Work is defined by Lewenhak as “all activities which people carry out in order to live” and to satisfy economic needs and wants (Lewenhak 1992: 15). Although women are not biologically predisposed to particular skills that predetermine the work they do (Armstrong and Armstrong 1990: 22), women are discursively framed and categorized according to their employment status as nurturer, provider and sexual object in both Thai and Australian society (Vanaspong 2002: 240). I investigate women’s paid and unpaid employment in diverse occupations, focusing on Australia and Thailand. In particular, I analyze women’s varied evaluations of their participation as employees in the sex industry, as factory workers and as child-carers. In my discussion of women’s employment as sex workers, factory labourers, and child-rearers, I posit that female workers, whether paid or unpaid, within any industry do not comprise a homogenous group.
Prostitution was first introduced to Australia with the First Fleet and is one of Australia’s oldest professions (Perkins 1994: 143; Rowe 2006: 2). Convict, immigrant and Aboriginal women “were subjected to ‘enforced whoredom’: in order to survive they were forced to trade sexual services for food, clothing and shelter” (Sullivan 1994: 257-258). Colonialism created a strong demand for sex workers and this situation has not abated today despite relative gender equality in society (Rowe 2006: 2). The validity of prostitution as a category of work has been a much debated topic in recent years amongst feminist theorists and women. According to Sullivan many Australian feminists argue that female employment in the Australian sex industry is contingent with many other forms of ‘women’s work’ in that it is premised on the servicing of men (Sullivan 1994: 257). In contrast, Perkins notes that for women in the industry, sex work is a role reversal of the status quo and the typical positioning of patriarchal male power and dominance (Perkins 1991: 289). Despite these polarized views of women’s participation as sex workers “prostitution raises uncomfortable questions for non-prostitute women, including many feminists, about their own relationships with men” (Sullivan 1994: 254). National and international media and popular culture has sensationalized the sex industry and the image of sex workers. This discursive framing has created a binary opposition of sex workers and non-sex workers (Sullivan 1994: 254). This model of oppositional duality seeks to classify non-sex workers by reinforcing positive values as normative, honest, moral, and socially responsible, while sex workers are deemed to be the ‘other’. This hierarchical construct reinforces the misconception that sex workers are unintelligent, inarticulate, poorly educated, lazy, bad tempered, socially irresponsible and financially dishonest (Winter 1976: 131).
The artificial polarization of sex workers and non-sex workers fails to articulate that prostitutes are not a homogenous group. Sex workers can feel disadvantaged and exploited, but this experience is not ubiquitous for all prostitutes. Instead many sex workers argue that their work is empowering, giving them a feeling of power and authority within the sex industry and society (Jakobsen and Perkins 1991: 55; Sullivan 1994: 259). Fawkes argues that in Australia there is a reluctance to listen and value sex workers’ opinions (Fawkes 2005: 22), which abandons the feminist principle that women should be believed regardless of age, race, class or occupation (Fawkes 2005: 23). An Adelaide sex worker recounts her first ever client experience as “a cross between a gyno visit and a serviced massage with me in control. From then on it was hard to think of prostitution as anything other than a job and any moral conflicts I’d had about doing it vanished” (Blain 1991: 114). This woman suggests that she initially viewed herself according to a binary model where sex workers are framed as immoral in opposition to their moral sisters, the non-sex workers. However, this assessment changed when she re-evaluated herself as a worker, in control of her industrial situation.
Women’s multivalent views of female sex work are ever-changing. During World War II thousands of Australian and US service men sought out ‘female company’ in St Kilda, Melbourne (Rowe 2006: 4), and the state government tolerated this activity because these women were already viewed as immoral, sinful and ruined (Rowe 2006: 3). It’s arguable that the state government tolerated the sex trade in St Kilda as a form of patriotic duty to its service men (Lewenhak 1992:167). There has been a contemporary social re-evaluation of the ‘traditional’ sex worker since the emergence of drug trafficking in Australia during the 1970s:
Prostitutes of old would now be too scared to stand on a corner in St Kilda. Four years ago the pros working the streets were aged twenty four to forty…some of them were housewives earning extra money while the husband was at work. They were decent people. You could talk to them. Today, the prostitutes are aged seventeen to twenty five; their lives are one drug fix after another. (Rowe 2006: 8 )
This new representation of sex worker shifted society’s opinion of the ‘traditional’ prostitute as sinful and disruptive, into a decent working class citizen trying to support a family. As one woman stated “[t]he sex trade has never bothered me. It’s the drugs that have come into the area that’s caused problems” (Rowe 2006: 16).
