Globalization has brought about several notable positive aspects, including the widespread of technology and information, as well as better living conditions for many of the Earth's population. However, in many cases, the positive aspects were swiftly overturned by negative ones. These may come in the form of hard labor conditions in several developing countries, the proliferation of products that do not meet the required quality much faster or in worsened environment conditions. In our case, we are concerned with the precarious employment conditions that many women face working for multinationals in third world countries.
The authors of "Trading Away Our Rights: Women working in Global Supply Chains" are keen to emphasize not only the conditions women work in, both in term of contractual agreements (often non-existent) and the actual conditions in factories and fields, but also the reasons behind the multinationals' desire to solely exploit and not provide for and the reasons why women choose to be paid less and work more rather than lose their jobs.
As I have mentioned, globalization has its notable aspects in what employment is concerned as well. In this case, a global economy and liberalized trade created jobs for millions of women, who now occupy "60 to 90 per cent of jobs in the labor intensive stages of the clothing and fresh-produce global supply chains" (TRADING AWAY OUR RIGHTS. Page 16). However, the negative aspects include characteristics such as "insecure, exhausted or undermined" (TRADING AWAY OUR RIGHTS. Page 17).
Indeed, we should refer to each of these separate points in part. First of all, women are insecure of their job, because they are forced to work usually without a written contract, without a legal protection that they can use in their defense and with limited or no social protection at all. This means no medical insurance, pension plans or any other social benefits an employee has in a developed country.
Statistics provide several examples in this sense. In China's Special Economic Zones, for example (SEZ), one of the motors of Chinese economic growth, "80% of the SEZ workers are women; most are between the ages of 16 and 25" (Fall 1996, Vol. 2, No.1). After this age, they are generally send home to the rural areas they have initially come from. This is also the case for Sri Lanka, where "most of the 15,000 women employed in the garment industry are between the ages of 19 and 25" (Ibid.). These studies, as well as the study we are discussing comes to show that women working in different developing countries have no security that they will be working in the same place the following day and they can be send home at the employee's own will. No job security! If we mention here the fact that women generally work on minimum wages and the fact that sexist prejudice, where some jobs are only for men, are usually met, we may have a picture close to reality.
In terms of exhaustions, there are two aspects to be discussed. First of all, the long hours they are forced to put in. This generally follows what I have referred to in the previous paragraphs. The fact that there is no written contract stipulating the number of hours you will be working and the pay you will be receiving for them (not to mention that in all civilized countries, extra hours are remunerated) means that there is nothing you can invoke when ask to work extra hours. This also creates the premises for the employee to tell you that you can leave if you don't like it.
The women that work in many of these third work countries, having come from rural areas in general, are living in unhealthy dorms, with no ventilation, electricity or running water (Ibid.). This comes as a corollary to the working conditions they have during the day.
As for the 'undermined' aspect, they are undermined in "their attempts to organize and demand for their rights to be met" (TRADING AWAY OUR RIGHTS, Page 17). These attempts include acts of intimidation, violence or firing (Ibid. Page 24) and women who could try to fight for their rights often choose not to, because of the risks they are subjecting themselves to.
We may ask ourselves why women make these kinds of sacrifices. The answers are quite simple: the need for money in poor countries. For many women here, their own financial gains allow them to live independently and provide for themselves, exiting thus the familial influence. In other cases, they have to provide for their families and their level of education leaves them no choices.
So, we may wonder after presenting the issues in the article, what the ethical claims are. Simply put, in my opinion, the authors refer to a sole concept: EXPLOITATION. In the 21st century, we are facing situations where slavery is a more adequate term than employment, where the employee has no rights and only liabilities and where she is simply exploited by companies who wish to gain more and more (we will discuss this further below). Morally and ethically, how can we accept exploitation of other human beings, let alone practice and encourage it for material benefits?
2. In my opinion, many of the arguments and ethical claims that the authors present in the article are too obvious not to agree with them. Philosophically, knowledge is relative, but here we are faced with statistical facts that prove that women employed in clothing production factories in Morocco or on the fruit plantations in Central America and South Africa, for example, are paid minimum wages. We are faced with evidence provided by international organizations (some fighting actively, such as the World Young Women's Christian Association (Anne S. Walker. On the Internet at http://web.idrc.ca/es/ev-27447-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html) that reflect the way poor people and, especially, women are exploited.
Disagreeing with the authors' arguments can only mean approving exploitation. However, I should point out that, tacitly, we all are. By buying bananas from Honduras and clothes from Spain or the United States, we are encouraging the development of labor mistreatment for women who work to produce them in third world and developing countries.
3. An excellent reflection of the companies' response to the ethical claims that the authors are making is the title of the second chapter of the article, "squeezed down the supply chain" (Page 32). The problem with the multinationals that are the basic cause of woman exploitation is that financial and material arguments are more important than ethical ones. Simply put, "ethical trade just doesn't fit neatly into numbers and so it gets left out of the picture" (Page 37).
In this sense, we should consider the supply chain, as the article presents it (Page 35). At the highest level, the multinationals are pressured by two main actors: the customers and the shareholders. Profit maximization, primary goal for a business, goes hand in hand with customer satisfaction. As such, the companies generally try to keep prices down, because customers are generally more sensitive to price variances. This is where the second economical constraint enters.
Besides customer satisfaction, a company needs to be concerned about shareholder pressure as well. This is generally determined by the level of profit a company achieves. However, correlating this with the low price policy a company needs to apply, there is only one variable we can actually modify: volume. So, in this sense, keeping prices low, while still achieving high levels of profit means increasing the volume of production. As production is generally outsourced in third world countries, we have the general picture on the terrible overall labor conditions that women usually find.
The two important pressures at the top of the supply chain means that these need to be pushed down, towards the final links in the chain: the employees. They come to meet the demand of producers that need to adapt to financial realities and customer and shareholder pressure.
There are also other arguments that companies bring, many of them linked with the financial issues I have already mentioned. One of them is the increased competition that globalization has brought about. More and more companies, many benefiting from trade liberalization and being able to provide at lower costs, are competing for a market that has generally remained stably the same and that has not increased lately. The only way to do this is by cutting down costs.
On the other hand, if we consider the two general categories of costs, fixed and variable costs, the only costs you can actually modify are the variable costs and salaries and the cost of labor are the main components of the latter. Minimum wages, no social or medical assistance are efficient ways of cutting down on these in a significant way, raising the company's competitiveness.
One of the arguments that companies may use is the low level of education that the labor in the developing countries has, something that the State should be handling. In this sense, we should mention the authors'…