Women and Globalisation

Jaya Mehta

The past two decades have witnessed the feminisation of the labour force both in the industrialised countries as well as in the colonial world. Women's employment has increased in most countries, whereas men's employment has either stagnated or has declined. Some academicians and activists have judged this as definite progress towards women's emancipation and empowerment. Others have pointed out that women workers cluster into low-skilled jobs, in specific branches, and that their working conditions are poor, while wages paid are much lower than the average wage of men workers. Naturally, a struggle for equal rights in the workplace should be the dominant agenda for women workers; but, to be successful, this struggle must proceed from an adequate theoretical understanding of the relationship of globalisation to the feminisation of labour.

This paper brings out the complexity of the process of feminisation of labour, and presents some striking evidence to show that women's subjugation in the family as well as their subsidiary status in the workplace are both rooted in capital's primary objective of maximising profit to ensure uninterrupted accumulation. Globalisation is viewed as a restructured process of capital accumulation in which women are recruited in preference to men because they are cheaper, more flexible, and are not expected to offer collective resistance. Feminisation of labour is, then, not intended to discriminate against women workers; it is directed at constricting the economic space available to the working class as a whole. The agenda of women workers must, accordingly, be broadened to reject altogether the capitalist production relations and to search for a counter-project.



If one were to list the dominant themes of the 90's, both 'gender' and 'globalisation' would be somewhere near the top. Naturally, the 'impact of structural adjustment on women' or 'gender-sensitive analysis of the globalisation process' is a widely researched area. Even then, one of the most brilliant expositions encapsulating the essence comes from the quote of a slum dweller in Philippines, reported in the Human Development Report 1997. The main theme of the Report is 'poverty', and the quote is 'Poverty is a squatter mother whose hut is being pulled down by the government for reasons she cannot understand'. The simple quote illustrates the following.

1. Poverty has a woman's face

·Poverty estimates are obtained on the basis of per capita household income (less than US $1 per day). One would expect that women would constitute 50% of the poor. But that is not so. Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty 70% are women. Since it cannot be that the poor households simply have more girls born into them, the disproportionate share of women in the poverty group has to be explained in terms of the differential earning capacity of men and women. Between two households with similar resource base and opportunity space, the one with more women has a greater likelihood of falling into the poverty group. Superimposed on the fact that women cluster in the officially defined poverty group is the discrimination against women within a household. Thus, many a time women who are not classified as poor live and work in conditions similar to or worse than those faced by women classified as poor.

·Biologically the female of the human species is sturdier and this results in a higher life expectancy of women and a higher female/male sex ratio, yet there are several countries where the female/male ratio is less than one. It has been estimated that there are more than 100 million women missing from this planet.

·458 million women suffer from iron deficiency anaemia as against 238 million men. 450 million women are stunted by protein energy deficiency as against 400 million men. Evidence of nutritional deprivation among women appears most starkly in their reproductive years. 95% of adult women from low income groups weigh less than 50 kg. Nutritional deficiency and lack of medical facilities result in a higher incidence of maternal deaths. About half a million women die during child birth each year in the developing world - the miracle of life turns into a nightmare of death.

·Among the world's 900 million illiterate people, women outnumber men two to one. Girls constitute the majority of 130 million children without access to primary education. [Human Development Report 1995].

2. Globalisation enriches the rich and impoverishes the poor

The capitalist world always has been an unequal one, with a small minority (whether a few nations in the world or a few people within a nation) controlling the resources and the majority living in poverty and destitution. In this unequal world, globalisation which is supposed to integrate markets, production structure and culture has succeeded in further enhancing the polarisation.


·The per capita annual income of low income economies (LIE) was US $200, and that of high income economies (HIE) was US $3,040 in 1970 (the beginning of globalisation era). In 1990, the LIEs per capita income has increased to US $350, and that of the HIEs to US $19,700. The ratio between the two has increased from 1:25 [this is 1:15 xxx] to 1:56 in the two decades.

·The HIEs with a small share of the world population have accumulated a disproportionately large share of world resources. In 1993, the OECD economies with 15% of the world population controlled 80% of the resources. The LIEs with 56% of the world population received only 5% of the world's income. The gross product of the entire sub-Saharan region is approximately half that of the state of Texas.

·The integrated world market equalises commodity prices, but not wages. The dollarisation of the domestic economy results in a sudden and drastic fall in the real incomes of the majority in the developing world. In Peru, the Fuji shock implemented by President Alberto Fujimori in August 1990 increased the fuel price by 31 times and the bread price by 12 times overnight. Compared to the level in the mid-1970's the real minimum wage declined by 90%.

·The averages, however, do not give the true magnitude of inequalities because wide income disparities exist within nations. In many low and middle income developing countries, 70% of the rural households have a per capita income which is between 10 to 20% of the national average. [World Development Report 1997 and Michael Chousodovsky, Globalisation of Poverty, 1997].

·Again the true magnitude of disparities cannot be understood in terms of the magnitude of income and resource disparities alone. The technological gap, and correspondingly the life-style gap between the rich and the poor has widened by leaps and bounds. The progress in biotechnology and communication technology has opened up entirely new vistas for the rich.

