How Can We Advocate For Women Workers in Global Manufacturing?

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640Header by Rory Midhani

Last Sunday, October 25, the inaugural Women’s Freedom Conference was held, live-streaming a full day of incredible programming by women of color from around the world. As I mentioned in yesterday’s news fix, I think this conference is one of the most exciting and important things to happen this year. If you want to grow as a feminist and a human being (which, yes, you absolutely do), go watch it now. You won’t regret it.

If you only have time for one panel, my favorite was the freestyle chat given by Lea S. Yu called “Flip of a Coin” — A Woman of Color Has Touched Everything That You Own, Use and Eat. I relate to it on so many levels! Maybe you will too.

Said Yu:

Put simply, there is a woman of color behind every product on the market today, especially in apparel, packaged foods and household goods. … I want to use this time to reflect on these questions: What does it mean to me, to know that a woman of color is behind everything that I buy? How many women contributed to my Instagram feed? Even more disturbingly, how much of my female empowerment — whether it’s through fashion or DIY or delicious food — comes at the cost of another woman’s disempowerment?

These are such important questions, and ones that I think about regularly in my work (which currently involves pushing for quality improvements with a variety of overseas manufacturers). As an anti-oppression activist, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which “outsourcing” often feels to me like a euphemism for “moving our problems onto people with less systematic power.” While we have relatively strong labor laws and environmental regulations in place to protect American workers, those protections tend to stop short at international borders. It makes me feel good at work when business interests align and I’m able to use my position to advocate for safer working environments (as well as safer end products). I’m lucky enough to be at a company where this happens regularly. This isn’t always the case, and I fear that for every conscientious decisionmaker out there, there are a handful of others who prioritize quite differently.

Here’s the video:

Like Yu, when I look at global manufacturing workforces, I see people who look like me. But even if I wasn’t Asian, I’d like to think I’d see the other side of the coin. Some time ago, Riese made an observation that has really stuck with me: “What can distinguish queer politics from mainstream politics is that our ‘outsider’ status should enable us to more readily question dominant culture and advocate for disenfranchised and mistreated humans.” If we truly care about equality, we can’t settle for empowering some people at the expense of others. As feminists, we need to advocate for all women.

The website Yu links to at the end of the video is Virtue.Us, the personal project she co-created to provide consumers with comparative research on what companies are actually doing. It’s a simple concept — some might say overly so — but I appreciate the premise and I’m excited to watch it grow. It’s not always clear what the best way forward is, but I find it very encouraging to see smart minds coming together and engaging with these issues.


From the Virtue.Us FAQ.

If you liked the above video, you may also be interested in these panels from the conference:

And again: the full Women’s Freedom Conference is posted online. Go watch it!

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this piece. I work in international trade law and have seen firsthand the effects that manufacturing in the global market has had on women of color throughout the world. This subject is a passion of mine and I am happy to see it here.

  2. I often feel weirded out about the reverse – the push to stop outsourcing and keep jobs “local”. So much of the rhetoric smacks of xenophobia, or it’s kinda paternalistic – colonizer countries come in and make the global economy dependent on international trade, or just by nature of the country’s output & input international trade is needed, and suddenly you want to take away a very important part of people’s livelihoods in the guise of “helping” them or keeping things “local”? Give us money then maybe we can talk.

    • Oh me too. And so much of the rhetoric around keeping jobs “local” is thinly veiled racist bullshit. I find it really difficult to align myself with *any* of the ideas I’ve heard for “improving” things, because basically everyone is awful and the only real winners in capitalism are multinational corporations?

      Idk. I don’t really mean that. But kind of I do.

      I wish there were better answers.

      • Outside of regular racist bullshit I’m also concerned about progressive-types who push for the localisation of jobs/production as a way to *~live sustainably~* (see: the locavore movement, handcrafted whatever, all of Portland) as if globalised production is the problem in itself rather than a symptom of advanced capitalism. Recognising it as the latter forces us to confront issues of massive global inequality, international flows of labour (not just goods and capital) and wide-scale environmental degradation, as well as to look outward for solutions instead of inward towards an “ethics” centred on individual consumption.

