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Women’s Industrial Work Conditions and the Changes of Family Relationship : A Case Study of Northern Thailand

VARUNEE PURISINSIT
BENJA JIRAPATPIMOL

 

Introduction
Female labour employment has become hotly debate issue and, subsequently, attracted increased attention, particularly in Third World countries. In Thailand the proportion of female labour in the labour market is the highest in Asia and one of the highest in the world (Suvanee, 1977). According to the National Statistics Office (1985), of the total number of 6,291,400 industrial workers all over the country, there were 3,830,700 (60.9%) male workers and 2,460,700 or 39.1% female ones, with 54.2%, working in the manufacturing industry, being men’s workers and 45.8% women’s workers. The trend is clearly rising particularly given the governments’ policy toward industrialization. Expansion and growth in the industrial sector, in turn, requires more women’s workers to along side with the male counterparts in almost every industries.

As a consequence, female labour in industries in its own right and of necessity requires serious and in-depth academic investigation because it constitutes a rather new phenomenon in still predominantly agricultural Thai society. As a social entity, we are pretty much in need of information on human resources utilization in an industrial context.

Conceptual Framework
This study is grounded on the concept that Thailand must follow the policy path to industrialization and encourage industrial investment in all regions of the country. As a consequence, more and more women enter the industrial labour market prompting the need to better understand women’s industrial work conditions as well as their impact upon the women’s families. The study concentrates on 3 types of industries : food, garments and electronics, because these industries primarily employ women. It covers 3 provinces, Lampang, Lamphun and Chiang Mai, the areas in which most industrial factories are located.

Review of Related Literature

Industrial Development in the Upper North Region
The Upper North Region comprises 9 provinces, namely, Mae Hong Son, Chiangrai, Phayao, Chiang Mai, Lumphun, Lampang, Nan, Phrae and Tak. It is endowed with natural resources and labour sufficient for various types of industrial development such as jewelry and ornaments, textile and finished garments, processed produce and fruits, wood-carving, antique products making, ceramics and artificial flowers (Northern Region Development Center, 1992). Therefore, given the above-mentioned industrialization policy, Lamphun province has been selected as site for the Northern Region Industrial Estate (NRIE). There are 86 industrial factories in the NRIE and others scattered around the region with the highest number, 448, in Chiang Mai province, with 14,306 workers. Next to Chiang Mai, Lampang has 404 industrial factories with 4,823 workers while Lamphun registers 136 factories but with 5,240 industrial workers (TDRI, 1989).

Traditional Role of Thai Women
Studies on women’s roles in Thai society, especially in rural or agriculture-based areas reveal that married women are primarily responsible for house keeping, cooking and child care. Besides, they’re also engaged in production activities for household consumption. During farming season women worked all day in the fields and, at the same time, had to be responsible for food-related matters as well. During the dry season they hauled fruits to the local market for sale (Potter, 1977). In agriculture-based production activity women played a key role, e.g., working on the farm during production season or earning extra income during off-farm period via selling fruits and vegetables at local markets or taking other odd wage-earning jobs during bad farming season (Hanks and Hanks, 1963). Women worked so hard from dawn to dusk in the fields. Their heavy work load tended to decrease during pregnancy and after delivery, however. At home they were responsible for most housework (Amara et al., 1987).

Research Methodology
The study relied on both quantitative and qualitative approaches with the former being used when dealing with factory work conditions while the latter family members’ relationships. Resulting outcomes from the two approaches were then synthesized to form answers to the established questions.

Research findings
Almost all Female workers in the three types of industries, i.e., food, garments and electronics, came from agriculture-based families. The proportions of married and single workers were equally divided. But once viewed industry by industry, it was found that more than half of those in food and garments industries were married while there existed the greatest number of single workers in electronics who, on the average, were also the youngest and most educated. This was accounted for by the fact that this type of industry required good eyesight. Therefore, factories would not and did not recruit workers who were over 25 years of age. They also needed workers with relatively higher level of education, e.g., Mathayom Suksa 3 graduates (10 years in schooling).

