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International Socialism, Autumn 2001


Goretti Horgan

How does globalisation affect women?


From International Socialism 2:92, Autumn 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the last 30 years women have come a long, long way. Our lives are nobler and richer than they were, but they are also fiendishly difficult ... the contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now ... On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. It’s time to get angry again.
Germaine Greer [1]

Globalisation has had such negative consequences for women and children that some commentators argue that ‘globalisation is a man’. [2] They point to the way women suffer disproportionately from IMF and World Bank policies as public services are cut and they are forced to care for sick, disabled and older relatives, as well as earn a living. But globalisation could equally be a woman. Capitalism’s expansion across the globe has depended on a massive influx of tens of millions of women into the workforce who had traditionally been dependent on husbands and male relatives. Globalisation has contradictory effects on women. Those who assign male gender to globalisation are right to point to how women’s role in reproduction and the family means they suffer more from the effects of the neo-liberal agenda – but that’s only half the story. It has also brought great freedom to women, especially those living in traditionally conservative countries like Indonesia, Ireland and Thailand, where women are able for the first time to be economically independent of men and to have at least some choice in their personal lives. Ultimately, by bringing women into the workforce, globalisation has given women a power they lacked in the past – the power to end the system that breeds poverty, exploitation and oppression.

Women workers – the engine of globalisation

The global development of capitalism over the last 20 years has depended almost everywhere on women pouring into the formal workforce. From Dublin to Dhaka, Bangkok to Bradford, women workers have provided the cheap labour from which super-profits have been extracted. Table 1 shows the extent to which women workers have provided the new labour force in both the Asian and Celtic ‘Tiger’ economies. The number of women in the workforces has almost doubled in these countries over the last two decades.

This feminisation of the formal workforce has been a contradictory experience for most women. On the one hand, becoming economically independent leads everywhere to women having more choices about what they do with their lives. On the other, the ‘double burden’ faced by all women because of their role in the family means that the lives of women workers are everywhere fiendishly difficult as they try to reconcile work and family life. Working outside the home and being economically independent mean they don’t have to answer to any man, but the ‘race to the bottom’ on which the expansion of global capital is being built means that, typically, this work entails long hours at low wages and makes caring for children very difficult. For some women, joining the global workforce threatens their right ever to have children. For others, it means neglecting the children they are working to feed. But everywhere, when asked, the overwhelming majority of women going out to work say they would not dream of going back to the home.

Table 1:
















              346.4 [4]



























The majority of the new women workers are in the service sector – many in jobs that used to be relatively well paid, high status men’s jobs, but which have been de-skilled and demoted in the job hierarchy. Many others are now being paid to do jobs that had traditionally been done without pay by women in the home. Across the world, in services like banking and computers, women have displaced men in jobs which are now lower paid and proletarianised. Proletarianisation is shorthand for a process whereby jobs over which the worker once had a good deal of control are broken down into discrete tasks, with precise instructions given as to how each task is to be carried out. Teaching is a good example. Once different teachers would take different – sometimes innovative, sometimes boring – approaches to educating children and young people. But the education required by global capitalism is not one that opens minds or teaches children to question anything. Rather it is about the production of ‘adaptable workers’ and ‘the development of attitudes necessary for the workplace’. [5] To promote these results, strict regulation, as in the National Curriculum in the UK, has been introduced across the developed world telling teachers exactly what to teach and how to teach it, for exactly how long, in what order and at what pace. The teacher has as little control over how children learn to be useful citizens of the world as the bricklayer does over how a house will be built.

Banking used to be a high status, relatively well paid job. But over the last 20 years, even before internet and 24-hour banking, new technology was allowing banks to recruit young women, who could be paid considerably less than traditional bank workers, to carry out simple, repetitive tasks. Today it is women who staff the call centres that are at the heart of 24-hour banking. Bank 24’s call centre in Bonn, Germany, is typical. A staff of about 500 deal with 8,000 calls on an average day – sometimes more. All conversations with customers are monitored and ‘rated’ according to standard criteria, and recorded, both for security backup and random checks. Above the workstation an illuminated display shows how many customers are being held in a queue. No customer is supposed to wait for more than three minutes, and workers are required to adjust the length of their conversation to the volume of incoming calls. One reason for the choice of Bonn was its supply of well qualified and motivated women ‘released’ by the public sector cuts. [6] A similar process of proletarianisation has taken place in the computer industry.

The expansion of global capitalism has also seen the partial socialisation of housework in developed countries to an extent which has gone largely unremarked. Increasing numbers of women are earning enough through labour outside the home to be able to reduce the labour they expend inside it by taking advantage of this socialisation. The mass production of labour saving devices like cookers, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwave ovens, etc, has transformed women’s lives in countries where they are easily afforded. Eating out used to be a once a year event for most working class families – even a trip to a cafe for egg and chips would have been an event. Now most families living above the poverty line will eat out on a regular basis, even if it’s only Pizza Hut or McDonald’s. There has also been a huge growth in industrial food production, as more and more women in developed countries pay to have many of the tasks involved in cooking done for them – prepared vegetables and salads, ready meals, sauces. If you’re willing to pay 300 percent more you can even buy your strawberries ready chopped. Of course, there has always been one food for the rich and another for the poor, and convenience food maintains that division. The difference between chicken tikka masala bought for £1.75 from Iceland or £3.50 from Tesco or Marks & Spencer doesn’t lie just in weight or taste. The dearer product is far healthier, contains less fat and sodium, has fewer additives, and generally contributes to keeping better off people alive longer than the poor. As in every other area, profit comes before all else in the food industry. So little heed is paid to the environmental consequences of the huge amount of packaging used by the industry to market its various brands.

