The Material Impact of Economic Globalisation on Women:exploding a few myths


Abstract: In India, in the past decade there has been considerable debate over the limits and possibilities of economic globalisation and opinions have been divided between diverse projections on the outcomes and the differential impacts of such neo-liberal economic ‘reform’. Opinions have also been sharply polarised regarding the gender implications of such reforms. The paper examines the impact of such globalisation on women, both as producers as well as consumers. Special focus is laid on how it affects women as workers. ‘New economy’ proponents like the World Bank adopt a market-oriented approach to gender equality’. A fatal flaw in such an approach is that it relegates women to the gray zone of ‘weaker sections’ eligible for ‘safety nets’ from the charitable coffers of the state. While it would be a grave mistake to study the implications of neo-liberal economic ‘reform’ for women in isolation, the entire area of macro-economic strategy needs to be evaluated in terms of its impact on the economy, culture and society but with a perspective that is sensitive to the reality of women’s needs and conditions.

Keywords: Gender inequalities, economic globalisation, urban-poor, Worker’s Union, neo-liberal economic ‘reform’, macro-economic strategy, women’s employment, women workers, free market economy, trade policies, child labour, women employement opportunities, economic strategy, labour division

In attempting to identify an era certain dominant concepts assume defining proportions. For instance, if nation(alism/ation) can be associated with the twentieth century then in the same context), ‘g1obalisation’ can be used to characterise the key trends in the development of the present century. Globalisation today has assumed a mythical aura of inevitability. States are in retreat in the face of powerful international economic forces that are circumscribing their spheres of action; underscored and celebrated by the resurgence of neo-liberal, laissez faire economic theory.

Faced with such an imperative of ‘globalise or perish’ (read balance of payment crisis) India, like many other developing southern economies of the world began (from 1991 onwards) restructuring towards a liberalised, free market economy considered the hallmark of economic globa1isation. Such structural transformations aimed to achieve capital, energy and import intensive growth by allowing the free play of the private, animal spirits of the market and sustained by increased consumerism. In addition, the 4 D’s – devaluation, deregulation, deflation and denationalisation, almost always accompany such changes.

While carrying different connotations for different people, economic globalisation encapsulates both a description of changing patterns of’ world trade and finance, and an overwhelming conviction that deregulated markets will achieve optimal outcomes for growth and human welfare. Seldom since the heyday of free trade in the nineteenth century has economic theory inspired such certainty – and never has it been so far removed from reality.

In India, in the past decade there has been considerable debate over the limits and possibilities of such ‘globalisation’ and opinions have divided between diverse projections on outcomes and the differential impacts of such neo-liberal economic ‘reform’. Opinions have also been sharply polarised regarding the gender implications of such reforms. The proponents of a free market economy point out that state interventionist has a negative impact for development and women; both as producers and as consumers, stand to gain with the abolition protectionism. Others have pointed out that some aspects of economic reform hold promises for healthy change since it will bring more women into the workforce.

Detractors from early on had visualised a futuristic nightmare where widespread unemployment would lead to increased economic insecurity and an increase in crime. Cuts in government spending and employment will mean worsening health services, less access to education and deteriorating health services. As jobs disappear and cost of living rises, women would be forced to seek employment in insecure and poorly paid jobs. In addition, since tender relations at the late household level governing the sexual division of labour tends to be rigidly in place, women will be forced to work harder and for longer hours. Girl children will be forced to give up their education and prospects of gainful employment in order to help their mothers with household maintenance. Rising food prices will mean ever-poorer nutrition for the female members of the family. The fall out would be to the detriment of the health and well being of women.

It is important at this juncture to point out that globalisation as a term is seldom defined clearly. Rather, it is used in many different senses without clarifying the boundaries of the debate in each case. There is a tendency to adopt ideological stances and quote macro data that supports one’s views; or else cite personal or micro experiences where the linkages with macro policies are unclear. Even within economic globalisation (the focus of’ our attention in this paper), one needs to separate several elements that are involved in the process. India has now undergone more than a decade of economic reforms and although we have some way to go before bringing about full convertibility of the Rupee, there are other areas which have undergone significant transformations in the past decade as part of the country’s economic policies – openness to foreign trade and to long-term capital flows; and on its impacts we do have some data to assess the situation.

Enough time has elapsed to sift the grain from the sand and in the following sections I intend to examine their impact on women, both as producers as well as consumers. Within this, I intend to further focus on how it affects women as workers. Over and above all, it is the poor woman worker who is the center of this analysis as it is her labour and enterprise, which largely contributes to creating the wealth of the nation. For this what we need to do is to try and understand these issues by starting from the lives of poor people and to discover how and why their lives are changing.

‘New economy’ proponents like the World Bank adopt a market-oriented approach to gender equality. A fatal flaw in such an approach is that it relegates women to the grey zone of ‘weaker sections’ eligible for ‘safety nets’ from the charitable coffers of the state. In my opinion it would be a grave mistake to study the implications of neo-liberal economic ‘reform’ for women in isolation. Instead, the entire area of macro-economic strategy needs to be evaluated in terms of its impact on the economy, culture and society but with a perspective that is sensitive to the reality of women’s needs and conditions.