As regards wages it was found that, on the average, workers received minimum wages required by law. However, it is interesting to note that workers across the industries received similar wages, when all extraearnings were calculated, despite the fact, for example, that the electronics industry recruited workers with more education. This was so because employers primarily set the wage by the legally established minimum wage rate rather than other qualifications such as educational background and past experience. The fact that most factories adopt this principle as their employment policy and apply it across the board can be considered a contradiction to the country’s efforts toward sound and fair industrial development. Applying the principle in this manner does not constitute a motivation for workers to improve and upgrade their work skills. At the same time, it undermines the free labour market and is not conducive of labour competitiveness, the very atmosphere likely to bring about negative effects on Thailand’s future industrial development efforts.

As regards a much talked-about matter of factory work-related health conditions it was revealed that more than half of the workers did not feel they were terribly sick. Minor illnesses reported were headaches, stomach problems, digestive system troubles, muscular sores, etc., some of which might have been related to work. However, it is interesting to note that 1/4 of electronics workers reported having eye-related problems.

Although development planners attach great importance to industrialization citing as reasons more work for the people and better income than in agriculture. At the same time, rural youngsters seem to enter factories with enthusiasm. However, are they really satisfied with the factory work? Findings in this study did not really answer yes to this question. It is true that most women’s workers were happy with fixed, stable cash income. Nevertheless, they complained that they had to stand for a long period of time, exercised a lot of eyesight, worked like a machine against time, had no or little time of their own, had to strictly observe factory rules and regulations, etc. Only a few of them reported that factory work was good, indoor and allowed them opportunities to know lots of friends. Most of them, however, did not intend to work in factory for long or on a permanent basis. They would stop working when aged between 38-44. They said they would not be able to work after that age. If given other non-factory work choices, most of them would prefer self-employed trading activities. None wanted to be a farmer or an agriculturist because agriculture, according to them, generated no fixed or stable income, was not cost-effective and would put them in debt.

Changed Family Relationships
Traditionally, while still living with their parents, girls or young women helped them do the farm work and other family activities such as searching for products and produce to sell at the local market or weaving cloths for sale. Once married, women continued to engage in agriculture but obviously with additional burdens, e.g., house keeping and cooking for their husbands and, later, child care. Farm work was somewhat reduced while they tended to their young children. Husbands took a small part in child rearing and housework. During the dry season and when free from farm work husbands took to the forest in search of forest products or went away looking for work and additional income. They had little time for the family and children especially those with rather poor families. Obviously, both husband and wife had to work hard all the time. The latter shouldered another crucial burden taking care of many children, due to the non-existence of birth control measures, and simultaneously doing other additional tasks for more income. However, when looked at in detail, it was found that agriculture-based life was rather flexible. When wives were pregnant or had young babies, they stopped hard work and stayed home. Once the children grew older, they were able to take them along to the fields. Given such conditions, children got to spend a lot of time with their parents. Whenever their mothers went somewhere, they had to go along. Leaving them with grand parents or relatives was done only when necessary. Being constantly around their parents afforded them opportunities to learn and internalize their parents’ ways of life including values and beliefs. All these things changed once the women entered industrial factories.

What later happened was that the women had less time at home. They had to leave for work early in the morning and returned home at dusk. They had to work 6 days a week and many of those days work overtime. Even given this additional routine work, they still had to shoulder most housework such as cooking, house cleaning, washing and ironing, taking leaves of absence when children were sick, etc. What this phenomenon actually says is that even given rapid socio-economic changes and that women have become full-time wage earners to help support the family just like their husbands, deeply held social traditions such as doing housework is a women’s duty, still haven’t kept pace with social reality. Therefore, women still continue shouldering heavy responsibilities, probably heavier than those they had earlier carried in traditional agriculture-based families.

As regards relationships in other dimensions such as those between husband and working wife, particularly on decision-making power, it was found that the pattern was not much different from the past. The wife still got a hold of family purse. If expenditures involved household utensils/appliances, she was still a final decision maker. But if they involved agricultural tools, it was the husband. Whether or not to buy common items such as television, refrigerator or motorcycle was a matter to be jointly decided. Things like these were not in abundance in the olden days. Thus, it is possible to say that the wife had larger area of decision-making power than in the past. Decisions regarding their children were also equally made. Most wives also were primarily responsible for matters related to family planning or birth control. They felt it was their duty to practice birth control, the very feeling continuously passed on from their own mothers, elder sisters or friends.