The same technological development which has helped free women’s lives a little has also made working conditions for all workers, but especially women, more stressful and demanding. So the old time and motion studies that led to production line speed-ups are not needed any more. With computers recording the fastest times of the best workers, the speed at which all workers are expected to operate is ever greater. The profits that result from increased productivity are rarely shared with the workers who create the additional wealth. Checkout workers in Sainsbury’s are expected to put an average of 15 items through the scanner every minute of the working day. Anyone not up to scratch when their weekly record is printed out has to remain at or return to trainee status until they are up to speed.

Wherever women are working they usually earn less than men, sometimes less than men who are doing exactly the same work. In less industrialised countries women earn as little as half their male counterparts’ wages. In every industrialised country the poorest women tend to earn two thirds, while professional women earn about three quarters of men’s wages. Even in jobs where it seems women have total equality – such as the media – controversy erupts from time to time as it emerges that women are being paid considerably less than their male co-workers. [7]

Women in the zones

Naomi Klein’s No Logo and other research carried out by anti-capitalists have exposed the working conditions faced by women (and men) across the world, but particularly in the notorious Export Processing Zones (EPZs) of the more recently developed or developing countries (also referred to as Free Trade Zones and Special Economic Zones in Asia, maquilas or maquiladoras in Latin America). The zones are designed to attract foreign investment by offering tax breaks and officially suspending – or simply ignoring – local labour laws, thereby offering a plentiful supply of cheap and flexible labour. Klein’s description of the EPZs she visited echoes other writers who have visited zones in various parts of the world:

The International Labour Organisation says there are at least 850 EPZs in the world, but that number is likely much closer to 1,000, spread through 70 countries and employing roughly 27 million workers ... Regardless of where the EPZs are located, the workers’ stories have a certain mesmerising sameness: the work day is long – 14 hours in Sri Lanka, 12 hours in Indonesia, 16 in Southern China, 12 in the Philippines. The vast majority of workers are women, always young, always working for contractors or subcontractors ... The management is military-style, the supervisors often abusive, the wages below subsistence and the work low-skill and tedious ... Fear pervades the zones. The governments are afraid of losing their foreign factories; the factories are afraid of losing their brand name buyers; and the workers are afraid of losing their unstable jobs. [8]

Of course, most of this is true. The EPZs are modern versions of the ‘satanic mills’, and conditions of family life for those working in them are reminiscent of life for the workers in Manchester that Engels wrote about in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Descriptions of their lives by women in the EPZs also echo the tales of women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, whose strike in 1912 came to be known as the ‘bread and roses’ strike because the women were demanding time with their families as well as resisting pay cuts: ‘Hearts starve as well as bodies – give us bread, but give us roses.’ But the widespread view that the workers in the zones are mainly young women who are ‘scared and uneducated in their rights’ [9], ‘docile’ [10], and ‘compliant’ [11], and that wages are below subsistence level is not borne out by the facts.

Women from EPZs in Latin America and Asia came together in 1999 and again in 2000 in an exchange programme hosted by the Asia Monitor Resource Centre. Presentations from each region gave the women a chance to learn ‘how similarly women workers in both continents are affected by globalisation’. [12] During the round-up session the women agreed:

The working conditions of women workers in Latin America and Asia are similar, but their lives are quite different. Unlike most women workers in Asian FTZs who are single, many of their counterparts in Central America are single parents who have several children, so they are both family heads and breadwinners. That is why a job is very important to a woman, as she has to support her mother and her children. Unlike many women workers in Asia, especially in China where they live in dormitories, maquila workers go home every day to take care of their children. Working in the maquilas is comparatively well paid, especially in countries where unemployment can be as high as 60 percent. [13]

The theme of ‘comparatively well paid’ work in the zones is one which occurs again and again in women’s accounts of their choices. Compared to staying unemployed in a rural area or working as a domestic in some rich woman’s house, working in an EPZ is not the worst alternative on offer. Further, the level of ‘compliance’ or ‘docility’ of workers, women or men, younger or older, in an EPZ or a regular workplace is shown time and again to depend on the level of organisation of workers and confidence in their ability to resist the employer’s diktat.

So for example workers – mainly women – in EPZs in South Korea took part in the nationwide strikewave in 1987. In the Masan Free Export Zone (MAFEZ), where unions were banned, more than half the companies (41 out of 73) experienced sit-ins. The main demands of the workers – for better pay and working conditions – were won, but not the right to permanent trade unions. Nonetheless, in 1988 the women workers of MAFEZ were able to organise again, this time more quickly and effectively. As a result, the 1988 strike won a wage increase from US$4 a day to US$7 a day. [14] More recently in Sri Lanka workers became organised in the Association of Workers and Workers Councils of the Free Trade Zones. This association is generally not militant, but in 1997–1998 it supported protest action by the Sky Sports factory workers in the country’s largest zone, Katunayake. A woman worker was physically assaulted by the managing director for an alleged mistake in production, and then sacked for failing to report to work when she was seeking medical treatment for injuries. The workers’ protests led to a lockout, and the case became a national and international cause célèbre.

