Published on 19.08.2021 | By Rebecca Chong
Over the past 30 years, corporations have unquestionably become one of the greatest forms of power in our world. The exceptional success of corporations however would not have been made possible without globalisation as it seeks to abolish national borders through trade for economic purposes. Giddens defines globalisation as a ‘stretching process’ that connects ‘distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’, the outcome of large companies in developed countries often outsourcing to third world countries to employ cheap labour. Thus revealing that while the increasing integration of the global economy has stimulated overall wealth and employment growth, one of its biggest weakness lies in its ability to detach the production process from the actual product and consumer; in turn giving rise to the unconscious exploitation of the worker. This piece aims to unveil the masking of gender oppression of garment workers as claims of newfound female agency.
An industry that reaped much of globalisation’s benefits is the world of fast fashion, where seemingly insatiable consumers enjoy the wide variety of inexpensive and convenient clothing, leading to a whopping 400 percent increase in the production of garments in the last twenty years.
Which begs the question, how is it possible for supply chains to continuously meet the growing demands of its purchasers?
The answer lies in the structure of corporations, their profit-driven nature coupled with globalisation, gives rise to the idea of subcontracting third parties, likely in other continents, to enhance labour efficiency and cut costs.
On top of being overworked and underpaid, female workers are vulnerable victims to the corporate supply chain as gendered stereotypes continue to undermine the work of women and subject their bodies to hyper sexualisation. Especially in Bangladesh, women make up majority of the employees at sweatshops, leading policy makers to argue that the introduction of women into the garment market has had a positive impact on the development of females and their social status, as working provides them agency and a sense of empowerment. Many would believe that women’s access to income would grant them power in their households, however the cultural traditions and expectations of females still dictates the relationship between them and their income. Kibria interviewed numerous female garment workers from five different Bangladeshi factories and reported that women from working-class backgrounds follow male-dominated budgets. Regardless of marital status, a woman’s would be pooled into a shared household budget which would be under the control of the male, thus undermining the argument of women granted agency over their income. This is also the case in garment factories in Mexico, also known as maquiladoras where women’s earnings are seen as supplementary income for the family fund, not as their personal savings. Therefore the lack of control females have over their minimal wages suggests that they are exploited by both gender standards and the corporate system.
Despite cultural opposition to join the workforce, women from impoverished families still volunteer to work in garment factories in the hopes of providing for their family members. In Bangladesh, tradition is that women who work are ‘sexually suspect’ which directly threatens their family honour and status, yet many of them choose to sacrifice their sexual reputation to ensure the survival of their families. Given the pressurising environment of garment factories to meet deadlines and consumer demands, sexual harassment is inescapable. Sexual coercion as well as verbal abuse are methods often adopted by employers to force female workers to achieve their production quotas. Furthermore this setting not only normalises sexual abuse of females but even goes as far as leading women to embrace this hyper sexualised environment as a tool to ensure some level of work safety or progression. Effectually acknowledging that on top of facing exploitation due to class differences, females face further exploitation due to gender discrimination.
Another common argument is that the rise in smaller global supply chains as opposed to the previous large Fordist companies, allows women to have flexible working hours so they can care for the family as well. However, smaller companies also mean less surveillance and thus higher susceptibility for women to be sexually harassed without anyone’s knowledge. Furthermore, flexible shifts appeal to women as they have to raise their children, take care of the household and attend to their husband’s needs, all of which are unpaid labour. Hence suggesting that they would cherish this opportunity to work and provide financially for their family, which would perhaps make them more likely to have lower expectations of their treatment at work, in turn potentially increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.
Ultimately, one of the main reasons why supply chains thrive and workers are exploited is due to the deterritorialisation of production. A designer could be working in France, while production could take place in Bangladesh and the goods are then sold worldwide. Not only does deterritorialisation remove responsibility from corporations on the way they treat their workers, consumers are also not faced with the harsh reality of its producers when buying goods. In essence, arguing that exploitation of females is crucial in satiating the demands of profit driven corporations and greedy consumers. Change needs to be made and it starts with consumers.
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Giddens, A. (1990), The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press
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