OPE-L Rohini Hensman: Globalisation, Women and Work What Are We Talking About?

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu Mar 11 2004 - 18:33:32 EST

Globalisation, Women and Work

What Are We Talking About?

From the standpoint of women workers, especially those in the third
world, the 'anti-globalisation' agenda makes no sense. It would
simply deprive them of considerable employment opportunities as also
the possibility of improving employment conditions through global
solidarity and coordination. A much more sensible objective would be
concerted action to shape the global order in accordance with a
women's agenda. This would in the first instance mean working for an
extension of the reach of international law, and for democratic
institutions of global governance. If capitalism is acting as midwife
at the birth of a borderless world, shouldn't we be ready to nurture
the new arrival and imbue it with our values of justice and love
instead of trying to push it back into the womb of history?
Rohini Hensman

EPW Perspectives
March 6, 2004

Globalisation, Women and Work

What Are We Talking About?

From the standpoint of women workers, especially those in the third
world, the 'anti-globalisation' agenda makes no sense. It would
simply deprive them of considerable employment opportunities as also
the possibility of improving employment conditions through global
solidarity and coordination. A much more sensible objective would be
concerted action to shape the global order in accordance with a
women's agenda. This would in the first instance mean working for an
extension of the reach of international law, and for democratic
institutions of global governance. If capitalism is acting as midwife
at the birth of a borderless world, shouldn't we be ready to nurture
the new arrival and imbue it with our values of justice and love
instead of trying to push it back into the womb of history?
Rohini Hensman

An intelligent extra-terrestrial being coming to earth and hearing
all the talk about globalisation might well conclude that humans have
only just discovered that their planet is (roughly) spherical. Over
the past decade, the term has been on everyone's lips and a huge
'anti-globalisation' movement has arisen, yet few people bother to
define what globalisation means. We hear of 'neo-liberal
globalisation', 'capitalist globalisation', and 'imperialist
globalisation'; in fact, when we ask people what they mean by
globalisation, they describe capitalism (a system based on the
exploitation of workers and production for profit), imperialism (the
political, economic and military domination over some states by
others), and neo-liberalism (the policy of allowing the market to
determine everything, including wage levels, health care, education,
etc). But if capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism can all be
defined without reference to globalisation, should it not be possible
to define globalisation without reference to them? Surely it is. A
reasonable definition would be the free movement of products, money,
ideas and people around the globe. At present, the only major
obstacles to such movement are national boundaries, so globalisation
would mean the weakening or eventual elimination of those boundaries.

Why is there such passionate opposition to the undermining of
national borders? A major development in the last several 100 years
was the rise and consolidation of nation states and nationalism, the
ideology that all those who belong to the nation have a greater
common interest than any group within it has with others outside.
'Imperialism and its world war' grew organically out of European
nationalism, as Max Adler put it; the remaining portions of the earth
were progressively divided up between competing empires and fought
over in two world wars. The desire for freedom on the part of the
colonised peoples led to independence movements and liberation
struggles; the dominant culture meant that these movements and
struggles too took the form of nationalism. There were dissenting
views in the early 20th century: for example, Rosa Luxemburg from
oppressed Poland and Rabindranath Tagore from colonised India were
bitter critics of 'national self-determination' and nationalism. But
they were voices in the wilderness at a time when worship of The
Nation was acquiring almost religious fervour.

The view of national boundaries as being 'natural' dates from this
period. The only challenge to existing nations came from would-be
nations claiming the right to 'national self-determination'. The idea
that the earth always has been and always will be divided into
nations was taken for granted, and with it, the idea that an
individual's highest duty is service to the nation. Culture,
tradition and development were all defined in national terms. Even
class interests, which earlier had been seen as international, were
trimmed to fit the shape of national borders. The women's movement
valiantly resisted the trend at first, but later in the 20th century
lost its internationalist edge.