An elite executive (whether in Japan or in India) can now sit at his desk at home and communicate with the world. Billions of dollars are transferred from one end of the world to another with an electronic signal. On the other hand, people continue to live at a subhuman level, with no electricity or safe drinking water, no medical aid, no food, no transport, and no roof over their heads.

3. The victims are non-players

Unfortunately, the losers mostly have no active participation in the game. They have no say in the governmental policy decisions, no control over markets, or hope of making gains, and no capacity to offer resistance in the matter. Here is another example from the Philippines. (This is before the 1997 currency crisis which tore apart the entire social, economic, and political fabric of the successful economies of east Asia.) Under the 1994 agricultural agreement of the Uruguay round, the Philippines liberalised trade in a wide range of agricultural commodities. Tariffs were slashed and import quotas expanded. Unlike Peru, internationalisation in the Philippines meant a fall of 30% in the price of maize. The imported maize from the US was sold dirt cheap. This was possible because of the heavy subsidies given by the US to its farmers: the per capita annual subsidy to the US farmer in 1995 was around US $29,000, i.e. 100 times the total annual income of the average Philippine farmer, which did not exceed US $300. Maize being a prominent crop, the livelihoods of around 102 million farmers were disrupted as a result. [Human Development Report, 1997]

With whom should the poor farmer lodge her/his protest? The US farmer? the US government for giving subsidy? the WTO for bringing about an unequal regime of free and liberalised trade? or the Philippine government which in 1994 was getting world-wide acclaim for efficient policy decisions?

Finally, the quote tells us that

4. Women and men experience poverty differently

The burden of impoverishment and marginalisation that results from the global integration process affects men and women differently. To understand this one must begin with the basic premise that men and women are situated differentially in the capitalist reproduction process.

We briefly recapitulate the Marxist theory as extended in the feminist literature which delineates this premise.


Theory revisited

In a capitalist society, labour power acquires the particular form of a commodity bought and sold in the market. 'Labour power' as a commodity is unique in two respects: (i) it is a source of value, and (ii) it is not produced capitalistically.

Labour as a source of value

Unlike other commodities, 'labour' in production contributes more value than what is required for its reproduction. The working day of a labourer is divided into two parts. (1) Necessary labour time during which s/he produces equivalent to what is required for the reproduction of her or his 'labour power'. (2) Surplus time during which s/he produces 'surplus value' for the capitalist. The 'wages' (= 'price of labour') is only equal to the necessary labour. The surplus labour remains unpaid. From the point of view of the worker, however, no distinction exists between 'necessary labour' and 'surplus labour'. The wage appears to cover the entire working day, and all labour is 'paid' labour.

Reproduction of labour

A continuous and adequate supply of labour at a given wage rate is the sine qua non of the capitalist production system, but the process of reproduction of labour power is kept outside its sphere. After paying the wage, the capitalist leaves the rest to the worker's instinct of self-preservation, and propagation. The manner in which the seller of 'labour power' lives and propagates is a matter of complete indifference to the capitalist class.

The wage that the worker gets only enables him to buy the necessary goods and services from the market. This alone is insufficient. Additional labour needs to be expended on those goods and services to enable 'daily maintenance' of bearers of labour power and 'generational replacement'. This labour is expended in the kin-based social structure, i.e., the working class family, and is termed as 'domestic labour'. [Although other examples like migration, enslavement of foreign populations, and daily maintenance in barracks can be cited, in most societies, the 'working class family' remains the predominant site for reproduction of 'labour power'.]

The 'necessary labour' has, thus, two components: the 'social component' which is equal to the value of the necessary goods and services bought from the market, and 'domestic component' which is the labour expended in the family. For biological reasons, the burden of the 'domestic component' rests disproportionately on women, while the 'social component' is mostly the responsibility of men. The partitioning of necessary labour in this manner and the accompanying norms of male supremacy are actually the legacy of earlier class societies. The capitalist mode of production strengthens it by completely dissociating domestic labour from the arena of surplus labour. Industrialisation forces a spatial and temporal distance between the two. Production is organised in workshops and factories, where wage labour is performed for a specified period of time. Wage labour acquires a character wholly distinct from the worker's life away from the workplace, including her or his involvement in domestic labour.

Hence, the capitalist production process on the one hand wages a separation between the two components of necessary labour, and on the other hand obscures the distinction between the social component of necessary labour and surplus labour.

In a capitalist system, all accounting is centred around surplus production and accumulation. The institutionalised separation of 'domestic labour' from the arena of surplus labour, therefore, implies its non-accounting and invisibility. This non-accounting of domestic labour has two implications.

(1) As 'domestic labour' is disproportionately the responsibility of women, a great deal of their labour time thus expended has no 'economic value'. Emanating from this material basis are ideological and social structures which accord a subjugated status to women, not just in working class families but also outside.

(2) No [xxx? the lack of?] accounting of 'domestic labour' minimises the share of wages in the National Income. 'Wage' paid to workers only partially covers what is required for the reproduction of 'labour power'. Thus, even according to the law of capitalist markets, labour is deprived of its fair share.

The material basis of women's oppression is then fundamentally related to the conflict between labour and capital intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production.

