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Globalization & Neo-Liberal Work Force: A Gendered Analysis of Perpetual In-Equalities

By Bushra Zulfiqar

 Globalization has yielded a series of intensified, entrenched and complex processes of economic, social and spatial restructuring of the world. It has differentiated outcomes for people depending upon their geography, social, spatial and ideological contexts. Analysing globalization stretches over multiple layers of economic, social, cultural and political realms. It is not possible to understand the global processes of economic and spatial restructuring without looking at the ways in which it has effected gendered constructs, dynamics and subjectivities. Globalization has indeed led to the re-organization of intimate relations i.e. organization of relations between people, inter and intra household dynamics, power relations and decision making processes, access and control over resources, responsibilities of monetary contribution and domestic labour. This essay will try to chart out the shifts in labour arrangements as a result of contemporary economic, social and spatial restructuring and try to identify the ways it has transformed the organization of intimate relations regarding gender roles, relations and subjectivities.      

                   I strongly believe that globalization has deeply tampered and to quite an extent has undone with the traditional labour arrangements in ways which have changed the experiences and lives of people across the world. The complex and inter-connected processes emerging from globalization have  ideologically and morally re-oriented people by providing them with increased economic opportunities, diversified, inter-generational and transnational interaction through inter-connectedness between countries, the course of flow of people, goods and services across borders, time space compression and access to worldwide information. The liberalization and de-regulation of economies have provided both men and women with increased opportunities for participation in the economic and social spheres. I feel that the way employment patterns emerging from global processes have effected the masculinities and feminities is one of the under expected outcomes of globalization. The way employment and working arrangements have become inter connected within and across countries, organizations and enterprises along with the flow of goods, capital, people, information and ideas across countries has massively effected upon the dynamics of state, institutions, international politics, bi-lateral relations, foreign and domestic policies, bio-power in households and cultural transformations in societies at large.  

Globalization has undoubtedly brought more women into the economic sphere both in formal and informal sectors and to a large extent has increased their visibility as a massively important stakeholder. Whether it has actually made women equal beneficiaries of the process has to be understood in an in-depth analysis of the layers of complexities around women’s participation in socio-economic spheres and empowerment. Yet processes of economic and social re-organization have made women an important part of the debate and discourse on labour market arrangements in a globalized world order. One is encouraged by the vast body of research and literature available on the issues of women and processes of global restructuring, which is an evidence of the growing recognition of their role in globalization.  

Globalization by increasing inter-connectedness between people, cultures and ideas has in ways relaxed the moralities of people who would earlier on only participate in traditional sub-sectors of economy. It has opened a world of new professional and career choices in the areas of business, trade, commerce, entrepreneurship, corporate and banking sector, academia, politics and bureaucracy which in many parts of the world were previously considered as choices available only for men and men too from a specific class. In many patriarchal societies, women were previously not allowed to travel even within close geographical proximity unaccompanied by a male family member. It was a grave issue which could easily threaten the family’s honour and women had to spend their lives bearing the burden of guarding the family’s respect. In case if a male member was not available, women particularly young girls would travel in small groups of two to three. Over the last few decades, the shifting paradigms of economic participation and increased participation and mobility have massively changed this practise. 

An increasingly high number of women in the global south are now active members of the workforce which has not only made women contributing members but has also led to a considerable degree of their social inclusion. It has created formal and informal networks which women use for the exchange of ideas, settlement of disputes and for voicing their opinions.  It further translates into the chances of delayed marriage, marrying a partner of choice and remaining economically and socially active. This is a major breakthrough compared to the previously immobile women, grossly involved in household non-remunerated activities and who were barely visible in the public domain. Now women including young girls have become highly mobile and commute frequently to meet their educational, health, employment and social needs. This economic and social exposure of women seems to have transformed the gendered division of labour, organization of intimate and gender relations and has effected the overall social fabric of societies. Globalization has facilitated a departure from the conventional viewpoint of women presence and role confined only in the household i.e. the private domain for women whereas the public domain as occupied and dominated by men. The surge of increased economic activity and social mobility of women has brought about their role as earners and bread winners and seems to have challenged the deeply rooted and discriminatory gender specific identities to a considerable extent.

