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Women Workers and Neoliberalism

Women Workers and Globalisation: Emergent Contradictions in India by Indrani Mazumdar;

Women Workers and Neoliberalism
workers are self-employed, and denying the protection of labour laws to piecerated workers. The result was that the average monthly income from home-based Rohini Hensman work was less than 22 per cent of the mini

he bulk of this book consists of four sectoral studies of women workers in Delhi and its satellite townships of Noida and Gurgaon, through a combination of structured questionnaires and individual and group discussions conducted in 2002-04.

The first study of the garment export industry notes the dramatic transfer of employment from higher to lower-wage countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and the growth of international subcontracting chains with retailers and brand-name companies at the top and low-cost suppliers in third world countries at the bottom. In 2005, the phase-out of the multi-fibre arrangement (MFA) resulted in even more competition within the sector and downward pressure on employment conditions. In a sector where in India, unlike most countries, women’s employment has been relatively low, women’s share in registered factory employment increased from 55 per cent in 1994-95 to 65 per cent in 1999-2000, but the share of women subsidiary status workers, i e, those employed on a casual basis, rose even more, to 99 per cent in 2004. Casualisation of women’s employment, wage discrimination, long working hours, compulsory overtime and flouting of labour laws were widespread.

Electronics Manufacturing

The second study is of the electronics manufacturing industry, earlier regarded as the leading example of feminisation, although in India, automation subsequently led to a reduction in the proportion of women workers. Following the slashing of import controls in 1991, the share of the public and small-scale sectors in employment declined, while the share of the large-scale private sector increased, catering mainly to the growing domestic market. While women’s share of employment in the industry increased from 17 per cent in 1999-2000 to 24 per cent in 2004, the total number of jobs declined by 47 per

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

book review

Women Workers and Globalisation: Emergent Contradictions in India by Indrani Mazumdar; Stree, Kolkata, for Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi, 2007; pp xxiv + 349, Rs 550.

cent in this period. In the organised sector, women’s employment fell from 29 per cent to 24 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2002-04. The majority of women were found to be young and unmarried or separated. An interesting finding was that the women were not necessarily happy about their unmarried status, but many felt trapped because their parental families were dependent on their wages; only in some of the older formal sector units had unions been able to win rights that enabled women to continue in service after marriage, but even there recruitment of women had virtually stopped.

Home-based Work

The third study is of women in homebased work. The concepts of the “informal sector” and “informal economy” are discussed, as well as the neoliberal promotion of this unregulated sector because of its extreme flexibility, at the cost of extreme insecurity for the workers employed in it. Using the report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women, Shramshakti (1988), the author makes the important distinction between piece-rated and own-account home-based workers, on the grounds that “the nature of legislative protection that is needed for these two categories of workers is not the same. The piece-rated workers need better rates of wages, better implementation of labour laws; on the other hand, the own-account workers need remedies that generally lie beyond the scope of labour laws” (p 180). Yet, in documents subsequently produced by the minstry of labour, the distinction was deliberately blurred, creating the impression that all or most home-based mum wage, and in 65 per cent of the cases, this was the work of more than one person, often including minor girls. The importance of implementing the Shramshakti recommendations is obvious.

Information Technology

The fourth study is of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, which has been expanding with the increasing weight of services in the economy, and is integral to globalisation. The survey results are preceded by a discussion of women in white-collar employment in historical perspective. The women surveyed for this study were working in call centres, a new sector that has created employment opportunities for women. The profile of these women contrasted strikingly with that of the home-based workers: young, unmarried, educated (most of them were graduates), English-speaking, middleclass, and earning more – sometimes considerably more – than the minimum wage. Yet, they too, had problems at work, including insecure employment and lack of promotional opportunities. Constant monitoring, intensification of work, and extended night shifts took a toll on their health.

These informative studies are framed by the first chapter, entitled ‘Emergent Contradictions: Overview on Globalisation’, and the Conclusion. Chapter one describes the formation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, and the neoliberal policies they have enforced in third world countries in the name of “structural adjustment”, including liberalisation of international trade and capital flows, cutting of government expenditure on employment creation and welfare, privatisation of state concerns, and an attack on state protections for labour. India embarked upon this process in 1991. It argues that “the operations of globalised finance have anchored a process of expanding manufacturing incomes in the developed countries with adverse effects


on developing country primary commodity producers, acclerated the centralisation of capital on a worldwide scale and deindustrialisation within backward economies” (p 32), among other things.

While the critique of neoliberalism is justified, it is hard to see how this picture corresponds to the globalised world economy in the early 21st century, especially if countries like India are included among the “backward economies”. Indrani Mazumdar admits that some sections of Indian business were in favour of economic liberalisation, but describes this as their being “inclined...towards collaboration with metropolitan capital as a junior partner” (p 13). The more likely explanation – that just like “metropolitan capital” they made use of state protection for their infant industries, but were then ready to throw away this ladder when they reached maturity – is not considered.