Thus, while the working-class women almost entirely take care of the domestic component of the necessary labour, the working class men do not get their fair share, and are unable to ensure the social component of the necessary labour on their own. To take care of the 'social component' an adult male should get paid by the norm of family wage, i.e., value of necessary commodities and services required by the entire family - including non-working wife, children and aged. Historically, and across the globe, family wage is given only to a small section of the working class, and not as a recognition of the value of domestic labour, but as a privilege offered to a subgroup in return for political stability based on male supremacy. Most working class households cannot manage on one income, and the majority of working class women participate also in social reproduction, directly contributing to surplus accumulation by the capitalist class. Women thus have a dual position in capitalist society, as domestic workers and as wage workers.

The socialist feminist literature discusses the contradictory tendencies within capitalism to which women are subjected. On the one hand there is a demand to draw women into wage labour directly under the domination of capital. At the same time there is a requirement to maintain the family as a unit for reproduction of labour power and to reinforce women's role in domestic labour within it. These contradictory tendencies are embodied in the organisation of labour processes such as creation of flexible shifts, part-time work, house-work and so on. This does not mean that the two aspects of women's lives - as domestic workers and as wage workers - are harmoniously related. While within the family men control the resources and are the main decision makers, outside, in the work-force hierarchy women's status is never equal to that of men. The majority of them are confined to low-paid, low-skilled and irregular labour processes.

If one lists the major ways in which women have been recruited as wage workers in various phases of a country's modernisation and capital accumulation process, one finds that women workers have borne characteristics which Marx mentioned for the industrial reserve army.

Accumulation of capital is the characteristic feature of the capitalist production process, and accumulation proceeds most efficiently if wages are not allowed to rise. The reserve army consists of the labour force not actively engaged in capital production but available when required. Members of the reserve army exert a continuous downward pressure on the wage level through their active competition in the labour market. There is a section of the reserve army which is not classified as unemployed, for they are engaged in activities out of the capitalist production structure, like pre-capitalist agriculture or domestic labour. When there is a spurt in the labour demand in capitalist production, this labour can be drawn into it at low wages, thus preventing the natural wage-rate rise that would otherwise accompany increased demand. When demand shrinks, the additional labour can be laid off smoothly. Women can be sent back to their activities as domestic labourer without an increase in the unemployment statistics and without any threat to social and political stability.

The reserve army's recruitment into capitalist production also has a secular character which was discussed by Marx and Engels. It is possible that the wage rate rises not because there is additional demand for labour but because of political developments like strengthening of trade unions. Under the circumstances, capital responds to the rising tendency of wages by attempting to reduce the demand for labour through the introduction of new technology and restructuring. Introduction of new technology not only shrinks the demand for labour in terms of absolute number, it changes the work definition, and thus changes the demand for labour in terms of its skill composition, necessitating restructuring.

Engels takes the example of the textile industry. Earlier, human labour was involved in both spinning and weaving. The introduction of machines reduced the role of human labour to only piecing together broken threads both in spinning and weaving, as the machine could do all the rest of the work. What was required from workers now was not muscular strength, but the flexibility of fingers. Men were not only not needed for it, but were actually less fit for the job than women and children. Women were recruited into the factory system at low wage rates and under adverse working conditions. Their entry into wage labour on the one hand exploited them at the workplace, and it simultaneously had disastrous consequences for the working class families, which has been documented by Engels, with appropriate empathy and a political focus.


Globalisation and the changed labour-market context

It is against the above theoretical background that we delineate the changed labour market context under globalisation, and situate women into it. The post-war world order was characterised by a historic compromise between labour and capital. A large part of the world population severed off its links from the capitalist production structure and reprioritised its development goals. Every adult citizen was given the right to employment, and basic necessities were provided to all in the socialist world.

The industrialised capitalist countries evolved the welfare-state model based on the Keynesian framework of demand management through state expenditure. An elaborate legislative structure was erected guaranteeing employment security and benefits to workers.

Most countries in the developing world launched ambitious industrial development programmes with the state playing the key role. Although the majority of the workforce remained impoverished and marginalised, a small section that entered the organized sector availed of the employment security and benefits provided through legislation emulated from the industrialised world. The hope was that over time more and more of unorganized work force would be drawn into secure employment in the organised sector.

The post-war boom continued for a long period of more than two decades. It was only towards the beginning of the 1970's that the capitalist accumulation entered a new phase of structural crisis, besides a slow-down in economic growth, additional disruption, like oil shocks by OPEC countries, and the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, required a major restructuring. Capital accumulated at the centre, unable to find profitable investment avenues. The 1970's was also the decade when the erstwhile socialist world reached a stagnation point and social, political and economic contradictions started surfacing. The ambitious programmes of industrial development in the developing world were aborted, and the hopes of catching up with the industrialised world were belied.

Capital's response to the crisis was to shift away from the extant activities - sectorally, geographically, and technologically. The restructured phase of capital accumulation which has evolved since then is characterized by three cardinal features: (1) mobility of capital across national borders, (2) shift from productive activities to finance, (3) revolution in information and communication technology. The three are, of course, inter-related as we shall see presently.

