During my childhood, my parents employed a Filipino nanny to take care of me while they were at work. As a young child, I never thought about what would have motivated her to immigrate to Canada from the Philippines, but as I grew older and developed an awareness of the global dynamic between the countries of the Global North and Global South. I understood that Canada offered different opportunities for employment from the Philippines, but I wondered what sort of life would have been available to her if she had stayed in there and what opportunities were available to the family she had left behind. Specifically, I was curious about jobs in factories controlled by multinational corporations (MNCs). In reading about these factories, I discovered that many factories in the Global South are in areas called “export processing zones”.
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Export processing zones (EPZs) are designated areas found in many Global South countries  which are designed to attract foreign capital (Pyle 2001: 62), within which the host nation offers conditions favourable to offshore investment, such as relaxed labour laws and duty-free imports and exports (Mack and Di Mambro 2004:157). Introduced as part of the development strategies included in the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Plans of the 1980s (Pyle 2001: 68), EPZs generate significant employment; the technical, supervisory, and managerial levels are almost exclusively occupied by men, while women, who comprise 65-90% of employees in most EPZs (Summerfield 1995:35), fill the lower level production jobs (Pyle 2001:63). In some cases, EPZs provide better working conditions for women than they might experience in alternate employment, offer women the opportunity to achieve some degree of financial independence, and integrate women into the development process, thus complying with the Women in Development theory (Martinez 2008:182). However, women in EPZs are exposed to extremely poor working conditions and paid very low wages. In several ways, the ability of the women to overcome gender subordination in the home by gaining external employment is undermined by the different form of gender subordination that occurs in the workplace. This paper will argue that, while EPZs provide some advantage to women workers, they ultimately act as a means to exclude women from the benefits of the development process and do not contribute to any substantial improvement in the status of women in the Global South. First, I will examine the positive results experienced by some women in EPZs. Then, I will look at the poor working conditions, issues with subcontracting work, and the relationship between EPZs and gender subordination. As well, a case study regarding women workers in EPZs in the Dominican Republic will be explored to provide specific examples of the issues in question.
Positive Effects of Export Processing Zones on Women Workers
In some cases, EPZs provide several positive benefits to women workers. In Bangladesh, for example, “trade liberalization has been associated with a significant expansion of women’s paid employment in a context where they had previously limited access to such opportunities” (Kabeer and Mahmud 2004:93). By being employed in paid jobs outside their homes, women are able to bear more responsibility for household expense and as a result gain greater control over the household in general, leading to the formation of female-headed households (Safa 2002:13) and a decreased reliance of women on husbands for financial support. While the prevalence of female-headed households has not necessarily translated to greater autonomy for women in public life, it represents empowerment of women within their own homes, which is a necessary step in the inclusion of women in development. A woman interviewed in a study conducted in the Dominican Republic commented that “when one works, one feels more liberated, to manage one’s own money…one feels freer to do anything because it is your own money” (Safa 2002:18). Thus, EPZs have benefited women workers in the Global South by indirectly providing them with a greater sense of autonomy.
As well, some studies have suggested that working conditions in EPZs are significantly better than the conditions of the jobs available outside the EPZ (Kabeer and Mahmud 2004). As the consumers in the Global North are the primary market of the products manufactured in the EPZs, lobby groups and buyers can exert pressure on the MNCs active in the EPZs, often resulting in improvements in working conditions, despite the fact that in many EPZs, governments enact bans on trade unions or the ability of workers to form unions is severely limited (Kabeer and Mahmud 2004:95). Thus, the EPZs offer women a chance to avoid work in “unfavourable” circumstances and “a means to escape from an oppressive home environment” (Carr and Chen 2004:136). As well, a case study of Batam EPZ in Indonesia revealed that while the women workers were “relatively disempowered”, they were able to obtain certain freedoms through “micro-resistance”, i.e. small-scale actions in opposition of certain rules, such as curfews, and thus women were able to “negotiate the terrain between their own evolving visions of Batam and the prepared, official representations on a daily basis.” (Mack and Di Mambro 2004:174).
