Lucy in Kenya

This is a critical test for globalisation: can it create jobs that empower, rather than undermine, women as workers? So far it is failing.

Lucy, a Kenyan mother of two, sews the pockets onto children’s jeans destined for Wal-Mart in the United States, the world’s most successful retailer. Her factory, based in an export processing zone (EPZ) outside Nairobi, receives erratic, sub-contracted orders and must keep costs low and output high.

Early in 2003, when her manager demanded she work non-stop for two days and nights to meet the shipping deadline, her partner walked out, leaving Lucy to raise the children, aged two and 13. He said he will come back when the condition of my work is good.’ she said, ‘Till today the condition is becoming worse.

In May Lucy sold her table, cupboard, and bed so that she could pay the rent. Then she sold the cooking stove to buy her son’s school uniform. In June, when orders stopped for eight weeks, so did the pay. Her parents, living in a village 150km north of Nairobi, agreed to take her children, and she has not seen them for six months. ‘If this EPZ could be better, and consider us as people, and give us leave and holidays, then I would be able to go and see the children,’ she said.

Production targets are unrealistically high, and Lucy is expected to put in extra hours to meet them. In September she worked 20 hours of overtime but was paid for only six.

Talk of trade unions is banned, and the factory atmosphere is intimidating. Supervisors abuse us … If we talk, they say, “Shut your beak. Even a child can do your job.”’ She most pities the young female helpers doing the low-skill tasks such as counting and cleaning the garments. ‘If you are a helper, you need security,’ she said. ‘They are sexually harassed to keep their job. That’s why as women we are so oppressed. Because you can’t secure your job through the trade union, you have to buy it with sex.’

Lucy depends on this job. But she and her family should not be forced to pay such a price to keep it. Worldwide, working women like her are demanding their fair share of the gains from trade. The only asset they have to offer in trade is their labour.

This makes a critical test for globalisation: can it create jobs that empower, rather than undermine, women as workers? So far it is failing.