Women and Global Capitalism

The Editors

[This is a guest editorial, for the occasion of International Women’s Day, written for Against the Current by Veronica Dujon of the Sociology Department at Portland State University.]

WOMEN ARE AFFECTED in unique ways by current forms of global economic integration. Their experiences, concerns and needs must be a central part of the groundwork for understanding and transforming this global economy.

Very rarely, if ever, did/do development policies address a basic fact: More than half a century of strategies to develop the Third World present overwhelming evidence that economic policies affect women in very different, often detrimental ways. It comes as no surprise, then, that the current global economic integration, based on the neoliberal (so-called “free market”) policies dominant since the 1970s, contrary to raising global living standards for most, threatens to literally exploit them to death.

Women in particular, in both the developing and industrial world, are at risk. According to the World Bank, women make up 40% of the world’s workforce in agriculture, a quarter in industry, and a third in services. Women farmers in developing countries today grow at least 50% of the world’s food and as much as 80% in some African countries. And of the world’s 1.3 billion poor, 70% are women.

While a United Nations report finds that women contribute 66% of the hours worked each day, the report also finds that they earn only 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the world’s property. What explains such persistent poverty? How did women fare with economic development strategies in the Third World before and after the debt crisis?

Further: If women are indeed “the fortunate employed workers” (according to neoliberal development doctrines) who form the majority of the workforce in export processing zones, why do they continue to be trapped at the lowest economic rungs of globalization?

From Development to Crushing Debt

Following World War II, countries throughout the colonized world fought for independence and embarked on what were then called programs of national development (often involving substantial state intervention in the economy, import substitution, protection of domestic industries and strict controls on capital export). Some would be more successful than others, but overall it was a period in which Third World states were focused on inner-oriented development.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the face of an explosion of money available from transnational banks and the World Bank, many would borrow far more financial resources than their economies could sustain. Some of that went to constructive domestic programs, while much was lost to corruption and private foreign accounts. In no case were these policies arrived at democratically in any meaningful sense.

The oil crisis of the 1970s, followed by a recession in the United States, and the sharp increases in interest rates spelt disaster in the 1980s for over-extended Third World economies. Because they could not make their loan payments, there would be a radical reversal in the focus of development programs. The agendas they supported began to be steadily dismantled, even less democratically than they had been constructed.

The debt crisis would initiate a new and unprecedented form of bondage for the Third World. Structural adjustment polices and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for dealing with the debt established their now notorious legacy for their adverse social and economic impact on ordinary lives. Country after country was forced to sacrifice its development trajectory, exploiting its people and natural resources in the interest of streamlining its economy to acquire the wherewithal to remain creditworthy.

Many government programs were privatized. Social gains in the form of education, health care and food subsidies were rapidly dismantled even while people lost jobs and currencies were devalued. In several countries riots erupted.

Women were the first to feel the crunch of structural adjustment programs, and the impact was particularly severe. IMF austerity measures left many women and their children without health care, food subsidies, recreational facilities and other social services. Families unable to afford to educate all their children systematically decided to continue boys’ education while girls were pulled out of school.

Why Should Women Pay?

Women throughout Latin America would argue that they did not contract the loans, did not benefit from the loans, and therefore should not have to pay the debt. Caribbean women discussing their pain were convinced that if they were the delegates negotiating with the IMF rather than their male representatives the outcomes would have been different, because, in the words of Peggy Antrobus, “they (the IMF) would be made to understand the pain . . . and would have to take `no’ for an answer.”

Women found the responsibility for managing family quality of life increasingly difficult. Many male partners and heads of households who were unable to fulfill their roles as main breadwinners defected from their families or moved to urban areas in search of work. In their attempts to maintain their families, the women they left behind stretched their working hours to pick up the shortfall.

They found themselves burdened by invisible work in the household and agricultural subsistence economy but also had to find jobs in the formal and informal economies to make ends meet. The potential for stable economic lives in either sector was, and continues to be, slim. Others would turn to prostitution, many ending up as commodities in the growing international trade in sex.

