evening meal, provided by the employer who will in turn deduct the food cost from their salaries. They will take a scrap piece of fabric lying on the floor and find a small space between machines to lie down and sleep until 6am when they rise and start work again. At the end of the month Shanti will receive her salary, in cash, with no pay receipt. She will not know her rate per hour or per day' (Brehaut 2001).

Shanti is a woman garment worker living in Batticoloa, a war zone in the northeast of Sri Lanka. The SIGTUR women's forum heard many stories similar to Shanti's. From these, some common themes emerged including increasing rates of casualisation of female workers, and trends such as home-working, outsourcing and sub-contracting within women's employment patterns. In summary, the stories of SIGTUR women confirm what the literature has identified as a key element in the neo-liberal labour management model: labour flexibility. By prioritising market interests over social claims, the use of labour flexibility matches working lives to market demands so as to maximize profitability by minimizing production costs associated with labour. Casualisation, restructuring and working conditions such as those of Shanti's depict labour market flexibility strategies. While confirming that the status of SIGTUR women's labour matched the concept of labour flexibility, women delegates also told stories about increased frequency of sexual harassment at workplaces and a trend particularly by workers from rural areas towards sex trafficking because of lack of traditional employment opportunities as a result of neo-liberal restructuring. Compounding this scenario was confirmation that women were still being paid lower wage rates than males, and working under sub-standard occupational health, safety and welfare standards. In summary, not only has neo-liberalism restructured working lives to match market demands; little heed is paid to the social fallout arising from these policies. As has always been the case, women more often than not bear the brunt of this fallout.

However, while verifying this picture, SIGTUR delegates simultaneously recounted stories of actions that they and their unions had taken to assist women members manage some of these negative effects of neoliberalism. One aim of this paper is to recount these stories and thus confirm that the possibilities for worker agency exist, even given the restrictions of neo-liberalism on workers' lives. Nonetheless, while highlighting these possibilities, these stories simultaneously confirm that there are a number of obstacles facing Asian women workers in staging agency. The first section of this paper begins by describing the employment context of Asian women workers before describing the obstacles in organising women workers associated with this context. Amongst these is the serious issue of how patriarchy within unions themselves impedes organising Asian women workers. The second part of the paper thus goes on to relate how some SIGTUR members have circumvented these obstacles and organised women workers. This includes strategies to ad dress the question of patriarchy in trade union structures. Again, while highlighting the existence of possibilities to effectively redress obstacles in organising women workers, these stories also confirm that trade unions and even SIGTUR will have to seriously consider their modus operandi if they are to effectively increase women's participation in trade unions.

Employment Context of SIGTUR Women

With the exception of Australia and New Zealand, SIGTUR member countries have all pursued an export-oriented model of industrial (EOI) development post 1945. …