Restructuring of the accumulation process affected the labour market in a major way. The capital-labour compromise reached in the aftermath of the Second World War was thrown overboard. Capital's new search for profit was geared towards reducing its dependence on domestic wage labour. The economic space available for labour has been constricted in all parts of the world, and the erstwhile socialist world which fully joined the capitalist production process in the 1990's. In the process, capital has recruited women from the reserve army in different parts of the world in different ways. Interestingly, Marx and Engel's description of 19th century industrialisation and women's role in it still remains the basic coordinate for analysing feminisation of labour at the beginning of a new millennium.


Recruitment of women in restructured capitalism

Shift to finance and squeeze in manufacturing

Idle capital in the metropolitan centre which did not find profitable avenues in productive activities shifted to financial investments. Floating exchange rates, which introduced currency speculation and conferred high volatility on exchange rates, provided the requisite outlet. The debt crisis in the 1980's unleashed a spate of corporate mergers, buyouts and bankruptcies. This facilitated consolidation of a new generation of financiers, clustered around merchant banks, institutional investors, stock brokerage firms, large insurance companies etc. Over the years, the financial structure has become massive in size, has acquired a high-degree of concentration and has developed a number of sophisticated instruments. The daily turnover of exchange transactions is more than 1 trillion dollars a day, of which only 15% corresponds to actual commodity trade. Institutional speculators who are far removed from actual entrepreneurial activities are capable of not only precipitating bankruptcy in large industrial corporations, but they can drain off the exchange reserves of central banks and lead to the collapse of the economy of not one country or two but the entire region.

In contrast, the capital available to the producers of goods and services has reduced drastically and the earnings in real economy have become vulnerable to the exigencies of finance. Squeeze on capital, and the falling profit rates in manufacturing induced the entrepreneurs to make a desperate bid to reduce labour costs. This was done in three ways.

(1) Shifting investment from extant key sectors to a new branch, namely microelectronics;

(2) shifting investment out of national boundaries, in search of cheap labour in developing economies; and

(3) changing the work organization in the existing plants by resorting to downsizing, subcontracting and other such measures.

In most developed countries, the share of employment in the secondary sector declined drastically during the 1980s and the 1990s. Within manufacturing, the blue collar workers, who constituted the elite of the working class, lost heir jobs. Investment shifted from traditional branches like steel, shipbuilding and mining sectors to electronics. In the USA, General Motors cut down 2,50,000 [250,000?xxx] jobs between 1978 and 1993, US Steel, 1,00,000 [100,000xxx?] jobs between 1980-1990, and General Electric by 1,70,000 [170,000?xxx] jobs between 1981-93. [World Employment Report 1996-97]

Microchip Production and Women's Employment

Micro-electronics in the 1970's occupied the place that belonged to the textile industry in the 19th century. It spearheaded the process of accumulation, particularly in Japan and the NIC's in East Asia, but also in Europe and the USA. We have already observed that the textile industry, after mechanisation, completely altered the required skill structure and enabled the capitalist to recruit the cheap labour of women and children; the micro-electronic industry followed the same pattern 100 years later. This new branch could make no use of miners and shipyard workers who had lost their jobs. The electronic companies which invested in the production of wafers and chips required workers with nimble fingers and good eyesight, who could perform minute and repetitive jobs, with dexterity and concentration. The most appropriate workers were young unmarried women with high school education or less. These women, taking up jobs for the first time, and very often having migrated from rural or semi-urban areas, were ready to work long hours with low wages. They did not normally engage in union activities. After a few years of youthful diligence, when their productivity declined, they could be replaced by a new cohort, for most companies recruited women on a contract basis. When the contract expired, the worker could rejoin the reserve army and engage herself in domestic labour without being explicitly classified as unemployed. Seemingly, she would have just withdrawn herself from the workforce to take on new domestic responsibilities after marriage.

In the early 1970's when the production of chips was labour intensive, the percentage of women workers in electronic units was anywhere in the range of 70% to 90%, whether in Scotland or in Silicon Valley in the USA or Kyushu in Japan. The production-line workers assembling and testing integrated circuits were exclusively women. The supervisory staff on the other hand, comprised only of male workers maintaining the gender hierarchy in the workplace.

The picture subsequently changed in the 1980's. A larger part of chip production shifted to lower-wage economies from Japan to NICs to Malaysia and Thailand, and from USA to the Caribbean. The developed countries moved on to concentrate on higher value-added products like computers and other complex components.

Secondly, the process of chip production became automated. In the automated production of chips, the skill demands of the factories got polarised. The factory now required on the one hand very highly educated and skilled researchers and engineers and, on the other hand, a relatively large number of semi-skilled (unskilled) workers. The skilled highly-paid jobs were given out to men and the semi-skilled ones at the lower end to women. Woman are employed to maintain quality-control. They are required to wear synthetic clothes, sit in dust-free rooms, and check through microscopes whether the thin 'wires' of the chips have been properly fixed to the tiny plates. The work is classified as semi-skilled. It is monotonous, requires enormous concentration, and puts tremendous strain on the eyes. The percentage of women in the industry has declined, but other things remain. Unmarried and young women are employed at relatively miserly wages. Working hours are long. In Kyushu, a women on an average performs 30 hours of overtime work per month. Occupational health problems are not the responsibility of the employers. If a woman complains of health problems or asks for an improvement in the working conditions, she is promptly dismissed. After all, sick or unfit workers cannot contribute to increasing productivity or efficiency.