Women as Consumers

The precise relationship between gender and trade and the effects of trade liberalisation and other trade policies on women’s lives are not yet very’ well understood. Yet, notaries for structural reform often justify the adoption of free and open trade on the grounds of its supposed benefits that are expected to flow to the consumers of the trading countries. Theoretically at least, free trade is expected to expand the total availability of commodities among all trading countries and widen the choices of the consumer from a wider range of availabilities. It can also reduce the premium in prices of those goods in which the country has a relative disadvantage by bringing in cheaper imports or substitutes.

But this is all theory with built-in assumptions. First it assumes that consumers at all income levels will share in such benefits of freer trade – a position that fails to allow for differences in the initial pattern of income distribution. Cheap labour usually goes with a skewed income distribution and along with it, a skewed distribution of economic and political power. In theory, tire trade is supposed to raise the prices of that resource which gives a country comparative advantage in trade. In a labour surplus country, this should mean an increase in wages particularly in the export-oriented industries. But quite often, powerful domestic employers will try and keep down wages in order to maintain their advantage in trade. If at the same time prices of commodities that fire poor had been consuming before go up because of international demand, then, the poor will be worse off than before. The rich on the other hand will make larger profits through bigger sales of the traded commodity and use them to import goods of their choices at lower international prices.

The truth is that there is no Free Trade, only Fair and Unfair Trade. If we seek answers to the question ‘how have women fared as consumers in India?’ It becomes amply evident that the scenario is very similar to the above-mentioned one. In our country the unorganised sector generates over 50 % of the value of exports. In many of these industries the use of child labour or of informal labour contracts is now being justified on the grounds of maintaining competitiveness in export markets. If globalisation now means that goods of common consumption produced by informal sector workers are to be exported and therefore become relatively dear while goods that the rich consume become relatively cheaper, then it becomes difficult to believe that free trade policies have been on the whole, beneficial to all consumers, especially poor working women from Southern Economies like India.

Support for this hypothesis has already been provided by the conclusions of Dr. Nirmala Bannerjee who cites the Consumption Expenditure survey (50th round) for both rural and urban India, to point out that a higher percentage of adult women (as compared to adult men) today, are in poor households. This time the gap in the poverty levels of the two genders was higher in rural areas than in urban areas. This is indicative of a reversal of earlier trends when urban women were at a greater disadvantage.

The relevance of poverty reduction in a free market economy: The much-touted fall in the incidence of poverty during the late 1990’s could have been the result of several factors working singly or together with different implications for consumption. One possible implication could have been that, prices of consumption goods would have fallen due to cheaper imports in the changed trade regime. This however, has not been the case in India at least for commodities that are consumed by poorer households. In the period since 1991, when India formally adopted open trade policies, or even from 1983 onwards, agricultural product prices have risen faster than those of manufactured goods as well as of all commodities taken together. Since we can assume that in the consumption basket of the poor, agricultural products play a relatively larger role than manufactured goods it does not seem possible that the reduction in poverty came through a fall in prices of consumption goods.

Rising hunger: At one time India was well known for its public distribution system (PDS), which averted mass death by starvation. Today, budgetary cuts in food subsidies have affected the Public Distribution System (PDS) and put the food security of the country at risk. Around 95 per cent of rural households and 90 per cent of urban households today spend more than half their income on food, and can be termed ‘food insecure’, says Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. According to her, Indians are now eating less now than they did 40 years ago. Nationally, the average cereal consumption per capita declined between 1961-62 and 1990- 91 in all states except Kerala.

Ration shop owners are not lifting the stocks since the open market price is lower than the government’s issue price for articles under PDS, says Navin Maru, president of the Ration Shop Owners’ Association of Maharashtra. ‘The Government has cut subsidies, making everything more expensive. It is not Interested in the poor people any longer,’ he says. With ration shops selling only kerosene, most women have to rely totally on the black market for provisions while food continues to represent the largest item of expenditure for the majority of Indian families.

The Central government introduced targeted public distribution system (TPDS) in 1997 to replace the universal ration system with one in which subsidies target only poor families. This was to comply with World Bank conditionalities, and in Bank terminology is called ‘adjustment with a human face’. TPDS however has neither benefited the poor nor reduced the quantum of subsidies .The amount of food grains distributed has fallen since 1991 while subsidies have risen every year because of the high cost of storing grain in godowns. ‘It would reduce if the government distributed the stocks,’ points out Madhura Swaminathan. Arguing for a near universal system, she says that it would also reduce the administrative costs and hassles associated with running a targeted scheme. In the final analysis, the tragic irony of a situation where a country more than 65 million tonnes of grain rotting in state godowns while suicides of farmers and starvation deaths across the country continue unabated is already self evident.

