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International Socialism, Winter 2000


Esme Choonara

Threads of resistance


From International Socialism 2:89, Winter 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Naila Kabeer
The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka
Verso 2000, £20

The last year has been marked by the growth of an international movement against capitalism. Thousands of people have been part of worldwide protests against the devastating effects of global capitalism on people’s lives and the environment. This movement has thrown up many questions about the nature of the world that we live in, and debates as to how to solve the problems we face. The Power to Choose addresses some of these questions. The book started as an investigation into what appeared to be the paradoxical choices made by Bangladeshi women working in the textile industry in two different parts of the world. It developed to become a critique of the dynamics of global capitalism and its implications for women workers in international trade.

The number of textile factories in Bangladesh grew rapidly after 1982 with the introduction of government incentives for export-oriented manufacturing known as the New Industrial Policy. The expansion of textiles pulled hundreds of women, often migrants from the countryside, into work in the new factories. Visiting the capital, Dhaka, in 1984 Kabeer was ‘struck by the sight of thousands of young women moving briskly around on the streets’. [1] She was surprised by such a rapid transformation and the apparent abandonment of old norms in a country ‘where strong forms of purdah, or female exclusion, had always confined women to the home and where female participation in public forms of employment had historically been low’. [2]

This contrasted with her experience of carrying out research in the textile industry in the East End of London where she found that, despite a long history of female employment in the textile industry in a secular society, Bangladeshi women working in textiles were concentrated overwhelmingly in homeworking.

Kabeer carried out interviews with groups of Bangladeshi women workers in London and Dhaka to explore their choices, recognising them as the subjects, not merely the objects, of the international economy. Her project, however, is not just one of ‘giving voice’ to the oppressed and exploited, but a sophisticated argument about trade standards, protectionism and the effect of economic changes on the lives of women.

Restructuring textiles

Textile manufacturing is a relatively low investment industry, requiring little heavy machinery, in contrast to heavier industries which are harder to relocate. [3] This in part explains the growth of export-oriented textile manufacture in many countries of south east Asia and the Indian subcontinent as textile manufacturers have sought out new locations to maximise their profits. However, Kabeer points out that simply to blame cheap imports from the Third World for British job losses misses a more complex picture. While the number of textile manufacturing jobs in Britain have declined significantly over the last 30 years, the moving of production abroad or subcontracting from lower wage economies is only one of several options for clothing manufacturers. Faced with the recession of the 1970s and with increased competition in fashionwear, many clothing manufacturers shut down altogether. Others changed production techniques, introduced new automation or relocated within Britain, often to smaller suppliers. Not all clothing imports come from Third World countries. In 1984, for example, Kabeer points out that:

34 percent of domestic demand for clothing was met by imports. Hong Kong, one of the wealthiest fastest-growing economies of the Third World, was also its largest individual supplier, accounting for 23 percent of imports. However the remaining imports were fairly evenly shared between industrialised and developing countries. Almost a third of imports were from within the EEC, with Italy as the dominant supplier, followed by Portugal, France, and the Irish Republic. [4]

Changes in the textile industry are bound up with the inequalities of world trade. In 1974 the West imposed quotas on clothing imports from developing countries through the Multifibre Agreement (MFA). This led capitalists from the newly industrialising countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore to engage in ‘quota hopping’: subcontracting or relocating to countries and sites which had not reached their quota. It was in this way that export-oriented textile manufacturing was introduced in Bangladesh, although the biggest growth came in 1982 with the introduction of the New Industrial Policy when up to 250,000 jobs were created, mostly taken up by women.

In 1985 Britain, France and the United States used the MFA to impose quotas on imports from Bangladesh, then the second poorest country in the world, leading to factory closures and the sacking of around 100,000 women employed in textile manufacture in Bangladesh. Kabeer was involved in the campaign launched at this time by the World Development Movement to stop the imposition of quotas on the poorest 50 countries of the world. Her concerns as an activist rather than just an academic commentator mean that the analysis in her book is directed not merely at empirical data, at ‘finding out’, but at posing an argument about responses to the inequalities of world trade.