Given the scenario described by the author, one could not imagine a company from the Tata group taking over iconic global brands like Tetley, Corus, Jaguar and Land Rover, or state-owned Gulf companies seizing the opportunity created by high oil prices and falling US share prices to buy up assets in the US and Europe. These developments correspond to Lenin’s definition of “export of capital”, except that the flow is in the opposite direction to what he described in “imperialism”. If this is what it means to be a “junior partner” to metropolitan capital, what exactly is entailed in being an equal partner? If manufacturing incomes in the developed countries are expanding, how is it that the US national debt is growing exponentially, and one of the key complaints of US workers has been that their jobs are being exported to countries like Mexico, China and India, while they themselves suffer massive job losses? Why would several prominent analysts describe the US as going through a process of deindustrialisation? These phenomena are integral elements of today’s globalised world economy, yet they are inconceivable within the framework elaborated by the author.

Major Lacunae

There are other glaring lacunae. The ICTs are a vital element of globalisation, yet the only mention they find in this chapter is in a footnote. The massive growth of financial markets is correctly noted, yet there is no mention of new institutional investors like pension funds, whose assets amounted to 57.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the US and over 87 per cent of GDP in the Netherlands at the end of 1995. The WTO is universally recognised as the hallmark of globalisation, yet there are only three references to it in this chapter, and even these are inaccurate. The first refers to “continued and large state subsidies to agriculture in the developed countries, while developing countries have been forced to withdraw their own subsidies under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime” (p 20). You would never guess from this sentence that the WTO Cancun talks in 2003 collapsed because there was no agreement on this issue, that developing countries have continued to insist that trade-distorting agricultural subsidies in the developed countries should be abolished while developing countries should retain measures to support poor farmers and ensure food security, or that the WTO upheld a complaint by Brazil and west African cotton-growing countries that US subsidies to its cotton growers were illegal under WTO rules. The other two references to the WTO (pp 25, 26) argue that the WTO regime has seen a resurgence of old colonial patterns in which developing countries export agricultural products while suffering deindustrialisation as imports from the developed world displace local manufactures and employment. As we saw earlier, exactly the opposite is taking place: so much so that two leading underdevelopment theorists, Giovanni Arrighi and Andre Gunder Frank, argued in the 1990s that there had been a reorientation of the world economy, with its centre of gravity shifting to the east.

All these changes are so central to the definition of globalisation that it is evident that this chapter does not contain even an empirical description of globalisation, much less an analysis of it. The liberalisation of international trade and capital flows is a characteristic of both globalisation and neoliberalism, but globalisation includes many additional features, as enumerated above. Similarly, some features of neoliberalism, such as privatisation of public services and opposition to protective labour legislation, are not necessary to a definition of globalisation. The title of this book is therefore misleading, because it is really about neoliberalism and women workers.

The sections on labour, on the other hand, are an accurate description of the declining weight of the organised sector, preponderance of informal employment, and attack on protective labour legislation (pp 14-19). The author correctly points out that far from a “feminisation” of the labour force, in the sense of increased employment opportunities for women, India has seen an expulsion of women workers from formal employment (pp 33-36), while the promotion of micro-enterprise as the solution to unemployment has gone together with the promotion of a divisive politics of formal versus informal sector workers (pp 39-42).

However, there is a difficulty here due to a lack of historical background: all these problems, with the exception of the vicious attack on labour legislation from 1998 to 2004, date back to long before economic liberalisation. A sharply segmented labour market was inherited from colonialism, and most labour laws excluded the unorganised sector even after independence. The industrial policy of the Janata Party in 1977 and Congress in 1980 promoted small-scale industries without bringing them under the protection of labour laws, leading to a massive transfer of jobs from the organised to the unorganised sector, first in the textile industry and then in other industries. This had nothing to do with globalisation: the Indian market was still heavily protected. Lakhs of jobs were lost in the organised sector not because they were going to developed countries or being displaced by imports, but because they were being shifted to unprotected workers in the unorganised sector or backward areas in India.

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june 7, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


The displacement of women workers from the organised sector took place even earlier. In the textile industry it went back to the 1930s, when the Delhi Agreement of 1935 between the Ahmedabad Millowners and Textile Labour Association specified that married women whose husbands were employed in the mills would be retrenched. Women in mines were similarly affected. From the 1960s onward, women in modern industries, e g, pharmaceuticals as well as clerical jobs were likewise often replaced by men when they retired. The main reason for this discrimination against women seems to be that they had become less flexible and more expensive than men due to protective legislation, and trade unions did not fight against it.

If the presuppositions of the argument are flawed, its conclusion – that the solution to the problem is to reverse globalisation – is necessarily wrong too. ICT has revolutionised capitalism, and the anti-globalisers cannot undo this revolution any more than the Luddites could undo the industrial revolution. Fortunately, the problems of the women workers surveyed in these four studies can be tackled without rolling back the wheel of history in this way.

Economic & Political Weekly

june 7, 2008

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