Chinese Women Workers

During the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, the world has borne witness to a period of rapid industrial growth and production, transnational communication and international investment. This process has allowed nations to rapidly advance their societies, both economically and culturally, to a point where many nations especially those once fettered by communism and colonialism – bare few resemblances to their former selves of sixty years ago. During the last couple decades of the 20th century, this exponential process of growth and development has been given a name: globalization.

Despite the advances and benefits citizens of the post-industrial world now enjoy, the rewards of globalization have been reaped unfairly, for globally women have yet been adequately able to enjoy the benefits of this new world order. At 51%, women comprise the majority of the world population (Women Watch), and yet they are disproportionally over-represented in the global numbers on poverty, economic exploitation and socio-political discrimination. There is however, an inherent duality in globalization, in which there lies the potential to both better or erode the position of women in the world. I argue that while the economic impact of globalization has on the whole been detrimental to women, women have utilized its potential to fight for socio-political betterment.

Exploration, commerce and the spread of ideas have always been a part of the human experience, yet this process has changed significantly over the centuries. For the last 500 years, intercontinental trade and population migrations have been connected with the quest for new resources and markets, and globalization is seen as the latest manifestation in the evolution of this process. The economic and cultural expansion of Europe and later the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries can be seen as having global reach, globalization, specifically neo-liberal globalization is a truly global process by which actors on the modern world stage interact.

Neo-liberal globalization entails a myriad of various socio-economic policies. These include the promotion of global political and economic interconnectedness as well as neo-liberal policies; namely practices that promote and advance human well-being. Neo-liberal economic theory advocates the private ownership of property, free markets as well as free trade and deregulation. Privatization, economic liberalization, a flexible labour pool, and diminished state support for social programs (health care etc.) are all aspects of neo-liberal globalization, which has as its main goal the preservation and expansion of capitalism. While these practices help create new opportunities and open up markets, they also create situations which can negatively influence the socio-economic position of women, who often bear the costs and consequences of globalization.

At a golden-arched symbol of globalization in Riyadh, modernity yields to tradition with separate sections for men and completely covered women.

Globalization has facilitated the creation of a system of international business, with corporations utilizing the resources and labour of many nations thereby establishing global supply chains. Women constitute the majority of the workforce in these supply chains, yet despite this, often see their occupational status diminished. Women workers in the globalized economy have been relegated to the margins and often constitute the bottom rung of global supply chains. Additionally in order for women to become income earners, they need to produce something which they can sell, and are often limited to selling their labour. This in turn has led to “women [having] become the new industrial proletariat in export based industries.” – (Jaggar, 305)

Many women are employed for multinational corporations (MNCs) which have outsourced their production facilities to countries with lower labour costs and less stringent business and environmental regulations. Women often make up the large majority of the workforce, being preferred by MNCs for their perceived non-militancy, docility, and manual dexterity. This preference is exemplified by the tendency of Asian countries especially China, Thailand and Vietnam to use stereotypes to portray their female workforce as tractable, hardworking, dexterous and sexy, in an attempt to lure foreign corporations to their shores.

While MNCs view women as docile, they remain aware of the threat posed by labour organization, and have subsequently undertaken efforts which discourage women from organizing. This suppression of labour organization is apparent in the structure and job descriptions of female work roles themselves. Globalization has created jobs in export orientated sectors such as factory work that are insecure, fluid and entail poor labour conditions and low wages. Women are also subject to a double burden, for employers often fire women who become pregnant or get married. Employers also assume that the incomes of women are secondary, namely that they are dependent upon another provider for the majority of their income, a view which in turn causes MNCs to further lower wages.

MNCs by their very nature tend to operate in several countries, and thusly have the ability move their means of production from one nation to another. This adds an additional deterrent against the mobilization and unionization of women workers, for they must take into consideration the effects of ‘capital flight.’ This occurs when MNCs simply move operations from an area in which workers have demanded better conditions, to another area where said issue has not been brought up. A large part of the discussion surrounding the employment of women in a global economy is based on whether it is better to have a job under ‘sweatshop’ conditions, as opposed to no job at all. For example foreign direct investment (FDI) increases the number of jobs in the job market, thereby increasing the potential number of women in the workforce. This in turn causes a feminization of labour which subsequently changes gender hierarchies. The increased numbers of women in the workforce in turn makes them less dependent on husbands or parents for their income, thereby giving them more autonomy, as well as more say on family spending.

