Women's work in the economic expansion of Asia

Women in Asia have taken the brunt of the changes brought about by globalisation, with rapid shifts into (and out of) paid work, greater roles in providing outside income for households, increased rates of migration for work and greater involvement in unpaid, largely household labour, says Jayati Ghosh. There has to be a focus on the quality, the recognition and the remuneration of women's work in developing countries, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and childcare.

ONE of the many ways in which capitalism survives despite its many contradictions is through its ability to generate its own labour, whether through migration or drawing in different segments of the population into paid work. This is particularly evident in the case of female labour. Of course it must be remembered that even when women are not paid workers, their often unacknowledged and unpaid contribution to social reproduction as well as to many economic activities has always been absolutely essential for the functioning of the system. All women are usually workers, whether or not they are defined or recognised as such.

In all societies, and particularly in developing countries, there remain essential but usually unpaid activities (such as cooking, cleaning and other housework, provisioning of basic household needs, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, as well as community-based activities) which are largely seen as the responsibility of the women. This pattern of unpaid work tends to exist even when women are engaged in outside work for an income, whether as wage workers or self-employed workers. Women from poor families who are engaged in outside work as well usually cannot afford to hire others to perform these tasks, so most often these are passed on to young girls and elderly women within the household, or become a 'double burden' of work for such women. 

This means that the issues relating to women's work employment are qualitatively different from those of male workers. Just increasing paid employment does not always mean an improvement in the conditions of women workers, since it can lead to a double burden upon women whose household obligations still have to be fulfilled. So there has to be a focus on the quality, the recognition and the remuneration of women's work in developing countries, as well as the conditions facilitating it, such as alternative arrangements for household work and child care. All of these are critically affected by social relationships as well as economic policies and processes, which determine whether or not increased labour market activity by women is associated with genuine improvements in their economic circumstances.

There is some historical evidence that with material progress in a society, the socio-economic conditions of women in that society tend to improve. But this is not automatic; it also reflects the outcome of women's struggles for equality and justice. The growing significance of paid work by women is one aspect of that. In recent times the ability of women's movements to fight for greater rights and empowerment has been conditioned by the broader economic processes which have determined the explicit participation of women in the labour market. There has been progress as well as reversal, and it is evident that early gains in some societies cannot be taken for granted.

Global processes affecting women

The dominance of finance capital, the emergence of new trade links and the expansion of global production chains based on splitting up the production process across different locations, have all dramatically changed productive structures and labour markets across the world. Both financial and productive sectors have become more concentrated, causing a relative decline in small enterprises that are typically more employment-intensive. Except for a brief spurt in public spending immediately after the global financial crisis in 2008, governments have been less willing or able to use macroeconomic policies to maintain or expand employment. Trade openness has destroyed some livelihoods while creating some new opportunities for income generation and employment, albeit to a lesser extent. These changes have been reflected in changes in labour markets in different countries. Thus, open unemployment rates have increased and formal or organised sector employment has declined as a proportion of the workforce across the world. At the same time, reduced public spending on 'social sectors' has tended to devolve more of the tasks of social reproduction to the unpaid labour of women within households.

Because of the decline in formal employment, workers have crowded into the informal activities sector, perpetuating a vicious circle of poverty leading to low employment generation leading to poverty. Global production chains are growing in significance as a result of technological changes, making production and workforces in different countries more interdependent. There has also been a global increase in unpaid labour within households - predominantly performed by women.

These changes have been particularly marked in developing Asia, which has become both the most 'globalised' and the most economically dynamic region of the world. And women in Asia have taken the brunt of the changes, with rapid shifts into (and out of) paid work, greater roles in providing outside income for households, increased rates of migration for work and greater involvement in unpaid labour. Women have moved - voluntarily or forcibly - in search of work within and across countries and regions, more than ever before. Their livelihoods in rural areas, dominantly in agriculture, have been affected by the agrarian crisis that is now widespread in most developing countries. Across societies in the region, massive increases in the availability of different consumer goods, due to trade liberalisation, have accompanied declines in access to basic public goods and services.