It is in this context that (re)globalisation appears as something
new. Arguably, the first manifesto of the return to globalisation is
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articulating the belief
that the most basic rights of human beings cannot be different in
different countries but have to be common for all peoples. Adopted by
the UN on December 10, 1948, just one day after the Genocide
Convention, there is an intrinsic connection between the two. Both
are reactions to the horror of the Holocaust and second world war
(including the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the
ultimate barbarism, which arises when the universality of human
rights is denied. But prior to this, the International Labour
Organisation (ILO), founded in 1919 to promote social justice and
internationally recognised labour rights, had become the first
specialised agency of the UN in 1946. And even earlier, the Geneva
Conventions had been drawn up to regulate the conduct of nations
during war - circumstances in which national legislation is obviously
inadequate. Implicitly or explicitly, these treaties recognise that
global regulation is necessary.

In subsequent decades, the UN would pass many covenants and
conventions applying to the world as a whole. For example, in 1966
two covenants codifying the rights in the Universal Declaration were
adopted by the General Assembly: the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights (CPR Covenant) and the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR Covenant). The ILO played
a role in drafting both, especially the latter. The Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),
1979, is often described as an international bill of rights for
women. The International Labour Code of the ILO is a large and
growing document. All these and similar developments can be seen as
being at least partially a result of the efforts of those sections of
the labour movement and women's movement which still stubbornly
refuse to allow national boundaries to divide workers from workers or
women from women.

Capitalism, Imperialism and Globalisation

But what about the globalisation carried out by capitalism? That, of
course, is not as old as humankind is, although it is as old as
capitalism itself, which arose out of global trade. As nations began
to form in Europe, states assisted their merchant class to compete
with rivals by using their power to dominate parts of the world from
which they sourced the commodities that were making them rich.
Imperialism in its classic form flows from this history of commercial
expansion. It helped extend the reach of capitalism to most parts of
the world, but in a manner that served the interests of the imperial
power. This process of expansion worked in different ways in
different parts of the world: in some (such as Africa) it devastated
local populations through the slave trade and forced labour, in
others (the Americas and Australasia) it involved the outright
extermination of the indigenous peoples. In general, however, the
brutality typical of colonial regimes reflected the drive to forcibly
create a labour force for the needs of capital, at considerable cost
to the communities impacted by this. All of this involved a
restricted kind of globalisation, first because the world economy
created by imperialism was tightly partitioned between rival imperial
powers, thus restricting the mobility of goods, capital and
personnel; next because territories such as that of the former Soviet
Union remained outside the system; and finally, because late
industrialisers both within Europe and elsewhere (e g, Japan, India)
used protectionism to nurture their own infant industries.

The demand for the removal of barriers to the free movement of goods
and capital from country to country comes from large firms -
international or transnational corporations - whose scale of
operations demands that the whole world be open to them. Financial
institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World
Bank, whose structure ensures that they are dominated by rich
nations, have assisted in the process of opening up the world to
international firms through the policies imposed on loan recipients.
Yet the removal of trade barriers has become just as important to
countries in the developing world. The former Soviet Union, India and
China are examples of large economies that achieved an impressive
degree of industrialisation while still largely insulated from the
rest of the world, but they have found themselves seriously lagging
behind technologically. Smaller nations - especially those whose
economies have been distorted by colonialism - are even more
obviously dependent on the world market. And while there has been no
formal globalisation of the labour market, in practice vast numbers
of migrant workers travel around the world seeking employment and a
large proportion of them are women.