Women and work – Dhaka

Asian women are often stereotyped in the Western media as passive victims. Governments of the Third World are also happy to use these racist stereotypes in an attempt to attract investment. For example, the Malaysian government published an investment brochure boasting that:

The manual dexterity of the oriental female is famous the world over. Her hands are small and she works with extreme care. Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance to contribute to the efficiency of a bench-assembly production line than the oriental girl? [5]

Kabeer’s study of women workers in Dhaka is brilliant at demolishing the myths of women as the passive dupes of religion. Just as the role of women in the workforce in Ireland has weakened the role of the Catholic church [6], so the ideologies of female seclusion associated with Islam in Bangladesh have been challenged by the practical problems thrown up for what was largely a first generation of women workers.

The increasing poverty and landlessness in Bangladesh over the last 20 to 30 years disrupted much agricultural production, concentrating land in the hands of wealthy landowners and pushing thousands, including women, into the cities in search of work. The interviews give a sense of how quickly people’s lives and values were changing. Although some of the women interviewed by Kabeer reported conflicts with other family members over the taking up of employment outside the home, many more noted the way in which the options for women had changed through necessity. This was summed up by Aleya, one of the women interviewed:

The maulvis [religious leaders] object to garment work because they say that we come into contact with strange men but we say to them ‘Can you feed us? If you want to object, you have to feed us.’ [7]

Women and work – London

Kabeer traces the patterns of immigration and employment that led to the settlement of Bangladeshi men and later women in the East End. Groups of people from what is now Bangladesh have lived in the East End of London since the earliest days of the East India Company, but numbers began growing in the 1930s as Bangladeshi sailors on British vessels ‘jumped ship’ at the docks. Women later migrated to Britain largely to join family members.

Kabeer argues that the Bangladeshi community, men and women, have been pushed into economic marginalisation by their relatively late arrival as migrants from a largely rural economy combined with the experience of racism in Britain. Many of the women interviewed cited experiences or fear of racist abuse as reasons to work at home. Kabeer also argues that the experience of racism has combined with changes in textile manufacturing towards smaller production units to leave Bangladeshi women in Britain concentrated in homeworking in the East End. She argues against seeing the history of the Bangladeshi community in Britain as simply ‘a chronicle of its disadvantage’ and also points out that the expectations of the second generation of Bangladeshis will be different to that of their parents.

Trade unions – exluding women?

Despite the many strengths of her historical account of Bangladeshi migration into the East End, Kabeer’s history of women and immigrants in the textile industry has some weaknesses. She argues that trade unions in Britain have been at the forefront of marginalising women and immigrants, that they operate primarily to defend the interests of one group of workers against another.

For example, Kabeer points to the role of the craft unions in tailoring in excluding women workers in the 19th century. In 1834 some 9,000 male tailors in London struck for higher wages and the abolition of homework. This was effectively a strike to keep women out of the industry. Yet even within this strike there were people arguing against the exclusion of women. [8] There was an argument in the labour movement about the role of women. Not all trade unions at this time excluded women. In the same year as the tailors’ strike, the Grand National Consolidated Union was established, which included women from the outset and organised half a million men and women workers at its height.

Particularly striking in a history of the East End is the absence of any reference to the New Unionism of the 1880s which involved thousands of unskilled workers excluded from the craft unions and previously considered impossible to organise. In the East End itself the Match Girls’ Strike in July 1888 involved 1,400 women predominantly under the age of 15 years, many of them Irish immigrants or of Irish descent. The energy and activism of the strikers inspired other workers, including hundreds of other Irish immigrants, to fight for improvements and to unionise their factories. [9] The Match Girls’ Strike was by no means the only example of female militancy at this time. Other strikes recorded that year included young girls in a tin box factory in London ‘who pelted men who continued to work after they came out with red-ochre and flour’! [10]

This is not to deny that the British trade unions and the trade union bureaucracy in particular have a history of acting in a way that promotes sectionalism, or excludes women or black people. The important point is that there are competing traditions when, particularly at the high points of class struggle, these divisions have been overcome and when women and immigrant workers have been at the forefront of the fight against exploitation.

This is not just a matter of historical record, but has implications for women outside Britain. In Kabeer’s discussion of women workers in Bangladesh she argues that trade unions organised around work and working conditions are not the most appropriate way of organising Bangladeshi women, arguing instead that community groups would be more suitable. In doing this she echoes some of those voices which consider it impossible to organise workers in the conditions and economic position of textile workers in the Third World. Both the activism of unskilled workers in the New Unionism in Britain and the more contemporary unionisation of workers in industrialising countries such as South Korea and Indonesia [11] are proof that workers in these sectors can organise themselves and lead resistance.