The expansion of global production chains that rely on the labour of women especially at the bottom end has transformed patterns of paid work. In addition there is a significant globalisation of services, which involves both local shifts in workforce and migration of women, in the 'care' sectors of economies. At the same time, technological changes have made communication and the transmission of cultural forms more extensive and rapid than could have even been imagined in the past. All these have had very substantial and complex effects upon the position of women and their ability to control their own lives.

In addition, these economic changes have other adverse social consequences for women. The increasing emphasis on markets and profitability requires luring more consumers into the web of purchase through advertising and attempts to manipulate people's tastes and choices. In this effort, advertising companies have notoriously used women as objects to purvey their products. The dual relationship with women, as objects to be used in selling goods and as a huge potential market for goods, creates a peculiar process whereby women are encouraged and persuaded to participate actively in their own objectification. The huge media attention given to beauty contests, 'successful' models and the like has fed into the rapidly expanding beauty industry in developing Asia, which includes not only cosmetics and beauty aids, but slimming agents, beauty parlours, weight loss clinics, and so on. Many of these contribute to the most undesirable and  retrograde attitudes to both women and their appearance, which can push women into newer forms of social oppression  that are no less demeaning than earlier, explicitly patriarchal forms.

Women's involvement in paid work

Over the past three decades, macroeconomic processes in Asia have significantly affected women's involvement in paid work. There have been very rapid shifts in the labour market in the space of less than one generation, as Asian women have been first drawn into paid employment, especially in export sectors, and then ejected from it. The phase of disproportionately high use of women in export-oriented manufacturing in several rapidly growing Asian economies in the 1980s and early part of the 1990s was followed by a period of subsequent ejection of older women and some younger counterparts into more fragile and insecure forms of employment, self-employment or even back to unpaid housework. It has been plausibly argued that gender wage inequality stimulated growth in developing Asia, as those Asian economies with larger gender gaps tended to grow the most rapidly from 1975 to 1990. Low female wages spurred investment and exports by lowering unit labour costs, providing the foreign exchange to purchase capital and intermediate goods which raise productivity and growth rates.

This trend towards feminisation of employment in Asian countries resulted from employers' needs for cheaper and more 'flexible' sources of labour, which meant more casualisation of labour, shift to part-time work or piece-rate contracts, and insistence on greater freedom of hiring and firing. All these aspects of what is now described as 'labour market flexibility' became necessary once external competitiveness became the significant goal of domestic policy makers and defined the contours within which domestic and foreign employers in these economies operated.

Women workers were preferred by employers in export activities primarily because of the inferior conditions of work and pay that they were usually willing to accept.  They had lower reservation wages than their male counterparts, were more willing to accept longer hours and unpleasant and often unhealthy or hazardous factory conditions, typically did not unionise or engage in other forms of collective bargaining to improve conditions, and did not ask for permanent contracts.  They were thus easier to hire and fire at will, or according to external demand conditions. 

Life-cycle changes such as marriage and childbirth could be used as proximate causes to terminate their employment and engage a younger and fresher set of female workers.  Greater flexibility was thus afforded  to employers  to offer less secure contracts. Further, in certain of the newer 'sunrise' industries of the late 20th century such as computer hardware  and consumer electronics, the nature of the assembly line work - repetitive and detailed, with an emphasis on manual dexterity and fineness of elaboration - was felt to be especially suited to women. The high 'burnout' associated with some of these activities meant that employers preferred to hire workers who could be periodically replaced, which was easier when the employed group consisted of young, mostly unmarried women who could move on to other phases of their life cycle.

