The real cost of shoes

By Aida Sadr

For decades, women of the so-called Third World have served as a giant reserve army of labour at the disposal of various globe-trotting multinational corporations (MNCs). Today, the country-of-origin labels found on digital watches, computers, clothes, shoes, and toys branded with the names of well-known American, Japanese, or European companies reveal that most of our consumer goods are made in the South.

Due to the importance of low-wage labour to these industries, they mostly operate in developing nations and employ a marginal segment of the labour force, seeking workers with low skills, a low commitment level to the labour force and a willingness to do non-unionized work for very low pay. Therefore, it is not surprising that their labour force is predominantly comprised of young women. Today, 80-90 per cent of all low-skilled, assembly jobs are occupied by women between the ages of 15-24.

While some are quick to equate these women’s new wage-earning capacities with their liberation, a closer inspection suggests that the experience is one of exploitation rather than emancipation. After all, why is it more profitable to employ women than men, and why it is more profitable to employ women in developing countries than in developed ones? The answer is simple: women are considered secondary wage earners, their income deemed as optional." Hence, employers pay female workers less and easily fire and re-hire them. Southern women are preferred because weaker national economies, higher unemployment rates, a lack of unions, and a naivete about Northernlabour practices mean they have poor bargaining power.

Young women who work for MNCs endure stressful working conditions, usually working long hours to meet incredibly high quotas. Women who do not meet the quota are fired or forced to work overtime. Often, workers are prohibited from speaking during work, moving away from the workplace and taking breaks.

They also withstand numerous health hazards. In the electronics industry, eye disease and vision disorders are common. The use of carcinogenic chemical solvents and inhalation of smoldering fumes often leads to cancer, reproductive problems and damage to the liver and kidneys. Women in the textile industry experience chronic back strain, eye strain and lung disease due to poorly designed, lit and ventilated factories. Given that these are multi-million dollar industries, one would expect better working conditions. Despite the fact that 70 per cent of women work in non-unionized factories, many still attempt to struggle against the corporations, demanding better wages and working conditions. To this end, many have been fired, jailed, beaten or killed, but they continue to organize and fight for change.

What is unfortunate is that as consumers, we are inextricably linked to these women. Western women are often oblivious to the fact that an exploited female labour force manufactures much of their consumer goods. This international division between women and the exploitation and enslavement of one group for the "benefit" of the other has done little for the liberation of the entire gender.

With globalization well under way, further proliferation and expansion of MNCs seems inevitable and, given that MNCs continue to tap the female labour pool, it is important to evaluate the implications of these industries’ employment of young women. Corporate executives argue that MNCs improve women’s lives, but they fail to fully consider the criteria on which they base their assumptions. Because of these companies, millions of women now earn wages, but they are poorly paid and forced to endure unacceptable working conditions. This hardly qualifies as liberation.

MNCs preserve and ultilize traditional forms of patriarchal power, subordinating and exploiting the women of the South. The sooner we, the Western consumers, realize this and hold MNCs accountable, the sooner the experience of these women can become one of emancipation rather than exploitation.