Women in the Factories of the World

Revolutionary Worker #997, March 7, 1999

"It is only at 7:30 in the morning and late in the evening that it becomes clear that Dhaka is overwhelmingly a city of women factory workers; at those times the streets are full of young women, chappals creating a cloud of dust on the margins of the road. The wonder is that they emerge each new day from some of the most frightful living places imaginable, clean, radiant in brilliant colors."

Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South

All over the world, literally millions of young women are streaming from peasant villages and making their way to the slums and factory districts of the Third World's mushrooming cities. Many arrive filled with excitement and hope--having left the stagnant confines of rural life and patriarchal families. They plan to make their own way--and often hope to prove their worth by sending home part of their city wages.

They find a new life--and with it the bitterness of a new trap. Seabrook writes, "One woman I met working in a garment factory in Jakarta suggested every item should have a `price of pain' printed on it, so that people would know how many tears and how much sweat are stitched into every article."

"The contradictions involved with the role and position of women in the present period (as I have said) are extremely explosive.... On the one hand, the changes in the economy--in the U.S. but also in other imperialist countries and in the Third World--have brought many more women into the workforce, of necessity. One of the distinguishing features in the world today--which we need to do more investigation of--is the `feminization of wage labor.'... At the same time--and this is what makes this contradiction so explosive--the bourgeoisie very much needs to aggressively assert `traditional values' and, to a large degree, traditional relations."

Bob Avakian

Judith of El Salvador

"I am from El Salvador and I am 18 years old. For over a year, I worked in the Taiwanese-owned Mandarin international maquiladora factory in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, where we made shirts for the Gap, Eddie Bauer and J.C. Penney. From Monday to Thursday, our work shift went from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. On Fridays we would work straight through the night, starting at 7 a.m. and working until 4 a.m. We would sleep overnight at the factory on the floor. The following day, we would work from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Despite these very long hours, the most I ever earned was 750 colones [about $43] per month.

"The supervisors often screamed at the women. They would hit us with the shirts and tell us to work faster. Even though we worked a 14-hour day, we were only permitted to go to the bathroom twice...no more than three to five minutes. It gets very hot in the plant, and the ventilation is poor."

"There are many girls aged 14, 15, and 16 who work in Mandarin.... If a woman feels sick, she must go to the plant's doctor. He takes advantage of the situation to give them contraceptive pills so they won't get pregnant. On the assembly line where I worked, one of the women felt sick and went for a consultation with this doctor.... She found out that she was pregnant, and that the pills the doctor had given her were to make her abort."

The "free trade zone" here is run by a former army colonel Mario Guerro. And another ex-colonel Luis Alonzo Amaya is Mandarin's head of personnel. When the workers formed a union, such men answered with brutal repression--firing active workers and torturing the local union leader. Judith say she was personally targeted by Amaya in another way: "On several occasions, this man invited me to `go out' with him. He told me that if I went out with him, I would not be fired. He used to follow me in his car. I was so afraid that I had to go home accompanied by my two sisters."

Hira and Mirim of Jakarta, Indonesia

Jakarta's skyline blinks with the neon logos of major capitalist corporations -- Fuji Film, Proctor and Gamble, Toshiba, Hitachi, Taisho textiles. And their corporate offices give off a feeling of wealth and peace. But there is a harsh tension in the working class districts of the city, like Bekasi, where police and military of the Indonesian dictatorship routinely maintain checkpoints.

Not long ago, the industrial workforce here was overwhelmingly men--but that has changed. The factory workforce is now almost half men and half women--with the women heavily concentrated in electronics and garment factories.

Hira and Mirim are two young women who work together in a Duta Busana garment factory that, until recently, was a subcontractor to Levi-Strauss. After a struggle with their employers, they brought this story to the press: Women in Duta Busana demanded one day of menstrual leave a month--as required by Indonesian labor law. The factory management answered that women would have to show up for work, remove their underwear and show it to their foremen as proof that they deserved leave. Hira says that this kind of disrespect was typical of treatment in the plant: "We are regularly insulted, as a matter of course. When the boss gets angry, he calls the women dogs, pigs, sluts, all of which we have to endure patiently, without reacting."