That the feminisation of labour in export-oriented industries was dependent upon the relative inferiority of remuneration and working conditions was evident also because it turned to be a rather short-lived phenomenon. Already by the mid-1990s - the height of the export boom - women's share of manufacturing employment had peaked in most economies of the region, and in some countries it subsequently declined in absolute numbers. Some of this reflected the fact that such export-oriented employment through relocative foreign investment simply moved to cheaper locations: from Malaysia to Indonesia and Vietnam; from Thailand to Cambodia and Myanmar and so on. But even in the newer locations, the recent problems of various export sectors such as the garments industry worldwide have meant that jobs (especially for women workers) were created and then lost within the space of a few years.

As women became an established part of the paid workforce, and even the dominant part in certain sectors (as indeed they did become in the textiles, readymade garments and consumer electronics sectors of East Asia), it became more difficult to exercise the traditional type of gender discrimination at work. Besides an upward pressure on their wages, which caused gender wage gaps to come down to some extent, there were other pressures for legislation to improve their overall conditions of work.  But these strategies designed to improve the conditions of women workers tended to reduce their relative attractiveness for those employers who had earlier relied precisely on the inferior conditions of women's work  and their greater flexibility in terms of hiring and firing to keep their costs low and enhance their export profitability. The rise in wages also had the same effect. As their relative effective remuneration improved (in terms of the total package of wages and work and contract conditions), their attractiveness to employers decreased.

Subsequently, manufacturing in Asia tended to occupy a much less significant position in the total employment of women, and also relied less on female employment at the margin. It is increasingly evident that export-oriented production does not always result in formal feminisation of the workforce, which is essentially dependent upon the relative inferiority of female wages and work conditions and the use of patriarchal relations to establish control over women workers and keep wages down. If mechanisation and newer techniques require the use of more skilled labour, or if the gap between male and female wages is not sufficiently large, export activities do not need to rely more on women's labour. In conditions in which both male and female workers have been forced by adverse conditions in the labour market to accept adverse low-paid and insecure work contracts, as occurred not only in post-crisis East Asia but in other countries of the region, there has been less overt preference for young women workers than was previously observed.

The nature of such work has also changed in recent years. It was already based mostly on short-term contracts rather than permanent employment for women; now there is much greater reliance on them as workers in very small units or home-based production, at the bottom of a complex subcontracting chain. This became even more marked in the post-crisis adjustment phase. In South-East Asia, women have made up a significant proportion of the informal manufacturing industry workforce, in garment workshops, shoe factories and craft industries. Many women also carry out informal, temporary activities in farming or in the building industry. Home-based workers, working for themselves or on subcontracts, make products ranging from clothing and footwear to artificial flowers, carpets, electronics and teleservices.

The increasing use of outsourcing is not confined to export firms.  However, because of the flexibility offered by subcontracting, it is clearly of even greater advantage in the intensely competitive export sectors and therefore tends to be even more widely used there. Much of this cross-border outsourcing activity is based in Asia, although the movement can be across geographical locations, even returning to the North when collapses in employment (as in Europe recently) force women to take up such home-based informal work once again. Such subcontracted producers vary in size and manufacturing capacity, from medium-sized factories to pure middlemen collecting the output of home-based workers.

The crucial role of women workers in such international production activity based in Asia is now increasingly recognised, whether as wage labour in small factories and workshops run by subcontracting firms, or as homeworkers dealing with middlemen in a complex production chain. A substantial proportion of such subcontracting extends down to home-based work, which  provides substantial opportunity for self-exploitation, especially when payment is on a piece-rate basis; also such work is typically left unprotected by labour laws and social welfare programmes. However, even such home-based work may be in crisis, as the textile and garment exports from developing countries face increasing difficulties in world markets and the pressure of competition forces exporters to seek further  methods of cost-cutting. The extreme volatility of demand for labour that characterises factory-based export-oriented production has also become a feature of home-based work for export production.