Trade liberalisation therefore has significant consequences for perpetuating existing gender inequalities. According to a report prepared by Informal Workgroup on Gender and Trade for the 2nd WTO ministerial in 8, the trade policies promoted by and adopted under the WTO regime affect women’s poverty, their social roles as well as their general well being. For example, continued privatisation and liberalisation of services carried out under international trade regime increasingly obstructs the access to basic services such as health services, water supply and education. To the extent that women the principal providers of those services to their families, they lose out when they become inaccessible.

Poorer Health: A rise in the number of hungry across the country is accompanied by falling health services for the same. Studies on intra- household distribution of resources in India reveal that among the poorer households with gross malnutrition and nutritional deficiency, the deficiency among girls and women was 25% more than among men. For every three men using health-care facilities in India, only one woman does. According to the 2001 census, the child sex ratio showed there were 927 women for every 1000 men in India, the lowest in the history of census in India. Economic reforms have made import of portable ultrasound machines very easy and the techno- docs throughout the country are identifying sex of foetus and facilitating selective abortion of female foetuses. In the 0-19 age group, the death rate of girls is higher than boys. In this context, budgetary cuts in public health expenditure will have dire consequences for women and girls in India. In the budget, funds for the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria, phyleria and goitre eradication programmes have been reduced compared with previous years.

The inadequate funds for the rural sanitation programme in each and every budget throughout the nineties for provision of clean water, toilets and sewerage, has given rise to higher incidents of water-borne diseases and has increased the burden of women in terms of nursing. Also, the reduction in the quota or clean water resources by 38% in the urban areas and 36% in the rural areas has increased the drudgery of working class women who have to stand in long queues for many hours to obtain one bucket of water.

Bottom line is, do let us talk about the ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ before we all talk of the ‘Feminisation of labour’. Studies have already indicated that the burden of poverty falls more heavily’ on women than on men. Of the total households, around 11 % are supported by women’s income alone. In other words they are ‘female-headed households’ (FHH) i.e. households supported totally by widows, single unmarried women, deserted or divorced women. Feminisation of poverty has been enhanced due to the combined effects on these households of price rises, reduced quotas for PDS, reductions in health-care facilities and educational facilities. The fact that the FHH and poverty go hand in hand has been established. A study examining the incidence, characteristics and standards of living of FHHs in India concluded that FHHs expenditure on survival needs was half that of male-headed households. Parthsarathy has also shown that, among the poor households of every section of the agricultural community and the peasantry the proportion below the poverty line for females is considerably higher. It is a myth that SAP and the abolition of state intervention and protectionism are beneficial for women as consumers. Inflation, the reduction of subsidies on basic commodities like food means that women are presented with a shop full of consumer goods and no money to buy anything.

Women as Producers:

Another enduring myth is that economic globalisation creates more jobs for all, particularly women. In recent academic discussions this has become well known as the ‘Feminisation of Labour’ debate. It is true that across the globe more and more women are working. But there is an equally strong trend towards ‘feminisation of unemployment’ in many parts of the world, which run parallel to the process of feminisation of labour. Besides it also has to be stated that such feminisation has done little to break prevailing asymmetries in sexual division of labour.

In India the flexible labour practices initiated in the eighties, which were further, formalised in the post reforms period were expected to result in increased employment opportunities for women. With our relatively cheaper labour. India was expected to undergo an expansion of low skilled, labour-intensive industries and enjoy a larger demand for labour particularly of the low skilled variety. At the same time, firms were expected to tighten their cost conditions, shed surplus labour and go for flexible labour contracts. In general, these moves were expected to provide additional employment for women even though with fairly poor working conditions.

How far does this analysis tally with the experience of women workers in India over the last decade or two? We are talking here of a somewhat longer period because actually, liberalisation of trade, in the sense of easing restrictions on exports and imports as well as on movements of investment capital had started in India since 1984. First if we briefly look at the actual trends in women’s employment relative to men’s in this period, it becomes apparent that at the all India aggregative level, the few changes that took place have not been encouraging. Between 1983 and 1999/2000, there was a slight fall in the percentage of rural men and women in the work force. In urban areas, male work participation rates rose slightly but not the female ones. The latest census reports do indicate a rise in the female work participation rate (WPR), which is at 23%. But the increase is only marginal compared to the previous census (For the rural women the WPR is 27% and for the urban women it is 10%) and in no way can be considered significant.


Year Female Work Participation Rate (WPR)

1911 33.73

1961 27.96

1971 11.86

1981 14.44

1991 22.69

2001 23.00


Source: Census of India, 2001.

The rise of work participation rate is not necessarily a sign of empowerment but a sign of sheer helplessness and economic distress. As discussed in later sections of the paper I would point out that informalisation of work accompanied by subcontracting, home-based production, family labour system, and the payment of wages on a piece-rate basis, are the lot of jobs earmarked for women. In contrast, in several southeast and east Asian countries undergoing globalisation, there had been a marked expansion of the workforce, especially of women and particularly in manufacturing in urban areas. In the Indian workforce on the other hand, no comparable process of feminisation i.e. an increase in the share of women in the total workforce or of manufacturing workforce took place during the 1990s .