The fact that trade unions and strikes are illegal in most of the zones of course makes it more difficult for workers to organise to defend their rights. However, throughout history workers have found ways around such difficulties and, where necessary, have simply ignored them.

Hand in hand with the EPZs goes an increasing use of subcontracted and ‘flexible’ labour. Flexible labour was initially seen as ‘female’, but now it is clear that ‘male’ industries and occupations are infected by it as well. Guy Standing of the International Labour Organisation spoke in 1989 of a global trend to ‘feminisation through flexible labour’. In 1996 he changed his view to argue that, while the feminisation of employment was continuing, flexibility increasingly affected men as well as women. [15] Again there are many examples of such flexible labour forces organising themselves to fight the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation.

A woman’s right to choose

Globalisation has also had contradictory effects when it comes to questions of sexual freedom and reproductive rights, in particular a woman’s right to choose if and when to have children. On the one hand, the mass influx of women to the workforce has resulted in a real shift in attitudes to sexual activity outside marriage in a wide range of countries, including some which were formerly notoriously repressive. On the other hand, the ‘race to the bottom’ has seen global capitalism unwilling to provide even minimal protection for the important role played by women in bearing the next generation of workers. This section looks at how women in newly industrialised countries have benefited in terms of sexual freedom, but in the context of a system which sees their children and their ability to have children as a threat to profits rather than a contribution to society.

The argument that changes in women’s relationship to production can lead to changes in their family relationships and attitudes to family life, sex and sexuality has been made in this journal recently. [16] The extent to which this is happening in countries like Indonesia, Ireland, Thailand and India should not surprise us. The sheer number of women who are now economically independent and living in cities away from the claustrophobic prying of rural small minds almost inevitably means more sexual activity outside marriage. This, combined with the widespread availability of contraception – especially the pill which women can take with or without the knowledge of a partner – means women have no reason not to have sexual relationships on a fairly equal basis with men. It also means that women are increasingly unwilling to remain in relationships that are abusive or not supportive, or where the man is not pulling his weight.

There is a view among Eurocentric commentators that the growth in women’s independence only applies in the developed world, and certainly not in Asia. But there is considerable evidence from Thailand, India, Korea, Indonesia and other Asian countries that the effect of women working en masse outside the home is similar on every continent. So one study in the late 1980s found that women factory workers in South East Asian countries have more personal freedom, including more choice in marriage, than those who remain in rural areas. A study of Thai women workers in the 1990s showed that working in cities leads to increased independence – nearly 60 percent of young women factory workers felt more independent in urban areas, away from their families. As early as the mid-1980s 34 percent of poor urban dwellers were reported to be cohabiting outside marriage. [17] ‘When you are financially independent, you are also independent in other ways,’ says Vinutha, who works for a software company in Bangalore, India. Her friend Lakshmi agrees. She is quite clear about the kind of marriage she wants. She will continue working and have one or at most two children (whatever the sex), and if her husband treats her badly then she will ‘have to look elsewhere’. [18] In 1999 Ji Ungpakorn undertook a survey of women workers in an export processing underwear factory in Bangkok, specifically to uncover their attitudes to marriage and sexual matters generally. Despite stereotypes of Asian women workers as mainly single, 53 percent of the respondents were married. Asked why they thought some women workers did not get married, the responses were very similar to those of the women interviewed in Mary Beth Mills’s study of Bangkok women workers from rural backgrounds. [19] Almost two in five of Ungpakorn’s respondents said unmarried women probably wanted freedom from men in terms of financial affairs and housework. Another fifth thought they were probably ‘not ready’ to get married, since they were still sending money home to support their families, while one in ten felt they had probably not met the right man yet. A further 15 percent said there was no need to get married, since you could live with someone without marriage. Asked about sex outside marriage, 77 percent said it was ‘normal’ in modern Thai society, while 22.6 percent said it was impossible to know what went on in people’s private lives. A mere 0.4 percent thought it was not a common occurrence. Overall Ungpakorn found:

Attitudes towards sex and marriage seem to be quite different from the strict moral norms taught in schools, and proclaimed by the media and politicians. Sex and marriage have become somewhat separated. Many women factory workers may not be legally married, but that does not mean that they do not have lovers.

The spread of global capitalism brings not only increased sexual freedom, but also the commodification of every part of our lives, including sex. So everywhere capitalism expands there is also an expansion of the sex industry. Ireland, the country that banned the works of James Joyce as pornographic and banned all information on contraception until almost the end of the 20th century, now has shelves full of pornography, Irish versions of ‘New Lad’ magazines, a growing prostitution industry and lapdancing clubs.

There are double standards almost everywhere about one of the consequences of sexual activity – pregnancy, whether wanted or unwanted. In some of the Export Processing Zones, particularly in Central and Latin America but also in Taiwan and the Philippines, women have to take a pregnancy test before being hired. A doctor working for a multinational company in a Mexican maquiladora told Human Rights Watch:

When I first started working at Matsushita, the director of personnel told me to make sure that I tested every single female applicant ... because pregnant women were too costly to the company. It seemed that was all I ever did. I was appalled, but I did the pregnancy exams. At times I would be so angry ... with how they were exploiting these very young girls that I would tell them [the supervisors] that girls were not pregnant when they were.

