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1998 is the lunar year of the tiger, traditional symbol of masculinity, virility and strength, also of competition and speculation. For the so-called Tiger economies of Asia 1998 promises to be a year of reckoning, as the impacts of the current economic crisis are felt throughout the population.
The "Asian economic miracle" now in so much trouble was based on the low-paid labor of millions of young women, producing for export to more industrialized countries. I became interested in their situation while living in South Korea for the past three years.
The "Asian economic miracle" now in so much trouble was based on the low-paid labor of millions of young women, producing for export to more industrialized countries.
The Asian story begins in the 1960s and 1970s, when Korea and Hong Kong boomed with light industries producing clothes, shoes and later electronics for export. This rapid industrialization depended on foreign capital and cheap local labor. In Korea millions moved from poor rural areas to cities and new industrial zones. "The number of women working in the manufacturing sector during 1960-80 rose sharply from 12,000 to 1,000,000 workers." (1) The women were young, unmarried, often housed in tightly controlled dormitories. Hours were long, with 6- and even 7-day work weeks.
With hard work and low pay, Korean workers found little or no benefits under a dictatorial government. Their efforts laid the basis for continued industrial development in Korea, but at great cost. According to long-time feminist scholar and activist Professor Lee Hyo-Chae:The unbalanced development strategy aiming at total growth in output under the name of 'growth first and distribution later' has left behind undeveloped sectors in backwardness, and deepened social tension between developed and underdeveloped regions and the haves and have-nots. Social integration in Korea [became] a total failure. Crime, corruption, shaking social order, unrestricted expression of selfishness, lack of sense of social responsibility became the words characterizing the phenomena of social disintegration in South Korea. Moreover, the notion of unlimited exploitation of nature, justified in the name of economic development, has resulted in unreparable [environmental] contamination and catastrophe, even threatening people's survival itself. (2)
...the notion of unlimited exploitation of nature, justified in the name of economic development, has resulted in unreparable [environmental] contamination and catastrophe, even threatening people's survival itself.
As Korea developed, its economy shifted emphasis. The 1980s and 1990s saw a "new regional division of labor" as companies moved factories to poorer Asian countries with cheaper labor and land. This was especially the case for women's work in light industry. In Korea the number of garment workers dropped 31.8% between 1987 and 1992. In Hong Kong capitalists jumped at the cheap labor supply across the border when Chinese economic reforms began in 1978. The number of Hong Kong workers in manufacturing fell by 40% between 1981 and 1993. (3) The social and ecological costs of rapid development in the 1960s in Korea and Hong Kong are now being felt in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The 1995 international women's conference in Beijing brought many women from industrializing countries together for the first time. One off-shoot of the meeting was an ambitious three-country study tour on the effects of rapid industrialization on women in East Asia. Sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, with help from the Ford Foundation in China and women's organizations in Korea (independent) and Vietnam (governmental), the tours involved around 30 activists and scholars from South Korea, China and Vietnam. In each country the multi-national group looked at how women are affected by modern industrialization. They visited factories, workers' communities, women's organizations and institutions, and held a seminar in each country to exchange research and analysis. Some of the facts and conclusions shared are as follows.
Despite the shift of light manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries, the number of women working in South Korea has increased -- at least up to the present crisis, which is causing massive layoffs and threatening more. By 1993 women were 40% of the economically active population, but faced major problems. Women's wages are much lower than for comparable work by men -- a ratio of 60 for women to 100 for men. And since the shift in industrialization from light to heavy industry, many women are unemployed or underemployed, with only low-paying insecure part-time work available, or for some the commercial sex industry, which has boomed. Laid-off workers only began receiving unemployment insurance in 1995, and only in companies with 30 or more employees. Rural women are even worse off, as the decrease in rural population has left those remaining "down on the farm" with the bulk of heavy physical work. A major problem for all working women is the chronic lack of childcare facilities. (4)
Rural women are even worse off, as the decrease in rural population has left those remaining "down on the farm" with the bulk of heavy physical work.
Several major strikes in the late 1970s against Korean and foreign companies won women workers basic rights-an end to forced retirement at marriage, maternity leave and equal promotion. After government repression in the early 1980s, a women's labor movement emerged with the founding of the Korean Women Workers' Association in 1987, the year that Korean workers and students waged great demonstrations that finally forced the government to agree to democratic reforms. That same year the Korean Women's Associations United formed. Its 32 member organizations address a wide spectrum of women's issues, and work for democracy and peace on a united Korean peninsula.
Although the Korean women's movement with its recent successes in legislation and consciousness-raising is a model for other Asian countries, women still have a long way to go to win equality in the deeply patriarchal and hierarchical Korean society. "In terms of women's political participation figures, South Korea marks the 90th in the world. If we consider that Korea's GNP is the 11th highest in the world, its military expenses the 10th, and its welfare the 32nd, we can see that the level of women's political participation is in extreme backwardness." (5)
Since 1978 China has turned from a planned towards a market-based economy, with major impacts for women. Now women in mainland China find themselves caught between two economic systems. The old state-controlled centralized economy with secure jobs and social benefits is in decline; lay-offs were widespread even before the current economic problems, leaving millions of people unemployed.