Contrary to expectations, there was no remarkable expansion of manufacturing employment in India and the share of women in it had at best remained unchanged and in worse case scenarios has witnessed a tremendous erosion. A case in point is the textile industry. In Bombay alone it is estimated that the Bombay textile strike (1982-83) has been followed by more then 75,000- job losses due to closures and downsizing excluding jobs where older workers had been replaced by younger recruits. By the end of the 1990’s this number was estimated to have climbed to 100,000 jobs. In Ahmedabad, another textile center the decline started around the same time with the closure of over 50 private mills and 20 more government owned units and the loss of almost 100,000 jobs over the next 15 years.

During the latter half of the 1990s, it was in construction and trade where overall employment had grown in both rural and urban areas; but for women the more friendly venues were of manufacturing in rural India (but not in urban areas) and in services in urban areas. Nevertheless, towards the end of this period there were indications generally of a slight fall in the rates of unemployment. A sign of the changed times is apparent in so far as there has been a marked fall in unemployment rates among urban educated women (with secondary and above education levels). With the growth of media entertainment and financial services bringing more and more educated qualified women into the arena of employment and entrepreneurship, in urban areas women’s employment in regular salaried jobs have been growing, It is important to note here that these regular salaried jobs are not necessarily in the formal sector. But workers do have a time contract and do not face the daily uncertainty of casual workers.

It is therefore critical that when we speak of employment, we map the entire landscape to locate the exact areas in which employment has increased, benefiting which section of the population and to what extent. In general, a growing section of all additional jobs have been as casual labour. Data from the national sample surveys reveal that the proportion of casual workers in the total female workforce rose from 4 l per cent in 1990-91 to 45.3 per cent by 1993 to 1994. The proportion of regular workers fell from 4.5 per cent to 3.4 per cent over the same period.

There has been a decline in the overall growth rate in employment in the organised sector, which has come down from around eight percent in the 80’s to below 2 percent in the 90’s and now, has been further reduced to 0.60%. The declining expenditure in the Public Sector (the government both at the centre and in the states was and is the main employer of women), and the current tendency of cost cutting in the private sector have affected women’s regular jobs adversely, especially for those in the unskilled and semi-skilled category. In addition, the decade of the ’90s saw a virtual freeze in recruitment in the government sector including schools and hospitals where women had got some employment as teachers or nurses. In government offices, in banks, in public sector undertakings there is no fresh employment.

Job Security, a Chimera

The move towards privatisation has also put in jeopardy even existing jobs and what the formal sector is witnessing today is a fantastic erosion of job security. In the last decade, new recruitment in railways, banks and insurance companies has virtually stopped. Following the SAP, the Government of India had declared 4 lakh workers as surplus in the nationalised banks. Out of 900,000 bank employees in India, 20% are women. Plans for retrenchment in the Indian Railways, announced by the GOI, has made thousands of women typists, telephone operators, and clerks jobless. The post 3rd telegraph department has declared 200,000 workers as ‘excess’. The women-dominated profession of nursing has been greatly affected by the SAP. Recruitment of nurses in the public hospitals of Maharashtra has decreased by 15%. Vacancies are not filled because of budgetary cuts in public health expenditure. The NEP has declared 200 public sector units ‘economically enviable’ and ‘sick’. Consequently, millions of workers have lost their jobs. Disinvestments in public sector units, closures and retrenchment rendered 6.6 million workers (7% to 9% of them women) unemployed, within a year of the introduction of SAP, according to the Annua1 Survey of Industries, 1991.

It is true that since the introduction of SAP there has been some increase in women’s employment in some sectors like electronics, pharmaceuticals, computer factories, gem cutting, and in some sectors of garment manufacturing as well as, in service industries like hotels, travel services, tourist agencies, offices of multi-national corporations (MNCs). But it is equally true that much of this new employment in the cities is in the export-oriented zones and since such employment is linked to demands in the global markets, it is almost always very insecure.

In Tiruppur for example, which is known as the biggest hosiery centre in South India, thousands of young women have already lost their jobs because of lack of orders. The export processing zones (EPZs) are in any case virtual fortresses where the labour force is under constant scrutiny to prevent trade union activity. Women workers are discouraged from spending time with each other, even during breaks. Employers prefer young, single women, as they do not have to pay maternity benefits. They are more vulnerable and are available for long hours of overtime work.

So does Indian women’s experience tally with what was expected of globalisation and its aftermath? In general, the answer would have to be in the negative. Let us take a brief look at the discussions going on at the global level about the impact of globalisation on women workers. Earlier writings had highlighted the fast increase in the number and percentage of women workers in the manufacturing workforce of developing countries that were promoting freer international trade. Based on this data, some writers had argued that the growth of the share of women in manufacturing employment of a country was a good indicator of its level of development. Many from within the women’s movement were quick to point out that this generalisation did not hold good in many countries and especially in India where, over the 1990s, women’s share even in total employment- leave aside in manufacturing employment- did not go up though the GDP had gone up by nearly 6% per annum at constant prices. Several African countries also exhibited similar trends.

