Women's Response to Multinationals in County Mayo

County Mayo in the 1970s an account by an academic researcher Lorelei Harris.
The start of the "Green Tiger" economy in the 1970s - multinational companies in Ireland.

Submitted by sihhi on January 4, 2010

Women's Response to Multinationals in County Mayo


The economic transformations which have occurred in north Mayo result primarily from the introduction into Ireland of large-scale factories owned by multinational corporations. Forming the second of two patterns of foreign investment that have emerged in the Republic since 1958, firms of this type have located there for a number of reasons. Ireland's membership of the European Economic Community provides a way through European tariff barriers. Its lack of effectively implemented environmental and health constraints on industry permits a certain leeway that is lacking elsewhere.3 If these factors are not enough in themselves, there is also the lure of non-repayable grants of up to 60 per cent on fixed assets and a low rate corporation tax of ten per cent for manufacturing industries, introduced in 1978 to replace export profit tax relief (McAleese, 1977) and guaranteed until 2000 (IDA, 1972).

In the Industrial Development Authority's (IDA) 1973-77 Regional Industrial Plans, County Mayo became a 'designated area'. In other words, because of exceptionally high levels of population decline, unemployment and a sectoral imbalance in favour of agriculture, Mayo became an area in which greater incentives were offered to potential investors than elsewhere in the Republic. It also became a target for 'special remedial action' (IDA, 1972, pp. 28-37). In the northern part of the county, this consisted in four towns and their outlying rural areas being grouped together and placed under a planning target of 600 new manufacturing jobs (IDA, 1972, p. 20). Through both IDA and local initiatives, two multinational branch plants located in the area and already operative firms within the grouping were given grants.

By 1979 the multinationals in north Mayo had generated approximately 2100 jobs, of which approximately 1785 were held by local women.4 The reasons for this large-scale entry of north Mayo women into manufacturing industry are straightforward. First, the new firms manufactured synthetic fibre and health care products by processes which entailed high levels of manual dexterity and an ability to work at speed: that is, work regarded by both factory management and local men as 'feminine'. Second, with the continuous production techniques used, a relatively malleable labour force was of importance. For example, both the management of the textile factory and local trade union officials agree that, because of the specific production processes and raw material involved, industrial disputes involving strike action by operatives would automatically result in a production standstill of minimally six months within the factory. Finally, as will be seen, the multinationals in north Mayo were able to recruit women for the simple reason that the range of local employment opportunities open to them outside of the factories was minimal.


Initially the Mayo women who began working in the new factories understood this dramatic transformation of their area largely as an occasion for rejoicing and thanksgiving.
It brought a lot of people to the town. You know, workers from all over . . . Cork, Dublin, all over. And town was very busy then. Very, very busy. I thought it was great.
I think it was harder for our parents, you know. They hadn't much money really. I don't know really. There was just no proper unions and things like that. They were stuck for jobs and just took the first one that came. . . . There were times when Mammy was afraid of losing me. . . . that I'd go to England like Bridie. She thought like, that I wouldn't wait with her. So when I went to the factory, I said I wouldn't leave her. So she was delighted then and I didn't want to leave her because I had a good life like, you know.
Industrial employment enabled them to stay in their home area with dignity and with the independence of a living wage in their hands each Friday:
I think the wage is good. You see, compared with what I was used 4 to in the town. You know, working in the town, the wages was very bad. . . . working nights then. . . .
This is not to say that they did not have reservations about their new employment:

Assumpta: People like myself are people who've been through the wars\a bit and are disillusioned. . . . like they're fighting a losing battle. Like once you start talking to them, you have an idea of what management attitude is. Every single woman down there has it you know. . . . and when I go into a meeting on an issue that concerns the women and that, they'll sort of say to you before you go in: Take no shit. They're not going to give us the run around like they might do to their wives'.
Work is alright. I think its alright. Like I'm used to it now. I like it sometimes. No, I tell you, you just get sick of work. Sometimes its murder. Oh, its okay but at times its very bad. Like the heating. You know what it was like. During the winter it's freezing.
Many also had dreams of moving on to other things:
I'd say, though, that if an old people's home was put in Ballina tomorrow, I'd fly into it, no bother. Looking after old people. I loved it. I adored it. I could spend day after day talking to them. . . . I'd do anything for them, sitting down or helping them in any way 1 could. I loved them.
I want a secretarial job. I do, yes. I want an office job anyways. I'd like to go to Germany. I got friends there and they say it's not bad. I'd like to work there.
I'd like to become a nurse. Maybe combine nursing and travel. Maybe take up nursing for six months to a year in different countries. That is until I meet a man of my dreams. . . . my knight in shining armour and get married and live happily in a house with a garden. I will own it and it will have a garden.


