Women's Labor in Japan and Asia ~Women workers organising in Asian countries~

Mabel AU
a former CAW Coordinator

Historically, the labour movement was largely developed along with the process of industrialization. The labour movement grew stronger through the daily struggle against unfair working conditions. Following a similar logic, women workers in Asia should already have gained substantial strength to defend their rights. Particularly, the capital had been intensively involved women in industrialization in Asia since the end of WWII. However there were many obstacles hindering the organisation of women workers into a strong collective.

In this article, I am going to present the situation of women workers in Asia and the difficulties they faced in their efforts in organisation. Then, I will further illustrate the impact of globalisation on women workers. Finally, I would like to argue that a strong labour movement is possible only if we put more effort into organising the unorganized, particularly the women workers.

Contribution without recognition
In Asia, the economic development has placed much emphasis on industrialization. Since the 1960s, many Asian countries tried to follow the EOI (Export Oriented Industry) economic model adopted by Japan. This was because they witnessed the so-called economic success made possible by the EOI in this giant economy. For instance, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore achieved high economic growth after they adopted the EOI model. The economic development in these newly industrialized countries even earned the name “The four little dragons” in the 1980s. Since then, other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka have followed the same economic model. In order to attract foreign investment, the governments of these latecomers set up the FTZ (Free Trade Zone) to facilitate industrial development. Although the culture and traditions of the Asian countries are very diverse, the impact of the economic model has shown similarities.

There is one very distinctive characteristic of capital investment in Asia. Whether the investment is from foreign countries or from local capital, the industry has massively recruited women workers in the manufacturing industry. Due to the gender discrimination in society, most of the women started working in their early teens with very little chance for education. Since there was were not many job opportunities in rural areas, many young women migrated to work in the big cities. A lot of them clustered at no- or low-skill jobs throughout most of their youth. People referred to these young women workers as “working daughters” because most of their earnings were sent back home to support family expenses and the education of other siblings in their families.

In most Asian countries, industrialization progressed very quickly. In order to maximize profits, employers always imposed harsh working condition on their workers. Most workers had to work for very long hours. Therefore many women suffered from exhaustion, occupational disease, sexual harassment in the workplace and mental stress. They seldom made complaints as they feared losing their jobs. They had to endure the hardships and could only choose to leave their work when they finished their family duties. In some cases, women were forced to retire earlier from their work if they had to get married or have children.

Over the years, the capital created a myth of “Asian women workers being docile”. They explained that young women are more suitable for manufacturing work as they have nimble fingers and good concentration. As a result, women could only work at the low-skill jobs while men worked in jobs requiring higher skills. Besides, male workers would be hired for or be eventually promoted to supervising positions while female workers have very little chance to work at managerial level. I would like to argue that it is a strategy of the capital to manipulate traditional and cultural values in order to exploit the productivity of women workers. The capital always emphasises the idea that women are docile and submissive. If any woman stands up to raise her own opinion, she will be considered abnormal or even a “bad girl”. Since she is a “bad girl”, her employer can ignore her opinion. Therefore women seldom find support and space to express their discontent.

The women can certainly fight against the unfairness if there is a space to do so. Unfortunately, the tradition of gender stereotypes has restricted women in their fight. Besides, young women did not have the experience to carry out the struggle and the traditional labour movement failed to provide support for the women workers to defend their rights. As a matter of fact, the trade unions have been always male-dominated. They did not care about the needs of women workers. On the contrary, they also subscribed to the myth of ‘docile Asian women workers” who are therefore very difficult to organise. Whenever the trade union has to explain the low-organising rate of women workers, they would claim that women are shy to speak. Or else, women are not comfortable to be leaders and they have lower management skills. Thus they cannot run a trade union. The more popular excuse was “we have invited them already but they never come”. In fact, the trade union had never thought of facilitating women to participate in union activities in a serious manner. They ignored the reality that women always have to take care of the family when most of the male unionists got their wives to do so. Besides, they always arrange meetings at time and a venue only convenient for themselves. During their activities, they never give a chance for women or new members to express their opinions. Since it was too frustrating to participate in union activities, the women chose not to go anymore.

The impact of globalisation on women workers in Asia
Having entered the new millennium, women now have to face more violence. There has been an increase of wars and conflicts since the year 2000. Particularly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, tensions between the Western world and the Muslim world have become more severe. Besides the international conflicts, there have been many racial conflicts breaking out within many countries. As human and environmental security has been deteriorating, social and economic development has been seriously obstructed. In many communities, most of the men have been recruited for wars and local armed struggles. Thus, women have become the heads of their households and have to work in whatever ways to generate resources to support their families. When the UN announced that the priority of MDG (Millennium Development Goal) is on poverty alleviation, it was ironic to see that women now have to work harder than ever.