This is demonstrated in the increase in the number of women who act as the sole breadwinner. In 1940 men constituted 94% of the sole breadwinners, whereas as of 2000 they only constituted 29% (Lindio-McGovern, Ligaya and Wallimann, 38). The policies of MNCs, although often criticised also have positive (albeit unintentional) effects. The common practice of not providing maternal leave or other benefits, has in turn led to many women putting off getting married. Women who get married later in life generally have more say in the household and have fewer children, which in turn mitigates explosive population growth as well as child poverty and infant mortality rates.

Uneducated and barefoot, women from Coimbatore, India, work in the Dimexon Diamond Factory cutting, shaping, and polishing raw stones into precious gems.

Globalization is seen by some as a means of economic exploitation, but it is also a means for empowerment, with women in many cases being viewed as “neither victims pure and simple nor free and unfettered” (Gray,Kittilson and Sandholtz, 297). This is evidenced in the rise of micro-financing. Micro-financing involves very small loans (ranging from fifty to several thousand dollars), which in many cases are given to women in developing countries by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These loans give women access to the international market by providing them with the capital to start their own businesses and escape from sweatshops. These microloans in tandem with the incomes women earn from their jobs in the industrial sector are helping keep millions out of poverty, for these incomes often bolster the incomes of male relatives, who are having to deal with lower wages.

Despite the vast majority of public attention being focused on sweatshop labourers in South America and Asia, women in general remain marginalized and exploited, with Kabeer (1999) arguing that “…in Los Angeles and East London women workers have worse working conditions than women workers in Dhaka [Bangladesh]” (Prieto-Carron, 7). Women in the North (refers to the highly industrialized nations which are generally located in the Northern Hemisphere, with Australia and New Zealand being the exceptions) have suffered from the outsourcing of well paying blue collar jobs to the South (lesser developed nations generally in southern hemisphere.)

These jobs have in turn been replaced by ‘McJobs’ – namely causal and part-time jobs which are typically low paid and lack health or retirement benefits. This increase in the part-time section of the economy has in turn led to a steady reduction in real hourly wages since the 1970s. This subsequently disenfranchises women workers; especially women workers who belong to an ethnic minority for both groups hold disproportional numbers of low-paying jobs, leading in turn to a feminization of poverty. This is demonstrated by the fact that 70% of the 1.3 billion impoverished people in the world are women (Jaggar, 306-307).

Despite increased participation in the international economy, women are still those most likely to feel the effects of economic downturns. This was witnessed during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, in which women were more likely to be fired or lose their jobs than their male counterparts. More recently the worldwide economic downturn of 2009 saw large losses in export and industry dependent economies, which in turn led to increased layoffs among women workers. With more women out of the workforce many family budgets become reduced, which in turn leads to belt tightening. The education of girls is one of the first things to be dropped by families with decreased income.

Kamal Parmar, 62, left, teaches children at a footpath school, as vehicles whiz past them, in Ahmadabad, India.

The economic downturn has also reduced the micro-financing budgets of NGOs which negatively impacts women who comprise 83% of microloan recipients (World Bank). There are also objections over the micro-financing projects of western NGOs, for critics argue that while the efforts of NGOs may circumvent unnecessary bureaucracy and corruption; it also has the effect of depolitizing the poor, thereby removing opportunities for them to change their lot via politic action.

Women in the 21st century also comprise the majority in another sector of the economy, namely in healthcare and domestic help, both areas which have seen large increases in the numbers of international migrants seeking jobs. Many women in the South attempt to seek better jobs by migrating to more developed countries, with the hope of a higher income and a better life. Due to the rapidly aging world population, direct long-term care (DLTC) is in major demand and represents the fastest growing occupation in the United States, with demand expected to rise by 63.5% or about 900,000 new jobs between 2005 and 2010 (Browne and Braun, 17). DLTC jobs are constructed to target people with low educational attainment and poor English skills, thereby facilitating high turnover rates and subsequently lower wages. It is therefore necessary that “care be supplied to those who need it, without exploiting the givers of care…at present, in all nations of the world, this difficult social problem has not been solved” (Browne and Brain, 20).