No pregnant worker in the maquiladoras can be sure she will keep her job, however long she has been working for the firm. Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that when they are pregnant punitive working conditions – heavier physical labour, jobs requiring long hours of standing, obligatory overtime – were used to pressurise them into resigning. Women maquiladora workers ‘can’t opt for motherhood and can’t opt for abortion’, says Reyna Montero, a former assembly line worker now working in a Women’s Centre in Tijuana. Abortion is severely restricted in Mexico, and George Bush’s ‘global gag rule’ is trying to ensure it stays that way.

The ‘global gag rule’ reimposed on 22 January 2001 by George W. Bush prohibits non-US NGOs from using their own, non-USAID, funds to provide legal abortions or information on abortion, or lobbying to liberalise abortion law. [20] Otherwise they cannot receive a penny of USAID funding for any of their services. The ‘global gag’ is putting women’s lives at risk. Of the 40 to 60 million abortions that take place every year, at least 20 million are performed under unsafe, illegal conditions. At least 100,000 women die each year as a result of illegal abortion. Others suffer serious physical injury, sterility, chronic disability and/or imprisonment. In Nepal, for example, thousands of women die each year from the effects of illegal abortions. One in every five women in prison in Nepal is there for having an abortion – serving sentences of two years to life. Because of Nepal’s high maternal mortality rates, there have been moves towards legalising abortion at least under some circumstances, but the ‘global gag’ has already led to some NGOs disengaging from the campaign to legalise abortion. [21]

Everywhere, alongside advances in independence for women and changes in family life, goes the ‘double burden’ – the struggle to do the second shift at home, cooking, cleaning and, crucially, caring for children. Coping with a new baby and caring for children as they grow are never easy for anyone living in poverty, but childcare is one area where urban living makes women’s lives more difficult because of the absence of the extended family support available in rural areas, and more settled towns and villages. This is part of the ‘race to the bottom’. The worst aspect of it is the choice many women face between feeding their children and looking after them. This choice starts in some countries as soon as women give birth – where there is no national right to paid maternity leave, some women have no choice but to resume work very soon after giving birth. Jennifer works on a sisal plantation in Kenya. Her employer does not allow children on the plantation. Upon her resuming work, her younger sister cared for her child. She could breastfeed only early in the morning and late in the evening after work: ‘I stayed at home for only four weeks after delivery because I needed money ... It is painful to stay away from such a little kid ... I had no option but to resume my poorly paid casual job.’ [22]

Esther Wairimu worked on a coffee plantation, also in Kenya, until the eve of the birth of her second child, then returned to work three weeks after delivery. ‘I don’t have a husband and there is no one to help me,’ she said. She carried the baby on her back and could feed and comfort her. [23] ‘Mothers carrying children to work is the norm in plantations, although it is officially prohibited,’ says trade union leader Kathini Maloba-Caines:

The problem is that the farms are not the same ones our mothers carried us to. These ones are full of pesticides and other chemicals, which pose a great danger to the child even more than to the mother. Physiologically infants are more vulnerable to the effects of pesticides than adults. In the case of pesticide residues, effects may not show up until years later. [24]

Evaline works as a hospital cleaner in Nairobi. She took only two months unpaid maternity leave. When she resumed work she left her baby at home, unattended. Her home in the hospital quarters was just a five-minute walk away.

I would sneak out during the day to feed my child ... I was very scared, but what could I do? I got used to it ... Later, when he grew big enough to walk, I would tie him to the bed with a rope around the hand so that he could not walk around and hurt himself.

Lorna works at a garment firm in the Philippines Matcan EPZ. She lives with her three children in a poor part of Cebu city. After she leaves for work in the morning, her eight year old son tries to look after his younger siblings. ‘I ask my neighbours to help me out. They are busy too, but they are also the only help available,’ she says. She knows that her children often stray into the streets with their friends, and that worries her. Her eldest son should be in school, but she has no money for books and supplies. Lorna’s attempt to walk the tightrope between feeding her children and looking after them failed when she returned to work after the birth of her fourth child. The seven month old baby was left at home with her older siblings, who tried to bottle-feed her. There is no clean water in their community, and the baby died from complications of diarrhoea. [25] In the Las Mercedes EPZ in Nicaragua one third of women say they have been refused leave when their children were sick. Since they work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the children have to be neglected or abandoned for the day when their mothers cannot afford to pay someone to care for them. [26]

Poverty forces women not entitled to paid maternity leave back to work as soon as they are physically able, while lack of childcare means they are faced with stark choices in relation to ensuring their children’s survival. These situations are not confined to the developing world. An examination of the participation of mothers in the labour force in Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, and the number of childcare places in nurseries, childminders, etc., suggests that some mothers in Ireland find it necessary to rely on childcare arrangements which are at best hit and miss, and at worst break down altogether, leaving children home alone.

But for all these difficulties, increasing numbers of women are now choosing to face these difficulties alone, rather than remain in abusive or just unhappy relationships. In many regions of the world, both developed and developing, one in three households is now headed by a lone woman.

Patriarchy or class?

Moral panic about these changes, and particularly about working mothers and the number of children born outside marriage, gives the impression that the new family setups go against ‘human nature’. In fact, as Engels pointed out in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the way the family is organised has changed time and again through history. Engels showed that changes in family structure and in how children are looked after are related to how the material necessities of life are produced. The changes in women’s and family life in Ireland are a good example of this. Up to the middle of the last century women played an essential role in the household economy. Income from the woman’s spinning and weaving provided the means by which a family could purchase the necessities they could not grow themselves. In 1841 women accounted for more than half the non-agricultural labour force in Ireland. At the same time, very few people in Ireland were married in any formal way. State registrars were available only in the cities and there were very few priests, so people set up home together much the way many younger people do today.