In the end, women do not progress to skilled employment or to supervisory jobs, even in a branch where the lower-level jobs are exclusively performed by them. As permanent members of the reserve army, they are permanently debarred from the privilege of entering skilled employment.

Part-time workers in the industrialised world

During both the world wars, women in large numbers were drafted into the labour force to take the place of men, who had gone to the front. On both occasions, they were sent back home when the war was over. In the restructured accumulation process, women in the industrialised world are once again being recruited as wage labour on a massive scale. Only this time the men are not at the front. They are very often at home. Unemployment in the industrialised world has acquired unprecedented proportions, and continues to rise. In 1996, the unemployment rate in the European Union was 11.9%, in Spain 22%, Belgium 14.5%, Australia 8.5% and Canada 9.8%. Even in Japan the unemployment rate has reached 3.4%. It is only in the USA that the unemployment figures have declined, being in the range of 5 to 6% - but this reduction has been attained by increasingly compressing the real wages of the employees. [World Employment Report 1996-97] Under the circumstances, the recruitment of women in large numbers needs to be explained.

With the squeeze on the manufacturing sector, the share of employment in the service sector has increased substantially over the past two decades. In most countries, services now constitute 70% of the total employment. Further jobs created in services are highly polarised. At one end jobs have been created in the knowledge and information intensive branches of finance, insurance, and business. These jobs require professionals and technicians who are highly educated and skilled. Not just a high level of skills is required, but also the confidence and ability to absorb new development and acquire new skills quickly - for skills in the information industry become obsolete in a matter of weeks.

At the other end, a great many jobs are created in the labour intensive and low-skilled areas. These include scientific and professional jobs at the lowest rung, like data processing or nursing, services in distributive trade, personal services, occupations like cleaning, unskilled catering, home-helping and so on. Jobs at this end, with low skills and low wages, are created as part-time jobs. Many of the jobs in the state health sector, education sector, or social service sector have also been converted from full-time to part-time mostly because they have been subcontracted to private agencies.

Part-time jobs have been created also in the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing, in the industrialised world, has been transformed radically in the past two decades. The revolution in information and communication technology brought about far-reaching changes in the structure of the final produce, in production processes, and in work organisation. The new technology has been amenable to a new management model borrowed in the West from Japan. Skill polarisation has taken place in manufacturing also, with high-skilled professionals at one end and semi-skilled production workers at the other. Like the blue collar craft workers, the white collar supervisory staff has become increasingly redundant. The Japanese model of management insists on quality circles where the workers collectively put pressure on each other to increase work intensity. While quality circles have subtle exploitative practices, the method has been generally acclaimed as being modern and removing the workers' alienation.

The other aspect of the Japanese management model is of subcontracting of production to a very large extent. This keeps the mother plant small, modern, and manageable. The subcontracted firms supply components of the main product or supply specialised services to the mother company. They work with meagre capital and are completely dependent on the mother company, thus having no choice but to agree to the terms dictated by it. The legal restrictions with regard to labour rights are mostly not applicable to these smaller units. They try to reduce labour costs to the minimum by making extensive use of part-time labour and contract workers. They force labour to put in many hours of unpaid overtime, and frequently resort to layoffs without notice or compensation. The new management model thus admits the most primitive labour relations, with the most modern production techniques.

The part-time jobs are created in large numbers both in the service sector and the manufacturing not because full-time workers are not available or because the work specifications suit only part-time jobs. In most cases, the employers prefer to create part-time jobs because it facilitates the reduction of labour costs to the minimum. The hourly wages offered in part-time jobs are much lower than what prevails for similar tasks in regular jobs. Sometimes it is as little as 50% of the wage rate in regular jobs. Moreover, part-time workers can be laid off instantaneously when not required. In Japan, the part-time women workers are referred to as 'throw away material', analogous to 'throw away sticks' used for eating meals. These are dead-end jobs: the employers do not have to offer any prospects for career promotion in the long-term or on-the-job training facilities. Employment-related benefits like paid leave, sick leave, maternity leave, pension or insurance etc. do not enter into part-time contracts. On the other hand the work put in by part-timers is anything but casual. In Japan, especially, the hours of work per day of the part-timers are only marginally less than those in regular jobs. Many part-time jobs consist of as much as 7 and a half hours a day. Even when the total hours are fewer, the work intensity in the case of part-timers is higher. As they are hired for the absolute minimum number of hours deemed necessary for the specific job, there is no possibility for a slack in their work time.

This indeed is a reasonably fair description of job opportunities available to a large section of women entering the labour market in the industrialised world. It is not just that the part-time jobs are exclusively taken up by women. Unfortunately, for most women, the labour market offers little else. In many of the OECD countries (Germany, UK, Japan) part-time employment constitutes as much as 45% of women's total employment. In other countries, the percentage is anywhere between 35% to 45%. [World Employment Report 1998].

In the industrialised countries mostly women's labour participation curve is still M shaped. Even now, in the so-called most developed part of human civilization, only a handful of women acquire the requisite skills to join the high echelons of professional or other careers. It is true that job opportunities for women at the top have expanded, but for most women opportunities for skill acquisition and consequent occupational choices are limited. In West Germany, there existed a law till 1977 that a woman can be considered for a job outside the house only if it is compatible with her duties within marriage and family. This is still anchored in people's minds.