On top of this, intergovernmental work agreements generally withhold citizenship from guest workers, thereby creating institutional discrimination and a legal underclass. This marginalization is also evidenced in the field of domestic help of which women comprise the vast majority of workers. Migrant workers in the domestic field are also subject to exploitation, for many are paid ‘under the table’, with few receiving health insurance and none owning their own homes in their hosts countries. This marginalization of women migrants further emphasises the North-South divide and allows host countries to reap substantial benefits for a very low cost.

South Africa is a veritable microcosm for this trend, in which women migrants from impoverished Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland make their living working as domestic help for white but also many black South Africans. These women provide an even cheaper labour source than the already cheap South African labour market, thereby forcing South Africans out of jobs and driving down wages. This has led to high levels of exploitation by both employers and government officials, with many women workers suffering from sexual abuse in the workplace, or being forced to offer sexual favours to border guards and police in order to receive papers and work permits. In a rather ironic twist this has led to increased discrimination of foreign workers in South Africa on the whole, with many young xenophobic blacks using to the term ‘makwerekwere’ when referring to foreign migrants – a term originally used by the apartheid government in the 1980s to dehumanize blacks.

Despite these negative trends, some see the growing numbers of international migrants as a positive development. Migration is an effective poverty reduction strategy, affording domestic help and DLTC workers the ability to send their income home in the form of international remittances, thereby greatly improving the quality of life for their families. The revenue potential of migrant women workers has led several countries, most notably Jamaica, Mexico, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to invest heavily in work training programs in order to capitalise on this growing sector. For example 10% of the Philippines’ 89 million people live outside of the country, the vast majority being migrant workers and contribute between $7-8 billion dollars to the Philippine economy, representing 10% of GNP (Browne and Braun, 19).

Upon converting remittances into local currencies, many women find themselves with a small fortune which allows them to return to their home nations and set up local businesses which in turn offer employment opportunities for other women. For example in Bangladesh, women workers who returned after working overseas have set up garment shops which employ local women and have organized labour unions in order to increase their bargaining power in the national textile market.

Women at work in a textile factory. Cochin, India.

Although there is evidence that globalization has allowed some women to become more independent and to better themselves, the fact remains that the majority of female domestic workers and caregivers are exploited and suffer from under strict working conditions. Migrant women remain vulnerable because they constitute a working underclass in many newly rich nations, for example Filipinas in Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia and Indian workers in the UAE and Qatar.

Due to their low status in many societies migrant women are often not covered by local labour laws and are forced to work under unfavourable conditions such as 12+ hour days, not being able to take holidays and being expected to be on call 24/7. Women migrants are often bound to specific employers from one to three years by inflexible work contracts, making it difficult for women to escape from abusive or detrimental employment situations. This inflexibility in the work contract system is evidenced by the fact that there are currently several hundred Filipino women in Saudi jails, who although managing to escape abuse have been imprisoned for breaking their work contracts; an act which is deemed illegal under many international work agreements.

While women have been largely disenfranchised and exploited by the socio-economic side of globalization they have utilized the socio-political persuasiveness of globalization in order to bring about changes concerning the status and rights of women. Women have utilised the potential of non-state actors (NGOs , IGOs etc.) to push for greater equality; something which is demonstrated by the fact that women constitute the majority of the staff in many not for profits organizations. The concept of collective female action in order to affect policy decisions is not a new one. Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes in 411BC tells the tale of the women of two warring city-states coming together and undertaking a sex strike in order to force the men to make peace.

In 2002, this sentiment was echoed somewhat in Nigeria when 600 women seized ChevronTexaco’s Escravos oil export terminal, located in the Niger delta for eleven days. This action was in response to the appropriation of village lands for company operations as well as the environmental degradation caused by Big Oil. The women rebuffed attempts by government soldiers to remove them by force by threatening to invoke the dreaded ‘curse of nakedness.’ The curse thought to cause madness and death, involves the women bearing their vaginas to their opponents, thereby reminding them where they came from and demonstrating the sovereignty women have over life, thereby negating any threats against their own lives. This in turn emphasises the role women play as the reproducers of life, both biologically and culturally, giving them a privileged position within society and the ability to alter it from the inside out.

