Hesperian Health Guides
Discrimination in the factory
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It is no coincidence that most workers in export factories are young women. Because society teaches women to obey and serve men, bosses think they will accept the low salaries and harsh conditions of the factories. They also know that many young women were denied education, so factory work is one of the few opportunities they have. This makes bosses believe that women are less likely to cause "trouble." The same is true for people who migrate to ﬁnd work.
Denied better jobs and promotions
Young and women workers get hired for low-skilled jobs with the promise of promotions later. But after they learn the skills necessary to change jobs or become supervisors, bosses might still pay them starting salaries.
Women are usually not promoted, even when they are qualified.
Wages are low in export factories. Yet women, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, workers who migrate, and people with disabilities are usually paid even less.
Wage discrimination means some workers are less able to afford nutritious food, decent housing, health care, and basic services such as clean water. Wage discrimination means they have to work longer and harder to make ends meet, and are exposed to toxics and repetitive movements for longer amounts of time.
Insults and harassment by the boss are intended to make workers feel worthless and fearful and can lead to physical and mental health problems. Women, people who migrate, indigenous people, people with darker skin, and people with disabilities are often treated in ways to make them feel they are more stupid or worth less than other workers. Women are often humiliated and harassed because they are seen as less than men.
When workers’ self-esteem is harmed by the discrimination they face at work and in their community, they might feel they have no power to fight against unfair and unhealthy working conditions. However, even when we do not think so, we all have power in one or many parts of our lives (see We have power, too!).
The dirtiest, most dangerous, and lowest-paid jobs in the factory go to workers with the least power in the factory or community, or are given out as punishment to workers involved in organizing to keep them isolated, harass them, and force them to quit. When equipment and tools are not designed to fit women, they can lead to serious health problems caused by poisoning and strain and overuse (see Chapter 7: Ergonomics). Women who get pregnant should be moved to less difficult, less dangerous jobs, with no reduction in pay. When this does not happen, it puts them and their babies in danger (see Chapter 26: Reproductive and sexual health).
Bosses use violence and the threat of violence to control workers. But often, the workers who are the most discriminated against are the ones that face the worst kinds of violence. Women and migrant workers are targeted most often. The violence inside a factory is often a reflection of the discrimination faced in our communities.
Blaming workers instead of the boss
Millions of people migrate from rural areas of China to work in factories in the big cities. In fact, the Chinese government encourages companies to hire workers from poor regions in China where most of the ethnic minorities live. Bosses know migrants left poverty and hardship in their home towns and are desperate for jobs. Employers take advantage of their desperation and say, "There are others just like you outside the door waiting for a job, so don’t complain or we’ll just fire you and hire someone new."
Workers who migrate face different hardships than local workers, but inside the factory walls, all are hurt by unfair and unsafe working conditions.
In Guangdong factories, the majority Han group clashed with the Muslim minority Uyghur people. The Han resented the new group for many reasons. When the boss started ﬁring Han workers and replacing them with Uyghur workers, many Hans blamed the Uyghur, instead of blaming the boss. When false rumors about Uyghur men raping Han women began to spread, the Han put all their frustration and anger into ﬁghting Uyghurs. Fights broke out among hundreds of Han and Uyghur workers and riots lasted for hours. Two people were killed. Fights between Han and Uyghur broke out in other communities as well.
In the end, the police had to intervene, arresting and beating many workers. But nothing changed. The workers who were ﬁred were not rehired and the conditions in the factories only got worse for both Han and Uyghur.
Divisions among workers
When society believes in the superiority of one group over others, this carries over into the workplace. Workers with lighter skin may look down on workers who have darker skin. In racist societies everywhere, even the poorest people with lighter skin usually have privileges that darker skinned people do not. People with HIV, a disability, or qualities that make them visibly different are often abused the most.
No representation in the union or worker committees
Unions and groups that support workers should represent and ﬁght for the needs of all workers in the factory. But sometimes unions are led by one group of workers who have more power or privilege than others. They might ﬁght for issues that affect only them and their group or not know (or care to know) about the issues that affect other workers.