To understand the perceptions of the Mayo women factory workers, we need to look at the material conditions of their existence prior to the advent of multinational branch plants in their area. Women's labour force participation rates in County Mayo lagged behind those for Ireland as a whole. In 1961 the rate for County Mayo was 23.2 per cent, whereas for Ireland as a whole it was 28.3 per cent. Mayo women were much more concentrated in agriculture than Irish women in general. In 1961 40.6 per cent of employed women in County Mayo were in agriculture, and only 8.3 per cent in industry, whereas for Ireland as a whole, 14.7 per cent were in agriculture and 18.2 per cent in industry.
The IDA Regional Industrial Plans 1973-77 indicated that most industry in County Mayo prior to 1964 was oriented towards providing infrastructural facilities such as water, turf and electricity and, as a consequence, towards a predominantly male labour force (IDA, 1972, Pt. 2, pp. 8-10). There were a few attempts to create manufacturing employment that might have used more female labour but these were short-lived. The 1930s saw a single abortive attempt to bring a factory to Ballina, the main town in north Mayo. Similarly, a biscuit factory opened and closed during the 1950s (Chadwick et al., 1972, p. 13). More recently, older women who now work in the new factories recall clocking out of a German-owned leisure wear factory for their Christmas break, only to find unexpectedly that the gates were permanently closed when they returned after the holiday season. An Irish-owned toy factory opened in 1964 and a Northern Irish-owned knitwear factory opened in 1968, but both have subsequently closed. In sum, there appears to have been virtually no stable manufacturing employment for women in north Mayo prior to the location of the two multinational firms that have been mentioned. Most women who worked for money did so in the agricultural sector, as farm labourers, frequently doubling as domestic helpers as well. Others worked in the few badly-paid, non-unionised service jobs that were available.
This said, we should not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of women aged 14 and over were not in paid employment in Mayo during the period under consideration here. For them, there were four basic survival strategies.
First, women could “enter” religious orders which, until recently, operated on a two-tier system. Women who could afford to pay a dowry for the privilege of becoming brides of Christ entered as 'choir' nuns and generally tended to work in the lower echelons of the professional hierarchy as teachers, nurses and so on. Those who could not pay their way became 'lay' nuns and worked at servicing their wealthier sisters within the confines of the convent. Though this option may seem to be a somewhat drastic survival strategy to women today, many women in County Mayo viewed godliness and celibacy as a small price to pay for a lifetime's guaranteed high status housing, clothing and food. Vocations grew steadily from 1900 to 1966 when they peaked and have been in gradual decline ever since (Maynooth Research and Development Unit, personal communication).
Second, women could migrate from north Mayo to the cities and larger towns in search of employment. Many did, entering the Civil Service, the commercial banks, nursing, teaching, domestic service and so on. However, one of the main problems which had plagued the Irish economy in the decades following the introduction of economic protectionism during the 1930s, was the continual movement of labour from the land to the cities, where it failed to be totally absorbed. With rising unemployment in urban areas, the 1930s and 1940s saw concerted efforts by the Fianna Fail Government to redress the balance by creating employment in rural areas. Attempts to move agricultural production from livestock to tillage (Lee and 6 Tuath-aigh, 1982, pp. 131-5), extensive building programmes (Brown, 1981, pp. 144-5), regressive legislation on female employment such as the 1936 Conditions of Employment Act (Ward, 1982, pp. 234-7), all of these failed dismally in generating stable long-term employment, which was in any case conceptualised largely as 'jobs for the boys'. Thus, while many women did find jobs in Ireland's cities and towns, many more were obliged to go further afield to the United Kingdom, North America and, even in some cases, to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Women from Mayo and Donegal also migrated on a seasonal basis, going to Scotland to work on the 'potato squads' or seeking summer farm work further south, returning home once again for the winter months.
While these first two options entailed women leaving their home county on a permanent or seasonal basis, there appear to have been at least two ways in which they could remain in their natal region, short of finding paid work.
The third alternative confronting women was to remain within the confines of their natal household helping with younger siblings, assisting on the family farm and so on. However, the exercise of this option would have been dependent on a number of factors: the availability of resources within the domestic unit to support an unwaged person past school-leaving age (if for that long); the life cyclical stage of the woman concerned in relation to that of her male relatives; marriage and inheritance decisions within the family; domestic ideologies of where a woman's place really was on the attainment of social adulthood. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, single adult women within conjugal/stem family domestic units appear to have been the exception rather than the norm.