A combination of the industrial revolution and the famine changed all that. With the advent of huge textile mills, spinning and weaving in the home was no longer economically viable. The only part of Ireland where women had access to paid work was Belfast. For over a century women had no choice but to stay at home. Then post-war capitalism developed a range of labour-saving devices which transformed women’s lives. Up to the late 1960s washing clothes took at least one day a week and ironing another. Washing machines, manmade fibres and changes in the type of clothes we wear turned washing day into ten minutes any day with little or no ironing. Women used to spend several hours each day baking bread and cooking family meals. Supermarkets, with their convenience foods, and fast food restaurants have changed that too.

Women entered the workforce in droves and quickly found they were still second class citizens. Whole areas of work were closed to them or severely restricted. There were virtually no women doctors, lawyers, judges, bus drivers, mechanics or engineers. Although they were working outside the home as well as in it, women were still seen primarily as wives and mothers. The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s challenged that view. Inspired by the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland and the US, the early women’s liberation movement was avowedly left wing and about changing the lives of all, but especially working class, women. Women faced by very real contradictions in the way they lived their lives, and the roles they were told they should be playing, demanded change.

But the idea of liberation was soon lost and replaced by the idea of ‘equality’, and the women’s movement, like the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland and America, came to serve the interests of a small layer of middle class professionals. This change was able to happen easily because it fitted with the dominant idea within the women’s movement – the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy theorists saw the main divide in society as between women and men, rather than rich and poor. They saw all men as having power over all women. This allowed them to argue that getting women into positions of power – as managers, judges, politicians – would help advance the lot of all women. Even after Margaret Thatcher, Cory Aquino and their ilk had shown the truth – that ruling class women are the enemies of women’s liberation – the idea of patriarchy continued to be offered as an explanation of women’s oppression. It has become mainstream in a watered down way. Thus we have the widely accepted view that the two sexes have always been totally different currencies rather than two sides of the same coin; that it’s in the genes; that all men benefit from women’s oppression; that ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus’.

Patriarchy theory is both wrong and an obstacle to the achievement of women’s liberation. For 95 percent of the time in which human beings have existed, we lived in classless societies where women and men had equal roles. Archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered much about early pre-class societies. We know that when people lived co-operatively and there was no division into classes women were not oppressed. Yes, there was a division of labour based on men’s greater physical strength and on the demands of childbearing and breastfeeding. But this division did not denigrate women in any way. A woman having a baby was recognised as the huge contribution to society which it is. There is surviving evidence of the way in which the ability to give birth was seen as powerful. Fertility goddesses, like Ireland’s Sile na Gig, were objects of worship.

In these classless, mainly hunter-gatherer societies, women had equal involvement in decision making, including in matters which largely affected men – hunting, for instance – and enjoyed high status. In these societies the group had to be able to move easily from place to place in order to survive. This meant a woman had to limit the number of children she had to one every three to four years, since one child was as much as she could carry and still move easily. Women controlled the number of children they had in a number of ways – through abstinence, abortion and infanticide.

The end of these egalitarian societies did not come as a result of a male conspiracy to oppress women. It came because of the division of society into classes – one class in which the overwhelming majority of people, women and men, work to produce everything and the other, ruling, class which steals from us the wealth we produce. This transformation did not come about overnight. It was the result of the development of society’s productive forces, and the production of much greater material wealth than had been possible in earlier societies. As human beings worked to control the world in which they lived, they developed tools like the wheel, the plough and irrigation channels, which allowed them to settle in one place, and to produce a surplus to put by for the next season’s planting and for times of scarcity.

But the surplus produced was small. It was not enough to be divided out and had to be ‘protected’ by a small minority on behalf of the rest of the group. Gradually this minority grew to have different interests to the rest of their group and started to treat the surplus as ‘theirs’ rather than everyone’s. They employed bands of armed men to protect the surplus from the majority and used metal tools to develop a monopoly on the best weaponry. The emergence of private property and of embryo states also changed the nature of family relations. The sexual division of labour for the first time had a significance in terms of social status. Since the new surpluses were created in spheres controlled by men, men became the beneficiaries.

Anthropologist Karen Sacks summarised the impact of private property on women’s overall standing in society:

Private property transformed the relations between men and women within the household only because it also radically changed the political and economic relations in the larger society. For Engels the new wealth in domesticated animals meant that there was a surplus of goods available for exchange between productive units. With time, production by men specifically for exchange purposes developed, expanded, and came to overshadow the household’s production for use ... As production for exchange eclipsed production for use, it changed the nature of the household, the significance of women’s work within it, and consequently women’s position in society. [27]

With the emergence of class society and the downgrading of women’s status came the emergence of the privatised family. Until then children were seen as the responsibility of the entire social group – a situation which colonialists, especially Christian missionaries who came upon these pre-class societies, found scandalous. In class societies children came to ‘belong’ to parents, not society, and it was left to individual families to bring them up, feed and clothe them, etc. Women’s oppression is rooted in this privatised reproduction of labour power.

