Fulfilling Technology's Promise: Enforcing the Rights of Women Caught in the Global High-Tech Underclass
Berkeley Women's Law Journal, Vol. 15, 2000, p. 272 +
40 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2012 Last revised: 17 Jun 2017
Date Written: 2000
In the early 1980s, Malaysian women working in electronics factories began to experience hallucinations and seizures. Factory bosses manipulated their employees' religious and cultural beliefs, convincing the women that their bodies were inhabited by demons. In this manner, they avoided confronting the more likely causes: the rigid, paternalistic work environment, the intense production pressures placed on the women, and the lengthy shifts and potentially hazardous conditions that the women were forced to endure. This example illustrates the use of gender, religion, and culture to control and exploit women's labor in the high-tech industry. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated situation.
This article focuses on two groups of women within the high-tech underclass: factory workers in the free trade zones of Malaysia and Asian immigrant assembly workers in the United States. Under the current structures of domestic law in both Malaysia and the United States, the fundamental rights of women electronics assembly workers remain unfulfilled. Both government and industry in Malaysia and the United States have manipulated gender and race issues, and created similarly stratified workforces where Asian women are relegated to the lowest positions. Comparing the Malaysian electronics industry to its U.S. counterpart is instructive because both utilize a significant number of assembly workers, have developed highly stratified workforces in the midst of heterogeneous populations, and have been shaped by similar external economic and social forces. Through analysis and comparison of the experiences of women assembly workers in Malaysia and the United States, this article will explain not only why companies seek out these women, but also how the creation of this workforce has in turn influenced, and become embedded in, state policies. Further, this article shows that this modern version of a gender-based, immobile industrial underclass can develop anywhere. These labor structures are not confined to developing countries, but can flourish in the most "advanced" industries and most protective legal regimes in the world.
This article does not focus simply on the problems these women face, but also inquires into ways that these jobs and this industry can improve to allow these women to truly benefit from the technology that they help build. In particular, this article explores the framework of international law through which the rights of Asian women assembly line workers in the electronics industry can be protected. It conclude that the prospects for improvement are limited by the inadequacies of the current domestic and international legal systems, and argues that these problems cannot be ignored. The electronics industry should be held accountable for its role in creating them. The industry is faced with a choice: it can continue to expand opportunities for constructive dialogue with workers, activists, and regulators, or it can ignore these issues until legal action is brought. Constructive engagement and pre-emptive voluntary corporate actions can ameliorate rights violations before damaging lawsuits begin. Finally, the electronics industry should heed this warning for the future: it is in an analogous position to Tobacco back in the 1960s. Huge damage awards in a similar vein would wreak havoc in the electronics industry.
Keywords: women, gender, labor, technology, electronics, tech, Silicon Valley, Malaysia, international law, human rights, workers, assembly line, development, corporate social responsibility
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