|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)|
|2. Information technology and working women's demands|
Against these rather uncertain moral and economic principles of our time, it becomes important to pay attention to women's own voices if we are to ascertain their fears and aspirations with respect to information technology and patterns of industrialization.
The perspective of garment workers in Bangladesh, as documented by UBINIG4 (the Centre for Policy Research for Development Alternatives in Bangladesh), is representative of many women in the developing countries who, for the first time, found employment in the formal sector, thanks to export-oriented industrialization. In a traditional Muslim country like Bangladesh, the export-oriented garment industry was a groundbreaker in creating a new workforce of nearly 500,000 young women industrial workers. Jobs in the factories are not perfect: the pay is low, there are health hazards, and the security of employment is not great. Yet the conditions of employment are superior to alternatives that women are likely to find as domestic workers, prostitutes, or as workers in the informal sector. The introduction of digital automation and robotic technology in the western world makes the future of these jobs increasingly uncertain. Faced with such prospects, they are willing to learn any new technique and adjust to changed working conditions (UBINIG, 1991: p. 67). As one worker said, 'We will not go back to villages, we will not become dependent on others.'
Employment in the modern sector has given these women a certain amount of freedom from tradition and social oppression. As the UBINIG report so assiduously documents, women do not relish the idea of going back to villages that they left precisely in order to search for employment in the urban sector.
The impact of information technology on women's manufacturing employment in the developing world, until now, has been positive in terms of quantities of jobs. In the seventies and eighties, the improved telecommunication system and transport facilities encouraged transnational companies to relocate a considerable amount of manufacturing jobs, especially in textiles, clothing and electronics, to countries where the wages were low and where there was a plentiful supply of young women workers (Mister, 1986: chapter 2). Within a decade or so, several million women workers were employed in manufacturing for export. This new form of employment gave women of the developing world a visibility as an important industrial workforce, a visibility they did not receive while working in small-scale or home-based units, broadly and vaguely defined as the informal sector. The future of these feminized manufacturing jobs appears less certain in the coming phase of technological changes, which make wage bills less significant in the total production costs of transnational corporations. As a result of a steady decline in the price of computer-aided technologies, manufacturing companies, even in a labour surplus country, now adopt some labour-replacing manufacturing methods to achieve speed, flexibility and quality control. Among the diverse patterns and directions of manufacturing employment in different parts of the world, one can identify certain trends in the corporate sector, in that
· the cost of capital is rising;
· the input of labour is declining;
· the demand for multi-skilled operators is increasing;
· new skills required in hardware and software development are becoming important;
· expertise in material resources planning and total quality management is proving crucial;
· marketing skills are becoming significant;
· skills in the management of organizations as well as of technologies are becoming essential.
Even in the affluent parts of the world, women do not easily find access to the scarce marketing, technical and management skills that they will need in order to be equipped for jobs in the future.
The quality of women's employment has been affected by recent organizational changes, in preparation for the effective use of computer technologies. The just-in-time system (JIT) and total quality management (TQM) are examples of such emerging practices that aim to ensure continuous workflow and zero defects in a highly capital-intensive process of production. The implementation of such work practices demands managerial, technical and marketing skills among workers. It also requires training in teamwork. The skills that women traditionally learn in assemblyline jobs do not equip them for these new tasks. Yet it is not impossible, and indeed could be managerially beneficial, to train women in the tools and philosophies of JIT and TQM. In the pursuit of people-oriented total quality management, the manager of Toyota stresses:
It is only human beings that can have the ability for innovation; hence, once the number of human beings decreases, as a result of automation or computerization, the built-in self-innovation ability of the workplace declines, no matter how effectively the automation is implemented.5
In Bangladesh the women workers in textile mills express similar views: 'We possess the skills; machines cannot take away our skills. A machine can increase our skill. The management should bring these machines; then we will survive and the mill will survive' (UBINIG, 1991).