Levi Straus puts on a big media display of overseeing the conditions of "its" overseas workers. In fact, the company maintains a few showcase workplaces under its own ownership, while subcontracting large parts of its production out to other companies--where the conditions and wages are extreme and brutal.

At Duta Busana, work shifts often stretch to 14 hours a day, and those who refuse overtime are simply fired. This city has at least 800,000 people who have no work or income of any kind--and 2 million people who earn less than they need to live. In these desperate conditions, it is easy to find new workers. People even pay bribes for jobs.

Hira describes the plant conditions: "Inside it is very hot. the building has a metal roof, and there is not much space for all the workers. It is very cramped. There are over 200 people working there, mostly women, but there is only one toilet for the whole factory."

Many of the women workers came here expecting to continue their schooling and support their family back in the village. But the wages of $40 a month are so low that they barely exist. The minimum wage in Indonesia covers only 80 percent of necessities for one person, and many factories routinely receive government exemptions to pay even less. Many women workers are so ashamed of not sending money that they have simply cut off contact with their families.

Hira says, "The truth is that when we come home from work, we don't have enough energy left to do anything but eat and sleep." Home, for these young women workers, is the upper floor of a shack that has been divided into eight rooms--each about six by nine feet. The small cell that Hira and Mirim share costs them almost a week's pay every month. Their room is bare--with bedrolls of coarse matting on the floor, some frayed fabric as a door and a clothesline. On the wall are a few family pictures, a calendar and a mirror. The house has no plumbing, so the women have to haul any water they need for bathing and drinking.

Sanyan of Bangkok, Thailand

Sanyan, a young Thai woman, sews shirts in a small workshop lined with sewing machines. She makes collars, cuffs, button holes, sleeves, and shirt body from the cut pieces--and is paid less than $6 for 20 shirts a day.

Capitalists of the world garment trade complain that Thai women make more than others in Asia, but say they remain competitive because of the incredibly long hours they work. The women in Sanyan's factory often sew from 7 in the morning til midnight. In Huaykhwang, Bangkok's crowded factory district, the workplaces are the bottom floor of three-story row houses. The second floor are apartments for the owner's family, and the top floors are dormitories for young women workers. There are 5,000 to 10,000 of these factories run virtually as family affairs--the owners here are often former seamstresses who recruit girls from their home villages and barely make a living themselves. The women workers live together and eat together--when they have children they keep them here for the first two or three months and then send them back to the village to be raised.

The clothes sewn here go all over the world--polo shirts for the U.S. and Europe, casual tropical shirts for Australia and South Africa, embroidered denim skirts for the Polish market. The shops open and close depending on the world market--many shut down during the Gulf War and again when East Asia was swept by monetary crisis.

Life is hard, monotonous, bitterly poor and often lonely. Yet many of these women see this sweatshop nightmare as a step up from the farm labor, isolation and patriarchy of village life--which is a sign of the intense suffering of the peasant women still on the land.

Making Baseball Caps in Dhaka, Bangladesh

The people around Dhaka's M/S Proster Garments factory have been eager to talk about the disaster of February 11, 1995. Proster Garments makes baseball caps for the U.S. market--and is owned by a partnership in Hong Kong and local Bengali capitalists.

There had already been one fire earlier that week, and the workers knew that key doors were often locked. So when another fire broke out on February 11, the women moved quickly to evacuate the building. In the panic, some women were trampled to death, and many were injured. One woman fell from the roof of the four-story building. The official death toll was four dead, but local people believed that the real casualties were much higher--perhaps as much as a hundred.

Twenty years ago there was almost no garment industry--young girls could only find work as servants. But Bangladesh attracted capital because the price of human labor is the lowest in the world. Now there are 1.2 million young people making clothes in Bangladesh. 80 percent are young women. Their labor produces over 50 percent of the foreign exchange of the country.

Here in Dhaka, women tell the familiar story of six- or seven-day work weeks, with 13-hour days on rows of sewing machines. Clouds of cotton dust cause "brown lung" disease. Large numbers of children as young as 11 and 12 work in the plants--often as "helpers" to the teenage women. These children often work underneath the tables--stitching, trimming, cutting threads. Many suffer curved spines from the long cramped hours hunched over their work.