Thus, EPZs can provide tangible benefits to women on an individual basis, in comparison to the alternative employment opportunities which women are faced with in their communities, by providing somewhat favourable employment which leads to increased autonomy within their own homes. However, while working conditions may be favourable over other jobs in the same area, working conditions in EPZs still tend to be very poor, and while women may be empowered to some extent within their own homes, gender subordination is still highly pervasive in the workplace.
The Reality of Working Conditions in EPZs
The reality of employment conditions in EPZs for women is harsh. EPZs are designed to attract foreign capital, and thus labour costs for MNCs must be very low. This is in part why women are the preferred workers for factories in EPZs; women are considered “docile” and thus less likely to organize into unions (Pearson and Theobald 1998:986), and are paid lower wages than men (Safa 2002:11-12). Thus, women workers are a way for a country to increase its comparative advantage in attracting foreign investment. Other aspects of the EPZs include “long working hours and forced overtime, lack of benefits or bonuses, habitual underpayment of wages, unsafe physical working conditions… and suppression of worker opinions” (Pyle 2001:63) as well as employment insecurity, harassment, and safety concerns while traveling to and from work (Pyle 2001:63). Rather than providing women with an empowering position which actively involves them in the development process, this type of employment abuses women in order to attract foreign capital. While they are contributing to the development of their countries, the women are not put in a position where they will experience the benefits of development, and as a result, EPZs do not contribute to substantial improvements in the Global South.
Women workers in EPZs also face serious health risks. There are reports of women at one EPZ in Thailand of dying, miscarrying, or having severely disabled babies due to exposure to industrial pollution (Pearson and Theobald 1998: 990). The symptoms of many of the conditions that women typically develop in EPZ work include body wasting, ulcers, and rashes, which are similar to the symptoms exhibited by AIDS victims and thus are frequently dismissed by government authorities as the result of AIDS, contracted as a result of “the promiscuous lifestyle of factory girls” (Pearson and Theobald 1998:990), a pervasive representation of women EPZ workers in many Global South communities. The hazardous conditions of the factories further reveal the exclusion of women from the development process; it suggests that women are viewed as disposable and that they are only valuable as long as they can be used to attract foreign investment from the Global North.
The disposable nature of women workers is further revealed by the fact that the women employees are the first to lose their jobs if demand for the product falls, or are fired and then re-hired as home-based workers or part time workers, with even lower wages and fewer benefits. Women can be dismissed because of pregnancy, or because they “no longer meet productivity or time-keeping norms” (Elson and Pearson 1981:101), though if there is a deterioration in performance, it often results from the physical damage caused by hazardous working conditions (Elson and Pearson 1981:101). For women to be fully integrated into development, they must be able to participate at all levels of development, not simply act as a disposable commodity to be abused in the interest of the country as a whole.
Subcontracting and Home-Based Work
Many MNCs which operate in EPZs subcontract out their work to other locally owned factories within the EPZ or in the local community, or employ home-based workers (i.e. workers who work in their homes as opposed to in the factory workshops). While these workers may or may not be physically working within the EPZ, their employment is the result of the MNCs in the EPZ and thus for the purposes of this essay are classified as EPZ workers; one study refers to these workers as “disguised wage workers, with even lower wages than in the workshops.” (Pyle 2001:64). Women are the vast majority of home-based workers, in part because home-based work is often the only alternative employment outside of sex work or employment as a maid for women when they are dismissed from the EPZ production due to relocation of the company or automation of production (Pyle 2001:64). Home-based work is much less desirable than a job in the workshop, however, as wages are much lower for the same work (Carr and Chen 2004:137), and because women are in their homes, they are forced to combine their paid work with childcare duties and housework, resulting in an almost unceasing workday and severe mental and physical stress (Pyle 2001:67). Home-based work marginalizes women even further within the development process. While they are working and contributing to the export production of their country, they are completely pushed out of the possibility of improving their status. They simply become literally invisible labourers who are not at all integrated into development and as such will not benefit from the development process. As one author states, “the very factors which led to women’s “inclusion” in the global economy in the first place – unskilled work, low wages, low productivity – now have them trapped in downwardly mobile positions.” (Carr and Chen 2004:138).