As a Chinese sociologist reported to a seminar in Seoul: "Before the reforms, that 'to achieve liberation, women must go out of home and participate in society's production activities' and that 'women can do whatever men can do' were the prevailing notion and supported by the administrative power as well as the labor force managing system. As a result, the gender gaps in employment were made smaller." However in the new "reformed" labor market "sex-segregation [at lower levels] is considered right and proper. On the higher level, some posts openly refuse to hire women. Due to these reasons, the gender gaps are enlarged. Women's jobs tend to be simple, and auxiliary, concentrated in the service sector, and lack development potential."
There is no going back for Chinese women. Ms. Tan continued: "I would agree that a free and active society is better than a strictly controlled one though the former may have its own setbacks. It is absolutely impossible for China of today to retreat to the planned economy." However Chinese women need protection, and so she calls for a social insurance system to which employers must contribute. And women must be aware and "consciously protect" their own rights and interests. (6)
Although the Chinese government recently signed a United Nations covenant guaranteeing the right of workers to organize, independent unions are currently not allowed.
The current economic crisis has worsened the conditions of China's workers and unemployed. In December 1997 a group of democracy activists in China and in exile abroad announced a campaign to promote independent labor unions in the face of widespread layoffs and unemployment. Although the Chinese government recently signed a United Nations covenant guaranteeing the right of workers to organize, independent unions are currently not allowed.
For those who experienced the 1960s, the images still flash: napalm, peasant bravery, the horrors of war. So it's something of a shock to see Vietnam today, vibrant, busy and young. Half of all 74 million Vietnamese were born after the end of the "American war" and their preoccupations center on the future.
Since 1987 Vietnam has followed China with an economic "renovation" that encourages private and foreign investment. This traditionally self-sufficient agricultural society is moving quickly towards industrialization, with all the pitfalls and problems seen already in Korea and China. On the one hand, women are experiencing more mobility and personal freedom. On the other, they are concentrated in low-wage insecure manual jobs.
Fans of the Doonesbury comic strip have followed the Vietnamese-American Kim's discovery of her cousin's working conditions in a Nike factory in Vietnam: "I'm paid less per day than the cost of three simple meals. I've lost weight, and suffer from headaches and fatigue." In fact, authorities in southern Vietnam did charge a manager at a Nike factory for abusing employees. In April 1997 AP reported: "Capitalizing on Vietnam's low labor costs, Nike has five manufacturing plants here but has run into a storm of bad publicity in the last week over conditions at those plants." (7)
Vietnamese social scientists carried out a survey of 325 women workers in 13 foreign-owned enterprises. Among their conclusions: "A common thing found in countries having joint-ventures with foreign enterprises... in the 1970s was that workers suffered from work tension, overtime working including holidays and Sundays, and difficulty in getting permission to be absent from work for personal reasons... All these things are also found in Vietnam at present. There are cases in which women workers have to work overtime every two days, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and there are those who faint on their job. There are workplaces where the level of noise, heat, and industrial dust is too high. Women workers suffer from unreasonably strict supervision of foreign management. There are cases in which women workers are given a "hygiene card" which allows them to do their personal hygiene only three times a day, each time taking not more than five minutes. Therefore, it is understandable that there are women workers who quit their job when the nervous and physical tension go beyond their endurance. In this case, it is quite expected that these women will join the army of petty traders or accept their role as housewife." (8)
Another alternative for women is home production for sale to a cooperative or as piece-work to an enterprise. This type of work does allow women to stay in the home with their families, but the work is often difficult and tiring, while bringing in even less income than factory work.
The conclusions of the activists and scholars last year centered on actions to make life more equitable and safe for women, through protective and social legislation, the right to organize, and better wages and benefits. However the current economic crisis is pushing the previously unfair situation to the boiling point. Millions are newly unemployed. There have been food riots in Indonesia because of the rising prices of staples. Malaysia intends to deport a million foreign workers "due to the economic slowdown." (9)
1. Lee, Hyo-Chae, from Silk and Steel: Asian Women Workers Confront Challenges of Industrial Restructuring" Committee for Asian Women, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 20.
2. Lee, Hyo-Chae, "Situation of Women and Women's Movement in the Process of Rapid Economic Development in Korea," presentation at International Symposium, "The Tasks of Women in the Rapid Industrialization of Asia," May, 1996, Seoul, S. Korea.
3. "Silk and Steel", p. 21.
4. Lee Hyo-Chae, "Situation of Women..." p. 51, 54.
5. op. cit., p. 58.
6. Tan Shen, Senior Researcher, Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "The Impact of Steps toward Economic Development on the Situation of Women in China," presentation at international symposium, "The Tasks of women in the Rapid Industrialization of Asia," May 7-8, 1996, Seoul, S. Korea.
7. "Vietnam to Try Nike Manager for Labor Abuse," AP, The Korean Times, April 2, 1997.
8. Some Remarks on the Situation of Women Workers in Foreign-invested Enterprises in Ho Chi Minh City" Prof. Bui Thi Kim Quy, Center for Scientific Studies of Women and Family, Institute of Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City (undated, 1995?)
9. Thomas Fuller, "Malaysia Plans to Send Foreign Workers Home," International Herald Tribune, January 3-4, 1998. Also, Reuters, "Food Riots Disclosed By Indonesian Paper," International Herald Tribune, January 16, 1998.