One of the clearest signs of the downgrading of women’s social status was that inheritance started to go through the male line instead of the female. Engels described this particular effect of the development of private property as:

… the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the house also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman has gradually been prettified and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; but in no sense has it been abolished. [28]

The emergence of class society was not only bad for all women, but also for the overwhelming majority of men. For most men the new order meant more and harder work for less reward. Today it remains the case that most men continue to suffer as a result of the system that oppresses women. Working class men, in particular, do not benefit in any way from women’s oppression. The fact that women earn only three quarters of what men do doesn’t mean working class men are well paid. The huge cost of childcare coming out of the household budget means they have more difficulties making ends meet. And the sexist crap they are assaulted with each day, implying that women are from another planet, poisons and distorts personal and sexual relationships for men as well as women.

Women’s influx into the global workforce has brought potent evidence of the class nature of women’s oppression. The idea that all men benefit from women’s oppression is clearly nonsense when we can see that a growing layer are women are doing considerably better than the majority of men. So, while the mass of women earn the lowest wages, some women are doing very well from global capitalism. In Indonesia in 1992, for example, 11 percent of women earned wages of more than Rp150,000 per month, whereas some 75 percent of male workers earned less than that figure. [29] In Ireland in 1997–1998 at least 5 percent of women earned IR£40,000 or more per year, while over half of all workers (women and men) earned less than IR£13,500. Both Ireland and Indonesia are countries with stark inequalities in wealth, and so statistics on wages do not provide a true picture of the dramatic contrasts in earnings and consumption patterns. The Irish figures, for example, exclude all non-PAYE taxpayers, and therefore those wealthy women who control and run companies, and sit on boards of directors. In both Jakarta and Dublin – and in cities right across the globe – there is a very visible minority of wealthy women (and men) whose purchasing power is many times the Rp150,000 or IR£40,000 which marks the relative national statistics’ highest wage brackets. A quick glance at earnings in Britain in April 2000 similarly shows that a minority of women are doing considerably better than the majority of men. So, while average manual men’s wages at £343.90 per week are considerably more than manual women’s at £227.90, average non-manual women’s are greater than either at £357.50 per week. Of course, average non-manual men’s are higher again-at £533.90. It is important to note that average wage levels hide large disparities. So it is probably the case that most non-manual women workers earn a lot less than £357 a week, but this also means that there is a layer which may be earning £700 plus. [30]


Much that has been written about women’s role in the expansion of global capitalism sees only the downside for women. Even many women writers portray women in newly industrialising countries as victims – ‘docile’, ‘compliant’, ‘easy to manage’ and ‘difficult to organise’. But, as we have seen above, while women do suffer under neo-liberalism, women workers in the most repressive situations have fought back, resisting the assaults of employers, governments and the IMF. This section looks at some of the myths surrounding the ability and willingness of women workers to lead the struggle for a different world.

Women working in the informal sector – homeworkers, casual ‘off the books’ workers, and so on – face more difficulties in organising to defend pay and conditions. But across the globe informal workers are showing that it is possible to organise. In the Philippines Gabriela, a large coalition of women’s groups, is organising street vendors in Manila [31]; in India the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) organises women who work in their homes and in the streets of the cities of Gujurat; in the US women janitors have organised and won union rights and better conditions in California despite some being ‘illegal’ immigrants. These women, and others whose stories we rarely hear, show that it is possible to refuse to join the race to the bottom.

Many studies of women workers in the developing world conclude that they are hired because they are considered more docile and easier to manage than men. However, there is much evidence to the contrary. Porpora, Lim and Prommas found that, far from being docile, women workers in the textile industry seemed to be more militant than men. They also found that there was no conscious decision by management to hire women because of their supposedly docile nature. [32] Diane Wolf in her study of Indonesian women workers pointed out that in one village ‘factory workers ... exhibited an air of assertiveness compared to their peers who had never worked in a factory’. [33] Peter Bell argues that Thai women have become the cutting edge of resistance to the capitalist model of development. [34] This does not take away from the fact that, as Ungpakorn points out, women’s monthly earnings in Thailand in 1989 were on average 80 percent of men’s.

Indonesian socialists and trade unionists argue that the women are clearly more militant than the men:

… the factories with the most women workers tend to be the most militant. The most active workers are the women workers. They regularly attend meetings, and the representatives of each workforce are usually the most active workers in the factory, often women. The representatives always give speeches – it doesn’t matter whether it is a man or a woman. Also, we try to build around issues important to women workers because the discrimination against women still happens. There is not equal pay and social conditions, so sometimes men get money for meals and women don’t. There is also sexual harassment. Women often get body searched at work and they don’t get menstruation holidays. [35]

Among women in the developed world, there is a view that women trade unionists are victims of ‘male’ trade union structures. This view is understandable, given the bureaucratisation of unions and wholesale embrace of reformism by trade union leaders in countries of the North. But this Eurocentric view ignores the reality of workers’ lives and workers’ organisation in newly industrialising countries. So we find women at every leadership level for trade unions in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, where formal equality is far behind that in, for example, the European Union. In Indonesia an organiser of the Workers’ Committee for Total Reforms (COBAR) told this journal, ‘Some women representatives are in factories where the majority of workers are women. But it is not a problem if women are the representatives in factories where both men and women work.’ [36] In Thailand women have been elected as union leaders, not just in factories, but also at Area Group level. Area Groups are rank and file solidarity structures that bring together union representatives from workplaces in local areas. In one study profiling eight rank and file trade union activists in Thailand, six were women, three of whom had been elected to lead Area Groups located around Greater Bangkok. [37]

