Women workers in export processing zones in Asia : a political economy perspective
University of British Columbia
Master of Laws - LLM
An important characteristic of export processing zones (EPZs) in East, Southeast and South Asia is that 70% to 90% of the workforce is comprised of young, single women. In view of this, the success of EPZs as an industrialization strategy would not be adequately assessed without taking into account the physical and social impact on women workers. Most discussions of EPZs, however, have focused only on the economic advantages and benefits of this development strategy without any consideration of the effects on the women who work in them. This thesis investigates the social, political, economic and legal forces operative in the creation and maintenance of oppressive and exploitative conditions for women workers in EPZs. In the countries under review, the integration of young, single women into the paid workforce in EPZs was a new phenomenon. The selection of this particular group of workers is the result of corporate and state policies directed to the maintenance of a comparative advantage within the current structure of export-led industrialization. Patriarchal ideology reinforces both the selection and management of women workers. The state also plays an important role in creating and maintaining conditions favourable to investment through the selective enforcement of investment, tax, labour and environmental laws. The domestic legal protections that exist are, for the most part, for the benefit of corporations, rather than for the protection of women workers. Employment in EPZs, as a result, has some benefits but mostly costs for women. On the one hand, women workers gain a measure of economic independence and are thereby liberated from some of the patriarchal forces of their family structures. On the other hand, they are subject to health hazards and employment insecurity, and are provided little opportunity for advancement. Women also suffer public stigmatization as a result of their employment as factory workers. Even the familial patriarchal control they escape is replaced by patriarchal control by the corporation, local communities and the state. It is possible that international human rights law might be relied upon to address some of the problems faced by women who work in EPZs. In view of the low ratification rates of the countries under review, however, this does not seem likely. To this point, international conventions directed to improving work conditions have had little effect. Still, increased international attention, in particular, by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), might help to better the working environment of women in EPZs.
Law, Peter A. Allard School of