Finally, women could remain in the north Mayo area through marriage to local men and, given the high percentage of adult women who were not in paid employment during the period under consideration here, a large number of them must have availed themselves of this option (cf. Hannan, 1979).
For women who married men from working class or small farm backgrounds, life was far from easy. The period after the famine of 1845-48 saw a dramatic transformation in the rural inheritance system and, as a consequence, in the 'traditional' pattern of marriage. From a situation of early and prolific marriages of choice between partners of a similar- age, the second half of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of fewer, later and arranged marriages in which men were frequently considerably older than their wives. This situation continued well into the 20th century, with marriages being arranged on a more sporadic basis in certain areas up until the present day. Indeed, it was not until 1959 that the marriage rate showed a sustained upward trend, accelerating only after 1967.
For rural women this new 'traditional' marriage pattern had certain serious consequences. First, it meant that their chances of marriage were relatively low. Second, when they did marry, it was likely to be to men of their fathers' age group and at a relatively late stage of their childbearing years. Third, in combination with the Catholic prohibition on all forms of fertility control, this marriage pattern meant that women bore the possibility of frequent later childbirth with all its attendant dangers. As Walsh's demographic study indicates, it was not until as late as the period 1964-70 that the number of sixth and later children born to women aged 40 and over dropped by approximately one-third (Walsh, 1971-72, p. 255). Finally, marriage at an older age to even older men meant that many women faced the prospect of relatively early widowhood, with the possible complication of a young family to rear single-handed.
Until the advent of the multinationals, County Mayo had one of the highest levels of emigration within Ireland. For married women this frequently meant the almost permanent absence of their husbands working on the lump5 in the British construction industry or in the potato squads which have already been mentioned. Moreover, while national unemployment and emigration figures declined steadily through the 1960s as the first effects of the much heralded economic recovery made themselves felt, the economic crisis of the 1950s lingered on into the 1960s in areas such as north Mayo. As their daughters' accounts reflect, the expression 'times were hard' has a special resonance in the hidden history of their mothers' social experience during this period.6
Living conditions in north Mayo during the 1950s and 1960s left much to be desired and intensified the women's work within the home. There was considerable overcrowding. Most of the houses, both in Ballina and in the country areas, lacked basic infrastructural facilities such as bathrooms, piped water and any effective form of heating.
Furthermore, most of the families could not afford basic modern household conveniences. Refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and electric cookers remained unimaginable luxuries for many women until the early 1970s, by which time the number of earners in most of these families had increased significantly. While it could well be argued that the wives of migrant workers enjoyed a higher standard of living in Mayo than they would if they had joined their husbands in Britain, this in no way detracts from their experience of the 1950s and 1960s as 'hard times'. The following extract describes the daily routine of a woman with five children, no husband in the house, no piped water and no modern conveniences:
She'd get up in the morning. She'd get our breakfast. We'd go to school then and she'd tidy up the house. Then she'd go up and make the beds. And then she'd go down to town and get the messages [do the shopping] for the dinner — the meat and things. Then she'd go back and cook the dinner.7 So then she'd go out and wash the clothes. And then she'd sit down for a while but it'd nearly be time for us to come home and she had to get the tea ready. The only time she'd sit down really was for an hour or two in the evening. She went all the time. She never took a rest. Only on Sunday now, was the only day she'd take a rest. She's a very religious woman.
For her and for many women like her, 'times were hard' meant an interminable struggle to make ends meet against the odds. It meant taking all the important family decisions by herself; living housebound in a two-bedroomed house with five children and a total lack of privacy; making scant money stretch far enough to put food on the table and keep her children clothed and shod. It meant walking a mile to town for food each day and an endless round of fetching and boiling pots of water on the range for cooking and laundering.
The lot of women who lived on small farms was similar. However, in addition to the usual round of childbearing, childrearing and domestic labour, many of the farm women were expected to maintain the farm and livestock if their husbands were working away:

Well, at that time when we had cattle and worked the land, she used to have to milk the cows and feed the calves and we used to keep chickens and hens and, you know, she used to have a lot of extra work to do. Apart from the washing for us and the cooking and the cleaning. . . . When I was young and times were hard, there wasn't much money. . . . there was six of us and we was small and my mother couldn't afford to buy all the lovely things she would like, you know. She always seemed to have to make ends meet, kind of thing.

The wives of migrant workers occupied a curiously ambiguous social position. On the one hand, they took their primary definition of themselves from their children. In the absence of their husbands, their role as mothers gained in importance and came increasingly to stand as their main reason for being. On the other, however, the minimal prerequisite for socially acceptable motherhood was a legally contracted marriage relationship. Bar widowhood, being a 'long distance' wife was better than not being a wife at all. So it is hardly surprising that the wives of migrant workers did not define themselves as single parents, even though this was the day-to-day basis on which they operated. Rather, as the following quotation shows, they carefully fostered a strong ideology of the nuclear family for themselves and their children:
Mammy used always to write to him and he'd put a letter in for us and she used to read it to us, so we always believed that our father would be home. Like, you know, we knew he wasn't a stranger. We knew he was our father and looked forward to him coming home, it was like Christmas, you know.
The position of women whose husbands lived permanently in Ireland does not appear to have differed radically from that of migrant workers' wives in most areas relating to domestic labour. The extent of men's contribution to housework appears generally to have been confined to bringing turf into the house. However, there was a variation in women's role in relation to childrearing tasks, with husbands and wives sharing authority and responsibility for children more evenly.
It is against this background of widespread unemployment, poverty and a range of potentially unattractive alternatives that north Mayo women lived their lives and reared their daughters during the 1950s and 1960s. For many women of both generations, the foreign firms which have located in north Mayo since the early 1970s represented their first opportunity to enter paid employment in their home area, to control the course of their lives and to experience the indisputable social power conferred by an independently earned income. For other women who had previously worked locally, factory employment meant a living wage and properly regulated conditions of work for the first time in their experience of wage labour. Given this, it is hardly surprising that foreign investment as a means of national economic development is not the same anathema to them as it is to many of the critics of Irish economic policy in the decades since the late 1950s.
This is not to say that women factory workers in north Mayo are unaware of the political and economic issues involved. Indeed, from the late 1960s onwards, local newspapers and community organisations have ensured a fairly high level of continuing public debate about the regional industrialisation process and it would be rare to meet complete neutrality or ignorance about the subject. Nor, as will be seen, are women disinterested in ameliorating the conditions under which they work in the factories. Yet, while they will take up the cudgel both from within and outside the trade union movement on certain work-related issues, the bottom line remains underscored by gratitude, relief and an extremely strong memory of the recent past.

