Has docility become a job requirement for women
Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30

We tend to think and speak of ˜dress codes on women", bans on mobile phones, and other forms of moral policing as imposed by 'backward' social outfits like khap panchayats that are 'out of sync with modernity'. Occasionally, we might discuss such measures imposed by colleges or Universities.  Even among those who do not support these codes, there is the opinion, muttered quietly, that the right to wear jeans, use mobile phones, interact freely with men, or display affection publicly is after all, a frivolous concern of a small section of urban, relatively privileged young women, far removed from the concerns of the vast majority of toiling women. 

Surveillance and tight control over social and sexual conduct inside families is something Indian women, including teenage girls and adult women, experience as a daily reality. In their parental homes, daughters learn the skills and discipline to equip them for the labour required of them in their marital homes. What is less acknowledged is that this training in docility and patriarchal discipline is what the globalized workplace too sees as an asset.  There is plenty of evidence that corporations tend to prefer women workers, especially those from South Asia, precisely because their social subordination, relative lack of mobility, and perceived 'docility', that makes them less likely to unionize.

Do the jobs created by globalization, then, 'empower' women as they are said to, or do they in fact cash in on and reinforce existing disempowerment?  A recent study of textile factories in Tamil Nadu, ‘Flawed Fabrics: The abuse of girls and women workers in the South Indian textile industry’ (October 2014, prepared by SOMO - Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and ICN - India Committee of the Netherlands) is revealing in this regard.  The study exposes a range of exploitative labour practices including child labour, bonded labour, and veiled continuation of the "Sumangali Scheme" wherein young girls from Dalit and rural poor families are lured with promises of lump sum payments that will go towards paying their dowry.

Here, I will concentrate on the way in which moral policing and gender segregation are reproduced in these factories to help enforce exploitative labour conditions.  The mills are part of the supply chains for major European and US clothing brands. The migrant women workers are allowed only to stay in hostels, described by a woman worker as a 'semi-prison'. Women (most of whom are adults between 18-22 years of age) are not allowed to keep cell phones, and are only allowed to call parents from the hostel phone, in the presence of wardens. Supervisors at work scold women for speaking to co-workers, especially male co-workers, and hostel wardens likewise maintain close surveillance to ensure that women do not leave the hostel premises, unless accompanied by a warden. 

These conditions are justified by the factory managements with much the same arguments used by University and college administrations to justify discriminatory rules for women: saying that the restrictions are in keeping with 'our State' Tamil Nadu's culture and the expectation of girl parents' regarding 'safety and security' of the women workers. Even recruiting pamphlets for the mills, which present a falsely rosy picture of work, wages and hostel life to lure workers, quite openly offer surveillance as part of the lure. One such pamphlet says, “There is a care for the female workers under women officers, wardens and nurses. Parents and guardians only are allowed to see their daughters and take them home. Even the workers themselves, while chafing at the restrictions, say: "We are girls; we must follow some values in society". 

While the restrictions are blamed by the employers on 'culture', the fact is that they have an immensely practical value of deterring unionization. As one of the workers herself put it, "We have no outside contact so how could we ever join a trade union?" By preventing women workers from interacting with other male workers or activists from outside, and discouraging socialization even among women workers on the factory floor, the women workers are very effectively prevented from even visualizing the possibility of unionizing.  The kind of humiliating punishments meted out to women in the mills for using a cell phone could compete any day with those handed out by khap panchayats to women and Dalits who transgress gender and caste codes.

One woman worker, caught using a cell phone, attempted suicide after she was abused, hit in front of other workers, fined Rs 500 and “forced to clean the wall where the workers spit out.” Are such practices anything but gender and caste atrocities? While khap diktats merit media attention, similar diktats strictly enforced in factories supplying to global corporations pass largely unnoticed.  India's caste hierarchy and patriarchal restrictions on women's social interactions enforced by families, schools and colleges, and factories alike - are then, the USP offered by India to woo global corporations to 'Make in India'.  

The author is Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association, AIPWA. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author.

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