The gender composition of the labour force in the world has changed significantly during neoliberal globalisation. In addition to continuing participation of women in traditional sectors such as home working, participation of women in the paid labour force has been accelerated. By the late 1980s, more than half of working age women were working in the paid labour force and women made up one third of the total labour force in the world. It is interesting to mention that the large-scale feminisation of paid work had its origin during the emergence of the textile and clothing industry in the world.
Numerous studies show that during the 19th century, cotton, textiles and, in some cases, clothing industries in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Bombay and Lowell, Massachusetts were all overwhelmingly staffed by unskilled women (sometimes accompanied by child workers). In its modern form, the feminisation of labour has become a hot issue since the 1950s and 1960s when the emerging Japanese and East Asian textiles and apparel firms overwhelmingly recruited young rural women in their plants. Later the world RMG industries, along with other export-led industries, flourishing in other Asian, Latin American and African countries in the 1980s and 1990s under various regional accords made by the USA, likewise recruited a large number of unskilled women.
From the beginning of the textiles and clothing industries, women were recruited for a number of reasons. These included their presumed ‘docility,’ economic and social ‘backwardness’ and so-called nimbleness; and expected allegiance and loyalty toward the owners based on patriarchal culture and to some extent religious values. For all of these reasons women workers were seen to be more easily exploited and more suitable for this type of employment. Nimbleness is described as “fairy fingers,” “nimble fingers,” “picky work,” and “dexterity” that represent women’s relations with neat and disciplined work, rooted in socialisation and gender. On the other hand, both ‘docility’ and economic ‘backwardness’ reflect a significant element of the women’s real position in the society. Women’s softness, meekness and allegiant nature representing the concept of ‘docility’ are very useful in the so-called sound industrial relations in terms of exploiting and depriving women workers from their labour rights.
It is very interesting to mention that the nature and background of the women and the extent of the miseries they face in the clothing industry in the South in the era of globalisation echo what existed in the classical textiles and clothing industries in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Boston and Bombay during the early 19th century. In a broad sense, the values, attitudes and actions of the states and the employers toward the women workers; the socio-cultural and economic background of the workers; and the situations of the poor working women on the whole have hardly changed. Thus, one can easily identify identical features related to the workers’ miseries and exploitations in many contemporary Third World and even USA sweatshops, being common in the 1980s and 1990s; in Japan and the NICs, and the Southern towns in America in the 1950s and 1960s; and in the classical textile and clothing industries in Bombay, Calcutta, Lancashire and Lowell during the early and late 19th.
In the era of globalisation, capital’s search for cheap labour inevitably allures the industrial reserve army — i.e., the poor women living in the rural areas — to the EPZs, FTZs and world factories in the South. Third world states and elites use this industrial reserve army to expand their grip — invoking foreign investments and exploiting traditional patriarchal culture. In fact, the traditional rigid hierarchical social relations between powerful men and vulnerable women, the profit seeking capitalistic motive and a race to the bottom competition encourage the policymakers of the third world to establish more flexible industrial relations, meaning low wages, unhealthy and primitive working conditions, a union-free environment and extreme work-loads. Along this line, a Malaysian investment brochure welcoming Northern TNCs shows how capitalism, patriarchy and racism walk together: “The manual dexterity of the oriental female is famous the world over. Her hands are small and she works fast with extreme care. Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance to contribute to the efficiency of a bench-assembly production line than the oriental girl.”
Because of traditional socio-political and cultural systems, many women in the South have remained marginalised for a long time and this marginality has been reflected in their overwhelming representation in the informal sector, domestic work and other casual work. Opening up industrial and formal enterprises in the South renders some kinds of freedom and improves the status of the poor working women. This stems from earning money, having the opportunity to take decisions, having greater voices in family and community and enjoying greater mobility. Nevertheless in spite of new opportunities, most of the women workers in the world still live in precarious situations with considerable insecurity in terms of the dependency on the Western importers’ attitude and import policy that enhances the race to the bottom among the third world countries. Ronaldo Munck correctly portrays this situation: “Women are often among the last to be drawn into the labour market when an economic upturn occurs, and among the first to be expelled from it during cyclical downturn.”
The RMG industries in Bangladesh, like global apparel factories in other Majority World countries, employ a large proportion of women (80-90 percent of the total RMG workforce), most of whom do not have any previous work experiences in formal organisations and most of whom have a poverty ridden rural. Hence it is understandable that the feminisation of labour concept is very pertinent to the RMG industry in Bangladesh. As various studies show, the employment of women from poor rural areas in new apparel factories is designed by the business elites to earn more money by exploiting the allegiant and malleable poor women who, because of their poor economic and cultural backgrounds, are unable to resist the exploitations of the rapacious employers. These studies thus support the idea that the massive employment of female labour in the RMG industry in Bangladesh, and particularly the employment of poor rural women who have been socialised in a traditional patriarchal culture, contributes to the stagnant labour movements in the era of globalisation.
A recent study carried out by this author shows that the poor women workers working in the RMG industries located outside the EPZs are extremely timid, and are allegiant toward the managements despite the fact that they are absolutely exploited in terms of extreme violations of labour laws and international conventions. Most of the women come from the rural areas while their financial condition induces them to enter to the RMG industries. Because of the combination of rural, backward, educational and financial background they rarely voice their labour rights although the workers have agony, and have severe hatred toward the managements. It is interesting, though not surprising, that no single woman worker was found who know about the fundamental clauses of the country’s labour laws and of international conventions; neither was any single worker found being familiar with the major organizations upholding workers’ rights (e.g., ILO, BILS, BLAST, Karmajibi Nari etc.). It is also evident that extreme disparity between men and women in terms of wages, working hours and physical and mental abuses exist in the RMG industries. This is how one can assume the benefits of the owners in Bangladesh using feminisation of labour ethos.
Erroneously, one might think that the women’s docility and backward background are less interested in organising movements, which is not true. Available studies in the history in various regions, including Bangladesh, show that women workers can be potential resource in organising and launching movements, but they require strong and direct supports from the civil society and other supportive groups.
Zia Rahman is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Dhaka.