In India, Liberalisation of the economy has brought about increasing inequalities in employment opportunities and incomes. The better endowed, with more access to skills, markets and with more resources or, better international links have been able to benefit. For women it means that a select section of urban educated women at the upper income, upper skill end have benefited through improved qualities and opportunities for employment, be it in the service sector or the so-called glamour industries, like in the Computer and IT sector. But for most women workers the quality of employment has remained poor without opportunities either for skill enhancement or job promotion; with consistently low income returns.

Neither has the employment opportunities created been substantial enough to cover the loss of jobs through mechanisation on the one hand and cuts in government-initiated employment on the other. In addition the terms and conditions of employment have worsened with the government itself giving the lead. For instance in the name of ending costs the government has not only reduced the number of workers but also changed the nature of work agreements. In other words, jobs of a permanent character are being given out on contract or workers are being hired on a daily or casual basis. This has grave implications not only for job security, but also directly reduces the income and the bargaining capacity of the worker.

In one department in Kerala, the central government has refused to regularise the work of sweepers who are mainly women, in some of the offices. Instead they are handed over forms in which there are a column to indicate what wage they are prepared to work for. The woman who quotes the lowest daily wage gets the job! The government then says that the women have voluntarily given up their demand for the statutory minimum wage because, in any case, their work is only supplementary for family survival!

The overall impact of globalisation on employment and income of women workers therefore reveals four distinct trends (i) Loss of existing employment without creation of new employment (ii) Changes due to new technologies and skills (iii) Casualisation and informalisation of work and (iv) Creation of some new employment opportunities. The last has been discussed to some extent in the previous section, so in the following section we would attempt to highlight the other three.

Loss of Existing Employment without Creation of New Employment: The loss of jobs in the sunset industries in the formal sector is also related to the displacement of Indian products by cheaper products. For instance thousands of women silk spinners and twisters in Bihar have totally lost their employment due to the import of ‘China-Korea’ silk yarn which is now being preferred by both, weavers and consumers for its shine and cheaper price. A similar story of displacement is also the case in fishing with the entry of large fishing vessels and commercial fishing ventures in Indian waters. These large operations are taking away the fish that has been for centuries been collected by smaller Indian fishing vessels; thereby destroying the employment of fishermen and women fish sorters, dryers, vendors and net-makers. In Gujarat, women guru collectors who were picking from the ‘prosposis juliflora’ or ‘Baval’ trees all lost their employment due to import of cheaper gum from Sudan.

In almost all the cities of India the rag pickets have lost a share of their employment due to the import of waste paper from other developed countries. For example, a case study by SEWA found that the income of rag pickers was declining primarily for two reasons. First, due to the closure of the textile mills, the number of women and children picking waste off the streets was increasing and enhanced competition implied that each person was able to collect less. Second, the price of waste paper was coming down due to large-scale imports. This was directly related to trade liberalisation.

The displacement of street vendors is another example of the combined effect of urbanisation coupled with liberalisation. Street vending is a major employment area for women both in rural and in urban areas. An estimated ten million men and women in India depend on vending commodities for their livelihood. Mumbai has the largest number, nearly 200,000. In recent years there has been a major pressure on these vendors who in the new schemes of urban planning where Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai serve as role models, are increasingly perceived as nuisances that stand in the way of improved infrastructure and obstruct the emergence of Indian cities with a global, world class appearance. Hence they are being systematically removed and evicted wherever and whenever possible and the very space to live and work is withdraw from the urban poor in favour of parking spaces and flyovers, as women are squeezed out of marketing, vending spaces because global traders have made local labour and skill obsolete and their very presence undesirable. In rural areas, the ‘haats’, which were the traditional space for these vendors, are now increasingly becoming, privatised and utilised for other purposes.

Employment Changes due to Mechanisation and New Technology

Women are again the most affected by the changes due to mechanisation, where manual work is replaced by machines. In such cases not only are the number of workers drastically reduced, but also men at the machines replace women manual workers. In the sub sectors in the textile and garment industry mechanisation has displaced many such women workers, like the replacement of hand wheels by power winders, which has displaced a large chunk of the women workforce.

The handloom sector, which employs both men and women, are losing ground to the power loom sector where the employees are mainly men. At the same time the smaller power looms with small worksheds and home basedworkers where women set work are the ones being displaced by larger power looms and composite factories. In the hosiery industry women workers had been employed in stitching buttons who have been replaced by new mechanised button stitching where the operative is almost always a male.

A large number of women workers, 1.27 per cent of all women workers, (as compared to 4.17% of all male) are employed in the construction industry. Among them more than 98% are casual workers, where as the proportion of casual workers among women workers in all industries together is far less about 75%. With increasing mechanisation, women labour in operations in which they have been traditionally deployed like soil digging and carrying, carrying inputs in concrete mixing and placing, concrete curing and brick carrying is going to be eliminated completely soon. It is estimated that overall deployment of labour will become 1/50th to 1/5th of the earlier numbers. Obviously women will be increasingly eliminated from construction sites.