The role of unpaid labour

A crucial feature of work processes across the globe has been the increase in unpaid labour within households - dominantly (but not exclusively) performed by women, as governments renege on basic social responsibilities for the provision of public goods and services, and more of the care economy is devolved onto the unpaid sector. The peculiar combination of increased unemployment and increased requirement of unpaid labour is thus an attribute of labour markets globally. 

Public policies have played a role in causing the unpaid labour time of women to rise, either because of reduced social expenditure that places a larger burden of care on women, or privatised or degraded common property resources or inadequate infrastructure facilities that increase time spent on provisioning essential goods for the household, or simply because even well-meaning policies (such as for afforestation) are often gender-blind. Macroeconomic policies of national governments that have systematically reduced employment opportunities for both men and women and allowed agriculture in the South to become a precarious and unviable occupation have also reduced the quality of and access to public goods and services and thrown open many parts of everyday life to inequalising market processes.

In general these economic policies have generally been in the interests of large corporate capital. The rich, and especially large corporations, have benefited from competitive offers of substantial and growing tax benefits, while the common people have been told that there is no money in the state coffers for basic public goods and services. Food security has been threatened in poor countries; other economic rights have been denied; social sectors such as health and education have been underfunded; and workers' protection has been reduced. The increasing emphasis on markets has implied the commoditisation of many aspects of life that were earlier seen as either naturally provided by states and communities, or simply not subject to market transaction and property relations. For example, the inability or refusal of several governments to provide safe drinking water has led to the explosive growth of a bottled water industry. A whole range of previously publicly provided services and utilities like power distribution and telecommunications has been privatised. Even the growing recognition accorded to intellectual property rights marks the entry of markets into ever-newer spheres.

All this affects women and girls most directly. When incomes from work in the family go down, women are forced to seek any form of employment that will keep the household going. When there is less access to food, women and girl children tend to eat less. When the health services are inadequate, women (especially mothers) not only suffer the most, but they also have to bear the responsibility of looking after the sick and the old. When schools lack basic facilities or charge higher fees, girl students find it difficult to attend and get relegated to household tasks. When cooking fuel and clean drinking water are hard to come by, women have to somehow provide them for the family. So such government policies have led to large increases in the unpaid labour of women, and thereby contributed to a worsening quality of life for them.

Women workers and labour management techniques

Two major sets of changes have dramatically increased the relocation possibilities in international production. Technological changes have allowed for different parts of the production process to be vertically split and locationally separated, as well as created different types of requirement for labour involving a few highly skilled professional workers and a vast bulk of semi-skilled workers for whom burnout over time is more widely prevalent than learning by doing. They have also enabled geographical relocation in service activities which were previously locationally rigid. Organisational changes have been associated with concentration of ownership and control as well as with greater dispersion and more layers of outsourcing and subcontracting of particular activities and parts of the production process.

Therefore, we now have the emergence of international suppliers of goods and services who rely less on direct production within a specific location and more on subcontracting a greater part of their production and distribution activities. This has led to the emergence and market domination of 'manufacturers without factories', as multinational firms such as Nike and Adidas effectively rely on a complex system of outsourced and subcontracted production based on centrally determined design and quality control. More recent outsourcing in services ranging from publishing to back-office work also combines some amount of flexibility (which implies greater control over workers) with centralised control. In all of these activities, women workers are both essential and dominate the lower end of work processes in terms of pay and lack of control.

Globally, capitalism is increasingly moving towards a system of organisation of production that has been called 'Toyotism' by Peter Custers (in his book Capital Accumulation and Women's Labour in Asian Economies, Monthly Review Press, 2012). The distinctive feature of Toyotism is the combination of internal decentralisation with external centralisation. Internal decentralisation is reflected in the formation of 'labour groups' that are rewarded with common incentives for higher production to enable the disciplining device of peer pressure on workers. This reduces the need for detailed supervision or monitoring, and ensures much greater 'self-discipline'. Far from humanising labour relations, this has the effect of reducing solidarity between workers and further weakening their collective power.

