1994: Women and Internationalism

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

The Editors

TODAY THE PROCESS of capitalist restructuring and the urgency of international solidarity unites women as workers in even more fundamental a way than when Clara Zetkin first proposed an annual International Working Women’s Day nearly eighty-five years ago. It’s clear that in Year One of NAFTA and GAIT, the continual incorporation of women’s work into the world marketplace results in both their increasmg proletarianization and pauperization. This will reinforce women’s poverty not just in the Third World and in the former Communist countries, but in capitalist Europe and America as well.

But whether full-time or part-time, whether working in a maquiladora or sewing at home for a contractor, whether inputting data on a computer or producing “new” crops for a world market (like snow peas, broccoli, radishes), women are forced to seek employment while still caring for children and elderly relatives, while still administering the vast majority of the household tasks. And in an era of the AIDS epidemic, women are still denied vital health information and control over their bodies.

In this era of late capitalism, where a socialist alternative needs reinventing, transnational corporations are reconfiguring industry and universalizing their systems of “lean” production. Today’s profitability is fueled by speedup. And this method of “flexible” production is characterized, above all, by outsourcing, subcontracting and a part-time workforce.

Small, non-union shops have proliferated. In garment, electronics and auto the factories are most often located in and around major urban areas, like the industrial belts circling Port-au-Prince or São Paulo—or around the twin cities that straddle the U.S.-Mexican border. But, to capture low-wage labor, plants have moved into semi-rural areas as well.

Even in capitalist Europe and America, the jobs being created are most often temporary ones. Nor is this phenomenon limited to factory work Many highly skilled workers, from teachers to computer programmers, work from semester to semester or project to project Contract and part-time workers are fully one-third of the U.S. workforce.

Similarly, in Canada one-fourth of the entire workforce performs its paid work at home. But this covers many different kinds of people—from the self- employed to data entry operators and workers who are paid by the piece.

Billed as mutually advantageous to both employer and worker, the reality of “homework” is that it minimizes any employer obligation while it intensifies the work day. Flexible production puts more and more working women back into the home, where each is isolated, performing only the assigned task “on call” Typically the homeworker has no knowledge of the finished product, her coworkers, or even her employer’s name.

The growth of temporary work reinforces inequality. Given the level of unemployment, the work week should be cut. But a temporary workforce means just the opposite: long hours at the employer’s demand followed by layoffs. And contingency workers—disproportionately women of color—usually have no employee benefits. Perceived as vulnerable, these women routinely face physical and verbal abuse from their foremen and emloyers.

The brutality of this latest phase of capitalism recalls the early days of the industrial revolution. Millions were forced off their land: as Marx noted, sheep replaced the subsistence farm family. Then, too, the workforce was transient And capital preferred the “cheaper” labor of women.

What does today’s incorporation of women into the world market mean?

• It means a tiered wage system, with women’s earnings at the bottom.

• It means continual stress, as women juggle long work hours with household tasks.

• It means intensifying the level of discrimination when gender and race are combined.

• It means deepening economic and social instability.

• It means, given the instability, an increase in violence against women.

Countries such as Mexico that once “protected” certain industries are now carrying out the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, privatizing services, imposing austerity measures and abolishing the right of communities to collective lands.

Throughout the Americas it is the indigenous population that is the last to leave the land. But with the implementation of NAFTA and the market forces it unleashes, indigenous women—along with their brothers and husbands – will seek work in the cities.

The countries of Eastern Europe, whose bureaucratic system once gave lip service to women’s equality at least at work, now drive women out of the office and factory. Older women are particularly targeted. Currently women represent sixty percent of the unemployed in Poland, Bulgaria and Russia. They are forced to increase their household labor in order to make up for the decreased income.

Internationally, the new era is one in which production exists for the benefit of multinational corporations that integrate their plants into a system of world production. The wages are low, the rate of exploitation high and the flexibility to shift production from one area to another is great This transnational workforce is young and female, and works in small- to medium-sized plants. However, the plants are often located in industrial parks that bring together thousands of workers. The factories where they work, the industrial strip where they eat lunch and socialize with workers from other plants, and the communities in which they live are sites where organizing is beginning to take shape.

GATT and NAFTA have exacerbated the tendency to move toward a world system of integrated productive and distributive units. It is a young working class that faces both intolerable working conditions and intolerable living conditions. But while this system presents the working class with the formidable task of organizing, it also suggests that there is vulnerability to be found in such an integrated system.

Along with this transnational workforce is an expanding informal sector where women’s services predominate: selling food, water, items made or obtained for resale, one’s own body. This is where the reserve army of labor survives between periods of employment But while it may seem “marginal,” in countries like Mexico it has already ballooned to one-third of the total workforce.

Women in the informal sector, just as women who work for the transnationals, need a safe environment, freedom from violence, a steady income, decent housing, systems of health care and education. Within this context, then, whether performing homework in isolation or working side-by-side with others in plants, working women will discover methods of self-organization—and reinvent forms of international solidarity.

March/April 1994, ATC 49