In the food-processing sector, as large multinationals with huge investments and state-of-the-art technology corner an ever-enlarging portion of the market share, they are pushing out small unorganised units from the market. Food processing is the employer of women in the manufacturing sector with more than 3 .5 lakh workers, apart from an additional 2.9 lakh in the grain-milling sector, mostly in the unorganised segment of the industry. Thus as technology advances and work becomes modernised, the women who are in the lowest rung of the labour hierarchy are going to be far more adversely affected than their male counterparts. In the screen printing industry of Ahmedabad mechanisation has reduced emplopment by nearly 50%. Mechanisation in Zari embroidery has displaced home based women who did hand embroidery.

Rising Misery of Rural Women in Agriculture

Neither has introduction of modem technology in agriculture brought about any significant advantage for women. Men have taken over those cases where technology has substituted manual labour with mechanisation. The remaining labour intensive tasks have been left almost entirely to the women. For instance the introduction of tractors, combine harvesters and mechanical cotton pickers, insecticides and weedicides..etc .also means that tasks traditionally performed by women on which many depended on for their livelihood have been either appropriated or made redundant.

This explodes another myth related to economic globalisation and its impact on women – that withdrawal of protections would benefit women in the agricultural sector as producers. On the contrary the impact of new agricultural policies on agricultural workers has been devastating. It would be no exaggeration to say that it is this section of the workforce, and more particularly the agricultural woman worker, who today is the worst affected by SAPs. Evidence from NSSO rounds indicates that female labour participation has declined in the nineties from 33% in 1993-94 to 30.2% in 1999-2000. Economist Jeemol Unni of the Gujarat Institute of Development Research has pointed that low WFPR for men and women in rural areas, which is lower than the rate of population growth in a poor agricultural year, which shoots up in a good agricultural year indicates that there is a good section of the workforce that withdraw from the workforce in a poor year. The phenomenon is one of the discouraged worker and not one of improving conditions in the labour market. The opening up of domestic markets since 1-4-2000 for 72.9 new commodities (240 are agrarian products including rice, meat, milk powder, fruits) that can be imported unrestrictedly have resulted in enormous tragedies resulting into suicides and starvation deaths among farmers and weavers. Prices of rubber, cotton, coconut, coffee, cardamom, pepper, tomatoes, sugarcane and potatoes have crashed. Urban poor women in Kerala and Karnataka are fighting desperate struggles against imports of these items, to express their solidarity with their rural and tribal sisters.

In a nutshell SAP, by encouraging export-driven production, has led to a switch in cash crop production, which combined with processes of mechanisation has led to a decrease in workdays available in agriculture. This squeeze in agricultural employment has seen a big migration of workers from rural to urban areas. Another direct impact of SAPs in the rural areas has been the increase in the number of female-headed families dependent on the female’s income. A survey by the Agricultural Workers’ Union in Andhra Pradesh, liar example, found that employers preferred women because they were more industrious, worked without breaks and could be hired at one third to 50 per cent less wages than men. Sample studies conducted by AIDWA in several states show that women workers are earning one-third to three-fourths less than men in agricultural work. The trend of women replacing men is at a distress level, indicating poverty, not increased or expanded employment. Women work more for less.

Another second crucial impact on agricultural workers is the scrapping of the agenda of land reform and land distribution. Women have no land rights in most parts of India. Their relationship to land is usually mediated through male members of the family. The present agricultural policy speaks of land consolidation, not land distribution. Consolidation means setting up of big farms in the private sector. In many states, commonly held property like panchayat [local government] land is also being leased to commercial interests, thus depriving the landless poor of access to it even for fodder fuel purposes. Even the cases of redistribution of land for people displaced by major projects like Sardar Sarovar and Tehri are biased in favour of the males in the family. Allocations of titles are made only to male heads while female spouse in most cases is not awarded any titles and no provision is made for female children in the family. Even if titles are awarded the conditions attached are made too stringent.

Increasing commercialisation of agriculture has meant a decreasing land share for subsistence agriculture and for food crop cultivation and in cases has led to depletion of fertility (as in aquaculture). The onslaught on agriculture and food-security has been further aggravated by the dismantling of PDS, which has heaped enormous misery on the rural poor. Women as the providers in the family are the worse sufferers once again. For instance, foreign investment in food processing has been to the tune of 9000 crore, displacing the ubiquitous female enterprise in Kerala while screw pine mat weaving has declined due to loss of raw material. Labour intensive export industries are labour unfriendly even though they provide income and opportunities otherwise unavailable to women workers, they form only a small proportion of the total female workforce.