Formal structures: the trade union movement
Before looking at the ways in which north Mayo women's experience informs the work situations around which they are prepared to organise, it is useful to outline the main formal and informal structures through which such organisation becomes channelled.
During the 1970s it was standard practice for multinational firms locating in Ireland to enter into closed shop agreements with particular trade unions. Most usually the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITG&WU) was the beneficiary of such agreements, though, to a lesser extent, the Federated Workers' Union of Ireland also gained members in this manner. Indeed, the prevalence of the closed shop agreement and the fact that trade union agreements were frequently in place before factories had started up, would seem to suggest that it might have been an informal constituent of the IDA package to incoming firms. While this pattern of trade union recruitment has been weakened in more recent years, with a substantial minority of foreign-owned electronics firms pursuing non-union industrial relations policies more commonly found in their home countries than in Ireland (Murray and Wickham, 1982), the multinational firms which located in north Mayo during the early 1970s had what many workers in the area regard as 'sweetheart agreements’ with trade unions.
All of the female operatives who work in the north Mayo factories are members of the ITG&WU. At job interviews agreement to join the union is a precondition for being seriously considered for employment. This does not mean that the women who go to work in the factories are militantly involved or even particularly interested in trade unionism. For the vast majority, trade union membership is merely another example of the extent to which the conditions of their existence have denied them the right to choose and their attitude to the union tends to be ambiguous. On the one hand, they see the ITG&WU as a monolithic institution which is completely outside them, docking dues off their weekly wages and doing very little for them. On the other hand, there is a recognition of the fact that the union has the ability to negotiate significantly better wages and conditions of work than might otherwise prevail. So, while for a variety of reasons women find it extremely difficult to participate actively in union affairs and are reluctant in putting themselves forward for union positions on the shop floor (Harris, 1983), they very rarely oppose union directives on specific issues.
The women's membership of the ITG&WU is coordinated through a single branch of the union, run by a paid male official. At a shop floor level, trade union organisation differs from factory to factory and appears to be constructed on a relatively ad hoc basis.
In one of the factories the original organising principle was to elect a female shop steward on each shift to represent women on the shift. In practice, this did not work out. While the women on one shift had the good fortune to have a militant feminist in their midst who was prepared and well able to take on the predominantly male shop stewards' committee, the women on the other shift did not fare so well. The main stumbling block was the extremely sexist joking type of relationship which the male shop stewards in the factory tended to set up against their female counterparts. In addition, there was also the common problem of how women with no background in trade unionism appropriate the necessary language with which to make themselves heard by their male colleagues. After a rapid succession of women had been elected to and resigned from the position of shop steward for women on the second shift, this approach was abandoned and the situation settled down to one in which there was a single female shop steward representing the interests of all the women in the factory.
By contrast, in another of the factories, the representation of women by women was not considered to be an issue. The same man had been shop steward for several years on an unchallenged basis. Here, though there was a union committee made up of the shop steward and representatives (mainly female) who were responsible to him, union meetings occurred infrequently and usually only in response to serious management-instigated crisis situations such as redundancies. In this particular factory the union was rarely called in to help settle contentious issues arising within the work place. Rather, women tended to bring the full pressure of peer group opinion to bear on specific issues and, perhaps because of this, were less frequently the victims of the shop floor sexism of their male trade union colleagues (Harris, ibid).

Informal structures: women's peer groups in the factory

Irrespective of the strength or weakness of union organisation, however, the key structure through which women organise themselves are the female peer groups which emerge within the factories in relation to a series of informal work practices (Harris, ibid). On a day-to-day basis, such groups have no more of an institutionalised existence than which women eat together in the canteens; take illicit breaks together in the toilets; cover up for one another to supervisory staff; gossip together; joke together, and so on. Certainly, the women themselves do not recognise the existence of an ongoing peer grouping process at work. Instead, they tend to conceptualise their own specific group and others in terms of their constituent elements: certain women are special friends, or are related. Yet the existence of such relationships is reproduced in a ritualised group form and is largely confined to the shop floor, with a minimum of group or individual contact outside of work (Harris, 1984). Perhaps because of this, the influence of this type of structure is immense.