The process of globalization has given women the means with which to fight for equality, be it through financial and material contributions from more developed countries or through giving them an outlet in the form of the consciousness raising efforts of NGOs. This point is demonstrated by the findings of the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, which demonstrated a direct link between the economic vulnerability of women and their vulnerability to abuse and coercion. The impact of globalization in the form of concerted international action and agreement is one which has promising potential to redress discrimination against women, for as the 1995 United Nations Human Development Report stated “…in no society today do women enjoy the same opportunities as men” (Gray, Kittilson and Sandholtz, 294). The issue of women’s rights in the context of globalization has been given more attention in the last couple decades. For example the efforts of female activists to have violence against women reclassified as a serious crime, has been internationally recognized and discussed at venues such as the Beijing Plus Five UN Special Session in 2000.

Members of the Gulabi Gang, a women’s rights group, gathered in Allahabad

Feminists in North America and Europe have increased public awareness of women’s rights during the last thirty years and more recently intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the World Bank have followed suit. In 1987 the World Bank increased the number of staff allocated to investigating the effects of gender and work, and in the early 1990s integrated women’s issues into their lending, development and micro-financing efforts. Although the efforts of Northern feminists and NGOs to campaign for the rights of women, is generally met with approval there are those who view said forces as part of the imperialistic Westernizing effect of globalization. The gap between 1st world and 3rd world feminists is just as wide as the gap between 1st and 3rd world economies. Many women in the South see globalization as having an air of colonialism about it and view the attempts of 1st world feminists as merely a new take on the old imperial mindset of  “white men [in this case white women] saving brown women from brown men” (Nandini, 105). Prof. June Nash supports this view in which she recounts that upon her arrival in Buenos Aires to attend a conference of (mainly Western) feminists she found herself “confronted with a picket line of women charging us with yet another imperialist takeover, this time by U.S. feminists” (Nash, 148).

Despite the reservations of some about the social and cultural impacts of a globalized world, globalization still facilitates the process of gender equalization. Both the socio-political and economic effects associated with globalization offer opportunities for women to improve their position in society. Long term studies have indicated that nations with higher levels of economic development in turn enjoy greater levels of female equality. Industrial and post-industrial nations are also more likely to support the economic and political equality of women than agrarian ones. Said studies have also shown that increased interaction with the international community exerts a ‘socialization’ effect thereby increasing the likelihood of nations adopting international norms. This is witnessed by fact that countries which have 35 years as opposed to 18 years of UN and World Bank membership have higher levels of women in the workforce.

The power of a globalized effort to rectify the situation of women is demonstrated by the ramifications of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979. Although many countries including the United States did not ratify the convention, nations that did, have according to a thirty year study of 180 nations seen a 2% increase in the number of women in the workforce, merely from signing the agreement (Gray, Kittilson and Sandholtz, 319). Signatory nations such have seen increased public interest and pressure concerning women’s rights, with Pakistan setting up an autonomous national commission for women. Additionally Turkey has created new women’s agencies and has under gone reform in order to allow women to own property, whereas Costa Rica too has initiated wide ranging and comprehensive reform pushing for women’s equality.

Globalization is one of the defining characteristic of the modern world, and has in a relatively short period of time altered the way humanity does business and interacts forever. Although there is reason to question a system in which the 200 wealthiest people in the world control the same amount of income as 41% of the world population (Jaggar, 304), this remains a perversion of the potential of globalization. The immense power of globalization has altered the socio-economic makeup of our world and ushered in a new paradigm of transnational cooperation and integration.

While globalization has been on whole had negative effects for millions if not billions of women in terms of their position in the economy, it has at the same time, imbued them with the ability to organize and demand change. The use of NGOs and IGOs in attempts to raise awareness and pressure governments over the issue of women’s rights has been highly successful. Globalization redefines the existing power structure, allowing women to bypass more traditional information and decision making channels, and to gain access to measures which allows women to better their collective position on the world stage.

J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for

Additional images & edits by Dana