Another impact of globalisation was a paradigm shift of policy on international economic development. After the end of the Cold War, the IFIs (International Financial Institutes), such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO began to dominate the agenda of international collaboration. As a matter of fact, the unfair power relation in the IFIs always manipulates IFIs to promote policy unfavourable to developing countries. Therefore when the IFIs advocated for “free trade and small government”, it actually undermined the sovereignty of the state in order to give more space for capital to make profit. As most of the policies from the IFIs are not favourable to the interests of ordinary people, the interest of women is likely to be neglected. There are massive scales of privatisation occurring in many countries. Many governments withdrew support from public services, which was provided for improving the lives of the communities. Therefore more responsibility to maintain the services shifted to individuals. In most of the case, more responsibilities fall on women.

The capital had been continuously searching for areas of cheap labour and low legal liabilities for investment. Meanwhile, the improvement of international transport also allows human beings to travel to other countries for better job opportunities. Disappointingly, most of the jobs available for migrant workers in developed areas are called the 3-D jobs (dangerous, dirty and difficult). Hence, most women work as domestic helpers, cleaners, care workers and sex workers in other countries. Within Asia, women from the Philippines and Thailand started working in Japan, HK, Taiwan, Singapore and Middle-eastern countries from a very long time ago. Recently, women from Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma have also begun to go out to work in other countries. There are enormous numbers of invisible sex workers travelling to and from different countries to provide sex services in exchange for their living expenses.

The development of informational technology marked tremendous changes in our work. It allows capital exploited cheap labour in developing countries with little responsibility on the local society. For example, a large number of workers are working at the call centers in Manila or Bombay for very low wage. They are actually providing customer services for airlines, banking corporations and insurance companies in the USA. In most of the case, it is not very clear who their employers are. Therefore it is very difficult to claim for labour rights when a dispute arises.

In the era of globalisation, the work circle of the women workers became shorter and shorter. According to a women workers’ group in Hong Kong, many women worked in the manufacturing industry for more than 20 years. After the economic restructuring in the 1990s, most of the women were not able to find jobs even though they were only in their thirties. It was because most of the manufacturing industries have been moved to other countries. As a result, women workers were unemployed or shifted into irregular jobs. Nowadays, the life circle of women workers is even shorter. For example, in China, once again capital investment moved into inner sub-urban areas for cheap labour. In Shenzhen, the southern special economic zone in China, there is an age limit. When a woman reaches twenty-seven, she is not likely to get a job in the manufacturing factories in Shenzhen. The work circle of women has been reduced to a mere 15 years.

Since the 1990s, the informal sector has expanded very fast in Asia. In South Asia or South-East Asia, informal economy is very traditional, as the manufacturing industry is not yet developed. Most of the women participate in the informal economy, with such work as, street vendors, home-based workers, handicraftspeople, domestic helpers and agricultural workers. In South-east Asia and East Asia, the manufacturing industry is relatively stronger than in South Asia. There have been a large number of women joining the labour force. As the manufacturing industry had been moved away to other developing countries in the 1990s, women fell into informal sectors. The women worked as part-time, temporary, dispatch, irregular and contract workers. As a matter of fact, the world corporate agenda is trying to take away the labour protection by blurring the employment relation. It is women who are targeted, for their voices are easier to suppress.

New development on women workers’ organizing
Since the late 1960s, the working daughters stories were repeating in many Asian countries. Some Japanes women activists showed their struggles to women workers in other Asian countries. Thus, many women workers in other Asian countries were inspired by the experience of the Japanese women and organised themselves to fight for their own rights.

The first example I would like to share is about the WAC, Wymen Action for Change. The WAC is a young women organization in Cambodia. I first met the organisation in 2002. The members of the WAC are all very young workers. The WAC has supported young women workers in the textile industry as well as sex workers in forming a trade union. At that time the young workers could not speak English at all. Through translation, we learned that the textile workers have to work very long hours with very low pay while the sex workers have to face a lot of discrimination. Both unions tried to group together to defend their own rights.