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Gender Subordination and Export Processing Zones
For many women, employment in an EPZ represents an opportunity to experience public life away from the control of their fathers and brothers and as discussed above, earning an income can help women to achieve more autonomy in their homes. However, for women to be employed outside the home, especially in situations where their husbands or fathers are unemployed, is a subversion of the patriarchal structures that are common to many of the Global South countries where EPZs are found. This results in the resentment of men in the community and representations of women workers as promiscuous and “spending their money in bars” (Safa 2002:16-17) emerge. These representations are rejected by women: in a study of women EPZ workers in the Dominican Republic, several women were interviewed and reported that they work to support their children, which had become easier for them as more job opportunities became available (Safa 2002:18). Although employment in EPZs is altering the traditional private lives of women and brings them into a more public life, the pervasive patriarchal structures which define gender roles for these communities remain unchanged and thus the benefit of EPZs in altering the patriarchy is limited. In fact, while women leave behind the control of their fathers to work in EPZs, the subordination of female to male in the home is simply replaced by the subordination of the female workers to male supervisors (Elson and Pearson 1981:99). The difference between the father/daughter dynamic and the boss/worker dynamic is that “the sexual element in the relation between female employees and male boss is not contained and shaped by kin relations…in some cases sexual exploitation is quite widespread – in the Masan Free Export Zone in South Korea, numerous instances have occurred of sexual abuse of women employees by Japanese supervisors.” (Elson and Pearson 1981:100). As well, the gender subordination of the EPZ structure supports gender subordination between husbands and wives, as husbands may confine their wives to the home to avoid subjecting her to the will of another man. The majority of the female EPZ workers are unmarried (Elson and Pearson 1981:100). Thus, while by providing employment for women outside their traditional sphere, EPZs have the potential to contribute to the status of women and reduce gender subordination in Global South countries, in reality they serve only to reinforce or alter, while still maintaining, gender subordination, and while gender subordination remains a dominant force in the social mindset of a country, women will continue to be excluded from the benefits of development.
Women Workers in Villa Altagracia Export Processing Zone, Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is the leading garment manufacturer of the Caribbean and has rapidly altered its economy since the 1960s, shifting from an agricultural economy to an economy dependent on tourism and export manufacturing. In Altagracia, where this study was conducted, a Korean-owned company operating in an EPZ provides the majority of the jobs in the community, replacing the sugar mill which formerly supported it. The change from a sugar mill to a garment manufacturer resulted in a shift in employment ratios, as primarily women were employed by the garment factory, whereas the sugar mill had employed mostly men. This has fomented resentment among the men of the community, but the women continue to work in the EPZ out of necessity to support their families (Safa 2002).
In examining the working conditions of the Korean plant, the study revealed that it has “replaced the paternalism of the sugar mill with rigid factory rules emphasizing high productivity, tight discipline, and total obedience” (Safa 2002: 18). The minimum weekly wage was close to the national minimum, and workers increased their earnings with incentives for “high productivity and perfect attendance” (Safa 2002:18) and overtime, though workers complained that “they are fired if they refuse to work overtime, which is especially difficult for young mothers” (Safa 2002:18). The author Helen I. Safa concludes that, in light of the resentment of men in the community towards the women employed by the factory,
What we are witnessing here is a reassertion of the patriarchy and more specifically the male breadwinner model at the public institution level such as employers, labour unions, and political parties. The male breadwinner model has been substantially eroded at the household level, as our female informants testify…This ideology still prevails at the public level of the workplace and the state. (2002:25)
The specific case of Villa Altagracia further reveals that the current practices of EPZs provide some advantage to women workers, but ultimately fail to act as a means to effectively integrate women into development.
The advantages provided by EPZs to women workers ultimately do not outweigh their negative implications. They serve to exploit women in order to attract foreign capital to Global South countries, while excluding women from the benefits of the development process and failing to contribute to any improvement in the status of Global South women. While they provide a means for women to participate in the public sphere of the community as opposed to leading their lives primarily in the privacy of the home, the gender subordination that occurs within the factories prevents this shift to result in a pervasive paradigm shift regarding the role of women in society. In order to fully integrate women into development in a positive way, they must be given equal pay with men, better working conditions, and opportunities to be employed in supervisory and technical positions. The gendered nature of employment in EPZs in the Global South must be eradicated, but this requires a great degree of social change. However, only with such a change in the social mentality towards women can the benefits of development be enjoyed equally by all members of Global South communities.
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