The daily activities through which the peer groups are constituted fill in crucial gaps between formal union-management agreements and women's experience of industrial wage labour. At one level this consists in the creation of an exclusively female shop floor culture. While in many respects this takes the appearance of an extension of schoolgirl relationships into the factories through joking, confidences and gossip, it cannot be dismissed so lightly. In essence it is the primary way in which women organise to domesticate what for many of them is a frightening and alien world. The peer groups also generate a series of informal work practices which ameliorate women's working conditions in the factories on a daily basis. Some of these have already been mentioned: the illicit breaks and loyalties in the face of authority. Others include task swopping to ensure that pregnant women are allotted sit-down jobs; helping less dexterous women to meet hourly/daily quotas; arranging elaborate ceremonials, especially when one of the women is getting married. They represent a form in which women organise and create solidarity among themselves.
The women's peer groups are also critical to the formation of consensus in relation to specific issues and go some way towards determining whether or not these may be taken up on a union platform. For example, the north Mayo ITG&WU secretary in principle favoured the provision of daycare facilities for the children of female factory workers. However, in practice he was not prepared to initiate action in this connection since he felt that the women themselves would not approve. His view was correct. Despite variations in age, social class and marital status, the majority of women who worked in the factories would not have supported the establishment of pre-school care at their work places. Their opposition to it undoubtedly stemmed from the ambiguities they themselves experienced about the relation between maternity and paid employment and, also, from the social pressures imposed by their kin and friendship networks outside of work. In the factories their opposition became focused through their peer groups and through the range of sanctions such groups have the power to wield. It was not unusual for pregnant women or new mothers to be forced out of their jobs through the combined pressure of disapproval at home and at work. While fellow workers would not intervene directly, distances and silences usually achieve the same effect in the context of the cultural code in operation.


In this and other ways, the peer groups may be seen as a filter through which women constantly reinterpret their social experience in a mode appropriate to their work situation. In turn, the common histories with which women enter the factories determine how the information disseminated through the peer groups is interpreted by the women involved and what action, if any, they are prepared to take.
Thus, for example, women in a north Mayo factory manufacturing synthetic fibre fought a highly vocal and successful struggle during the late 1970s for the introduction of equal pay. The impetus came from a woman shop steward:
I just walked into this meeting and. . . . I looked at this board which had all these coloured kind of little squares on it. Anyway, the lowest sort of colour was yellow and it was at the bottom all the time. And anyway, every women's job was yellow. Every single one of them and it was pretty bad. So then we went down through each individual job. . . . and I interjected into every one of them, because there was nothing else you could do like. It was so obvious. So anyway, it was in the meeting that I decided we should claim for equal pay.
However, while the woman shop steward quoted above initiated action for equal pay, it was really the female peer groups within the factory who decided that it was an issue worth pursuing:
Oh yeh. It was THE big issue, you know. I mean, the girls were really prepared to dig their heels in.
Yet while the women in this factory were prepared to take up the equal pay cause without hesitation, they avoided health and safety issues like the plague.
The reason for this anomaly is straightforward. In the atmosphere which prevailed throughout Ireland after the implementation of anti-discriminatory legislation at the end of 1975, it was highly unlikely that a multinational corporation which espoused an ideology of 'community integration', and for which labour costs were not the primary consideration, would consider a campaign for equal pay as a cause for relocating. Moreover, the women understood their relative strength against precisely such a background:
They wouldn't have had a chance if they'd objected to it. It would have gone to the Labour Court and I think, well, there's one personnel officer down there. . . . was kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. ...
When it came to health and safety issues, things were different. The firm's Irish operation revolved exclusively around the use of a raw material which has been banned elsewhere for its purported carcinogenic properties. In this connection it fell squarely into the second pattern of industrialisation that has been mentioned: that is, firms that have been attracted to Ireland in some measure precisely because of incompetent local implementation of health and environmental legislation.
Inhabitants of north Mayo were well aware of the issues involved. The location of this factory in the region entailed rail and road transportation of the raw material through their residential areas and, also, the potential ruination of one of the finest salmon fishing grounds by the factory's waste. Public debate and private assurances were the order of the day long before the question of workers' safety even surfaced. By the time the factory started its operation, a consensual frame of reference existed among workers and general public alike. A campaign for better health and safety conditions in the context of a firm using hazardous raw materials was seen as a potential threat to the firm's future in the area and, consequently, as endangering jobs. The message was broadcast loudly in pubs, shops and the local media: any jobs are better than no jobs, so people should 'shut up and put up' both inside and outside of the factory.
This consensus was reproduced primarily through local community ideologies (Harris, 1984). In the factory itself it was further reinforced and personalised as an individual responsibility through the female peer groups. When a local journalist decided to write a series of articles about the effects of this raw material both inside the factory and in the area at large, she met with a predictably negative response from her advertising-conscious editor. She had not, however, expected a uniform refusal to talk on the part of the women who worked in the factory. From the women's point of view, however, silence was common sense. They regarded her intervention as vicarious curiosity, threatening both their jobs and their standing in 'the local community'. However, the women were well aware of the health risks involved in working with this raw material and more than prepared to 'give out' about them in private conversation:
I know nothing about 'X' except it's banned in America. And if America bans something, there must be something wrong with it because they'd get the last buck out of anything. There's supposed to be things like skin irritation. . . . your skin gets very dry. You know, you're always pulling and scratching at it and things like that. It's irritating, very irritating . . . You know, the flax and that, get caught in your lungs and that. Yeh, it's everywhere. You know, you're pulling it out of your eyes and that. And say, if you ate a sweet, it'd be covered with dust. . . . And it affects, though people aren't talking about it much, it really affects your periods. . . . completely irregular. Some people, okay, it might not affect them in that way but it really kills you when you have it. I find it does, plus there's no way 1 know when I'm getting it. Like you know, you get pains and you feel weak, really painful. . . . I've never seen a place like it for complaints about periods. . . . You feel half doped half the time. As if you were after waking up from an overdose of Valium. That kind of thing. Headaches. And if you smoke, well you know you notice it when you go in there in the morning. You feel you'll pass out. Can't breathe. Those kinds of things. You know, when you really look at it, it does affect you