Casualisation and Informalisation of Work

Gender regimes thus work in two ways in determining the employment situation of women. On the one hand, they determine the supply profile of women workers at each juncture of the economy; on the other, they also become a factor in employers’ decisions regarding location of their investment. Pushed out from the organised sector, a large number of women accept whatever work, insecure and oppressive, they find in the informal sector. The 2000-2001 round of the NSS indicates that there are over 28 million home-based workers in India. Even within the unorganised sector their lack of skills and means to acquire them ensure that they are placed in the least remunerative and most exploitative and unprotected segment.

In a free market economy outsourcing is name of the game: Women of the third world are perceived as the most flexible of the world’s labour force. The lower supply price of these women provides a material basis for the induction of poor working-class urban women into export industries such as electronics, garments, sports goods, toys and agro-industries. The relationship between the formal sector and the decentralised sector is a dependent relationship where the formal sector has control over capital and markets and the ‘informal’ sector works as an ancillary. In India, 96% of the urban and rural poor women work in the decentralised sector, which has a high degree of labour redundancy and obsolescence. These women have less control over their work and no chance for upward mobility because of temporary, routine and monotonous work.

The study on industrial subcontracting reveals the extent to which major private and even public sector companies have resorted to outwork, including home-based work, in recent years. Although this has increased work opportunities for women, the earnings remain low, well below the minimum wage. The average monthly earnings in technical trades like electricals is Rs. 450 per month, no different from aggarbatti-making or leaf plate making! Nor do workers have access to social security systems. Due to the low piece-rates in home-based work, women have to take the help of their children, and the incidence of child labour seems to be increasing in the home-based trades.

In addition, in the urban areas, Female Economic Activity Rate (FEAR) in tertiary sector has increased from 37.6% in 1983 to 52.9% in 1999. The hulk of the labour legislation excludes those working in the informal sector and the chronic insecurity of these workers allows employers to often impose extremely hazardous working conditions on them. A good example would be the construction industry that has deplorable working conditions and incidents of accidents often fatal, are extremely high. The miserable plight of migrant women worker’s in the export-oriented fish processing industry has also come to light. The women are virtually kept in captivity, often at the workplace itself, forced to work long hours in unhygienic conditions, denied minimum wages and subjected to sexual harassment and various forms of coercion.

Casualisation thus displaces the better paid, more protected workers and increases insecure and low paid employment. MNC’s (e.g. Maruti Udyog, BPL, Johnson & Johnson, Telco, Elin Electronics and Hindustan Lever) have developed a vendor system of subcontracting for their production. Depending on the nature of the work, some vendors employ women in large numbers or give out work to home based women workers mostly through contractors. Introduction of contract system in public sector has institutionalised neo-liberal dual economy model. Such dualistic models promote differentiation based on language, caste, religion, ethnic background in urban India and exclusion from informal network for upward economic mobility. Majority of the toiling poor, rot in the external sector in which, real wages change at disparate rates. Institutions like extended family, caste and village nexus play an important role in providing safety nets to migrant workers.

Many medium and small-scale industries also subcontract and give it out to home based workers and seem to be endemic to the unorganised manufacturing sector which has expanded phenomenally in the past decade. 90% of the households in resettlement colonies and slum areas, surveyed as part of the Second National Commission on Labour, reported at least one woman who had something to do with home based work. Earnings for women in all the trades are abysmally low, far below the minimum wage. For instance the average monthly earning for women in technica1 trades is Rs 450.

During the 1990s employment of adult women decreased and employment of adolescent girls and child labour increased. Women are not only given the less skilled and underpaid jobs; further budgetary cuts for balwadis and créches have enhanced the burden of poor working women. FTZs and EPZs thrive on young women’s super-exploitation. The employers overlook occupational health hazards. More and more children are dropping out of school, particularly girls who are needed to support family either taking up employment themselves or taking up domestic responsibilities as their mothers go out for work.

Tourism driven globalisation is promoting sex-tourism and child prostitution in India. Tourists seeking uninfected short-term sex partners increasingly pursue young girls based in the urban centres as well as on the national highways and have paid sex with child prostitutes. Young girls may be forced into sex or otherwise have little power in sexual relationships to negotiate condom use, particularly if their sexual partner is older -a double risk since older men are more likely to be infected. Other areas of concern are the rising consumerism, environmental deterioration, declining investment and access to resources like water, sanitation roads in rural areas, declining allocations in health and education etc.

Even a cursory look on the impact of the past decade of neo-liberal reforms in India on women’s employment situation, health and general well being indicates that the effect of globalisation is more disempowering than empowering. The truth is that many of the gains made available through a century of struggle in the forms of social and labour legislation, have been wiped out with the relaxations introduced in the name of flexibilisation and this has largely worked against women, for their vulnerability to exploitation has only worsened. Women not only absorb the pressures created by the lack of social services, security, employment, low wages, lack of education, poor access to goods and services but in addition such policies often end up reinforcing the inequity of the conditions where women’s rights remain restricted and become even more resident or contingent.

