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Women working the NAFTA food chain: women, food and globalization.

WOMEN WORKING THE NAFTA FOOD CHAIN: Women, Food and Globalization

Deborah Barndt, ed.

Toronto: Second Story Press, 1999; 280 pp.

Feminist and environmentalist in spirit, Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain is an example of a collaborative project between academics, activists and popular educators. It examines the links between women in the food industry in Canada, the US and Mexico and articulates the commitment of its contributors to bring together and share experiences of women workers across national boundaries. At the same time as it offers an alternative framework for resisting NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, it also provides an accessible exploration of the connections between women, food, work and globalization.

Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain contains 14 chapters that have been divided into three parts. The 15 contributors examine the impact of colonialism, trade agreements, government policies (especially the US government's), and corporate strategies on the movement of food as well as production and consumption of food. The contributors include: Canadian feminists Lauren Baker, Ann Eyerman, Debbie Field, Harriet Friedmann, Jan Kainer, Egla Martinez-Salazar, Deborah Moffett, Mary Lou Morgan, and Ester Reiter; Mexican feminists Kirstin Appendini, Antonieta Barron, Ofelia Perez Pena, and Maria Dolores Villagomez; and US feminist Fran Ansley.

These women's voices are supplemented by Canadian editor Deborah Barndt's comprehensive and lucid introductory essay that binds the chapters tightly into a solid and coherent whole. In this essay, Barndt outlines the complex interplay of economic inequalities between North and South as well as between men and women, especially along the lines of class and racial divisions. Using anecdotes to describe the research process involved in compiling the book's articles, Barndt cogently demonstrates that the links between the book's contributors transcend national boundaries. As the book's title suggests, globalization cuts across age, class, gender, and race barriers, and many women workers in the "NAFTA food chain" challenge corporate interests while organizing for better working conditions.

Entitled "The Bigger Picture: Gender and Global Restructuring," Part 1 describes the analytical framework of the book. In one article, for example, sociologist Friedmann uses the theoretical framework of political economy to trace changes in the social, political and economic processes involved in structuring and restructuring the movement of food. Friedmann provides a well-reasoned and critical evaluation of how the US became the dominant imperialist agency by playing the role of both "donor" and "aid agency" while coercing the Third World countries to be part of the "monoculture" that produces the "Hamburger meal." Rather than seeing the imperialist hegemony and enormous corporate power of the US in global economy continue to flourish, Friedmann envisions an alternative framework rooted in "local cultures" -- a coalition of groups concerned with such issues as environmental degradation, food security, labour rights, and women and health -- challenging US corporate interests. In chapter 2, revealing the dynamics of globalization, Barndt describes the aim of the Tomasita Project (tomato project), which is to expose the living and working conditions of women workers who produce and bring food to people in Canada and US under the terms of NAFTA.

Part 2, "Women Workers in the Food System: Stories from Mexico to Canada," forms the central part of the book. Here case studies reveal deteriorating working conditions under NAFTA and describe how workers struggle to improve their work environments. Martinez-Salazar poignantly points out the varieties of exploitation and working conditions along race/ethnicity lines. For example, of all women in Mexico, indigenous women work in more hazardous conditions and are exposed to more pesticides than Mestizo women.

Also in Part 2, Barron admits difficulties with comparing working conditions of migrant labourers in Mexico and Canada, but points out amazing similarities in the experiences of women migrant labourers in both countries -- none are paid over-time wages, for example. Appendini elucidates the complex relations between women in the North and South, demonstrating how luxury items in the North -- like tropical food and flowers -- are based on the exploitative and cheap labour of women in the South. Drawing a parallel between office and fast-food workers, Eyerman then draws our attention to how the flexible, multi-skilled and "just-in-time" reserve army required by the global chain stores and multinational workplaces will eventually degrade work culture. And finally, Kainer argues for a redefinition of "skills" and shows how restructuring intensifies historically gender-segregated divisions of labour where women are concentrated in highly feminized, "deskilled," low-paying jobs. These chapters offer new insights on how capitalism, in the guise of corporate interests, perpetuates class, race and gender inequalities in both Mexico and Canada.

The last section, "Signs of Hope: Women Creating Food Alternatives," looks at local communities in Mexico and Canada, where local women are initiating alternative community-based food systems. Field's "Putting Food First" reports on insecurities about food not only in "Third World" countries but also in Canada and shows how this affects women globally. Field urges the government to put efforts into eradicating hunger by focussing on nutritious food and adopting numerous policies in different spheres of society, including workplaces and schools. Villagomez reports that community kitchen alternatives in certain parts of Mexico eventually develop in the participants a greater consciousness about quality food and collective work at the grassroots level. Highlighting two community food projects in Canada, Moffett and Morgan describe how the programs promote organizational and social empowerment. Finally, Baker indicates how collaborative, cross-border projects like the Tomasita Project facilitate the formation of "imagined communities" and develop alternative but successful strategies to resist globalization and corporate monopolies. Each of these chapters is a rich resource for improving our understanding of women's critical participation in the production and consumption of food systems, our awareness of production and consumption of food systems, and our appreciation of alternative frameworks at local levels.

Although this book presents a wide range of original research essays, there are some issues it could have addressed more fully. For example, there is no discussion of NAFTA in a separate section. Some students/readers may need more background about NAFTA before starting the book. Furthermore, the book makes no explicit attempt to explore cross-national linkages beyond research and publications. Important social movements like the Zapatistas movement (p. 108) and the Luddites (p. 170) movement are mentioned only in passing. In addition, the book aspires to be inclusive in analyzing the new global labour force -- for example, integrating national identity, gender, race, class, age, and marital status -- but its omission of sexual orientation and dis/ability issues is noticeable. Finally, its use of language could be more innovative and feminist. For example, labelling of the IMF and the World Bank as "brother" organizations would be more appropriate than labelling them as "sister" organizations (p. 46).

These points aside, Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain is engaging and enlightening and its language is accessible. It makes a valuable contribution at a time when alternative frameworks for food production and consumption are necessary for human survival in both the North and the South.
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Previous Article:Women and the Canadian Welfare state: challenges and change.
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