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Exploitation, Women, and Lower Prices?

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Stephanie Wayne

Professor Fortner

FYS: 1004-13

19 October 2015

Exploitation, Women, and Lower Prices?

In their essay, “Life on the Assembly Line,” Barbara Ehrenreich and Annette Fuentes argue that multinational corporations (MNC) exploit their female workers in Third World by providing wages lower than the cost of living and permitting poor working conditions. First, Ehrenreich and Fuentes claim that the Third World country workers employed by MNCs are living below the standard of living in those nations for these corporations are paying them wages entirely too low. Second, the authors assert that the fact these corporations allow their workers to work in conditions that are not only unhealthy for their physical being, but also their mentality. This essay agrees with the authors’ argument that MNC exploit their worker, specifically women, in Third World countries by providing the workers with an insufficient standard of living and allowing poor working conditions.

To begin, MNC exploit Third World country workers by providing insufficient wages. According to Ehrenreich and Fuentes, MNC "farm out" low-skilled jobs to Third World countries because of the availability of cheap labor since workers are paid less than the cost of living, and even less if the worker is a woman. They claim that MNC workers of Third World countries are paid less than the cost of living. As evidence, Ehrenreich and Fuentes refer to Indonesia and the cost of living there, “in Indonesia the starting wages are actually about $7 a month less than the cost of living. "Living," in these cases, should be interpreted minimally: a diet of rice, dried fish, and water— a Coke might cost a half-day's wages” (77). Which the authors then explain is outrageous compared to the hour wages of three to five dollars an American worker would make if they were doing the same work and continue on to explain that if the workers are female, they will be paid even less (75). They then quote the vice-president of Hewlett-Packard who said, "They live much differently here [Singapore] than we do…," but the authors argue that the difference is simply First World nations have more money than Third World countries to begin with (76).

With further research, it is evident that things have not changed, as MNC exploit Third World country workers providing with insufficient wages. For example, Lucy Siegle, in her article “Britain's Appetite for Fast Fashion is Pushing Workers into Starvation Conditions,” quotes ActionAid, an international non-governmental organization whose primary aim is to work against poverty and injustice worldwide, who claims, “An essential part of any ethical trade has to be to ensure that workers are being paid a living wage. At a bare minimum this should be enough for a worker to pay for food for her family and cover housing, education and health needs – Asian garment workers are currently being paid about half of what they need to do this." Moreover, in his article, “Multinational Corporations in the Third World: Predators or Allies in Economic Development?” James C. W. Ahiakpor notes that, MNCs are much like multi-plant firms uninational corporations (UNCs). These corporations focus on the profit, and if they could make as much money with better conditions they would do so. Ahiakpor references Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, in his article, “by directing … industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, … intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it,” that being said the author rebuts this notion with “It may not be the intent of Third World governments, but perpetuating poverty in the name of protecting their people from alleged exploitation by MNCs has little moral justification.” Furthermore, Diane Elson’s article, “'Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers': An Analysis of Women's Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing,” she addresses that MNCs target women specifically as it is cheaper to do so. She proclaims, “If it were more profitable to employ men in world market factories to do jobs done by women in the developed world, then this is what capitalist firms would do, … We might expect the pressures of unemployment and poverty to induce men to accept jobs that in developed countries have been stereotyped as 'women's work'.” What’s more, in general the wages of women are 20%-50% lower than wages paid for men in comparable jobs in this Third World countries, according to Antti Kasvio, in his article, "The Internationalization of Production and the Changing Position of Women Workers in the Textile, Clothing, and Electronics Industries."

In addition to the insufficient wages, in Third World country multinational corporations exploit their workers by allowing poor working conditions. As evidence, Ehrenreich and Fuentes claim that “after only one year of employment: 88 percent had chronic conjunctivitis; 44 percent became nearsighted; and 19 percent developed astigmatism” in electronic factories (78). Furthering as support, Ehrenreich and Fuentes explain the working conditions of a textile or garment industry in South Korea, “Workers are packed into poorly lit rooms, where summer temperatures rise above 100 degrees. Textile dust, which can cause permanent lung damage, fills the air,” and then force overtime upon workers for rush orders, as much as 48 hours (78). This pushes the workers to “go beyond the limits of human endurance, pep pills and amphetamine injections are thoughtfully provided” (78). The authors also mention the increasing “numbers of people getting tuberculosis, bronchitis, and eye diseases” in garment factories as the dust from the fabrics cause the air to be hard to breathe in (78). Finally, Ehrenreich and Fuentes emphasizes how stress is the most dangerous health concern. These workers have rotating shifts and pressure of meeting quota, and the stress and lack of sleep cause “stomach ailments and nervous problems” (Ehrenreich and Fuentes, 78).




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