Lek (a fictitious name to protect the worker) has spent 25 years checking that all the microchips that leave the factory she works in meet the company’s quality standards. Over that time the factory has changed owners several times, but the profile of the people on the assembly lines has barely changed at all. Most of her colleagues are still women; all her supervisors are men.
The electronics industry is a complex one in which a single device is composed of tiny parts made in various factories such as the one Lek works in and which are then usually assembled by another company. The majority of factories share a similar recruitment policy, however.
“The factories prefer women because they are more patient but also because they are easier to dominate” says Patchanee Kumnak, the Thailand representative of Good Electronics, a network of organisations and individuals that investigates the social and environmental problems related to the production chain in the electronics industry.
Although there are no global figures for the sector, disaggregated numbers for several Asian countries, where the industry is concentrated, put the number of women in electronics factories between 60 and 90 per cent in Malaysia, Vietnam or Thailand. For their part, men rarely sit on the assembly lines and generally occupy higher and better paid positions.
“It is generally considered that men are more suitable than women for management positions,” adds Joe DiGangi, a researcher at the International POPs [Persistent Organic Pollutants] Elimination Network (IPEN) who has studied Samsung’s policies in Vietnam.
“Companies [in Vietnam] often think that women are going to spend more time with their families and children and less time working than men. But the women we interviewed worked very hard,” adds the academic.
In this division of labour by gender, women are concentrated in the most basic tasks – 85 per cent of women workers are in unskilled jobs in Thailand – and therefore earned on average 16 per cent less than their male colleagues in 2013, according to a study by the International Labour Organization of the electronics industry in Thailand based on national statistics.
Women are also more exposed to threats and verbal abuse from their superiors. According to a study by the NGO Verité carried out in Malaysian factories, women complain more frequently of cases of “bodily threats, violence and threats to their personal freedom” than men, whose complaints are more about the confiscation of documents or penalties at work.
Both Lek and her assembly line companion Noi suffer daily. “The supervisor we had before was always talking to us in a degrading manner” recalls Lek, who says that the company recent changed its policy to avoid workplace disputes during the buying process that the company is currently immersed in.
“It is commonplace. Companies think it is the most effective way of controlling their workers” says Patchanee Kumnak of Good Electronics.
Noi says there has been an increase in the abuse since the factory introduced new working hours. They work for four days then have two days off, with continual changes between the morning and night shifts.
“Many of us workers were opposed to it because it affects our health and our social life” says Noi, who took part in a strike to protest the new working time.
After the strike the workers who had taken part in it were exposed to increasing harassment by the company.
“They put us in a room where we were watched by cameras. The room was very dirty and you couldn’t work there” recalls Noi. “I am allergic and I left the room. The supervisor came and threatened me” she adds.
Lek has been suffering from migraines and repeated fainting spells for some time. “It seems that not enough blood is circulating to my brain” she says. Recently she was also found to have an ovarian tumour which she says is related to the changes in working hours, as is the migraine.
“Health is not a priority for the women workers, and they don’t have enough information about it. When you don’t have enough to eat, you don’t worry about much else” says Patchanee Kunmak.
The division of labour also exposes women to greater health risks because working on the assembly lines puts them in greater contact with chemicals. “The electronics industry is considered a low risk industry […]. There is little awareness of the health risks, including exposure to chemicals” says Joe DiGangi.
Most of the companies also have a policy of not revealing the chemicals they use, which makes it difficult to establish a connection between the illnesses suffered by the workers and their working environment. In South Korea, however, several courts have begun to recognise that cases of leukaemia are related to the use of chemicals on the assembly lines.
The majority of workers, furthermore, are recruited young, during their most fertile years, which increases the risk of the chemicals affecting their reproductive cycle. Several studies have linked the use of these substances to a higher rate of miscarriages and deformities in the foetus among women in the industry.
According to Perada Phumessawatdi, a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol on gender policies in Thailand and until recently a technician from the Department of Women’s Affairs of the Ministry of Social Development of Thailand, the Asian country’s legislation has adopted specific measures for the protection of women in dangerous industries such as electronics, limiting the number of hours they can work, the time slot or the type of work they can do.
The Thai Labour Campaign, however, says that most pregnant women hide their status in order to continue working overtime, which is prohibited for them, and to avoid a reduction in their pay packet. “There is also a problem with the positions they consider appropriate for pregnant women, because the managers decide. There are pregnant women driving heavy machinery,” says Lek.
Transparency about the chemicals used is one of the keys to reducing the health impact of this industry, says Joe DiGangi. “They have to be transparent about the chemicals they are using […]. We also have to understand better how exposure can be avoided,” says the researcher.
However, Lek has not been met with a smile when he has asked for that information. “We do not know what chemicals we use. We only know the name of the brand,” explains Lek. “And the company gets very aggressive when we ask about chemicals.”