At that time, the textile union found it very difficult to work with the big trade unions. The young women felt their needs were never recognised by the trade unions. Besides, most of the trade unions were dominated by men. There was always a tension between the textile workers union and the trade union centres. Recently, I had a chance to meet with the members from the WAC in Manila. They had changed a lot. The young women spoke about their situation and struggle in fluent English. They showed a video on how they organized an alternative fashion show to attract media attention. In the video, all the models were either garment workers or sex workers from their respective unions. They wore the products ordered by GAP, LEVIS, Nike and such. The model also carried out cardboard signs, which showed their problems, such as low payment, long working hours and social stigmatisation. At the end, all the models joined together to show their power of solidarity.

The fashion show was a tremendous success as many of the local and international media reported on the situation of the women. Their work also showed their ability to lobby authority in order to bring changes as there was a strong presence of government officials during the fashion show. The women have high creativity and energy in expressing their voices. Although they still expressed their discontent over the big trade unions, they say that now they can work together when there is a need.

I am thrilled to see that the young women from the WAC have very much progressed. I can imagine that there must be an enormous amount of empowerment support provided for the young women. That is why they have become confident and capable of bringing about changes to their situation.

The second example I would like to share is of the Xian Domestic Helper Union (XDHU) in China. Last year, I was involved in a training workshop on organisational development for the XDHU. The XDHU was the first domestic helper union initiated by the workers themselves. Women account for 95% of the union members. Most of the women were Xiagang workers (layoff workers from state enterprises). Throughout the training workshop, all the union members demonstrated a strong will to advance the union. They drew up plans on member recruitment, lobbying for policy change, vocational training and financial management. They might not have much experience in labour organising but they have fabulous ideas to fight the struggle. Again, it proved that the women workers are able to do organizing even with very little resource.

The last example I would like to share is from my visit to Japan. Today, Japan is still an economic giant in Asia and the living standard has remained at a very high level. However, the women workers in Japan have always complained that they are still struggling with similar difficulties faced by women workers in developing countries. For instance, the issue of sexual harassment in the work place, unfair treatment caused by gender difference, the identity problem of unofficial workers, the glass ceiling of promotion and so on. Since there has been a very active exchange among the women workers’ groups in Asia, the Japanese groups have always expressed their enthusiasm to learn organising strategies from other countries. To me, this sounds a little ironic as women workers were first organised in the 1960s in Japan. The women activists have even “exported” the Japanese experience to other Asian countries since the 1970s. With fifty years of experience, the Japanese groups should be very advanced in their organising strategies by now. What went wrong in the last two decades?

In order to understand this ironic situation, I visited nine cities from May to August this year. I talked to many women workers and trade unionists. Most of them agreed that they had experienced very drastic changes in their work situations. At the moment, there are very few decent jobs available to women. Most of the jobs are very badly paid and involve intense work. Since women could not only depend on the income from one job, they took up two or three jobs along with the responsibility of taking care of their families. Many women felt very tired from their work and they did not have any time for rest.

Additionally, the public services are being privatised. The government will further liberalise the public services with its out-sourcing policy. One member of a public service union told me that a lot of women have worked as temporary workers or part-time workers for public services in the past twenty years. Now with the out-sourcing policy, the part-time and temporary workers have been laid off. As the society and the employer have never recognized women as breadwinners of the family, women have to continue making more sacrifices. Besides, there is a phenomenon that more men are hired to work for the public services than before. Some women unionist suggested that as many men could not get a job for too long, the government sees it as a potential problem. Therefore men were hired for the out-sourcing jobs too.

From the visits, many women workers activists raised the problems of male domination, poverty, generation gap, lack of time, etc. I believed the crucial strategy is trying to facilitate dialogue and exchange to find new ways of organising and networking. During the visits, I learned that the women workers’ groups had an initiative to form a national centre for women workers. It is a sign to show that women workers do not want to wait for others to organise them anymore. They would like to take up the organiszing work and form a trong collective to be heard.

With the globalisation of corporate agendas, the struggle to defend our rights as women workers is becoming much harder. The current neo-liberal policy has continuously undermined the benefits we obtained from the previous struggle. Trade unions all over the world are experiencing the serious challenge of membership lost. As in the examples above, many women workers were disappointed by the trade unions that are passive in their attitude to labour organisation. They felt hopeless in anticipating support from the trade unions. Therefore they joined themselves together in various forms, may it be a womens union, youth union, research network, education network or small discussion group. All these forms of organising created a new momentum in the social movement. If the trade unions remain in their traditional position and do not work with other social movements, they might become irrelevant to society very soon.