A post-Soviet, truly global capitalism cannot function smoothly
without commonly accepted rules, and while the richer, more powerful
nations may try to push through their agendas in the regulatory
bodies, they cannot afford to ignore the others without risking a
breakdown of the entire effort. Anti-globalisers, who want to scrap
the World Trade Organisation (WTO), formed in January 1995 and
correctly seen as a key institution of a globalised capitalism, never
bother to spell out the alternative. As of now, the only alternatives
are nationally isolated economies or bilateral trade agreements.
National self-sufficiency converges with the xenophobic nationalist
agenda of the far right (the RSS, the backbone of India's fascist
movement, was in the forefront of demonstrations against then WTO
director-general Mike Moore in India in January 2000), and you don't
have to be a genius to predict whose agenda will get priority when
bilateral trade agreements are between developing and developed
countries. This also creates the possibility of dirty deals (typical
of the US) of the
you-support-us-and-we'll-give-preference-to-your-exports type.
Indeed, this is what was happening before the formation of the WTO
and to some extent continues to happen today. But the existence of a
multilateral regulatory body with a formal one-country-one-vote
constitution at least makes it possible for developing countries to
bargain collectively in setting the rules as well as getting them
implemented. This explains why third world countries, from giants
like China to the poorest of the least developed countries (LDCs),
have been queuing up to join the WTO. To say that poor countries
should not join the WTO because rich countries have a stronger
position within it is like saying that workers should not engage in
collective bargaining because employers are stronger. Of course they
are! But does that mean that workers should remain isolated as
individuals? In solidarity lies strength, as workers have always
known, and the weaker party needs collective bargaining more than the
stronger one.

Without going into too much detail, we can list some of the ways in
which globalised capitalism is different from imperialism.
Imperialism involves military and/or political domination over
territories by imperial states, while globalisation depends on real
political autonomy among its participants. Imperial powers
unilaterally dictate the rules in imperialism while globalisation
would be unsustainable without regulation by multilateral bodies.
Imperialism reflects the existence of strong nation states and
nationalism, while globalisation weakens both. The free and rapid
movement of information which is made possible by information
technology is a key component of globalisation but not of
imperialism. Far from being a prime mover of globalisation, the US
under the Bush administration has been its greatest obstacle. The
bombing and invasion of Iraq was undertaken in clear opposition to
the UN, a very imperfect multilateral body that the US had previously
dominated completely. It has attempted to sabotage virtually every
effort at multilateral global regulation - the Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty and Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change, the Chemical and Biological Weapons
Conventions, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Geneva
Conventions, and has even been reluctant to abide by WTO regulations.
In each case, its actions have been justified by national sovereignty
(which it feels would be undermined by the inspection regimes of the
CTBT and Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions as well as the
ICC) or national interest (the invasion of Iraq in defiance of the UN
Security Council, and flouting of the Geneva Conventions, Kyoto
Protocol and WTO rules). In all these cases, the multilateral
regulatory regime requisite for globalisation conflicts with the
unilateral nature of US imperialism.

Visible Work, Invisible Work

It was in the 1970s that there began to be theories about the 'New
International Division of Labour (NIDL)' and 'feminisation of the
labour force', and these theories reflected real changes occurring
globally. MNCs shifted large chunks of their more labour-intensive
processes - electronic and automobile assembly, for example - to
third world countries, and the majority of new workers were women.
According to ILO statistics, global employment almost doubled between
1965 and 1995, the bulk of the expansion being in the developing
countries and more than half the new recruits women. For MNCs, this
was a change of policy from the previous period when their
manufacturing was largely in western Europe and North America,
although there had already been manufacturing units set up in some
developing countries before the so-called NIDL; globalisation
involved a more even spread of their manufacturing units around the
world. These companies were driven not by nationalism, but by the
thirst for profit, and if that meant closing down plants in Europe or
North America and shifting production and investment to the third
world, it was not a problem for them. But for workers - especially
male workers - in the north, some of whom had done well in the
previous period, it meant a loss of employment that was exacerbated
by technological change. This was mitigated to some extent by the
rise of new sources of employment, especially for women in the
service sector. However, many of the new jobs were under much
inferior employment conditions, and the overall effect in these
countries, for both men and women, was a fairly sharp fall in income
and labour standards.

