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Malaysia's aim to leapfrog to a developed status within the next three decades has resulted in IT being given significant prominence with the state taking a leadership role in the ongoing formulation of a national IT policy. This has been coupled, since 1984, with extensive privatization, which has also affected the telecommunications industry. By examining this industry it is possible to consider the gendered impact of IT on office workers in Malaysia and also to trace the class and ethnic dimensions of this process in relation to employment' skills and work organization.
IT has brought about changes in the employment pattern of office workers in the country, creating new opportunities in some occupations, while putting other jobs at risk. Overall, there has been a tremendous increase in IT-related jobs, especially at the professional and technical levels, due to the government's focus on hi-tech industry since the mid-1980s. With the structural shift in the economy from an agricultural to an industrial base, and the present high economic growth, there has been a severe shortage of IT professionals. There are attempts by the government to rectify the shortage by introducing more computer and IT related courses at the tertiary level. It is interesting to note that more women are now enrolling in such courses, pointing to a possible gender balance among IT professionals in Malaysia in the near future.
The data also shows that some occupations have been much reduced or eliminated with the onslaught of the first phase of automation. Machine card punchers were inevitably made redundant with the introduction of modern computers. New jobs for data entry operators and computer professionals have been created. However, with the advent of more integrated systems, our case study suggests that the era of the data entry operator could be over. But it would be premature to predict their demise altogether; the increased flexibility of IT allows for decentralization in the preparation and data entry part of information processing. Several developing countries have benefited from the advent of telework, whereby data entry work has been internationally relocated to save labour costs in the developed countries (Pearson, 1991).
The evidence in the case study runs counter to the assumptions about the consequences of computerization at the office level which underlie both the pessimistic 'capital accumulation logic' approach and the technological euphoria which equates technology with wellbeing. The stage of socioeconomic and political development within each society and the pre-existing division of labour are important mediators of how IT and its different phases are implemented. In these stages, IT has differential effects on employment, work organization and labour processes. In some cases, the fragmentation and rationalization of office bureaucracies exist already, and computerization makes use of and intensifies these processes. According to our empirical findings, Taylorization is usually, but not always, associated with the first phase of computer implementation. But in some cases there are no radical changes in work, and in others, previous fragmented tasks become integrated. Small work teams, with more personal control over one's work (despite centralization), have been made possible with the flexibility of microprocessor technology in the second phase of integrated systems.
Different categories of workers are affected differently. The combination of computerization and privatization in TELMAL has led to increased stress for the lower level staff, especially the data entry operators and telephone operators, whose work has been intensified with high quantitative targets. On the other hand, although clerks and secretaries have increased workloads, they would appear to have more control over their work, which has become more flexible with computerization.
Thus the second phase of computerization, with advanced integrated systems, could create the conditions for different ways of working, particularly in the clerical and middle-level occupations. These new ways of working (e.g. flexible team work, the happy family in the company) are, in pan, recognized as corporate strategies in human resource management. But the skills and traits which these new work methods demand, such as communication skills and flexibility, are not readily recognized or rewarded.
The realization of improved working conditions depends on the negotiating power and the collective and political strength of different levels of workers. Given the hierarchical and patriarchal setup in TELMAL, devoted to 'service to business', the generally repressive labour policies, and the union leadership's pledge of industrial harmony, the struggle will be a long one. Non-union groups, such as women's groups, can also take up the demands of office workers and highlight their problems, particularly the health and safety concerns of the less skilled workers.
Employment for women office workers is also changing. Women are not being inevitably pushed into low-skill dead end jobs as a result of automation, as the argument that capital makes use of existing patriarchal relations has asserted. The trends are more diverse. On the one hand, it is true that the clerical workforce is slowly becoming feminized, and that lower level data entry operators are largely women, who work under highly stressed conditions. Women's position in the labour force is still secondary and ideologically constructed, and skill polarization by gender will continue to be common. On the other hand, in the Malaysian IT and telecommunications industry, more than in other technological fields, women are slowly making headway into middle level professional and management positions. Malaysian women seem to be taking advantage of the educational system, which is heavily promoting computer studies, although they still predominate in the software programming side while men are in the more lucrative fields such as electronics engineering and management. Moreover a gender-segmented labour market will ensure that decision-making positions and processes are male dominated, with male Malays in command in the public sector, co-existing with their male Chinese counter- parts in the private sector. Gender segregation, as well as stratification among women along class and ethnic lines, will probably continue in the Malaysian IT sector.
1 The other four key technologies are automated manufacturing technology (AMT), advanced materials, biotechnology and electronics (Government of Malaysia, 1991: 203-204).
2 Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country comprising Malays and indigenous groups (55 per cent), known as Bumiputra, Chinese (34 per cent), Indians (10 per cent), and other ethnic groups (I per cent). Political power is held by a multi-party coalition of communally-based parties dominated by the elites of each ethnic group, who use ethnicity to advance their own political and economic power in the country. The 1971 New Economic Policy provided for positive discrimination' for the Bumiputras as they were perceived to be economically backward compared to the other ethnic groups.
3 The Star, 12 August 1992.
4 This information was obtained from the Curriculum Development Centre, Computers in Education Unit, Ministry of Education, Malaysia.
5 New Straits Times, 7 September, 1992.
6 The survey covered 789 organizations. The shortfalls are expressed as percentages of the current staff levels in these fields.
7 These figures fall a little short of the number of IT personnel reported by the National institute of Public Administration, INTAN. According to this report, out of 18,199 IT personnel in 1990, 64 per cent worked with corporate users in the private and public sector and 36 per cent were in the computer vendor industry (Yusof and Chan, 1991).
8 TELMAL is a fictitious name. The study was conducted in 1991 and 1992. A survey questionnaire was administered, using group interviews, with a total of 340 male and female respondents. These represented 30 per cent of office personnel at the headquarters who used computers at least two hours daily. Respondents ranged from data entry operators to executive employees. In addition, several respondents representing the various categories of staff were selected for in-depth interviews.
9 New Straits Times, 7 May 1992.
10 New Straits Times, 26 August 1992.
11 At the national level (1990) only 0.6 per cent of working women are in managerial positions, compared to about 3 per cent of working men (Government of Malaysia 1991). It augurs well for TELMAL that women are better represented at the management level.
12 The urban private sector is mainly dominated by non-Malaya, although there have been ongoing efforts to redress this balance since the promulgation of the New Economic Policy in 1971. Urban centres have historically been opposition areas. and some analysts have seen this opposition as coming from the non-Malay, particularly Chinese, voters.
13 Pullman and Szymanski, 1988, of the Labor Institute in New York categorized clerical skills as either 'technical', 'interactive' or 'abstract'. Abstract skills are aspects dealing with accuracy, concentration, eye for detail, memory, and creativity. Technical skills deal with spelling, grammar, maths and formatting, while interactive skills are associated with communication, coordination of work, tact, knowledge of the company, and explaining procedures. They point out that the compensation for clerical jobs, as 'women's jobs', tends to be determined in terms of routine tasks such as filing, keyboarding, or answering telephones. The other technical, abstract and interactive skills noted in Table 9.6 are important and necessary in performing computer-related jobs, but are underestimated as skills, and hence 'hidden or invisible'.
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