        But yeah, I wish there were better answers too.

  3. I worry about this a lot and am never sure what a better way forward is, at least on a personal level. I’ll check out the project and I hope you keep writing about this stuff, Laura!

  4. More attention needs to be devoted to atrocities committed against women across the globe. It is absolutely reprehensible to think that ISIS is using women as human shields during conflict and that women in Europe are being gang raped at ever alarming rates by so called foreign migrants. And don’t get me started on the girl from the Netherlands who was attacked by a group of migrant boys for wearing a bomber jacket and converses (but she had the sense to fight back and stick up for herself!!)

    • More attention needs to be devoted to atrocities committed against women across the globe without falling into thinly veiled racist tropes — fixed it for you. Now what exactly is a “so called foreign migrant,” pray tell?

  5. Thanks for writing this Laura! My head always starts spinning when I try to think about purchasing things ethically. Like, it’s easy to say I’ll stop drinking coca cola (actually that one was pretty difficult cause the stuff is so damn tasty). My problem is, once I’ve decided to be an “ethical consumer” I start to see the lack of ethics in every.single.possible.product I want to purchase. Anyways this is so important and thank you. <3

  6. Since I first read this (thanks for covering it Laura, the conference sounds great!) I’ve been struggling a lot with framing problems in global manufacturing as a WOC issue and I’m not 100% sure I’m there yet, but here’s trying:

    First, the obvious problem – to me, at least, I know sometimes I sound like a broken record on this on Autostraddle – is that not all non-white people are “of colo(u)r” and it’s a very limiting way to think of global racial politics, especially if we want to move further into thinking about how race and economics intersect. I understand why Yu uses the “flip of a coin” idea and why it resonates with her (I used to think in very similar terms as an ethnic minority citizen of a very wealthy nation in a very poor region) but there is something disingenuous about reducing the differences between her and Chinese labourers to “pure, dumb luck.” They might share ancestry – and this is a huge assumption to be making for a “race” that includes a sixth of the world’s population – but they are not racialised in the same way; they are not oppressed (or liberated) by their racial identity/category in the same way because “Chinese” means different things in their different contexts, and this in turn means that they experience the intersections of race/ethnicity with e.g. gender or socioeconomic position in fundamentally different ways.

    More fundamentally though, seeing and understanding the world through the lens of USian racial politics reinforces the core/periphery mindset in which oppression (and the moral duty to fix said oppression) only flows in one direction. The Huffington Post article linked as a counterpoint here touches on this somewhat. While labour/production standards for goods meant for international export have improved significantly, the same can’t be said of domestic production. Factories are also often not only owned by American companies but South Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean and Chinese ones. It’s not only large MNCs that are doing the devil’s work here, either – international NGOs and regulatory bodies coming from the “Global North” often undermine local and regional governance structures in the name of corporate responsibility or Judeo-Christian ethics or whatever you want to call it, making it difficult for citizens (using this in the loose sense of “belonging to a community,” not necessarily national citizens) to address their own problems. The white vs POC model of thinking about race doesn’t even begin to give us a clear picture of how race and racialisation (and “culture,” for that matter) affects the lives of global workers, and it’s going to be increasingly irrelevant in a world where the centre of gravity of economics and politics shifts away from the US and Europe.

    Second, at the risk of having my feminist credentials revoked, I think this is an area in which we genuinely have to ask: what about the men? There are some international labour markets that are quite decisively gendered, e.g. domestic work is disproportionately female while construction work is primarily male. I think it’s a lot less clear cut when it comes to manufacturing though. There are some things we gain in characterising manufacturing work as a gendered problem, such as being able to identify and address the high levels of sexual harassment in factories and the devaluation of women’s labour (especially in stereotypically feminine jobs like garment production), but there are other perspectives we lose, such as the struggles of male labourers – we cannot always assume that women are inherently more vulnerable or disempowered than men – and issues of gender and family that extend beyond the figure of the female factory worker, e.g. the issue of the “left behind” generation of children in China, which can’t be reduced to a “women’s issue.” (Also despite what the idea that “a WOC has touched everything that you own, use and eat,” it’s not always empirically true that women do most of the production work. The Dhaka factory fire brought to our attention that Bangladeshi garment workers are in fact mostly women but this isn’t the case in say, China, where gender imbalances mean that men are replacing women in factories (think Foxconn).) The persecuted woman makes for a sympathetic figure in social justice work, but we have to think more critically and situationally about how gender works in global production chains. Just as how we can’t assume that racial dynamics are the same everywhere, we can’t do that with gender too.

