Introduction: Women and Economic Integration

Mariela Barbosa, Heather Dashner, Penny Duggan, Carol McAllister and Eva Nikell


(from Penny Duggan & Heather Dashner eds., Women's Lives in the New Global Economy, IIRE Notebook for Study and Research no. 22, 1994)

Restructuring and integration of the global capitalist economy including the recent imposition of so-called structural adjustment policies involving austerity measures, privatization of the economy and deregulation of the market and the current moves toward establishing formal trade blocks through NAFTA, the EEC and MERCOSUR, have particular impacts on women in both dependent and advanced capitalist countries. Equally important, these economic transformations and their role in undermining the political strength of the international working class depend precisely on the continuing oppression and exploitation of women. This latter point must be grasped to adequately understand the fundamental dynamics involved.

Broadly speaking, the formal trade blocks, with their goals of downward "harmonization" of economic and social policies to remove barriers to the free movement of capital, the search for cheap labour and the maximization of profits, simply codify and deepen trends already well underway.

While there are regional variations, we can point to some general implications for women and some gendered aspects of integration. We have grouped them in the areas of work, health and welfare, social gains, sexuality, and ideology:

Women's Work. The overall implications of economic integration for women's work has been to promote contradictory proletarianization of women on a world scale, forcing them into the work-force and at the same time using their role in the family and society to justify job insecurity and casualization and the return of many private services to the "private"sphere of the family, to be shouldered by women.

Today's international capitalist restructuring involves the development of export-processing industrialization by multinational corporations whereby parts of the production process (usually those that are low-skilled and labour-intensive) are located in free-trade zones throughout the Third World. These zones represent localized models of what the new trading blocks will create on a broader regional basis. Industries in these free-trade zones depend on the particular exploitation of women's labour to provide the increase in surplus-value and in profits that is the goal of global restructuring. As a result, a significant layer of Third World women are brought into industrial production and in fact into some of the most modern sectors of the economy, though under very exploitative conditions. However, this development has also been accompanied by a huge expansion of the informal sector into which most women workers, including those who have been laid off from multinational industries because of age or pregnancy, are channelled. In fact, women's work in the informal sector is used to underwrite the "cheapness" and "flexibility" of both male and female labour in the industrial sector and to provide a safety valve for periodic retrenchments in that sector. This trend toward informal-sector work is accelerated by the increasing commercialization and export-orientation of local agriculture, a shift which frequently undermines women's role in the more traditional farming economy.

In the advanced capitalist centers, there has been a shift of the job market away from industrial work toward service-sector employment, drawing large numbers of women into the low-paid "pink-collar ghetto". This shift has been accomplished without massive disruption by building off of the gendered division of labour in the family. Thus it was women who played the key role in holding families together through periods of unemployment and economic stress, and also women who more readily took up the new low-wage jobs in response to their feelings of responsibility for family survival. This expansion of the service sector has been combined with a new phase of industrial development in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, depending largely on the labour of immigrant women. These women, vulnerable because of the combined factors of gender, race and immigrant status, often work in small workshops or at home, signalling the revival of turn-of-the-century sweatshops and the putting-out system. Such fragmentation and casualization of women's industrial work, which is parallelled by the trend toward temporary and part-time employment in the service sector, is a central component of capital's strategy of creating a "contingent" or "flexible" work-force.

Structural adjustment policies, and the resulting rise in unemployment, have served to drive women disproportionately out of the formal economy while also increasing their need to find some kind of income-producing work. They thus turn to the informal sector where women are increasingly forced to take jobs as day labourers, street vendors or prostitutes. In some Third World countries, unemployment has reached such proportions that men and women are now competing over informal-sector jobs, thus removing even this safety net for women.

The establishment of formal trade agreements will most certainly accelerate these developments, leading to a further "maquiladorization" of women's work in both advanced capitalist and Third World societies. One of their basic aims aside from ensuring certain rules for capital flow and investment, while highly regulating other things like patents will be to generalize the elimination of certain regulations of working conditions and labour relations which have not already been eliminated, using the argument that their maintenance would constitute "unfair trade practices". Undoubtedly, then, we would see challenges to rights such as:

the right to safe, decent working conditions. Hazardous conditions in both industry and services where women are concentrated already exist for example, danger from the use of toxic chemicals in electronics factories, fires in garment sweatshops, and the rise in stress-related injury for clerical workers using computers.

retirement age requirements may be "harmonized" as is already being foreseen in Uruguay, where MERCOSUR could raise women's retirement age by seven to nine years to jibe with Brazil's higher age.

maternity leave with pay, as well as child care, both legal rights in Mexico, could be eliminated formally by NAFTA.

affirmative-action programmes, a hard-won right for both people of colour and women in the U.S. and Canada, could be challenged as an undue burden on capitalists in both countries, "prejudicing" their competitiveness.

