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close this bookWomen Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)
close this folder13. Gender perspectives on health and safety in information processing
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentInternational trends in information processing employment
View the documentReconstructing women as 'cheap' labour: New technology employment or the same old story?
View the documentHealth hazards of work with computers and keyboards: The experience from Australia and Europe
View the documentThe relationship between RSI and technology in the workplace
View the documentLDC experience
View the documentLearning from international experience
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Learning from international experience

Clearly more research is necessary to assess the extent of health problems among keyboard operatives in LDCs, and particular attention must be paid to the specifics of their working routines, tasks and allied problems. In the light of the Australian literature and other studies it is possible to suggest what the parameters of the problems may be.

First, activities in which standards of productivity and speed are the basis for payment, job security, and promotion are likely to be those in which the risk of RSI is greater. However, offshore data entry facilities may in fact be less pressurised than large workplaces in the public or corporate sector, if a continuous flow of work cannot be guaranteed.6 This is an important observation, since it means that the location and nature of the activity cannot in themselves be used to predict the risk of the workforce, without an accurate assessment of the particular labour process.

Second, we need to take into account that in many countries the widespread introduction of new technology in large corporations coincides with privatization, the deprotection of workers, and the introduction of new forms of work organization (see, e.g. Ng, 1991: pp. 3740). It is necessary to distinguish between the nature of the technology, the nature of the task and the ways in which the workers are required to carry out the task.

The context in which information technology is introduced will make a difference to the degree to which women have any leverage over how their work is organized and controlled, and the implications of such employment cannot be predicted a priori. There are three possibilities: the intensification; decomposition; or recomposition of existing gender and other social relations (Elson and Pearson, 1984). To give just one example, there are plans to promote computers in Saudi Arabia to increase the home-based employment opportunities of tertiary educated women, in order to maintain their seclusion (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, n.d.).

Third, the extent to which formal worker protection by trade unions is a useful predictor of protection from the health risks of new technology is debatable. There is evidence from the Australian literature that, having been extremely helpful in the earlier phases of the Australian epidemic, the unions failed to combat attempts to psychologize the condition, and have not taken up the long-term issue of what happens to expelled and injured workers (Meekosha and Jakubowicz, 1991). The study carried out by the RSI sufferers reports that 60 per cent found their union to be unhelpful (ACT RSI, 1992). Ng (1991: pp. 36-7) also reports that the union did not see the health and safety protection of women workers as a priority.

But we should also be clear that information technology workers cannot necessarily be expected to take direct action on health hazards. L. Harris (1989) reports that women workers in an American chemical factory in County Mayo, Ireland, refused to take industrial action although they knew that the raw material they worked with had been banned elsewhere because of its supposed carcinogenic qualities. These workers had taken action on other grievances, such as equal pay, but they recognized that the location of the company in Ireland, and thus their employment, was the direct result of the health hazard they were being exposed to. Many information technology workers are in a similar position: they may or may not be informed about the risks of such employment, and may or may not have some bargaining power to address their concerns, but their response is mediated by a complex set of objectives including the need to earn an income and the benefits they obtain from employment in terms of association, socializing and status.

Managerial strategies can exploit these contradictions. In Jamaica, companies followed explicit strategies to prevent the unionization of data entry workers, lest they emulated the well-known and feared militancy of garment factory workers in the free trade zones (R. Pearson, 1993). There has also been a conscious attempt to promote the notion that keyboard operators were different, and superior to, assembly-line production workers (Freeman), similar to the differentiation made between electronics and garments workers in the Mexican maquiladoras (Pearson, 1991b). The 'clean' image of information technology work, in contrast to the environmentally hazardous emissions of process manufacturing, can also be utilized to diminish the perceived health hazards associated with computer work.

Such considerations may be central in understanding the responses of low paid semi-skilled workers, but not of professional women working with computers. It is well recognized that many women (and men) who have a much greater autonomy over the ways in which they carry out their work - such as academics, journalists and writers - consistently utilize computers in ways which entail severe risks of developing RSI and other conditions, even though they have access to very up-to-date knowledge of the risks and prevention strategies.8 Externally imposed pressure and deadlines, as well as an increasingly competitive environment, provide a partial explanation, but self motivation and exploitation must also be factors.

Nor is it axiomatic that the interests of women workers, particularly in LDCs, are antithetic to the strategies of development planners who see the adoption and dissemination of information technology within their economies as the route to long-term economic viability and growth. Sen's model of 'cooperative conflict' (See, 1990), which encompasses a situation in which an individual's utility is both in conflict with, and totally inextricable from, that of the wider group might also prove a useful model for conceptualizing the contradictory relationship women have to the risks and benefits from information technology. Such a framework would seem infinitely more realistic than either a totally negative response, which suggests that all risk-bearing employment for women should be prohibited, or one which argues that health and safety issues should be totally subordinated to wider issues of economic growth, employment, and foreign exchange generation.8

The experience of advanced countries, particularly of Australia, indicates that new times as well as new technologies require new analyses and new strategies. There were institutional innovations by women in response to the 'epidemic', including support groups such as WRIST (Women's Repetitive Strain Injury Support Team), in Victoria, which not only have provided support and referral advice to sufferers but have played a central monitoring and lobbying role in relation to changes in the institutional and legislative framework. Workplace groups have also organized health and safety circles in an attempt to promote collective endeavours to devise working practices that are more rational, and have devised exercise routines which are both helpful and practicable.

The Australian experience is in a sense a microcosm of the contradictions that information technology presents - to producers, workers and users. The often irrational way in which medical and other professionals have sought to refute the links between technology, work practices and health hazards illustrates most directly the ways in which gendered notions of legitimacy are at the heart of the contradictions which this technology catalyses. It is the role of gender analysis to probe the nature of these contradictions and their gendered manifestations and responses, in order to work towards useful strategic responses.