Women in Thailand share many of the concerns of their Australian sisters in regards to prostitution as a profession. Although the Thai government made prostitution illegal in 1960, the sex industry is valued as a source of national income (Lewenhak 1992: 166). This situation arose because many military officers took leave in Thailand for ‘rest and relaxation’ after the Vietnam War, and as a consequence “the idea of commercialized sex as a mass female occupation had been established in the Thai consciousness” (Lewenhak 1992:167). In 1987 the Thailand tourism industry promoted their country with the slogan “[t]he one fruit of Thailand more delicious that durian-its young women” (Vanaspong 2002: 139). Despite this endorsement Thai feminine sexuality is viewed negatively while masculine sexuality has a positive assessment (Mills 1994: 94). “Women who openly express their sexual interest risk association with the immorality and shame of the promiscuous ‘bad woman’” (Mills 1994: 102). Thai women feel angry when Thailand is identified by foreigners as a “sex tourism centre” (Vanaspong 2002: 146). In Thailand this stereotyping and exaggeration by the media has resulted in the generalization that all Thai women are seen as prostitutes. For example, a Thai woman who lived in Norway confessed in a Danish newspaper that she was “frequently asked the question [of] whether she c[a]me from Pattaya where people bec[a]me prostitutes. That hurt my feeling, and I got both angry and upset” (Vanaspong 2002: 145). Similarly, in 1999 Thai women arriving in Hong Kong from the international airport for the first time were asked by immigration officers if they were involved in prostitution (Vanaspong 2002: 145). One woman left her rural village to work as a domestic servant in Bangkok and “people in the village would gossip, saying I was working as a prostitute” (Mills 1994: 74). Some women directly express their anger towards the person who verbalizes this stereotype. Mostly, the anger of non sex working Thai women points directly to those who are (Vanaspong 2002: 146).
The framing of female sexuality in Thailand is problematic. There is an acceptance of the binary model that represents female non-sex workers as moral, good citizens in opposition to the immoral sex workers, but:
[a]respectable woman, she despises her morally inferior sister, and yet she is taught to believe she ‘needs’ the prostitute to protect her virginity and to absorb her man’s ‘negative sexual behavior’. Her view of the prostitute oscillates between scorn and pity. Either the sex worker is a poor helpless child, tricked into a life of sin, or she is easy and weak willed. (Vanaspong 2002: 147).
Due to Thailand’s rapid urbanization in the 1970s many sex workers have often had little education, few qualifications and thus have few employment opportunities to earn money for their families outside the sex industry (Lewenhak 1992: 167). However, sex workers are not a homogenous group (Sullivan 1994: 259) and the media often distorts and oversimplifies the lives of these women. Thus, the Thai government, media and non prostitute Thai women often ignore significant hardships that also exist within the sex tourism industry. They appear oblivious to alternative job options for these women, such as sweatshop labour that is often not a viable option (Vanaspong 2002: 153).
Women’s experiences of factory employment are varied and differ according to social and national contexts. Women’s views on their industrial positioning are affected by their physical workplace. In 2004 there was a recorded 240 million people world wide working in sweatshops (Montgomery 2004: 16), and the majority of these workers are female (Hepworth 1994: 56). The Economist goes as far as to suggest that “arguably women are now the most powerful engine of global growth” (APHR 2006: 7).
In Australia, ninety percent of garments that say ‘Made in Australia’ are made in the home by predominantly female migrant outworkers (Montgomery 2004: 16-17). Outwork has not changed much over the last one hundred years. Most outworkers are migrant women, many of whom have families and come from non-English speaking backgrounds. Many migrant women chose outwork as an alternative to inflexible factory hours, to avoid racial or sexual harassment at work, or because they are unable to find other suitable paid work, with access to child care or because of their lack of fluent English (Alcorso 1989: 14; Wardlaw and Curtin 2005: 72-3). A Chinese Australian migrant piece worker notes that:
a few years ago I was very busy, not that many garments were sewn overseas. But over the past four or five years all the clothes are coming from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Fiji and factories in Thailand, so all the cheap labour means there are not enough jobs here.