There is also a myth, again based on the bureaucratised trade unions of the North, that women’s issues are not raised by ‘male’ trade unions. Again the reality in developing countries is different. Issues of sexual harassment, maternity leave, breastfeeding rights and menstrual leave have been raised and often won in the course of struggle in Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Kenya and many other countries. As we have seen above, the question of maternity leave is a crucial one, and the reality is that maternity rights have improved over the last ten years only where trade unions have forced improvements. So in Kenya women trade unionists admit that ‘it is men who started trade unions. In most cases they did not include issues affecting women.’ But as women entered the formal workforce, efforts were made to bring them into the unions, including the leadership of the Kenyan TUC, COTU-K. As a result, before negotiations are begun with employers, ‘We prepare a memorandum covering all terms and conditions of workers, including salaries, breastfeeding, maternity leave, sick days, etc.’ Anne Karume of the Railway Workers Union (RWU) says she is careful to integrate women’s concerns within the main agenda:

If we separate them, they will be looked at as unimportant. I want them seen as workers’ issues that are specific to women. When they were previously negotiated as simply women’s issues, women were invariably discriminated against. For example married women, unlike their male counterparts, were not entitled to medical coverage for their families, or house or travel allowances. [38]

As a result of this approach, the RWU has negotiated considerably better maternity leave for women workers, allowing women to spend four to five months at home with their babies. They are also entitled to breastfeeding breaks of one hour per day for three months after resuming work. The women negotiate with their supervisors whether to come in late, leave early or take a long lunchbreak to go and breastfeed. The RWU is now negotiating for daycare centres at the workplace.

Women workers in Kenya, as elsewhere, depend on their unions to win these rights for them, as the chances of politicians granting national rights are slim. As one COTU-K woman leader says of Kenyan MPs:

They are the people who own these hotels. They are the people who own the tea estates and the coffee estates. They are the people who own these factories. So they are very sensitive to any suggestions concerning the workers.

But as one of her colleagues points out:

It is a duty for them to make sure [Kenya’s] children are taken care of. I know that if all the Kenyan women didn’t have children for three years, they would bribe us to have them to ensure they maintain a future workforce! [39]

Issues of sexual harassment, equal pay, maternity and breastfeeding rights have been highly visible on the agendas of workers in struggle across South East Asia. In Indonesia the issue of menstrual leave has been championed by trade unionists, men as well as women. The question of menstrual leave illustrates again the huge divide that separates working class women from what Indonesians call ‘elite’ women. Under the Labour Act of 1948, women in Indonesia have a right to two days a month menstrual leave. For ‘elite’ women, this provision has become an embarrassment, emphasising as it does women’s differing biology. In the early 1990s the Association of Indonesian Business Women tried to have the law repealed in parliament arguing that it was ‘contradictory to the aims of women’s emancipation ... [because] the large numbers of women who make use of this right only serve to lower the productivity of the companies for which they work, and, as a result, many companies are reluctant to employ women’. [40]

For working class women, who work 12-hour days, six or sometimes seven days a week, often standing all day, it is a very welcome provision. The high level of malnutrition and ill health among working women, combined with working conditions that include two toilet breaks only in the day and poor sanitary protection for those who have no hope of affording Western-style pads, mean women workers often badly need the menstrual leave. For others, it may be simply an opportunity to have two days off to spend time with their children. But the reason the question of menstrual leave is raised time and again by Indonesian workers is that companies stoop to the lowest behaviour to stop women claiming it. So women in this overwhelmingly Muslim country who want to take their menstrual leave are forced to ask permission of their supervisor to approach the foreman. Then, if the foreman gives permission, they go to the factory clinic to prove they are menstruating. They must do this by pulling down their pants and showing blood to the clinic staff. Often the clinic ‘nurse’ is simply a clerical worker.

When Leslie Kretzu of NikeWatch spoke to factory workers about menstrual leave she discovered that tens of thousands of women go to work knowing they are going to bleed through their clothes for the first two days of their period every month. For these two days they will wear dark pants and a long blouse so the stain on their clothes is less noticeable walking home. Workers have only two bathroom breaks a day, and the ratio of toilets to workers often means they cannot really get to the toilet. In one factory visited by NikeWatch there were five toilets for 2,000 workers. Another had nine toilets for 1,000 workers. Union organisers say it is not only in Nike factories that these conditions exist, but also in factories producing apparel for Gap, Adidas, Fila, Reebok and Polo, to name a few. All this helps explain why it is an issue for women workers. It is taken up by male workers also because management’s attempts to stop women availing of the right is so clearly part of the ‘race to the bottom’ that has such a detrimental effect on all workers’ conditions.