After remaining in employment for a few years, women drop out of the labour market during the reproductive phase of their lives. After the children start going to school, they re-enter the labour market. Having taken a long enough break, their skill level and bargaining capacity is extremely low. If more and more women are coming out to work in this second phase, it is because men are unable to earn enough and there is a family income squeeze. This offers the most flexible labour force for occupations which do not require very specialised skills. Women accept whatever is available to them, and once they fall into the slot, nothing else is available.

Ostensibly it is said that part-time jobs offer flexibility to women to balance their domestic responsibility and outside work. In actual practice, part-time jobs allow capital to avail of most flexible labour at the lowest possible cost. The middle-aged married women in industrialised countries, thus, constitute a large segment of exploited labour in the restructured capitalist production process.

A recent survey in the Economist (18-24 July 1998) on 'Women and Work' proclaims women coming out to work in such large numbers as a definite progress toward their emancipation. It says, 'this time they have come out not to go back home.' In the capitalist production system, any section of labour can be sent back home if the need arises. We shall elaborate on this while considering women's employment in transition economies.

Structural adjustment and women's employment in the developing world

To facilitate the mobility of capital across national boundaries, the developing countries were forced to undertake structural adjustments of their economies. The prescription dictated by the IMF, World Bank, and GATT (subsequently WTO) was uniform, despite widely varying economic, political, and cultural coordinates. In return for some paltry aid, the programme exacted the removal of barriers to the inflow and outflow of capital and commodities, removal of exchange control and currency devaluation, withdrawal of the state from economic and social activities, strict control of fiscal deficits and, of course, removal of whatever little legal provisions existed for labour security. As geographical, economic, political and cultural structures differed, the fall-out of this uniform prescription needs to be discussed separately for individual countries. Even then some common trends can be identified as the outcome of liberalisation-globalisation-adjustment programmes introduced in the developing world.

Over the past two decades, several countries went through a severe recession (actually negative growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa), hyper-inflation, deindustrialisation and famines (in Africa). In some conventional sense success stories were available only in East Asia, where robust economic growth was sustained through the 1980's and the early part of the 1990's. Of course, the whole region exploded two years ago, sending tremors to the whole world. Many doubts are now raised on the continuance of the capital accumulation process in its present form.

The globalisation-liberalisation programme has sucked away surplus from the developing world through various means like exports of both manufactured and agricultural commodities, financial and real-estate speculations and, of course, debt repayments. The impact on labour has been severe, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. There is no dearth of statistics on falling real wages, increasing poverty, recurrent epidemics, and famines.

In the developing world, regular wage employment was never a dominant mode of employment. The majority has been engaged in some form of self-employment, or in casual employment. A large part of the employment is seasonal and intermittent in nature and fetches an income insufficient to stave off poverty.

In many countries, the state constituted (and still constitutes) the major provider of regular jobs, through public sector units in core industrial sectors and of course defence and administration. The withdrawal of the state from industrial activity and massive slashing of capital expenditure has caused severe industrial recession in most countries. Removal of barriers to the entry and exit of capital lent more fluidity to finance capital, and increased speculative activities. Foreign direct investments in productive activities were limited in comparison. Further, multinational companies subcontracted on a large scale, and indigenous companies soon followed suit. As a result, the already small share of regular wage employment came down further. Those losing regular jobs have taken recourse to whatever inferior employment is available or can be improvised in the informal sector. As a result, the urban informal sector expanded. Crowding in the informal sector was absorbed through a fall in income and increased underemployment.

The share of wages in value-added manufacturing has fallen substantially during the 1980's in many developing countries. The share has gone down by as much as 16% in Mexico (from 36.7% to 19.61%), 12% in Sri Lanka (29.5% to 17.2%), 15% in Turkey (34.6% to 19.2%) and so on. [Source: World Employment Report 1996-97]

Export manufacturing and women workers

The developing countries have been pushed into export-led industrialisation to generate foreign exchange. The foreign exchange earned is either repatriated abroad as MNC's profits or used up for debt repayment, or appropriated by the local elite for expensive imports.

The traditional exports of the developing world comprising of raw materials with little processing have been replaced by labour intensive manufactured exports of mostly electronic components and garments. As already mentioned, the electronic companies continuously shifted production of chips to lower wage economies - for instance from Japan to the Republic of Korea to Malaysia and Thailand. The manufacturing units are either directly owned by multinational companies abroad, or are subcontracted to local entrepreneurs. Local governments anxious to attract this new form of investment offer tax holidays, exemption from import duties, unrestricted profit repatriation, and special export processing zones with requisite infrastructural facilities to house those plants. A quiescent labour force is supplied by prohibiting unions and strikes in these zones.

The workforce in these export units consists largely of young women who are single with no previous work-experience. In East Asia and South East Asia and the Caribbean most are educated [xxx? uneducated?] and many have migrated from rural or semi-urban areas.

