Melissa Wright’s Disposable Women and other Myths of Global Capitalism

Regina José Galindo, No perdemos nada con nacer
Melissa Wright’s Disposable Women and other Myths of Global Capitalism (2006) proposes the existence of a myth about the disposability of poor working third world women.  Wright argues that this myth normalizes the deplorable conditions that surround women’s work and the discrimination that they face to the benefit of global capitalism.  Additionally, she ties the idea of women as disposable subjects to cases of violence against women in places such as Ciudad Juárez where unskilled women often work in the maquiladora industry.  Wright’s investigative work is built on ethnographic interviews of managers and female employees in factories that supply products to an international market.  The myth that she analyzes exists primarily as a way of thinking about women in low-end jobs that justifies discriminatory practices by employers.  Her book does show that managers treat women as disposable workers, but I am not convinced that workers buy into the myth.  The ethnographic data obtained from workers is unreliable.  Also, she posits that this is a “myth” but how do we know that it is not a cautionary tale?  Could it be that the discourse of the “disposable woman” is used, in some cases, to warn against factory work and to show the problems of capitalism?  Are there folk stories of women that go into factory work?  What happens to them?  These are the narratives that I think are missing from Melissa Wright’s book. 

On one hand, I think that Melissa Wright does show that there is a discourse of disposability that is harnessed by factory managers to their benefit.  In her chapter about factory work in China she shows that the work women engage in is seen as something that burns people out and that should not be done for more than two years because of its potential damaging effects on eyesight and wrists.  The managers also talk about how the women that work for them are at an age where they are biologically driven to have children; this discourse is, in turn, used to monitor women’s bodies and behavior.  The managers control women in order to keep the women employed for two years; higher turnover is detrimental to productivity, but lower turnover (employees that remain for more than two years) is also counterproductive.  Two years is the ideal time for employment.  Wright’s argument does show the myth of disposability; female workers are “used up” after two years.

Still, I am not convinced by her argument that workers buy in to a myth about the disposability of women.  First, her research design is problematic.  Wright went into factories in China and Mexico and accessed workers through bosses.  The bosses were bilingual and functioned in all likelihood as the interpreters during her interviews of employees.  Essentially, she conducted interviews in which employees were monitored by their bosses and at risk of backlash:

While I did interview workers, I was careful to avoid as best I could any topics I thought would compromise my informants or make them uncomfortable in front of their bosses. But basically I was aware that I was not fully aware of all the risks that workers faced when talking with me. I also could not control my own introduction to them. Since I did not understand the spoken languages, I really had no idea of how I was presented, and this made me even more uncomfortable.  (10)

Her interview questions also are crafted in such a way that they presuppose a myth of disposability.  She asks workers questions like “Why are women who cycle in and out of jobs being constantly replaced?”  So she is already inserting a frame of cycling and workers being constantly replaced, in other words, a narrative of disposability on the answers of her interviewees.  She is essentially asking, “Why are women treated as disposable subjects?”  I am left wondering why she did not ask more open-ended questions.  

In sum, Melissa Wright poses an interesting idea about the discourse of disposability of female workers that is used to benefit global capitalism.  Still, she does not show how the discourse of disposability is perceived and retold by workers and by the poor.  Instead of a hegemonic myth that normalizes the disposability of women, workers may have competing narratives that govern their perceptions about women’s work in factories.  They may use the myth of disposability as a cautionary tale to warn against unskilled city labor and to interrupt the flow of workers in the global market.  So, the myth of disposability may actually work against global capitalism.  Unfortunately we cannot draw conclusions yet as the interviews of workers that Wright conducted do not provide reliable information about how workers perceive their own work nor how the poor perceive factory work.