The new women factory workers in north Mayo are compelled by necessity to swallow the multiple ambiguities they experience about the ways in which their lives have been affected by the introduction of export-oriented industry to Ireland. The possibility of relatively dignified conditions of work and relatively good pay lends a magnetism to the multinationals which is difficult to withstand in the absence of viable alternatives.

This is nowhere more clearly documented than in the long job waiting lists held by the foreign firms' personnel officers. It is also demonstrated by the clientelistic negotiations for work: the use of 4 relationships with management, local politicians and other influential contacts to acquire the crucial job for sisters, daughters, other relatives and friends. Finally, it is witnessed by the response to announcements of interviews by the companies. An advertisement is placed in the local newspapers announcing a day on which interviews for a new intake of operatives will be held in one of the local hotels. On the day the venue is invariably crowded with job seekers. Resembling the traditional hiring fairs of days gone by, this method of interviewing struck many women as arbitrary and irrational. From the firms' viewpoint, it represented an invaluable time-saving device and enabled them to build up reserve labour forces which could be called on at short notice.
Apart from indicating the extent to which women in north Mayo are propelled into employment with the multinationals by the paucity of jobs open to them locally, the seemingly unending scramble for jobs in the foreign firms also serves as an index of the conditions under which women work in domestic manufacturing industry and in the service sector. This unfavourable comparison is more clearly illustrated by the attitudes which emerged among working women during the course of a local industrial dispute.
In July 1979 the ITG&WU signed a new agreement with a foreign-owned pharmaceutical firm located further south in County Mayo. At the time, it was regarded as a major coup in both local and national trade union circles. It was expected to provide a new model for pay, holiday and sick leave conditions in multinational companies throughout the west of Ireland.
In north Mayo news of this agreement created a wave of discontent among women workers within the multinationals. In the firm manufacturing health care products, women on the day shift promptly staged a go-slow in favour of immediate parity with their counterparts in south Mayo. From the outset, their action was in breach of the prevailing trade union agreement which gave the factory management full control over production decisions and laid down a detailed procedure for dealing with grievances. Because of this, the union refused to back the women, leaving them out on a somewhat precarious limb. Added to this, with a week to go to their annual holiday period, the timing of the go-slow could not have been worse. The factory management simply suspended the entire shift staff five days early and left them without pay until after the break. The issue fizzled
out as quickly as it had begun.
Local reaction to this dispute was mixed. While women working in the textile multinational were sympathetic to the other women's cause, the general feeling was that the situation could have been avoided through the simple expedient of following the correct negotiating procedures.
By contrast, women who worked in the one Irish-owned firm which employed a large female labour force were completely mystified by the dispute. While they felt sorry for the women who faced a holiday period without any money, they also regarded the latter's conditions of work as highly desirable and as an inappropriate catalyst for industrial action. This puzzlement is hardly surprising when we consider that women workers in this Irish-owned firm endured an abysmal physical work environment in which they were at the mercy of a somewhat unpredictable management style and worked for relatively low wages based largely on piece rates.
The response of women working in the service sector as hotel maids, shop assistants and the like was even more ambiguous. Though drawn from the same class backgrounds as women who worked in the factories, many of them chose to work in the largely non-unionised service sector precisely because they were virulently opposed to the labour movement8 and refused to submit to the closed shop system in the factories, regarding compulsory trade union membership as an infringement of their personal liberty. At the same time, however, they evinced deep hostility and resentment to the idea of women entering an industrial dispute over conditions of work which were already immeasurably better than those which prevailed in the local shops, hotels and bars.