The work conditions in export processing zones are abysmal by any standards. Women who come to work in these units accept wages much lower than the male industrial work force in the lowest rung. Further, the wage structure in the units is designed to increase work intensity to the maximum. The basic pay is scarce on which workers get allowances related to productivity, overtime, surrendering paid holidays and so on. Without the allowances the workers cannot survive so they are forced to increase their working hours and work intensity in order to merely survive.

There are other examples of getting long hours of work done without any additional benefits. For instance, in Malaysia a Japanese company chose 4 cohorts of workers working 3 shifts a day. Sunday is a normal working day. A cohort gets two days off after working non-stop for three weeks. In Bangladesh, in a garment unit, women work without a holiday and put in long hours of overtime without getting any compensation for it. Night work which is legally prohibited in Bangladesh is a common feature.

Gender hierarchies are reproduced in workplaces with male owners, managers, and supervisors, and women assembly workers. Women complain of having restrictions regarding going to the toilet. There are many repeated cases of sexual harassment inside and outside the premises. Poor working conditions and long hours of work lead to occupational diseases which only means loss of job for these women. No compensation is offered either by the state or by the employer.

The reason why women agree to work under such conditions is that they do not have better choices outside, while within the unit they cannot unionise and collectively demand a better bargain. If a woman begins union activity, very often she is not only thrown out of her present job, she is blacklisted for other units. Further, there is active state connivance for continuation of these conditions.

The turnover in these units is high because young girls leave or are made to leave when they get married or have children. There is uncertainty in employment because the employer having invested little capital can shut down the unit anytime, or the subcontractor's contract may be terminated as the multinational companies move over to greener pastures.

This is the new workforce being generated in the third world countries to replace the state employed or state protected labour force, which grew in the initial years of industrialisation of the post-colonial economies.

Women in agriculture

Any comment on women workers in the developing countries would be incomplete without a reference to women in agriculture. Many countries in Asia and Africa have more than two-thirds of their workforce engaged in agriculture and allied activities. The land-ownership pattern is extremely skewed. The majority of households are either landless or possess a very small piece of land. Women's participation in earning activities in this section of the population is almost equal to men. They work either as wage labour or as household labour. Division of labour exists with men's and women's activities being distinctly defined. Of course, regional variations exist. For instance, in Bangladesh, in paddy cultivation tasks performed in the field - like ploughing, transplanting and harvesting - have traditionally been men's responsibility. Women would perform closer-to-home tasks like handling the seeds, winnowing, parboiling, and husking. A significant number of households also engage in what is described as subsistence labour to supplement their earnings. Most households survive at an extremely precarious equilibrium at low levels of consumption.

Globalisation has increasingly disrupted these households from their extant equilibrium. The developed countries are interested in exporting their cheap subsidised grains to the third world. In return they want exotic fruits, cut flowers, and other cash crops, for their agro-processing units, from tropical countries.

The Uruguay round of GATT forced the developing countries to lift barriers on import of grains. We mentioned how Philippine farmers lost their livelihoods in the process. Seed patenting is another measure, negotiated at GATT, which will disrupt the farming practices in a bad way. Two other developments adversely affecting the vulnerable sections are enclosures of commons and massive cuts in state expenditure on rural infrastructure. On the other hand, agro-processing multinationals are directly acquiring land or subcontracting medium and big farmers to produce inputs for them.

The land use and land ownership pattern has already changed in some countries and is changing fairly rapidly in others. Whereas medium and large farms are getting mechanised and getting integrated into the world market and world production, the vulnerable sections have been dislodged from their extant activities. The small and marginal farmers are surrendering their land because it is no longer possible to fulfill subsistence needs through their resources. The incidence of landlessness is increasing.

Women, earlier engaged as household labour, are forced to enter wage labour. For instance, in Bangladesh, rural women who traditionally engaged themselves only in indoor agricultural tasks, ignored the rules of seclusion and purdah and came out in large numbers to take employment in food for work schemes during the famine in 1974. They accepted jobs requiring hard physical labour like digging and excavation of canals for drainage and irrigation, building of roads and flood embankment. Others joined production tasks in paddy fields. While the boundaries between men's and women's work are changing, the wages paid to women are often half of that paid to men.

Incidentally, in most places, women are preferred to men as wage labourers because their wages are lower, and also because mechanisation has taken over men's jobs more than women's. Even then there is a surplus of wage labour among both males and females because employment elasticity in agriculture reduces drastically with big capital entering the branch. In Mexico, 10 million males and females migrate in search of work from one place to another: they are called brigades of swallows.

In other cases when farmers have not surrendered their land and cattle, men have moved out, looking for work as agricultural wage labourers, in more prosperous regions, or into non-farm activities. Women are left to manage the non-viable farms with more constraints than the men. They don't own the land they manage. Very often they are unable to take independent decisions. They have greater difficulty in getting credit and other inputs.

To sum up, the changes in the third world agriculture have resulted in increasing the workload on women without adequately increasing the income available, or their control over resources. But once again the specific immiserisation of women is integrally related to impoverishment of the agricultural workforce as a whole.

Women in the former socialist economies

In that part of the world that was formerly socialist, the general trend observed everywhere else is reversed. The entry of private capital and market relations instead of drawing women into the social production sphere or making use of the existing female work force have engendered massive layoffs of women from their productive activities.