Workers and protectionism

The argument that British trade unions are primarily protectionist institutions for white men to defend themselves from competition by women or black workers is translated in the book onto a global scale to argue that Western workers and Western trade unions are protectionist organisations in themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

Kabeer exposes the hypocrisy of governments such as that of the US preaching free trade and demanding the opening of markets in the Third World while themselves imposing protectionist quotas. She describes how ‘powerful countries not only wrote the rules of the game in international trade but also interpreted them in their own interests’. [12] This is not a new phenomenon. The area that is now Bangladesh has a long history of trade and of textile production. The textile industry was deliberately smashed by the East India Company as part of the British colonisation of India, and the country was forced to become a net importer of finished fabrics. In Marx’s words ‘the home of cotton was flooded with cotton’.

Kabeer is right that the powerful nations set the rules of the trade game and interpret them. At times this has been done with the collusion and backing of trade unions. The AFL-CIO union federation in the US and the unions representing textile workers in Britain have histories of seeking to defend their members’ jobs against ‘cheap Third World workers’. However, this is again not the whole picture. If the New Unionism is missing from the history of the East End, then what is missing from this discussion more than anything is Seattle.

The demonstration that shut down the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in November 1999 has been well documented elsewhere. [13] Although some of the trade union leaders in Seattle may have been motivated by protectionism, the demonstrations as a whole were characterised by internationalism and generalisation between trade unionists, the oppressed, environmentalists and others.

Even before Seattle not all trade unionists supported the colonialism and imperialism from which Kabeer suggests they benefit. For example, significant numbers of workers in Britain campaigned to end the British slave trade. In 1839 the Female Political Union from Newcastle-on-Tyne said:

When told of the oppression exercised upon the enslaved Negroes in our colonies, we raised our voices in denunciation of their tyrants and never rested until the dealers in human blood were compelled to abandon their hell born traffic; but we have learnt by bitter experience that slavery is not confined to colour or clime. [14]

Although workers in the West generally have better lifestyles than those in the Third World, the dynamic of capitalism is to attempt to squeeze more profits wherever it is able. This is why American workers today work on average one month a year longer than they did 30 years ago. This is also why working class people in the West see the same attacks on public health, education and pensions as the IMF and World Bank try to impose in other parts of the world.

Ruling classes around the world use the threat of ‘foreign competition’ to attempt to drive down wages or increase hours. But for the left to accept that workers in different parts of an international system are in competition with each other means that any fight by workers in the West to stop closures and job losses, or to defend or improve wages is seen as a protectionist defence of Western living standards at the expense of the Third World. This is also the basis of Clare Short’s criticisms of the anti-capitalist demonstrators at Seattle and Prague – that they are opposing economic growth in the Third World and therefore protecting Western lifestyles. [15]

The problem with Clare Short’s position is that it relies on a trickledown effect – that economic growth will filter down to the poor. After two decades of structural adjustment programmes from the IMF and World Bank, the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor should be proof enough that trickledown is a myth. [16] This is the flipside of believing that Western workers are inherently bound to the protectionism of their rulers – seeing workers in the Third World as having no option but to take sides with their own governments and local capitalists in fighting for a bigger share of the world market.

While international trade is stitched up in favour of the big multinationals usually based in the West, we should be under no illusions that smaller capitalists or those based in the Third World are any nicer or more committed to workers’ rights. In fact, precisely because they are trying to profit from low wage economies, Third World employers can be even more vicious in their treatment of workers. The drive for profit means the poor infrastructure and lack of safety features that has led to the numerous factory fires and loss of life documented by William Greider, including the biggest clothing factory in Dhaka which burnt to the ground in August 1999. [17]

The issue of child labour – the current face of protectionism?