Women are competing for work. However, piece work best suits many outworkers’ family commitments and they continue working as garment workers in their homes or garages (Hook 2001: 11). Increasing productivity is the primary company objective (Van Aker 1995: 528) with some outworkers experiencing daily abuse and harassment from their employers as a means to increase production rates (Keane 1996: 35). Outworkers typically work twelve to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week (Keane 1996: 34). Women outworkers receive under award wage rates of pay, no overtime, redundancy pay outs, superannuation or workers’ compensation and experience poor working conditions and deteriorating health and safety standards (Delaney 1997: 10; Hepworth 1994: 55; Montgomery 2004: 16). The clothing industry targets new migrants who have difficulty finding other forms of employment due to poor English language skills and their responsibilities of raising a family (Alcorso 1989: 15; Montgomery 2004: 16). Women often find work from members of their own community and thus find it hard to complain or speak out against their employer. Often women feel obligated when they receive work from their community or family. A Korean Australian outworker stated “our community is very close knit; people are reluctant to complain. They think they shouldn’t complain because their boss is of the same ethnic background and they will never get a job in this community again”. These community links can often exacerbate the power male community subcontractors have over migrant women (Wardlaw and Curtin 2005: 75).
Despite the perceived social low-status of female factory workers, it is arguable that the employment of Thai and Australian women in the industrial labour market has given them more socioeconomic independence (Dixon 1978: 14). Traditionally Thai women have been positioned as passive figures in society, confined to the domestic realm of the home, while men were framed as the ‘breadwinning’ authoritative figures working in the public sphere (Yoddumnern-Attig 2002: 69). Today women comprise the majority of the Thai industrial labour force (Junsay and Heaton 1989: 113; Theobald 2002: 134). This new found mobility presents a departure from the traditional patterns of feminine behavior and notions of appropriate activities for young women found in the domestic realm (Mills 1999: 4, 75). However, due to the feminization of the industrial sector women are working under precarious and dangerous conditions and receive less pay than men (Dotson 2005; Lewenhak 1992: 167). Women are valued by their employers for their nimble fingers, service charm and their readiness to work and accept a lower wage rate (Theobald 2002: 134). Theobald notes that this institutionalized ideology has been adopted and is perpetuated by Thai women themselves. A Thai woman employed in an electronics factory stated that the work was “very detailed work, women have small fingers, keen eyes and are more versatile-this is work for women” (Theobald 2002: 137). Women’s perceived adoption of patriarchal orthodoxy, rather than their subversion and opposition to it, has resulted in a reduction of their negotiating power over wages or terms of employment (Dotson 2005).
Thai women typically experience poor working conditions in factories, low wages, long working hours, strict management control, feminization of the workforce and health and safety concerns (Dotson 2005; Junsay and Heaton 1989: 3). The feminization of the work force is reliant upon perceived innate mental differences between male and female workers. A female Thai worker accepts this discourse by noting that “women are more reliable than men, they will turn up to work more often. They have good hopes for the future, they want to save money now so they can start their families or businesses” (Theobald 2002: 138). Factory owners target women’s moral impetus and obligation to work hard and save money to help their families (Mills 1994: 92). Although employers manipulate women’s perceived desire to financially assist their families there is often conflict between mothers and daughters when young women want to take advantage of earning money in urban centres such as Bangkok instead of starting a family. The older women believe that their unmarried daughters will experience exploitation and loss of control over their own labour when they go to work in the city (Mills 1994: 75). Despite mothers wanting their daughters to marry as soon as possible, they understand that it is now more important for their daughters to obtain urban employment before marrying and starting a family (Yoddumnern-Attig 2002).Similarly, married women wanting to participate in the economic market use contraceptives medication to delay starting a family to ensure their financial security. A Thai woman reflects that she “wanted to save money to build a house” before having children (Yoddumnern-Attig 2002). While another woman entered paid factory employment so she could save money to continue with her education (Seabrook 1996). Many factory owners employ women from their own village which prevents conflict between owner and worker and creates a sense of regional solidarity and security for these women (Seabrook 1996). Women factory workers are simultaneously experiencing socioeconomic empowerment and exploitation (Dotson 2005), however this exploitation comes from the wholesale market that undercuts and manipulates factories and their employees into working under poor conditions. Factory employers are generally seen as benefactors who provide work and shelter and neither side sees that relationship as exploitative (Seabrook 1996).
Despite the increase of women in paid employment in Thailand and Australia, the unpaid work of motherhood is exalted as ideally suited to women and is deemed to be the foundation of family and domestic life (Yoddumnern-Attig 2002). In the economic market place women are primarily viewed and valued for their biological role as reproducers, sustainers and nurturers. They represent an irreplaceable wealth in the continuation of the financial system rather than being valued for their involvement in paid work (Waring 1988: 28; Weldon 1988: 42). There is a mistaken belief that child-rearing is the responsibility and work of women (Lee 1975: 193). Buttrose and Adams posit that the reason why motherhood has become such a popularized role for women is because “fertility rates have dropped worldwide and that Australia’s fertility rate is at an all time low” (Buttrose and Adams 2005: 17).