In bringing women into the workforce in such huge numbers, capitalism is strengthening its own gravedigger. The workforce of 87 million in Indonesia is considerably larger than the entire world working class at the time Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. Women make up almost 40 percent of that workforce. As is clear from the figures in Table 1, women are now a permanent part of the global workforce. In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s women lost their jobs and resumed employment at much the same rate as men. Women workers suffer the worst working conditions, poorest pay and have to care for children and other dependants. The desperation that this can engender can make them not only among the most militant workers, but also the ‘boldest and most unmanageable revolutionaries’. [41]

The pay and working conditions in EPZs and the slums of cities in the developing world are reminiscent of Manchester in 1850, Paris in 1871, and Lawrence, Massachussetts, in 1912. And the squalor that working people are forced to live in resembles Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s when Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, was growing up. The crucial difference now is the total contrast between rich and poor, not only between developed and developing countries, but within even the least developed of regions. Everywhere the poor are poor because the rich are rich, and everywhere the growing gap fuels the fire of resistance. The anti-capitalist movement proclaims that another world is possible – a world that puts people before profit, one where women’s willingness to have children will be seen as the wonderful contribution that it is to society. Such a world would put every resource into ensuring that every child gets enough time with its mother (or whatever other parent she or he may have) while ensuring that the mother is able to have a life outside the home. For many years those concerned with the differential effect of globalisation on women have been arguing the need for new coalitions between trade unions, peasant co-operatives, women’s groups that organise homeworkers, and so on. Viewed from a perspective of uniting them from above through International Federations of Trade Unions, the ILO, etc., this seemed impossible. But the anti-capitalist movement brings these forces together from below in solidarity and with a common enemy – global capitalism.

When the women’s movement stopped fighting for liberation and started ‘working towards equality’, targeting the European Union, United Nations and World Bank, it abandoned the mass of women. It abandoned them to an equality of poverty and low pay with the mass of men, compounded by poor childcare and little or no access to safe, free contraception and abortion. The anti-capitalist movement in challenging the fundamental inequality in society – between the haves and the have-nots – points the way back to the fight for women’s liberation, a fight to overthrow global capitalism and build real equality in a just and sustainable world.


1. G. Greer, Recantation, in The Whole Woman (London 2000), p. 4.

2. R. Went, Globalisation (London 2000).

3. ILO Labourstat.

4. This figure is for 1983 as the ILO figures for the Republic of Ireland do not start until then.

5. World Bank, Priorities and Strategies for Education: A World Bank Review (Washington DC 1995).

6. C. Wichterich, The Globalized Woman: Reports from a Future of Inequality (London 2000), p. 47.

7. B. Oaff, New Economy, Same Old Story for Women, in The Guardian, 12 May 2001.

8. N. Klein, No Logo (London 2000), pp. 205–206.

9. Ibid., p. 221.

10. C. Wichterich, op. cit., p. 3.

11. L.T. Raynolds, New Plantations, New Workers: Gender and Production Politics in the Dominican Republic, in Gender and Society, vol. 15, no. 1 (2001), p. 17.

12. M. Wong and M. Wong, Breaking Barriers, Building Alliances: Asia-Latin America Women’s Exchange Workshop, in Asia Labour Update, no. 38 (2001).

13. Ibid.

14. S. Kim, Anthropology and the Global Factory (New York 1992).

15. C. Wichterich, op. cit., p. 17.

16. G. Horgan, Changing Women’s Lives in Ireland, International Socialism 91 (Summer 2001).

17. G.J. Ungpakorn, Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis (Bangkok 1999), p. 71.

18. C. Wichterich, op. cit., p. 52.

19. M.B. Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force: Consuming Desires, Contested Selves (New Jersey 1999).

20. Quoted in G.H. Espinosa, No Mother’s Day for Women Workers: Sex Discrimination in Mexico, in J. Mirsky and M. Radlett (eds.), No Paradise Yet: The World’s Women Face the New Century (London 2000).

21. Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy, The Impact of the Global Gag Rule: A Country by Country Snapshot,

22. Quoted in D. Munyakho, Less than Human Treatment: Maternity Protection in Kenya, in J. Mirsky and M. Radlett (eds.), op. cit., p. 177.

23. Ibid., p. 178.

24. Ibid.

25. Quoted in R.L.K. Rivera, Business Orphans: Maternity Rights and Childcare in the Philippines, in J. Mirsky and M. Radlett (eds.), op. cit.

26. S. Ramos, Institutionalised Violence Against Women and the Code of Ethics, speech at conference on Global Standards in Focus, 13–15 October 2000.

27. K. Sacks, Engels Revisited: Women, the Organisation of Production and Private Property in R. Reiter (ed.), Towards an Anthropology of Women (New York 1975).

28. F. Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York 1972), p. 221.

29. K. Sen, Indonesian Women at Work: Reframing the Subject, in K. Sen and M. Stivens (eds.), Gender and Power in Affluent Asia (London 1998), p. 40.

30. New Earnings Survey (2000).

31. C. Egan and M. Robidoux, Women, in E. Bircham and J. Charlton (eds.), Anti-Capitalism: A Guide to the Movement (London 2001).

32. D.V.L. Porpora and U. Prommas, The Role of Women in the International Division of Labour: the Case of Thailand, in Development and Change, vol. 20 (1989).

33. D.L. Wolf, Linking Women’s Labor with the Global Economy, in K. Ward (ed.), Women Workers and Global Restructuring (New York 1990).

34. Cited in G.J. Ungpakorn, op. cit., p. 69.

35. Three Interviews with Workers’ Representatives and Socialists in Indonesia, in International Socialism 80 (Autumn 1998).

36. Ibid.

37. G.J. Ungpakorn, op. cit., pp. 58–67.

38. Quoted in D. Munyakho, op. cit.

39. Ibid.

40. Quoted in K. Sen, op. cit., p. 46.

41. Irish nationalist leader Éamon de Valera, quoted in M. Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (London 1983).

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