In the agricultural sector, NAFTA and the EEC will promote the domination of agribusiness, leading to peasant women's further loss of this economic base.

Health and Welfare. These changes in conditions and security of work directly affect women's health and general well-being as well as the welfare of those family members (especially children and the elderly) for whom women are primarily responsible. Rising prices and unemployment put stress on women's own ability to provide for basic needs, while cut-backs in public spending and the dismantling of social welfare programmes decrease state support for services such as education, health care and child care. This development is particularly deleterious to women because of their perceived role in both social and biological reproduction. At the same time, the state depends on women to "take up the slack" and provide on a private basis services that were previously provided by the government, thus furthering the process of structural adjustment.

NAFTA in particular threatens to unleash new health hazards for women as it opens the way to challenging existing environmental laws as "unfair trade practices". For example, in certain communities on the U.S.-Mexican border, the problem of toxic wastes is already linked to cancers of the female reproductive system and to severe birth defects such as anacephalic children. With the general weakening of environmental regulations, such problems could become more widespread throughout North America. At the same time, NAFTA will pose a challenge to the national health care programmes of Canada and Mexico while making it more difficult to establish a comparable programme in the U.S. While this affects the whole of the working class, women, as primary consumers of health care services and as those mainly responsible for family health, will be particularly hard hit. In the case of the EEC as well, health care and other components of the state welfare system could be gradually chipped away.

Social Gains and Basic Rights. Closely related to the question of health and welfare is the effect of economic restructuring and the new trade policies on the social gains women have fought for over the past quarter-century, and in relation to which they have won at least partial victories. These include the right to reproductive freedom (including the right to abortion), the right to equal pay, and the right to freedom from sexual harassment and violence.

While the general economic crisis has already generated serious attacks on women's rights, formal trade agreements have the potential to undermine these rights in a more formal and thorough-going way. This is largely a result of the supranational and corporate-dominated decision-making structures proposed in these agreements, which will supersede regular legislative and executive actions. This, combined with the focus on "unfair trade practices", sets up a situation rife for the challenging of measures that help equalize women's role in the economy. While the reason for attacking these rights may have a primarily economic basis, we should note that the rights themselves help ensure women's position in many areas of society. Their significant weakening would, in fact, bring into question women's basis status as citizens. The possibility for such a development is particularly clear in North America, where NAFTA provides no guarantees for such rights. In Europe the situation is more uneven, in that the Social Charter that accompanies the EEC proposal provides common European principles on these matters, thus promoting stronger measures in certain cases (e.g. Ireland and Portugal) while watering down existing laws in others (e.g. Sweden).

Sexuality. The manipulation of women's sexuality is one of the primary ways in which capitalist restructuring uses and builds on women's oppression. This happens in several ways. First, there are the attacks on sexual and reproductive rights discussed above. In this sense, such attacks can be seen as not only an effect of economic change but also as preparing the way for further restructuring by making women more vulnerable in both economic and social terms. Second, we can find numerous instances where the entry and dismissal of women from the wage-labour force, as well as the conditions of super-exploitation under which most women work, are justified by images of female sexuality. This, for example, is very common in factories where women are alternately represented as "sexually loose" and thus "free" to be exploited, or as requiring stringent controls including the physical organization of the workplace using the threat of sexual violence to maintain their sexual purity, thus limiting their autonomy and mobility. Finally, there are particular instances such as the expansion of the international sex trade in Europe, Asia and Latin America, the incrase in dowry deaths in Inda, and the imposition of class-based population policies, for example in Singapore in which women's sexuality is both commodified and controled in ways that directly further the economic strategies of individual men or of capital as a whole.

Ideology. The ideological transformations that accompany global integration also have an impact on women. This too has several aspects. There is, for example, the manipulation of sexual images and norms we have just discussed. Also of importance is the ideological emphasis on individualism and privatization that parallels recent changes in economic relations. Because of women's traditional role in the family, such an ideological development affects them differentially and also depends on their often unconscious collaboration to carry out such broad cultural change. Finally, there is the possibility that NAFTA and the EEC will play a role in undermining both memories of and aspirations for progressive national struggles. This in turn could have special implications for women, since it is through such struggles that women's demands are frequently raised and secured. For example, to prepare the way for implementation of NAFTA there are already pressures to revise the official histories of the Mexican Revolution. Such revisions would serve to weaken the collective memory of the gains of the Revolution, including those of particular importance to women such as rights to maternity leave, child care and health care. The Irish struggle provides another example, in that the dampening of its vigour because of the renewed ideology of a common Europe could also dampen aspirations for women's emancipation connected with the goal of national liberation.