For third world workers who gained employment, conditions varied
widely. A relatively small number in large-scale formal sector
workplaces succeeded in unionising and winning good employment
conditions. For example, the men and women in Bombay's pharmaceutical
factories in the 1960s and 1970s had secure jobs, good wages and
decent working conditions, paid off-days, holidays and leave and a
large number of benefits and allowances, including three months'
fully paid maternity leave and workplace creches for the pre-school
children of women. But most were not so lucky. Much of the work in
the garment industry, for example, was shifted to free trade zones
where unions were either explicitly banned by law, or in practice
kept out by military-style security measures for the entire zone and
severe penalties for any worker who so much as made a move towards
organising. This has been the pattern in Sri Lanka, the Philippines
and many central American countries. In India and to some extent
Pakistan, on the other hand, the dominant model has been extreme
decentralisation of production through subcontracting to small units
employing informal workers; many jobs have been shifted to this
sector from the shrinking formal sector in recent years. Both models
have been used to keep out unions, but the latter model has been more
successful in the long term. Prolonged and persistent efforts to
organise themselves in the large-scale, formal units of the FTZs by
workers employed in them have in some cases yielded positive results,
despite meeting brutal resistance from employers and governments.
Organising informal workers, on the other hand, has proved almost
impossible. How can a worker seek redress when she is dismissed for
trying to organise if she has no legal proof of having been employed
in the first place? Denied the right to organise and bargain
collectively, workers in both the FTZs and the informal sector have
been subjected to extremely harsh employment conditions.

So on balance, are these women better off with or without employment?
If you ask them, the answer will be clear. There is a saying that the
only thing worse than being exploited by capital is not being
exploited by capital, and paradoxical though it may seem, this is
true. Dreaming of alternatives is fine, but it is also necessary to
come to terms with reality, and in the capitalist world economy of
today, especially in third world countries without any social welfare
system, having a job - any job - is better than having none. If
workers continue to earn a pittance by working under dreadful
conditions, it is because this is the only way in which they and
their families can survive.

In the case of women, there is yet another reason why employment is
important. I have asked many young women working in FTZs in Sri Lanka
whether they would prefer it if their fathers or husbands earned
enough to keep them at home and the answer has invariably been 'No'.
Naila Kabeer, who interviewed women garment workers in Bangladesh,
received more or less the same reply. In our deeply patriarchal
societies, being a breadwinner gives women a potential for
empowerment which they otherwise don't have. Think of a young woman
who does not want to be forced into marrying a man against her will,
or a woman trying to escape from an abusive marriage. Without
employment, the chances of escape would be virtually nil. And even if
they do not wish to leave their homes, the possibility that they
might do so gives them some bargaining power to demand greater
freedom. Those who deplore the exploitative conditions under which
these women work without seeing the even greater oppression they
might suffer without those jobs see only part of the picture.

However, that part of the picture is very real, and certainly needs
to be changed. Purely local and national struggles for unionisation
and protective labour legislation have been undermined by the global
mobility of capital, but globalisation has also created new ways of
fighting for workers' rights. International trade union solidarity
and coordinated campaigns, including the passing of new ILO
Conventions, have in some cases succeeded in winning rights for
workers engaged in local struggles. The ILO Core Conventions -
protecting freedom of association, the right to organise and bargain
collectively, freedom from forced and bonded labour, the abolition of
child labour, and freedom from discrimination - were made mandatory
in all member states of the ILO in 1998. The right to a safe and
healthy workplace and freedom from sexual harassment can also be seen
as basic human rights, although they are not included in the core
conventions. Consumer campaigns in western Europe and North America
have succeeded in imposing codes of conduct guaranteeing basic
workers' rights in companies supplying major retailers and brand name
companies, and while the problem of implementing these codes on a
large scale has not been solved, there are individual cases where
workers' rights have been defended and won through such campaigns.
The issue of including a workers' rights clause in multilateral trade
agreements has been a contentious one, yet if this is achieved it
would at the very least establish the right of workers producing for
export to organise unions and bargain collectively.