Discrimination against women has occurred during both the mass retrenchment of workers and in the recruitment of new workers. In each and every country, women's unemployment rate is 5 to 6% and sometimes as much as 10% higher than that of men. The only exception is Hungary, where a substantial section of women have started withdrawing from the labour market and are therefore no longer classified as unemployed. In Russia the share of women among those rendered unemployed was 70%. In East Germany, 8 years after unification, the rate of unemployment of women is about 10% higher than that of men. Employment in sectors where large numbers of women worked - like the public sector, textiles, and agriculture - has simply collapsed, and within a short time a third of all women's jobs were gone. New opportunities opened up in service industries such as catering, retailing, and the lower end of banking. However, East German men contested for the same jobs and the employers preferred men to women.

The marginalisation of women from the labour market is, of course, accompanied by an increasing rhetoric of women's primary attachment to domestic life and their reproductive roles, and polemics regarding appropriate and inappropriate occupations for women.

To explain this reverse trend in the erstwhile socialist world, it is essential to look into the manner in which women were integrated into the sphere of production and reproduction in the socialist economy and society.

The number of women in the economically active population in the USSR and in the countries of Eastern Europe grew very rapidly. The labour participation rate for women ranged from 70 to 90%. An ILO study on female employment and fertility has noted (Bodrova, Valentina and Anker Richard (eds) Working Women in Socialist Countries: the Fertility Connection (Geneva: ILO) that women were present in virtually all occupations and industries except mining and transport. The sexual division of labour within the workplace was much more equal than in market economies.

A large percentage of women in industry were in engineering. In the USSR 40% of industrial engineers and 43% of engineers and architects in construction were women. Around 30% of agronomists, 55% of experts in animal husbandry, and 37.5% of veterinary surgeons working in state farms were women.

Special benefits were given to women in socialist countries to reduce the conflict between their roles as mothers and workers. Maternity leave in the socialist world ranged from two months in the Uzbek SSR to six months in Czechoslovakia and one year in GDR. Mothers were allowed to take an extended period of unpaid child care leave when the child was young, while their employment status and all social insurance rights remained uninterrupted. In addition, the state provided creche facilities for pre-nursery children, and centres to take care of school children after school hours on nominal payment. Meals were provided to children in the schools or daycare centres, and to workers in their workplace.

It is not that the socialist countries did not have gender related problems. Gender biases and inequalities did exist. There were inequalities in educational tracking, access to training, location in occupational structure and income levels. It is true that women rarely reached the highest levels of management authority and decision-making. Despite the fact that the occupational distribution was less segregated, women did concentrate on lower paid jobs. There were instances of gender based discrimination also. It is also true that the socialisation of housework was not adequate, and women in the socialist world did complain of double burden.

However, if one makes a relative assessment, comparing women in the socialist world with those in the developed capitalist world, it is clear that the advantages and benefits available in the socialist economies made a significant difference to women's status. Reproduction of labour was explicitly recognized as a contribution to the economy and society. The state made a substantial contribution towards the rearing of the young ones and care of the aged.

With this background the women in the socialist world did not constitute a cheaper source of labour. In fact with maternity benefits and other family benefits, women became more expensive labour.

In the transition stage the state has not been able to completely abolish the special rights of women. Private capital, naturally, is not interested in women workers who will have to be given special concessions and benefits. Men without encumbrances are preferred. There is, of course, a move towards gradually withdrawing the special facilities given to women workers. Creches have already become an unaffordably expensive facility in most countries. By the time the transition to market economy is complete, women would have lost both their jobs as will as their special status as workers and mothers.

For GDR women the impact was most severe, and they had no time for gradual adjustment. The response of the GDR women needs to be noted. Deprived of their earning capacity as well as their child care support system, East German women started economising on babies. The GDR birth rate dropped by 50% between 1989 and 1994, a fall unprecedented in the history of human civilization. But east German women are not giving up on jobs. They draw the dole and just keep applying.



Recruitment of women into wage labour in the industrialised and developing world and their marginalisation in the ex-socialist economies are part of the same process: namely capital's attempt to reduce the share of labour in the total produce.

Unfortunately for capital, the restructuring undertaken to manage the crisis that emerged in the 1970's has further deepened the crisis. The accumulation process has brought about serious environmental challenges for the sustenance of human civilization. It has brought about unemployment, impoverishment and concentration of wealth of such magnitude that civil societies are being torn apart with rampant corruption, increased crimes, and mindless ethnic or religious conflicts. Most important, the financial dynamism which overshadowed everything else in the recent past has reached a chaotic stage. The world financial structure and production structure is now far more closely knit than during the 1930's, and therefore the threat of a breakdown looms larger.

If this state of affairs continues, it is only because of the absence of a coherent and feasible counter project.

So far as feminisation of the production process, or marginalisation of women in other parts, brings women together and strengthens the women's movements, it enables them to contribute towards rejecting this unjust system altogether, and bringing back on the agenda a search for a feasible counter-project.

The search for an alternative to capitalist production relations is to be necessarily incorporated into women's struggle for their rights. As long as the system does not resolve the conflict between labour and capital, so long as the system does not accord absolute primacy to human life and human creativity, the system cannot offer emancipation to women in any meaningful way.


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