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Women Workers and Global Restructuring.

Women Workers and Global Restructuring In recent years, millions of women in the Thirld World have entered the paid work force in the employ of transnatonal corporations and their ancillary enterprises, including contractors and subcontractors. In some Asian countries, women now form the majority of workers in a growing number of industries producing for Western markets, including the garment, electrical, appliance, semiconductor, shoe, doll, and toy industries.

This new book, edited by Kathryn Ward, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, takes a rare look at the working women of the Third World, as well as at their counterparts in Japan and the United States. As Ward points out in the lead essay, the dominant model of economic development takes for granted that employment will automatically uplift the status of women. According to the findings reported by Ward and nine other contributors to this collection, however, the effect of "global restructuring"--modern corporations in action far beyond their own national borders--has been "contradictory." Their new job opportunities have liberated women to some extent while also reinforcing gender exploitation on a large scale. The results are summarized by Ward in two areas:

1. Subjugation by men. One important plus of paid labor for women in traditional societies is that it usually loosens the patriarchal controls of the family, but the minus is that women "move f rom the control of their fathers and families to industrial plants that have male managers" who perpetuate traditional male domination in new modes of exploitation.

2. Economic dependence. Earning money on their own often enables Third World women to achieve a measure of economic independence, but the wages are generally very low--"barely at the subsistence level even by their own country's standards and up to less than 50 percent less than lcoal men." Moreover, when women try to protect their interests through unionization, they almost always meet strong opposition from employers as well as their governments. In fact, their economic plight is so critical that many women work "triple shifts"--they hold down a factory job, perform the traditional child care and household functions, and also engage in activities in the so-called informal sector, such as small-scale retail trade and home production of goods under a subcontract. "A third shift has been added because of economic necessity and for survival," Ward explains.

One of the revealing insights of this book is that the global economy relies on a modernized formal sector as well as a large informal sector and its armies of women who struggle under 19th century working conditions. The distinctively "informal" characteristics of that sector are that its activities are generally not recorded in most official statistics and that workers, almost always women (and sometimes children), go uncounted and unprotected by even the most minimal labor standards. The workers eke out an existence "at the bottom of a subcontracting pyramid controlled by men" (to quote Ward again).

Ward defines global restructuring as "the emergence of the global assembly line in which research and management are controlled by the core or developed countries while assembly line work is relegated to the semiperiphery or periphery nations that occupy less privileged positions in the global economy." Although the book covers three nations at the "periphery" (Colombia, Indonesia, and Mexico) and three at the "semiperiphery" (Greece, Ireland, and Taiwan), it also examines the status of women workers in two countries at the core. Both the chapter on Japan, which describes the little recognized contribution of female industrial workers to that country's "economic miracle," and the chapter on California's Silicon Valley, which describes the low status of Third World immigrant workers employed in the microelectronic industry, show how gender discrimination and patriarchal-style control prevail even at the developed "core."

The contributors to this volume (nine sociologists and one economist) optimistically cite a number of examples of how poor working women across the world have protested against the exploitation they endure. True, these women are not the docile creatures portrayed by gender stereotypes; they have the ingenuity to utilize diverse tactics in their sporadic resistance to oppression. But the odds against them are enormous. As their subjugated status is documented here, it seems extremely unlikely that they, acting on their own, will be able to achieve the liberation that they have the right to expect from participation in the otherwise thriving global economy.
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Author:Senser, Robert A.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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