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Impact of globalisation on women

By Vibhuti Patel

Globalisation is riding on the back of millions of poor women and child workers in the margins of the economy. The structural adjustment programme has forced working women into the unorganised sector and deprived them of their rights

In response to a mounting burden of debt, leading to a balance of payment crisis, the Government of India embarked on a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in the 1990s. This included reductions in public investment, devaluation, cutting food and fertiliser subsidies, dismantling the public distribution system, reducing budgets for the social sector, promoting capital-intensive and ‘high-tech' production, and increasing bank rates and insurance charges. The SAP policies aim at capital-, energy- and import-intensive growth with the help of devaluation, deregulation, deflation and denationalisation. Mainstream economists call these processes “economic reforms”.

Globalisation also means that a new international division of labour has emerged. Economic globalisation, deep economic restructuring across countries and neo-liberal economic policies have led to informalised and decentralised processes of production that have transformed labour markets and the world of work in industrialised and developing countries. In the process, social security and statutory protection to workers have been dismantled.

M ultinational corporations have long realised that the best way to reduce the wage bill and to enhance profits is to move parts of the production process to poorer countries like India , Sri Lanka , Bangladesh , Indonesia , the Philippines , Thailand , etc. The cheap labour of Asian women is regarded as the most lucrative way to enhance profits. Women in developing countries are a ‘flexible' labour force. Their cheaper labour forms the basis for the induction of women into export industries such as electronics, garments, sports goods, food processing, toys, agro-industries, etc. Women are forced to work uncomplainingly at any allotted task, however dull, laborious, physically harmful or badly paid it may be. A large number of poor women looking for work within the narrow confines of a socially imposed, inequitable demand for labour have become ideal workers in the international division of labour. Globalisation is riding on the back of millions of poor women and child workers in the margins of the economy.

The relationship between the formal sector and the decentralised sector is a dependent relationship. The formal sector has control over capital and markets, and the ‘informal' sector works as an ancillary. In India , more than 90% of women work in the decentralised sector, which has a high degree of labour redundancy and obsolescence. These women have almost no control over their work and no chance for upward mobility because of the temporary and repetitive nature of the work.

The shift from a stable/organised labour force to a flexible workforce has meant hiring women part-time, and the substitution of better-paid male labour by cheap female labour. The new economic policies provide State support to corporate houses that are closing down their big city units and using ancillaries that employ women and girls on a piece-rate basis. Home-based work by women and girls gets legitimised in the context of increasing insecurity in the community due to a growth in crime, riots, displacement and relocation. Sub-contracting, home-based production, the family labour system, all have become the norm. This is being called an increase in ‘efficiency' and ‘productivity'.  

The casual employment of urban working class women in the manufacturing industry (textiles is a glaring example) has forced thousands of women to eke out a subsistence through parallel petty trading activities (known as ‘informal' sector occupations).

The SAP has forced working women into the unorganised sector and deprived them of their rights. The women fall outside protective labour laws such as the Maternity Benefits Act (1961), Employees State Insurance Scheme, Factories Act (1948), Equal Remuneration Act (1976), Bombay Shops and Establishment Act (1984), Plantation Labour Act, and Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1976.  

The government finds it difficult to dismiss permanent staff in public sector enterprises because they are organised, vocal and visible. A specious debate on the issue of part-time work for women creates a justification for segmentation of labourers on the grounds of gender. Those in favour argue that working women shoulder the burden of domestic duties as well as remunerative/office work, so a reduction of working hours will give them some relief. This deprives women of promotions and responsible assignments and discriminates against women by projecting them as “supplementary earners”. Moreover, often the most strenuous part of work is commuting back and forth, and whether a person works part-time or full-time, the same amount of time and energy is spent on commuting.

The argument in favour of part-time work for women does not question the existing gender-based division of labour in the family. It throws the burden of childcare and housework on the individual woman. The long-standing demand for family work to be supported by the State is also negated. The women's movement in India has suggested that ways to reduce the double burden on women could include the provision of cheap and safe eating facilities, childcare centres that provide both custodial care and developmental inputs for children, and better transport facilities.

Studies have shown that the burden of poverty falls more heavily on women than on men. The inequality in income and consumption levels between women and men has also been documented. At least 11% of households in India are supported solely by women's income. In other words, they are “female-headed households” (FHH) -- households run by widows, single women, deserted or divorced women.

FHH are usually the poorest of the poor. The combined effects on these households of the new economic policies, which translate into (among other effects), reduced PDS (Public Distribution System) quotas, reductions in healthcare facilities and educational facilities are crushing. Children of FHHs suffer more due to nutritional deficiency, inadequate primary healthcare facilities, and cuts in expenditure for the education sector. In the National Perspective Plan (NPP) for Women (1988-2000), the government responded quite positively to demands from women's groups for State support to FHH. But the SAP works against the objectives of the NPP.

The number of girls working in the informal/unorganised sector for precarious wages has also increased. National and multinational corporations operating in Free Trade Zones, Special Economic Zones and Export Processing Zones in India employ girls in production units or hire them on a piece-rate basis for home-based work. Using girl-child labourers is the cheapest way to increase the profit margin.

The inflationary impact of the SAP and the reduction in paid work reduces the purchasing power of a household, which, in turn, increases the unpaid labour of women. For example, buying cheaper food requires more time for procuring, cleaning and preparation. The unpaid labour of women in cooking, cleaning, caring and doing chores that augment family resources (like collection of fuel, fodder, water, looking after livestock and poultry, and processing agricultural goods) is regarded as elastic by the SAP.

In response to the imposition of SAP and stabilisation policies, women's movements across national boundaries have challenged the neo-liberal development paradigm. Universal labour standards ensuring just wages, occupational safety and social security must become the central issues of the women's movement.

(Dr Vibhuti Patel is Professor and Head, Department of Economics, SNDT Women's University, Mumbai)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007