Seabrook writes, "The lives of the workers are a continuing battle against inadequate nourishment, poor shelter, ill health, unsafe drinking water, transport problems and insufficient rest.... Many marry cycle rickshaw drivers. Their husbands are happy for them to continue working after marriage--so long as they also do the domestic work as well: cooking, looking after the children, fetching water and fuel."

Women's Unending Labor at the U.S. Border

"I feel as though I spend every waking hour working, running--and stay in the same place."

Maria, factory worker
along the U.S. Mexican border

Many factories on the Mexican side of the U.S. border--like Zenith and General Motors--hire only women. According to factory managers, women are ideal assembly workers because they have "greater manual dexterity, docility, and there are an inexhaustible supply of new females, anxious to fill any vacancies." Sixty percent of the one million maquiladora workers in Mexico are women--the majority of them are between 15 and 25, and almost all have families that depend on them. Their wages are sometimes only 80 cents an hour. And they are often exploited sexually as well. An L.A. Times report described how a married woman with six children was accused of stealing after complaining when her boss told her to sleep with him or lose her job.

Maria works a double shift--one at a U.S.-owned computer factory and the other at home. The factory shift is from 2 to 10 p.m. But her day begins at 5 a.m. before dawn. She wakes up before her husband, cooks the main meal of the day, usually sopa de fideo--pasta boiled in water with a bit of onion, tomato, and salt--and makes his lunch. This is her time alone. Then her husband gets up, and they will eat their only meal together before he leaves for work.

Their wages together hardly cover life's most basic necessities--including the babysitter. Meat, fruit, vegetables, milk, and even beans and tortillas are a luxury. On weekends Maria washes clothes, shops, cooks, and cleans their shack of scrap wood and cardboard.

One worker for Sunbeam-Oster tells her story: "I was one of 12 kids in my family. We were very, very poor, and my parents could not afford to keep all the children in school. I was the oldest and so I dropped out and helped around the house and helped in neighbors' houses to earn a little money. We had to leave San Luís Potosí... Work in the maquiladoras was our only hope. When we arrived here we saw how bad it was, with no place to live and working at machines all day long. But we had nothing to return to at San Luís Potosí."


"I feel I am seen as a machine for producing, and if the machine stops, management thinks we are rebels. They do not understand human beings... They say that life is a wheel rotating through time; we are all on the wheel, sometimes on top, sometimes below. I don't believe that any more, because too many people die not because of the will of God, but because of the actions of other human beings."

Mirim in Jakarta

In one country after another, one "free trade zone" after another, proletarian women find themselves at the very bottom of the world system, barely holding body and soul together. In the Dominican Republic's BJ & B factory, workers receive 16 cents for making a $20 hat. In El Salvador, women make 18 cents for a $22 Gap shirt.

In the decisions of capital, these women--where they go, how they live or die--just doesn't matter. They constantly face firing for complaining or just because work orders slowed. And outside the factory walls, many different forces conspire to hold them down: the brutal military and police of corrupt governments, the traditional minded husbands and fathers, and the shameless pimps of the world's sex industry. Operating above and through all this are the current masters of the world--the huge international corporations and banks who harvest the suffering of millions.

The U.S., too, has mushrooming sweatshop districts, especially in cities where immigrants have gathered. In the U.S. too, many of these workers are young women fresh from peasant villages, hoping to keep their families alive by sending home their meager wages. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of U.S. garment contractors violate labor laws in major ways--like paying below minimum wage and demanding unpaid overtime labor.

Whole industries are built on the backs of these millions of working women. Their labor fills the retail racks of the world with low-priced goods. The "computer revolution" is analyzed in endless media chatter. But through all that, the working class women whose overworked fingers make the chips and machines are kept invisible, as if they don't exist.

And yet the huge changes in the lives of these women--and the huge changes these women are making through their work and struggles--are already having a ground-shaking impact on the economics, politics and social relations of the world. These sisters will inevitably make themselves heard, and felt, in explosive ways over the years just ahead.


Seabrook, Jeremy; In the Cities of the South--Scenes from a Developing World, Verso

Figueroa, Hector; "In the Name of Fashion--Exploitation in the Garment Industry," NACLA Report on the Americas, Jan/Feb 1996

Luciente, "Women of the Maquila," Revolutionary Worker #947, March 8, 1998

Avakian, Bob, "Major Transition and Upheaval--The Impact on Women," Revolutionary Worker #909, June 1, 1997

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