Similarly, the inter connectedness of societies through access to information has transformed the choices and ways of life. It has in some cases converged interests, created shared goals  and common cultures amongst people yet has effected them differently based on their situated responses operating from specific socio-economic and cultural contexts. Globalization shapes and in return gets shaped by localized responses, reactions and resistances.  It has in many ways re-defined the working and living arrangements in societies particularly with respect to gender and has given women a relatively high negotiating position in power relations.  However, a deeper analysis of the contemporary value chains of production, women domestic and international labour brings about the kinds of vulnerabilities, exclusion and exploitation they are subjected to. 

For example, the labour intensive production processes of global commodity chain and care work have in many ways perpetuated inequalities by re-enforcing the social constructs of gendered processes and gendered division of labour. Global economic restructuring in a neo-liberal context has had both social and hence gendered implications for societies, in explicit and implicit ways. The fact that production and care work has further fragmented the global division of labour in relation to gender identities is very palpable. Various manifestations of insecurity, flexibility, invisibility and inequality constitute the experiences of women workers who have filled in the majority of labour intensive export production chains. Their lives have been tremendously effected by the kind of value and commodity chains they are a part of. Cross border linkages and time and space compression of the global production process seems to have occupied the central position in lives of women who are part of the chain. Everything else, from domestic household chores up to socializing follows from that because it has a bearing on the physical, mental and social well being of the women. 

Although value and opportunities are available at different stages of the chain but that does not really have positive implications for women’s employment and empowerment in relation to men. There tends to be an over simplification between women’s economic participation and development but a deeper look exposes the kinds of exploitation women are subjected to by certain kinds of economic participation. A huge majority of women work in these global production chains at extremely low wages for long hours with gender based wage differentials and hazardous working conditions. They are often exposed to environmental and health risks and still remain greatly invisible, unacknowledged and unrewarded. Women seem to have started dominating the arena of flexible, casual and temporary work which is poorly paid and lacks social, institutional or legal protection. The gendered stereotypes of women filling in the ordinary and inferior production work underpin the organization of many of these value chains and further restrict their potential to pursue professional careers in formal economy.

Similarly, the notion of feminish delicate work in primary agricultural products, manufacturing and packing of export products has institutionally strengthened the phenomena of commodification of women, where women are portrayed, treated and presented in public as mere commodities, suited for a certain kind of work. They have no sense of individual self, views, likes and dis-likes. They live bare lives of self-deprivation and suppression imposed by the institutionally imposed and socially prescribed codes of conduct.  In many cases, being part of the production chain means an excessive burden on women due to responsibilities of household maintenance and upbringing of children. Domestic household work is an extremely important dimension in women’s lives which remains ignored in almost all dimensions of labour force participation. It  includes but is not restricted to tending to the needs of children, household chores like cleaning, fetching water and fuel, looking after cattle, cooking, washing and catering to elderly people in extended families. While globalization has moved women form the private to the public domain, it has not moved men from public to private domain. Majority of the men remain insensitive to the increased work pressures on women and do not subscribe to shared responsibilities within the household. In patriarchal societies, men do not help in the household work including even during emergency situations. It is because of the gender related identity constructs that men consider undertaking household work as a threat to their masculinity. This is an area which still seems to be largely unaffected by the processes of globalization and the domestic work remains a responsibility of women exclusively.