The sex trade used to be predominantly focused in the Third World to cater to men in industrialized countries. More recently, as former Eastern Block countries go through their own economic crises, women in these regions, too, become vulnerable prey.

Under the control of the IMF, indebted countries were encouraged to open up their borders to foreign investors as part of a strategy to allegedly encourage industrialization. This “liberalization” actually establishes a global assembly line fueled by the sweat of women in export processing zones.

Zones of Super-Exploitation (EPZs)

In the face of poverty and a wish to be relatively independent from patriarchal households, the attraction of jobs in export processing zones (EPZs) is beguiling to women. In a bitter twist of irony, women who were traditionally excluded from the mainstream formal economy become bait for attracting corporations into EPZs.

EPZs facilitate the incorporation of massive numbers of women, particularly young, in industry throughout the Third World. These zones are essentially industrial enclaves within a country. Third World states are encouraged to set these up as a way of providing employment and establishing mock industry.

The zones often have no linkages to the rest of the domestic economy; infrastructure such as roads, electricity and factory shells are sometimes provided at the expense of the local government; labor union regulations which are legal for the rest of the economy are aggressively repressed. The zones are designed to attract foreign investors in search of pools of cheap labor.

Women are the prime targets of recruitment in these EPZs for several basic reasons: (a) the notion that women’s work is less essential than that of men serves as justification for below minimum wages; (b) women are considered to have delicate fingers ideally situated to the kind of assembly work required; (c) women, especially young ones, are more likely than men to submit to authority and harsh working conditions; (d) young women live with their parents and so do not have food and lodging expenses. They can therefore be paid substantially less than others.

Stories from EPZs are horrifying. Human rights violations in the form of long hours of overtime work without pay; toxic fumes in poorly ventilated factory shells; regulated bathroom breaks and required pregnancy tests once a month, are a short list of documented abuses. It is the direct exploitation of women’s lives for trade and profit.

The Truly Global Sweatshop

Women in the developing world are disgruntled about the dire working conditions of their integration into the global economy yet also appreciative of the economic space, albeit extremely limited, that it grants them.

Women, especially poor and working-class women, in industrial countries are faced with their own contradictions and constraints. The vast number of sweatshop operations using mostly female immigrant labor within the United States, for example, exposes the economic and human misery women can be subjected to even in the richest of countries.

Indeed, while the U.S. administration boasts of unprecedented economic growth, services critical to the survival of working women and mothers (health care, childcare, living wages) remain drastically inadequate, if not cut back altogether in the guise of “welfare reform” and balancing government budgets.

The growing number of women in the paid workforce both in the Third World and industrial world changes the composition of the workforce and creates the potential for women to play a critical role in broadening the goals and outlook of workers’ organizations in a global market society. As wage workers, women cannot separate traditional union concerns with wages and benefits from social concerns with the need for child care, education and family income support.

In an earlier historic period of capitalist upheaval—the 1930s—an enormous layer of heavily exploited, unorganized and disenfranchised industrial labor in the United States, thought by the conservative union bureaucracies of the day to be “not organizable,” became the base of the CIO. The organization and social enfranchisement of exploited women workers in today’s global economy has that same explosive potential, on a world scale.

In more immediate terms, one cannot overemphasize the social significance of the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and its framework for global economic integration that flies in the face of social, industrial and environmental justice. (Several perspectives on these events appear elsewhere in this issue of ATC.) There is an international community thirsting for appropriate international institutions to confront the impact of global marketization.

After almost a quarter century of pain and suffering, Jubilee 2000, a campaign to break the chains of the debt, is most welcome. The actions against the IMF and World Bank called for April 16-17 in Washington, D.C. will be of profound importance. What’s at stake are the lives of women and the survival of much of humanity.

ATC 85, March-April 2000