Welfare effects of wives’ engagement in assembly plant employment vs. traditional activities

Covarrubias, Arlette (2014). 'Welfare effects of wives' engagement in assembly plant employment vs. traditional activities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The paper will infer the possible welfare states wives can obtain by participating in the different activities available to them; these are the recently created textile assembly plant jobs and the traditional self-employment activities women carry out in the area. In line with the Capabilities framework, wives' potential to achieve the appropriate functionings when participating in different occupations will be explored. Because it is of interest to infer the different functionings which wives can attain, each of these will be explored separately. This will additionally allow for an examination of the factors which influence wives' welfare outcomes when engaging in these types of occupations.

In neoclassical economic models, individuals assess how much income they can obtain from engaging in a salaried activity. They then compare how much utility they can obtain from the goods and services purchased with it, compared to those they can attain by investing their time in alternative activities (including reproductive ones). The wage women obtain by working in an assembly plant is generally higher than the income they could gain by engaging in alternative activities available to them (Fussel 2000; Glick and Roubaud 2006; Kabeer and Mahmud 2004; Tiano 1994). Yet the impact of salaried employment, especially that of textile assembly plants, on female labourers' welfare has been debated (Barrientos et al. 2004; Barrios Hernandez 2004; Carr and Chen 2004; Chant 1995; Robeyns 2003; Sagrario Floro 1995). The working conditions of assembly plants can be harsh, for example, resulting in stress and tiredness. Yet, it is not only these negative aspects that neoclassical economists do not consider. For instance, by working in assembly plants women can increase their self esteem and gain a space to interact socially with others.  We will thus attempt to discover and consider all the positive and negative effects of salaried employment on wives.

It is to this end that the Capability approach is employed. It is assumed that women have the potential to achieve different functionings depending on the activity they engage in (the focus here being only reproductive work versus waged employment). Each will have different functionings related to physical health, mental well-being, bodily integrity and safety, social relations, respect and enjoyment of leisure activities. Even though it is not readily evident which activity will provide women with a greater level of well-being, it is possible to assess what restricts women's opportunities to engage in whichever activity they believe will give them a superior level of well-being.

Fieldwork was conducted in two towns of the Tehuacan area: San Gabriel Chilac and Santiago Miahuatlan. These towns were ideal research sites given that both were rural locations before assembly plants were built, and thus employment for uneducated female labour was created. As a first step, in-depth interviews were posed to both to married women and men in each town. Following, as a second step, a survey was applied to married women with the purpose of obtaining representative data from both towns. Information obtained from the in-depth surveys helped in the construction of the questionnaire. A random sample of dwellings was obtained from each town to obtain representative data at the town level.

Results indicate that a single assessment as to whether assembly plant employment is better or worse for wives (or their families) is suboptimal.   Women's participation in this activity has both positive and negative effects on them and their family. Further, assembly plants are heterogeneous in terms of the conditions they offer to their employees. Some assembly plants do not offer benefits stipulated by law, while others offer not only those but also voluntary ones such as access to credit or childcare.  Another main finding is that social norms are crucial in the determination of wives' possible functioning outcomes and that they operate through several channels. Norms and managers beliefs regarding women's skills and roles determine the fact that it is women who are mainly hired by assembly plants. Furthermore, they also affect the way in which women are treated within these maquilas.  Additionally, the acceptance of wives' and husbands' social roles within the household also determines wives' welfare when employed or not in assembly plants. This is shown, for example, in the double burden of work that wives working for the maquila experience.  Finally, social norms directly affect the welfare of wives who work in assembly plants via the guilt they feel in violating the social norm and by receiving social sanctions from their reference groups.

On the other hand, functionings wives can achieve by being self-employed also depend on the conditions and environment in which they perform their activities. However, these usually do not depend on superiors, will be less strenuous and will involve fewer hazards than those existing within assembly plants. Also, they conform to the traditional roles of wives and husbands, and therefore do not affect their sense of guilt. Further, by engaging in these activities, they will not receive social sanctions from their reference groups. Thus social norms will not influence their well-being directly. However, they implicitly do have an effect on self-employed wives' well-being. The social rule of women's place being the home restricts their mobility and makes for scarce spaces where they are able to socialize. This can contribute to wives' isolation and thus influence their ability to achieve the functioning of being able to see and have friends.  

By analysing functionings separately, policies can be formulated regarding each of the negative conditions influencing working wives' welfare. Thus, their opportunities to achieve better welfare states can be enhanced.


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