Ideally, all these rights should also be available to informal
workers. But there is a major problem in winning them so long as
these workers have no proof of employment and are not even registered
as workers. One of the major demands of women homeworkers in the
garment industry in Mumbai is recognition of their status as workers
and proof of employment. They suggest various ways in which this can
be done: registration by the government, identity cards, attendance
diaries and pay slips, for example. Basically, there should be a
record of who works for whom and for how long, no matter how
temporary, seasonal or casual the employment is. For contract
workers, there is an additional complication, because the labour
contractor acts as a middleman between worker and employer without
taking on the responsibilities of an employer. In principle, whoever
pays the worker's wages should be regarded as the employer - i e,
there should be no intermediary between employer and worker. In most
cases, the contractor should be registered only as a recruitment
agent and paid a commission by the employer, who should then pay the
workers directly. But in some cases - cleaning contractors, for
example - the contractor could be registered as the employer. With
the advent of computers, the idea of keeping a record of all
employment becomes quite feasible.

Once informal labour has been formalised by registration, it would be
possible to introduce additional measures to ensure a maximum amount
of regularisation of employment. For example, the Contract Labour Act
in India makes it illegal to employ contract workers for permanent or
perennial jobs; if instead of attempting to 'reform' this law into
nothingness the government were to extend it to all forms of
irregular employment (e g, temporary, casual and seasonal as well as
contract labour) and enforce it, this would regularise large sections
of the labour force. This does not mean that there should be job
security in some absolute sense, only that so long as a job remains
in existence, the same worker should be employed to do it, unless
incompetence or wrongdoing can be proved. With a record of all
employment being kept, it would become much more obvious when unfair
labour practices are being used, such as creating artificial breaks
in employment, terminating one worker and employing another simply in
order not to make the first worker permanent, or moving production to
another location when workers unionise. If, in addition, it is
stipulated that irregular workers have to be paid the same wages as
permanent workers doing comparable work, with pro rata facilities
(like paid off-days, holidays and crèches) and benefits (health care,
retirement benefits, bonus, etc), the temptation for employers to use
irregular workers in the place of regular ones would be much reduced.
Their argument for using irregular workers is flexibility, and if
this is the real reason, there should be no objection to spending as
much on these workers as on permanent ones.

However, if these improvements are made only in some countries, there
is a danger that capital (including capital originating in that
country) will relocate to other countries where standards are lower.
This has already happened in many cases - for example, Hong Kong and
South Korea - where workers have fought for and won better conditions
only to find themselves jobless when production moves to another
country. Therefore it would be crucially important that this is an
international campaign, coordinating local action in different
countries and also putting pressure on international bodies to
enforce these measures globally. In other words, so far as visible (i
e, waged) work is concerned, the appropriate response to capitalist
globalisation is a struggle to globalise workers' rights, especially
basic human rights (the ILO Core Conventions) and parental rights,
without which women are almost always at a disadvantage. But this
brings us to the issue of the unwaged caring work in the home which
occupies a large part of most women's lives, and which remained
invisible to economics until feminists pointed out how crucial it is
in any society.

'They Want Warfare, We Want Welfare!'

This slogan, popular on anti-war demonstrations, encapsulates the
second major element in a women's global agenda. Founder of
International Women's Day Clara Zetkin took it for granted that women
workers' rights and opposition to war went hand-in-hand, and March 8
is, among other things, the anniversary of the Russian women workers'
strike, demanding 'bread and peace', that brought down Tsarism in
1917. Women's opposition to war is not surprising if we keep in mind
the current gender division of labour. Years of labour and love are
required to nurture a human being from birth to adulthood, yet a
bullet or bomb can wipe out this labour of love in an instant. Over
and above the emotional loss caused by the death of loved ones in
war, there is the additional destruction of the products of women's
work on a massive scale. But opposition to war cannot be confined
within national borders. Every conflict has at least two sides, and
almost always they are between opposing nationalisms, whether these
are within the same country or between two countries. In order to be
successful, a peace movement has to be international.