Kabeer sees the demand for labour standards and regulation or abolition of child labour as a new form of protectionism. She argues that behind the moral outrage at the exploitation of children lies a concern to defend Western jobs and exclude ‘cheap imports’:

Protectionist lobbies have benefited enormously from public support as a result of their growing sophistication in linking their demands to genuine humanitarian concerns. The issue of child labour is perhaps the issue par excellence in this strategy. [18]

While she is right to be cynical of the motives of politicians such as the Senator who introduced the Child Labour Deterrence Bill in the US in 1993, not all anti-sweatshop or anti child labour campaigns are so cynically motivated. The largely student-led No Sweat campaigns in America expose and attack the power of multinationals and show that the major corporations are not untouchable. What Kabeer sees as a more sophisticated protectionism, Naomi Klein in No Logo points to as a growing internationalism:

The cumulative response to the horror stories of Chinese prison labor, the scenes of teenage girls being paid pennies in the Mexican maquiladoras, and burning in fires in Bangkok, has been a slow but noticeable shift in how people in the West see workers in the developing world. ‘They’re getting our jobs’ is giving way to a more humane reaction: ‘Our corporations are stealing their lives.’ [19]

Among non-governmental agencies working in developing countries there is much debate over the practicality and desirability of introducing and enforcing standards on child labour. Kabeer argues that the attempts to regulate child labour in Bangladesh have actually pushed children and their families further into the very poverty that led the children to look for work in the first place. Save the Children is campaigning against child labour but also to combine this with a demand that children found working in the factories should have their education paid for by the companies employing them until they reach a legal age to work. [20] Kabeer argues that similar schemes in Bangladesh have not worked and that many children formerly employed in the textile factories have just disappeared, probably into more dangerous or even less regulated work.

Both positions run up against the limitations of trying to solve the problems of child labour in isolation from a wider challenge to capitalism. Legislation against the employment of children does not in itself end the poverty of the children or their families, but the alternative position that Kabeer supports offers no options but to work within the framework of the local capitalists and ultimately to accept the right of capital to exploit people unhindered. For all their limitations, the No Sweat campaigns against child labour should be seen as part of a growing global radicalisation against capitalism as a world system, not as a movement in defence of the richest part of capitalism.


This is a very challenging book. Kabeer is no supporter of the free market. She is an activist committed to fighting poverty and oppression and her book contains a wealth of detailed facts and analysis examining how such inequalities are created and maintained both internationally and historically. In particular, The Power to Choose offers an insight into how global capitalism impacts on the lives of groups of women workers.

However, in stressing the increased independence or confidence that women have gained by entering the workforce in Bangladesh, Kabeer has a tendency to underplay the harsh conditions and exploitative nature of those workplaces. The right of women to be exploited alongside men is not in itself liberation. It will only be liberating if women workers use the power that they have as part of a global workforce to challenge capital wherever it exploits them.

On 18 June 1999, the day of global anti-capitalist protest on which young people stopped the city of London, textile workers in Bangladesh joined the worldwide protests. [21] Since then the growing anti-capitalist movement has involved thousands of workers, peasants and students from both the West and the developing world who see as their enemy not workers of another part of the world but the global capitalist system.


1. N. Kabeer, The Power to Choose (London 2000), p. vii.

2. Ibid., p. viii.

3. See C. Harman, Globalisation: A Critique of a New Orthodoxy, International Socialism 73 (Winter 1996).

4. N. Kabeer, op. cit., p. 11.

5. Ibid., p. 6.

6. See G. Horgan, Heading for Divorce?, Socialist Review 182 (January 1995).

7. N. Kabeer, op. cit., p. 121.

8. L. German, Sex, Class and Socialism (London 1989), p. 117.

9. See J. Charlton, It Just Went Like Tinder (London 1999).

10. S. Rowbotham, Hidden From History (London 1974), p. 61.

11. See, for example, Three Interviews with Workers’ Representatives and Socialists in Indonesia, International Socialism 80 (Autumn 1998).

12. N. Kabeer, op. cit., p. 10.

13. See, for example, K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), Globalize This! (Maine 2000).

14. S. Rowbotham, op. cit., p. 35. See also P. Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People In Britain (London 1984), especially ch. 8.

15. Clare Short, How to Help the Wretched of the Earth, New Statesman, 18 September 2000, p. 22.

16. See P. Marfleet, Globalisation and the Third World, International Socialism 81 (Winter 1998).

17. W. Grieder, It’s Time to Go on the Offensive. Here’s How, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p. 147.

18. N. Kabeer, op. cit., p. 367.

19. N. Klein, No Logo (London 2000), p. 334.

20. Interviewed on Panorama, BBC1, Sunday, 22 October 2000.

21. N. Klein, op. cit., p. 444.

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