When mother-child relationships were considered in comparison with the situation whereby the mother primarily worked in agriculture, it was found that she had less time for and with her baby. The latter spent more time with relatives. And when the child turned one year and a half or two he/she was sent to a nursery, a low quality kind at that. And when the child returned home from school, the mother almost had no time left for it. She usually returned rather late in the evening and, once home, had to do a lot of housework. For those working overtime, the time the mothers returned home was the time their children were sleeping. Given all these conditions, it is quite difficult, if not totally impossible, for those children to enjoy the previously warm and loving relationships and internalize traditional ways of life and values transmitted down from earlier generations.

A lot of women working in factories has become an inevitable fact of life, so have the changed mother-child relationships discussed above. Therefore, it is urgently imperative that society instill new values in the fathers as regards their crucial role and in order for them to participate more in the child rearing process to compensate for the mothers’ lost time. Not less important or imperative is that existing nurseries or child care places must be urgently improved qualitywise. At the same time, factory owners must take it as part of their responsibilities to make available and absorb expenses for quality child care places for their employees. As things stand now, they take no part in this matter and the practice of allowing maternity leaves with pay is almost non-existent. The government itself also pays very minimal attention to children’s development work judged from the existing low-quality child care centers, their buildings, materials and equipment as well as personnel despite the fact that children spend most of their time in them.

Summary
From the study we can generally say that rural industrial promotion efforts requiring primarily female labour certainly bring about cash income for rural families. Obviously, it generates a certain degree of purchasing power and material comfort. At the same time, the existence of industrial factories in the rural areas effectively deters local women’s migration to other provinces such as Bangkok. However, positive gains constitute trade-offs for the women’s workers’ increased hard work in order to generate sufficient income. This is because their wages are not high enough to really afford them decent work and living. Therefore, they have to work more hours for additional income. Besides, their welfare is still not very good, thus, making them insecure in their jobs. Therefore, they must work hard in order to save a certain amount of capital now for their own future endeavors. This kind of overwork inevitably affects their health in the long run and there exist no guarantees of any assistance in case something endangers their health. This is even not to include those health problems caused by various toxic chemicals.

The trade-off, of course, is not only the women’s sweat and drudgeries. What is also considerably affected is the growth process of some Thai children who may, otherwise, grow up to be quality human beings. Working mothers obviously get to spend very little time with their children. The children have to be placed in nurseries since an early age. Worse still, existing nurseries are usually of low quality depriving the children of natural parental warmth and loving care, opportunities to learn and absorb valuable beliefs and lessons about rural life from their parents and grand parents as well as quality skill development opportunities. These obvious losses never feature in the thoughts of industrial developmentalists. Or if they ever happen to do somewhat feature in their thoughts, they never propose ways and means to correct the wrongs and compensate for such losses.

* This research was done in 1994, supported financially by the Hitachi Scholarship Foundation. 

** Associate and Assistant Professors at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chiangmai University, Thailand. 

References

Amara Soonthorndhada, et al., A Time-Allocation Study on Rural Women : An Analysis of Productive and Reproductive Roles. Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, 1987.
Hanks, Lucein M. and J.R. Hanks. "Thailand : Equality Between the Sexes" in Women in New Asia. Barbera E. Ward. (ed.) Paris : UNESCO, 1963.
National Statistics Office, Office of the Prime Minister. Report on National Labour Surveys (Round 1)., 1985.
Northern Region Development Center. Opportunities and Guidelines for Northern Region Development during the Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan, 1992-1996. NESDB, 1992.
Suvanee Chitranukroh-Vattangchit. Female Labor Force Participation Rate in Thailand. Quezon City : CAMS Discussion Paper Series No. 77-78, 1977.
Thailand Development Research Institute. Regional Industrial Data. Industry and Rural Employment Research Project, Thailand : TDRI, 1989.


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