In 1999 the former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett reported that Australia “has an aging population. Our women are not producing enough offspring to simply maintain our population level” (Dever 2005: 45). This claim was supported by vice -president of the conservative Australian Family Association, Mary Helen Woods, who reiterated the notion of maternal national service by adding that it would be beneficial to the country if “[girls] don’t get too successful in other areas, which women are now doing…that they put aside childbearing” (Dever 2005: 45). Implicit in Wood’s statement is the suggestion that women abandon careers and paid employment for motherhood. Women are being blamed for Australia’s population decline (Dever 2005: 46). Due to the structure of the labour force, the scarcity of convenient and suitable child care facilities and limited maternity leave, mothers often have few alternatives than to accept the dominant ideology and carry out mother work, rather than returning to paid employment (Armstrong and Armstrong 1990: 32; Dever 2005: 47; Lewenhak 1992: 50). The prevailing image of mother work is that it requires patience, love, care and guidance (Brown 1994: 141). Australian popular social mythology argues that mothers who re enter the paid workforce are responsible for childhood delinquency (Comer 1975: 203). Australian feminist Germane Greer contests this by arguing that “children do not need bringing-up; given that their physical needs are met, they will grow up anyway” and that child rearing is not solely the responsibility of the mother despite the fact that child care is primarily seen as women’s work (Comer 1975: 209).
Mothers must be able to perform a wide range of tasks in the disciplining, teaching, feeding, cleaning of children:
In order to manage all this she must have highly developed skills in juggling competing demands, she must be responsible, consistent, fair, able to handle her children in any situation [and] never loose her temper (Brown 1994: 141).
Similarly the less wanted the child the harder the mother work (Lewenhak 1992: 36). This dominant ideology and women’s acceptance of it is a form of social control designed to alter images of women (Armstrong and Armstrong 1990: 41-42). Most women have embraced this dominant image and believe that the mother is the most essential ingredient in a child’s life (Comer 1975: 197). Thus there is a general disapproval of mothers who work in paid employment outside of the home, and this is perpetuated by women (Comer 1975: 196; Lewenhak 1992: 50). Richards and Harper argue that Australian mothers are generally distinguished between the ‘old style mother’ who stresses many passive qualities, of love and security, patience, reliability. While “the ‘new good mother’ is more interested in retaining her own independence and individuality, and in providing a stimulating environment for her child’s development rather than the loving presence of a patient mother” (Brown 1994: 142). One mother suggested that if there was more child care and nursery facilities mothers “could take on part time jobs [and] an occasional morning or afternoon a week would probably keep many women mentally happy” (Comer 1975: 202).
Unpaid mothering is the most prevalent women’s work in Thailand and roles as wife and mother are inseparable. Women are valued according to their skills as mother-nurturers despite their increasing participation in the paid labour market. Extended families and a surplus of rural labourers have provided child care services, which allow Thai women to enter the paid work force (Theobald 2002: 134), but these women are still “only judged on their obedience and industry, their attention to household chores” and to the needs of parents, family members and children (Mills 1994: 93). Mothers play an integral role in the rearing, nurturing and socialization of their children and exercise the main control over child rearing decisions (YoddumnernAttig 2002: 69). Traditional Thai society experienced high child mortality rates prior to 1914:
Mothers who successfully gave birth and raised their children to adulthood were highly respected by all community members. Such women were considered natural community leaders who possessed special abilities and knowledge…community members would consult such women on many different types of problems (Yoddumnern-Attig 2002: 69).
Today, motherhood continues to be viewed as the epitome of Thai feminine status and a woman’s full social maturity is contingent upon the birth of her first child (Mills 1994: 102- 103).
Women have varied evaluations of their participation as employees in the sex industry, as factory workers and as child-carers in Australia and Thailand. Despite cultural differences women experience consistent patterns of segregation as paid and unpaid workers, particularly in industrial factory environment, as sex workers, and as mothers. The persistent manipulation and influence of institutionalized ideologies on the status and suitability of sex work and child-rearing also affects how women view their employment status (Bradley 1989: 2). Although women in any given occupation do not comprise a homogenous group who necessarily share the same views about their work, women are uniformly and indirectly framed and categorized according to their employment status as nurturer, provider and sexual object in both Thai and Australian society (Vanaspong 2002: 240). “Traditional prohibitions against women working and sex typing of jobs are still common place” (Junsay and Heaton 1989: 121) but there should be more effort made to create solidarity between all women through all areas of work.
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