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When Minsky meets complexity

Gendered Depletion in Export-Processing Zones

by Samanthi Gunawardana on March 27, 2018

I am honored to receive the 2017 Australian International Political Economy Network Richard Higgott Journal article prize. I would like to thank all who voted in the long listing process and the Selection Committee for their recognition. I also note that research of this nature is an ongoing collaborative process and I wish to thank and acknowledge all the workers, activists and factory managers who helped with data collection over the many years.

The special issue of Globalizations in which my paper was published, is focused on feminist global political economies of the everyday. The reality for millions of factory workers labouring around the world is a daily experience of depletion. I argue that it is these conditions of depletion that reproduces conditions of gendered worker disposability in the global economy.

“Depletion” is discussed in relation to social reproduction by Shirin Rai, Catherine Hoskyns and Dania Thomas (2014) and the gendered harms that arise from not recognising the value of unpaid domestic work, or providing inputs that can mitigate and lessen this harm. I had first come across their paper when examining unequal care burdens on women. What struck me about their argument was the close parallels to, and connections with, factory life in global supply chains. I began to formulate the idea that factories – and potentially, other workplaces – are also a site of depletion, based on my observations and experiences in Sri Lankan export processing zone factories.

Since 2003, I had been observing the labour relations system of one factory situated in the Katunayake zone. Katunayake was inaugurated in 1977 and open for business in 1978. By the time I arrived to complete my fieldwork, it was well established that the FTZ workforce was made up primarily of young women workers drawn from predominately rural Sinhalese communities around the country, except for the North-East which had become isolated from the rest of the country owing to a separatist war. Many women workers laboured for approximately five years before returning to their villages. These patterns are now changing (more ethnic diversity, more men and more married women), but the experience of depletion has not.

Inside the factory, during my initial year of participant observation, I worked as a ‘helper’ on a garment assembly line. My job involved standing for long periods and completing finishing tasks from about 8:00am – 6:00pm (without overtime)[1]. This included stringing the drawstring into pant waists, turning collars the right side and ensuring they were pointy, ironing folds into smaller fabric cuts, or fusing lining into small fabric cuts. When I began my participant observations, another new helper started at the same time as me. Kanchana was 17 at the time and came from an impoverished farming family in the Kurunegala district. Over the course of the year, I watched as she lost weight, became gaunt, developed dark circles under her eyes, and frequently described that she was ‘fit nah’ (literally, not fit). Night work, few opportunities to sit during working hours, continuous work with few breaks, poor nutrition and the sheer physicality of the work overcame her. Myself, I lost weight and developed a gastro issue from a lack of proper nutrition. Kanchana nonetheless was happy with her work – she was able to remit money for her brother’s education and give some money to her parents. I had witnessed the notion of ‘depletion’ play out on the body of my co-worker, but at the time, I did not make the broader connection to social reproduction.

Revising my original fieldwork and subsequent data from my revisits to the factory over a decade, I began to see the intimate ties between social reproduction and production in the everyday experience of gendered depletion. My contention in the paper is that factory employment in global supply chains such as those in the apparel and garment sector provides inadequate replenishment for the expenditure of labour effort, causing gendered harm. Through this process, workers become devalued and ultimately disposable.

Furthermore, it is the misrecognition of the social reproductive work that sustains productive work that reinforces this harm. Social reproduction is vital to factory systems in Sri Lanka. Deficits and deprivations in rural and agrarian communities and households often drove women to take up factory employment. Before employment, women helped to sustain their households through unpaid care work, while after migration, remittances helped to improve their family’s housing and consumption patterns. Factory wages and worker provident funds were used by women to save for marriage which helped to purchase household items or provide seed capital for their future spouses and themselves. Inside the factory, employment systems were underscored by gendered paternalist policies that relied on reproducing social reproductive relations in efforts to control labour effort and commitment to the factory.

[1] I was allowed to sit on a small stool during slower periods and take breaks to take notes unlike the other helpers.

Samanthi Gunawardana
Samanthi Guanawardana’s book Gender, Ethnicity and Employment in War and Peace: Relations in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in May 2019 in the series “Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality, edited by Nicki Smith, Adrienne Roberts and Juanita Elias.

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