    Ironically, calling this a WOC issue is the opposite of intersectionality: it reduces our understanding of the problem/s along just two axes of categories of identity (and only in one direction along each of those axes, too), making it sound a lot more simple – and easy to understand from a queer/POC/feminist/USian perspective – than it really is. A huge part of analysis that goes missing when we call this a WOC issue is the rural/urban divide and the general effects of urbanisation worldwide, and that’s still just one more piece of the puzzle! In spite of all these words I can’t say I know better than anyone else where we move from here, but I think developing a more critical, nuanced sense of what the problem actually is (as much as we can, anyway) needs to be where we start.

    • Fikri, I’ve missed hearing your thoughts! It’s so nice to see you.

      I took this out of my original draft because I didn’t want to repeat it from the news fix, but this is how the conference as a whole was introduced:

      Why did we call this the women’s freedom conference? First of all, we didn’t call it the women of color freedom conference because we want to get it into your head that women of color are women. And when you say ‘women,’ you’re not simply referring to white women. You’re not simply referring to able bodied women. You’re not simply referring to cisgender, heterosexual women. You are referring to all women. And all women matter. Some people ask, you know, why are there no white women involved, why are there no men involved? ‘Cause we didn’t want to. We believed that it was our time and we deserved to be the central focus.

      I 100% agree with you that the label “women of color” carries political implications that do not translate when applied outside the US. There’s a clumsy transference of meaning that doesn’t get undone without saying quite a few additional words of clarification. Those words were not stated within the video, but I do think the term’s usage was consistent with the other programming that day.

      To me, the repeated use of “women of color” in Yu’s video was mostly about pointing out the relevance of this set of issues to the conference. As Jones related in her introduction, the basic premise was a really simple one: to put non-white women at the center of the discussion and see what happens.

      In this case (and actually most or all cases?), I think that looking first to non-white women can be a useful tool in pushing for equality. Advocacy for women in manufacturing usually also benefits men in manufacturing. I’m thinking of things like, for example, making sure within factories that fire extinguishers are accessible, and fire exits are not blocked. That benefits people of all genders; prioritizing women’s needs just helps provide focus on where to start. I think that can be really useful when approaching problems that are so big and daunting.

      • No. Imo Fikri is correct – and the ‘focus/where to start’ idea is equivalent to ‘God created the laws of physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, causation and an expanding universe 6K years ago’, i.e. a mandatory, functionally inert tribute to an unworkable model of reality strongly tied into a belief system and political games.

        Class dynamic is the primary axis in everything – specifically including bits of amusement like the one a few hundred years ago, the ‘everybody wins’ case where legitimate leaders of ethnically homogenous non-global-north nations were providing manpower to friendly businessmen from overseas in good faith that no mistreatment will take place.

        The reason why prioritising other axes works so well and has much greater support and following is because the system ultimately is a game of chairs. Only and only the last one at every step actually ends up dead. And at every step it is technically many times easier to ensure that you are not the one dead, than it is to shoot the pianist.

        I am not saying that i do not take measures and do not pass down liabilities to those less powerful to ensure i am not the one ending up dead. I merely can admit that by doing that i act on pure nihilism and self-interest and do not believe i am doing something that merits me getting my hands kissed and being called an angel, saviour and a revolutionary. In fact i recognise that doing so diminishes me. Life is so fucking profoundly fucked up.

    • Fuck. Someone who actually does not think in soundbites.

      Logical conclusion: the world is ending and i should go outside and sit on the porch with a cup of tea, in order not to miss the fireworks.

Comments are closed.