The other side of this coin is social recognition and equal sharing
of the unwaged caring work currently performed mainly by women, which
implies its inclusion in the measurement of GDP and very definite
measures to support and assist those who carry it out. For example,
shorter working hours, part-time work under decent conditions and
parental leave are vitally necessary for parents with babies, and
accessible high-quality childcare also becomes desirable at a
slightly later stage. Recognising the social value of this kind of
work means that people who are engaged in full-time care of the very
young, very old or chronically ill need to be provided by society
with a livelihood as well as assistance in their work. Provision of
free health care and a good education are yet another way in which
society can contribute to this type of work and reduce the burden on

The role of women in caring work explains why they have always been
prominent in the peace movement, taking part in Women in Black
movements, anti-war demonstrations, and cross-border solidarity
actions. Women have played a major role in the anti-nuclear movement
and campaign against landmines, and inputs from women were crucially
important in shaping the treaty of the International Criminal Court,
especially in getting recognition for crimes against women as
elements in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
However, we have not been so active in following through the
budgetary implications of our agenda. As working women, we make a
substantial contribution to the creation of wealth; indeed, if the
unwaged component is taken into account, women still contribute more
than men do, although things are slowly changing, with men taking a
greater part in household work. We, therefore, have a right to have
both information and some control over what is done with 'government'
money which is, after all, obtained by taxation. Reallocating money
currently spent on huge military budgets to health, social security
and education would simultaneously reduce the risk of death or injury
in war and improve chances of life and well-being for large sections
of the working population. Once again, this effort has much greater
chances of success if it is global. Women have in fact opposed IMF
and World Bank policies that reduce or discontinue welfare
expenditure. But we could also take more positive steps, for example,
campaign for implementation of ILO conventions limiting working
hours, providing parental leave (not just for women but also for men,
otherwise the traditional gender division of labour is reinforced)
and providing social welfare benefits.

An early opponent of globalisation wrote, "the hardest battle would
have to be fought, not against hostile nations, but against
international capital". That was Hitler, in Mein Kampf (1943).
Opposition to international (or foreign) capital has always been a
defining feature of fascism. And perhaps the worst result of adopting
'anti-globalisation', with its explicit attack on international
capital and implicit endorsement of nationalism, is that it has
legitimised and reinforced the xenophobic agenda of the far Right,
helping it to grow in one country after another. This is not a case
of the Right cleverly co-opting the language of the Left, but of the
Left stupidly adopting the rhetoric and ideology of the Right. We
cannot fight against fascism and its particularly monstrous attack on
women if we share its unquestioning belief in state sovereignty: that
is the fundamental truth grasped by the women's groups behind the
International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat. Moreover, a
nationalist outlook makes it impossible to fight effectively against
imperialism (expansionist nationalism) and war (competitive
militarised nationalism), because at bottom, the two sides share the
same ideology.

From the standpoint of women workers, especially those in the third
world, the 'anti-globalisation' agenda makes no sense. If successful,
it would simply deprive them of a large proportion of their
employment opportunities as well as the possibility of improving
employment conditions through global solidarity and coordination.
Moreover, this agenda ignores women's interest in world peace, which
by its nature has to be global. A much more sensible objective would
be concerted action to shape the global order in accordance with a
women's agenda for justice and equity as well as caring and
nurturing. This would in the first instance mean working for an
extension of the reach of international law, and for democratic
institutions of global governance. Since capital is inherently
global, anti-globalisation can only split workers along national
lines, making their resistance to capital weaker. Realising this, our
forefathers and foremothers in the revolutionary Communist movement
exhorted workers of all countries to unite in order to overthrow
capitalism. Today, even the short-term goal of resisting neo-liberal
policies cannot be achieved without international coordination. And
in the long-term, capitalism will continue to survive so long as
workers' solidarity is broken by nationalism and other divisive

Can a socialist feminist vision of an ideal world include national
boundaries maintained by nationalism, with its potential for
developing into fascism, imperialism and war? Surely not! Given how
barbaric violence - against women especially - has been perpetrated
around the issue of national borders in south Asia (during partition
and the national liberation struggle of Bangladesh, in north-east
India, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, etc), should we not be arguing for the
removal of immigration and trade barriers in the SAARC region rather
than fighting against the dissolution of those barriers by
globalisation? If capitalism is acting as midwife at the birth of a
borderless world, shouldn't we be ready to nurture the new arrival
and imbue it with our values of justice and love instead of trying to
push it back into the womb of history?

Address for correspondence:


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