Many of Taipei’s industries had a policy of hiring only unmarried women.
Female employees were prevalent in the food processing industry, in textile and garment factories, and in the electronics industry where they constituted 59.4%, 79%, and 65.6% of direct production workers respectively.
The proportion of women of labor force age who were employed jumped from 20% in 1956 to 25% in 1966 and then to 31% by 1970. As one factory manager stated:
Boys are clumsy. They break up things and aren’t fit to work on electronic components. They also ask for higher pay.
Unskilled women who had not been educated beyond primary school were most in demand.
One newspaper reported that, in early 1974, there were 367,000 Taiwanese factory positions waiting to be filled, 60% of which were openings for women age 16 to 19 years.
In mid-1976, General Instruments, the largest factory on Taiwan (and located in the Taipei metropolitan area), needed 600 women.
One of the capital’s toy firms required 300 women, a textile concern needed 500, and a plastics factory had openings for 200.
Overall, in 1976, the Taiwan Job Placement Council showed that factories in the Taipei metropolitan area needed 70,000 female workers. There were reports that factories were paying taxi drivers a commission if they brought a prospective worker to their factory and that elementary school diplomas were being withheld unless the girls entered factories.
The demand for female labor meant that many women migrated to Taipei: surveys show that 64% of Taipei’s female populated aged 20-39 were migrants.
Many of the young women who had recently arrived lived in dormitories provided by their employers. In fact, the women, and particularly their parents, thought that because there was some supervision (dormitory regulations, curfews, and bed-checks), living away from home was an acceptable alternative. Reports stated:
A factory near Taipei has its girls’ dormitories guarded like barracks. There is a patrol who questions visitors at great length for fear they might be . . . scouts [trying to lure workers to another firm].
All young women did not live in dormitories, however. Some paid higher rents to acquire furnished rooms on their own. Even here, though, the situation was mixed.
Many women preferred to live with their parents and commute to work. Since most female workers turned as much of their earnings as possible over to their parents, daughters were generally allowed to live away from home only if commuting was impracticable. Lower living expenses were a major factor in the decision.
The sight of young women waiting for company buses in the mornings and being dropped off in the early evenings in the villages and small towns of Taiwan has become commonplace by now, and it is an indication of the widespread acceptance of factory work as a respectable, if not prestigious, occupation for young women.
Female factory work was strongly linked to needs of the multinational corporation.
The use of labor was most intensive in the electronics industry. Gustav Ranis reported that:
According to the general manager of one electronics firm, the amount of labor used in assembling one television set in a Taiwanese plant is 50% greater than that in a plant of the parent in the United States. In fact, most of the electronics firms interviewed were making efforts in one way or another to introduce labor intensive-methods. While the capital-labor relations in the industry have been generally rising through time, the largest electronics factory in Taiwan has experienced an increase of capital by nine times and an increase of employment by sixteen times between 1965 and 1969 . . . Many of the managers pointed out that the wage bill was lower in spite of the substantially larger relative volume of employment.
Most new workers were assigned to assembler positions, and both parents and the women themselves were fairly well informed about the merits of different firms. They knew which companies allowed frequent overtime and which provided transportation. They also knew that wages were higher in garment factories than in electronics factories.
Garment work was considered less stable and more physically demanding than either electronics or food processing both because women were required to stand for most of the day to operate textile machinery and because textile plants were in operation 24 hours a day.
While women in electronics factories sometimes complained about their working environment, they often felt that they were better off than their counterparts in garment factories where ventilation was poor and respiratory problems were common. Nevertheless, there were occupational hazards associated with the electronics industry, and workers particularly worried about the fumes that soldering produced.
Labor Intensive Work Was Indispensable
Despite the hazards, labor intensive work was an indispensable part of Taiwan’s export boom, making up 70% of total production.
Young female labor helped the country’s industries to become competitive in the international marketplace.
As Bruce Cummings argues, the exploitation of female labor was “so marked that it is foolish to deny it (even though many American specialists continue to do so).”
Cummings goes on to say that in the Kaohsiung free enterprise zone (FEZ):
80 percent of the workforce is female, and teenage girls are about 60 percent of that total. Most of their work is unskilled assembly, done by girls recruited from peasant families. Their wage rates are at the bottom of the heap in world scales . . .
The hard work of such workers insured the success of labor intensive industrialization.
Photograph by Lian Chang.