Multinational companies have continued searching for ways to obtain maximum control over factory workers' thinking processes. So while the serial production of mass commodities is not abolished, the internal hierarchical relations within enterprises and the external relations are both profoundly restructured. Quality control circles subject workers mentally to the corporation's rule, and the structure of subcontracting transfers the risks of production to lower levels such as component makers and their workers. This creates segmented categories of workers with differential rights and bargaining power.

It is interesting to note that this method of worker control has been increasingly copied by companies across the world, and has even spread beyond the sphere of production into finance. Micro-credit, for example, which was actively promoted as a 'development panacea' by multilateral organisations and many governments, has relied on creating groups of women who benefit in common from loans (in what are euphemistically called 'self-help groups') so that peer pressure for repayment substitutes for the absence of collateral in lending.

Combined with this is external centralisation, which also affects workers negatively. A large corporation's relations with small supplier firms are increasingly regulated by the principles of 'just-in-time delivery' management that originated in Japan. These supplier firms in turn are based on employing workers with clearly secondary status in terms of workers' rights, driven by the instability and insecurity of their employers' earning. Methods of transferring risks to workers are firmly entrenched by the informal nature of most work contracts, the reliance on part-time workers and the use of piece-rate wages.

Women and the reserve army of labour

Women workers have always borne the characteristics that Marx described for the major categories of the industrial reserve army: the latent, the stagnant and the floating. The availability of such women workers is conditioned by the broader economic conditions, so that greater poverty or misery of families tends to send out greater numbers of women (often younger women) in search of paid work. This is also affected by life-cycle social pressures. Married, middle-aged women employed as part-time workers often most clearly fulfil the general criteria for being part of the labour reserve. They are available as a cheap labour reserve precisely because of their forced absence from the labour market for child bearing and child rearing, but the patriarchal relations underlying this cement their role as insecure, subordinate and low-paid workers who can be brought into or expelled from jobs whenever employers require.

It is notable that open unemployment has been growing in the developing countries that are currently seen as the most dynamic in the world economy, such as China, East and South-East Asian countries and India, and in many of these economies, it has combined with the persistently high rates of underemployment. The decline in formal sector employment, especially in developing countries, has been associated with the proliferation of workers crowded into the informal sector, especially in the low-wage low-productivity occupations that are characteristic of 'refuge sectors' in labour markets. While there are some high-value-added jobs increasingly to be found as 'informal' self-employment (including, for example, software and some high-end IT-enabled services that allow home-based professional work), these are relatively small in number and certainly too few to make much of a dent in the overall trend, especially in countries where the vast bulk of the labour force is unskilled or relatively less skilled. In turn, this has meant that the cycle of poverty-low employment generation-poverty has been perpetuated and even accentuated because of the diminished willingness or ability of governments to intervene positively in expanding employment generation.

One important response by Asian women to these changes has been economic migration. Asia has become one of the most significant regions in the world both for the cross-border movement of capital and goods, and for the movement of people. The picture of women's migration in Asia today is complex, reflecting the apparent advantages to women of higher incomes and recognition of work, but also the dangers and difficulties of migrating to new and unknown situations with the potential for various kinds of exploitation. It has also been associated with a newer form of production chain: the globalisation of the care economy, with women migrating to other (richer) locations where the per capita incomes of households and demographic patterns combine to increase the outsourcing of home-based care work that was previously the unpaid work of women members of those households.

So it is evident that many aspects of gender relations and the particular forms that patriarchy takes are closely intertwined with processes of capitalist accumulation. Social emancipation today is therefore inextricably linked with a closer understanding of the complex nature of contemporary capitalism and how it relies on the social construction of gender in its accumulation processes.                           

Jayati Ghosh is an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. The above is based on the article 'Women, labour, and capital accumulation in Asia' published in Monthly Review (January 2012).

*Third World Resurgence No. 271/272, Mar/Apr 2013, pp 17-21