A saddening analysis is that the globally inter linked production processes have given birth to a globally integrated chain of labour but has not re-organized labour arrangements in the favour of women. It has not shaken the underlying gendered perceptions, associations and discriminatory expectations from men and women. Though it has given women new forms of work and opportunities of independent earnings, but it has not provided women with equal opportunities in relation to men.  Women’s participation in informal and flexible work keeps them insecure and suppressed at the lowest ends of economy, thus making them vulnerable to different kinds of exploitation. There have been situations where when women earn, the contribution of men towards the household expenditure goes down. Though not in theory but in practise, the notion of ‘bread earners’ seems to be quickly shifting towards women in many regions. Women especially in the global south spend almost entire of their salaries meeting household expenditures. However despite becoming key contributors in family income, the control over resources and key decision making lies largely with men. One of the reasons of men’s authority or control over women and their earnings could be the cover provided by the state in form of discriminatory laws like right to inheritance which are re-enforced by cultural practices. Though female headed households have enjoyed a relatively elevated socio-economic status due to control over earnings, urbanization and migration and apparently it seems that the employment patterns emanating from globalization have increased their bio-power and opportunity to exercise choices in life.

Another major sub-process emanating from a global re-organization of labour is that of female domestic workers who migrate to other countries for work. It is a very good example to understand the nexus between new work arrangements and gendered roles, responsibilities and expectations. There is an increasingly high number of female domestic workers particularly from East Asian countries like Philippines who migrate to other countries as nannies or domestic maids. They work under very tough conditions and they continuously struggle to maintain a transnational household and family. They are deprived of romance and sex with their husbands and quality time with their children and families.  There is no or very little time for relaxation; freedom of expression including religious rituals is void. Some of them are abandoned freedom to movement because their passports are taken by the employees. Transnational labour has also giving rise to new kinds of motherhood where a woman migrates from her home country, leaves behind her children and migrates to another country to bring up some other woman’s children. In an age of fast technology, educated women from economically better off families do not sit at homes after marriage. They pursue their careers in formal sectors and due to professional responsibilities and long working hours, are unable to full fill the household’s responsibilities including bringing up of children. These women then hire female domestic servants or nannies even from other countries. With young and good looking domestic workers, women of middle age feel threatened and would at times get insecure about their marriages. Labour arrangements have a very strong bearing on the organization of masculinities and feminities and their roles in relation to each other. This is a very alarming shift catalysed by globalization where women from one class become subjugated to women from another class. Global processes have resulted into tensions and conflicting relations amongst women themselves too. Not just socio-cultural but ideological constructs have conditioned women’s psychology over decades. It has instilled the acceptance of the subjugation and suppression of women, even if that is at the hands of other women.

Embedded in the experiences of transnational migration, is the notion of immaterial work and that of flexible citizenship. Migrant workers have complex bi-furcated identities as neither the receiving country nor the home country fully owns them and it adversely effects their sense of belongingness and identity.  Like objects of bare life they go wherever they find work and spend years bringing up families and struggling to meet the needs and expectations of families and communities constituted of gendered and patriarchal social structures including the household, family, community, society and the state.

‘As transient aliens, foreign domestic workers are subjected to household based disciplinary regime and to techniques of securitization at the national level. Because they are mobile women, foreign domestic workers are not considered attached to moral economies despite their role in reproductive labour. As a migrant population, female foreign workers are considered to be undesirable aliens as well as a threat to the security of the host society’ (Ong: 2007)

Globalization has effected the lives and experiences of both men and women in every part of the world. It has simultaneously converged and diverged various actors, their interests and interplay in a process of social, cultural and gendered reorganization evolving from increased economic and spatial integration of the world. It has tremendously effected the way gender dynamics organize and operate from and within different social and cultural contexts. A lot of avenues for economic and social advancement have opened up for women which is evident from the rapidly increasing percentage of female labour force participation in both formal and informal sectors and the massively rising number of female migrants. Although a change in power and gendered dynamics of international and local economies is increasingly becoming visible, the underlying conceptualizations of gender constructs and ideologies are not changing at the same pace. Globalization is coming forth as a process with unequal and differing outcomes upon people depending upon their contextual environments, geographical and time zones. It is not fully tackling with the gendered dimensions of inequality, poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion. Though the process of globalization has the potential to equally divide the fruits of economic and social development between men and women, the need is to dig deeper and address the complex layers of inequality of opportunities available to both men and women.


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