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What does it mean for women workers in Asia?

Nowhere has the impact of globalisation been more evident than in Asia. Asian economies of various types - newly industrialising countries, the countries of South Asia and countries under transition to market socialism - have been transformed or transformed themselves to be part of this new industrial movement.

Rural women were made redundant by greater agricultural mechanisation. As village economies became more cash-oriented, young women especially moved to the newly industrialising urban areas to find work. Many of the jobs waiting for them were in factories making new technology components or assembling new technology consumer products. Soon other factories began adapting to technological change by mechanising and automating many of their processes. These repetitive, low-skilled jobs were thought suitable for women.

This introduction of new technology has accelerated the fragmentation of labour processes. At any given time each worker now carries out a very narrow range of tasks, sometimes just the same movement, such as tightening a screw or entering data into a computer. This kind of work is boring and repetitive and can pose serious health risks. However, automation in manufacturing also means that workers can be moved around from one repetitive task to another. In financial services,

functions that were once clearly separate are now done by the same worker at the same computer terminal.

Despite the influx of foreign investment and the growth of large-scale factories, Asian women’s labour is still concentrated in 'low-skilled’ and local, often family-based, enterprises. New technology has often not had much of a direct impact on them. Many still use relatively 'old-fashioned’ equipment and follow traditional processes. But because their competitors in the market can produce goods more efficiently by using new technology, they must work harder in order to compete.

This introduction of new technology has accelerated the fragmentation of labour processes....

And, despite the domination of large-scale companies in certain industries, such as garment making, a great deal of work is still done by a woman sitting at a sewing machine. This means that work can also be sub-contracted to smaller-scale producers.

Garment production contrasts sharply with the related industry of textiles, whose production processes have adapted themselves well to forms of new technology that minimise human input.

New technology has also transformed financial services. Banks,

in particular, have restructured their operations so that more work is done away from branches to rooms that are almost like factories and those workers remaining in branches perform a wider variety of functions. Today, financial services are linked to worldwide networks that demand instant access and response. Therefore, banks and securities traders have been among the first to computerise their operations with dramatic effects on women's jobs.

In all cases, it is apparent from the research results that women's work is being transformed by the introduction of new technology. This is not a critique of the technology itself but of the manner in which it is imposed on women workers. This high-cost technology is valued higher than the women who operate it. Women, mainly young women, are favoured for the most routine and monotonous work, in spite of the conflict with social demands put on women. For example, in order to maximise the investment in this technology, factories must run 24 hours a day. Yet, in most places there are legal or social restrictions on women working the night shift. In any case, it is often not safe for women to be out at night and if women are living at home it conflicts directly with the family and household responsibilities still expected of them.

Research results

It is possible to generalise and say that many new jobs have been created for women, but when new technology is introduced without

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Asian Women Workers Newsletter Vol. 16 No. 4 October 1997