Using case material from north Mayo, I have been arguing that women workers' perceptions of the local industrialisation process are partly a product of their and their mothers' experience during the 1950s and 1960s. Their attitudes are further determined by the conditions under which they live today. With a choice between no jobs, bad jobs in the domestic manufacturing and service sectors or jobs in the multinationals, the latter present the most attractive alternative. In a world in which jobs grew on trees and fell off for the asking, many of them would choose other kinds of work. However, this notion of choice is irrelevant to their situation. Indeed, the majority of north Mayo women do not even conceptualise the world in terms of a range of choices, free for the making. Their histories and their social universe have been and continue to be bound by harsh necessity.
This argument suggests that the social and political implications of internationalisation of production by multinationals cannot be understood without examining the regional social contexts in which it occurs. Until such an approach becomes an integral part of political and theoretical analyses of the activities of multinationals, discussing strategies for social transformation is much like counting the number of angels on the head of a pin.

1. 'Ireland' is used here to refer exclusively to the Republic of Ireland.
2. Much of the material used in this paper comes from a 14-month fieldwork project which I did in north Mayo between 1979 and 1980, during which time I lived in the area and worked in one of the local factories. As ever, I remain indebted to the women I interviewed and with whom I worked for their time, tolerance and kindness.
3. This is not to imply that Ireland has no environmental or industrial safety legislation. However, the costs of implementing such legislation are high and, in many rural areas, inspectors are linked into kin and friendship networks which conflict with their official position.
4. The sources for these figures were local trade union books and interviews with personnel managers and trade union officials. The figures include estimates of female employment in a third multinational firm located further south in Mayo (approximately 700 workers). They are approximate because of discrepancies between the sources and because high turnover levels could alter calculations dramatically in a very short period. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that as many women work in the north Mayo multinationals today as in the 1970s. As early as 1981 I received
" reports from female shop stewards in one of the branch plants to the effect that as women left, they were being replaced by young men rather than by other women. With the progress of the recession generally and the closure of a large Irish firm in particular, an acceleration in this trend has probably occurred.
5. 'The lump' refers to a form of employment in which the worker subcontracts her/his labour on a self-employed basis. Though not necessarily non-unionised, there is nevertheless a tendency in this direction, with many workers on the lump inhabiting the untaxed and uninsured world of the black economy.
6. All of the women interviewed held jobs in one or other of the local factories. The majority came from small farms and unskilled/semi-skilled working class backgrounds, though a few were drawn from local lower middle class families. Obviously, women from other class backgrounds would have a different experience of both the period under discussion here and of the .subsequent rapid industrialisation which the area underwent. IndeedYeven within the class spectrum being discussed here, one would hardly expect to find a rigid homogeneity of experience.
7. 'Dinner' usually refers to the midday meal. Unlike in Britain, it is the exception rather than the norm for Irish schools to provide food for pupils.
8. The question of how anti-union sentiments are generated and reproduced is complex. Until the post-1958 period trade unionism was largely alien to rural Ireland and regarded with deep suspicion in areas such as north Mayo. In recent years a combination of the Catholic Church's social teachings and anti-farmer rhetoric of the union-backed movement to reform the Pay-As-You-Earn taxation system, has done little to bolster support for the labour movement among inhabitants of rural Ireland. This said, however, the precise reasons for varying attitudes to trade unionism among women who share common class backgrounds and social experiences, remains open to question.

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