Globalisation is thus neither gender neutral in its impact, nor inevitable. Although it is not possible here to draw a coherent picture of the impact of neo- liberal economic reforms and globalisation in the lives of people in general and women in particular, because of the complex interface of economic factors with caste, class, gender and religion. But it has become apparent that with markets as the main player in this program of structural adjustment, reduction in costs of production has become of prime importance and trends in all countries undertaking structural reforms indicate that, implementation typically involves steps where cost cutting equals to – the virtual withdrawal of state from social services like health and education, de-valuation of local currencies, de- nationalisation/privatisation of state sponsored production activities, large number of retrenchements and voluntary retirements, shifting of production from production for domestic use to production for export and the lifting of subsidies on food and all other basic necessities. This has adverse consequences for the poor, including women.

It has been amply illustrated that in India globalisation, particularly economic globalisation, as a policy expression of neo-liberal reforms regime has failed to improve macro -economic management capacity in the region. On the contrary it has increased rural indebtedness, landlessness, food insecurity, child labour, casualisation of work, wage gaps between the skilled and unskilled, and increased incidence of social pathologies such as violence and intimidation; even as global culture has brought in its wake many changes in the life styles of the non poor. The emerging picture indicates that there are opportunities ‘for urban educated women with technological and need based qualifications and skills and the means to upgrade them continuously. This only gives strength to the apprehension that poor marginalised women will be further marginalised.

The likelihood of the emerging labour market proving more problematic for women workers than men is borne out by few of the already emerging trends which indicate that (a) Women’s own incomes have remained low because they continue to be concentrated in agriculture where labour productivity has grown little, (b) As unpaid family labour work is not empowering for nearly half the women engaged in traditional family based occupations, (c) The decline of many such household occupations has meant that women’s roles in those work areas have become further devalued, ( d) In their search for additional work men often take up women’s occupations, (e) So far there are few indicators that women have managed to break the set patterns of sexual division of labour, they are still barred from many occupations that currently may be expanding, which is the main reason why they have not got entry into the few avenues that have come up in the tertiary sector.

Dominance of market processes undervalues everything that is not directly calculable in its terms and stand to affect women adversely (for instance the value housework). The current process of globalisation demands aid uses labour flexibly leading to informalisation and casualisation of labour although labour markets continue to be segregated in terms of occupation and earnings. Although the overall effects of SAP are difficult to distinguish because women in different sectors are affected differentially but one thing is amply evident- that women are working longer hours in an effort to reduce the affect of rising costs of living and cuts in social services.

In many ways what we are witnessing today is a reformulation of patriarchal structures in different parts of the country depending upon the location of the region in the wider political economy. In other words, there is a distinct correlation between economic programmes under liberalisation, the gradual rollback of state welfarism and the articulation of different forms of labour: and gender is distinctly embedded in this. For instance, domestic and household labour and in a wider sense the entire gamut of subsistence labour activities which Kumkum Sanghari cells ‘unchanging forms of labour’ is definitely part and parcel of this. Such ‘unchanging forms of labour’ prevail wherever subsistence economies prevail (for instance in agrarian areas) and are now articulating with the ‘non-welfare state’ economic order. It is precisely this free labour of women that is taken for granted which absorbs and pays the cost of transforming to a full-fledged market economy and the resultant inequalities it engenders. To put it simply whenever and wherever sections of rivers or forests are privatised and sold off to multinational corporations in the name of development, it is the local women who are walking the extra mile to collect drinking water, fuel, fodder or firewood.

Over time, with the consolidation of capitalism, each and every area of services that are performed by these unchanging forms of labour of women can be brought within the ambit of the market. Cooking, cleaning, childcare, care for the old, all can be brought within the purview of the market. Economic globalisation highlights the paradox of the articulation of gendered forms of labour where such unchanging forms of labour simultaneously occupy two positions. One where such labour must never be evaluated in terms of its economic value, because if that happens women might do something foolish, like asking to be paid for domestic labour. On the other hand this labour is being continuously valued in the market and rates are being set for it. Unchanging forms of labour thus at once occupy two systems, one is very much an evaluated market while the other is in the enforced and non-evaluated realm and thus rendered invisible.

The controversy over the differential impact on women continues unabated due to the persistence of certain tendered myths on globalisation. By and large definitions of globalisation has been in two broad aspects- the material (or the economic context) and the cultural (or the non economic socio cultural, historical and political context). Conceptually the absence of gender as one of the structural dimensions of globalisation has rendered invisible women as one half of the world and perpetuated myths that globalisation is gender neutral and that economic globalisation would lead to more jobs for women and their greater empowerment. Economic reforms as a result also ignore gender as a crucial structural category and interact with existing gender asymmetries to affect women in negative ways. It is probably because of such and similar gaps and absences that there is a structural duality to the globalisation process best exemplified by UNDP’s human development report:

‘Globalisation expands the opportunities for unprecedented human advance for some but shrinks those opportunities for others and erodes human security. It is integrating economy cultures and governance but fragmenting societies. Driven by commercial market forces globalisation in this era seeks to promote economic efficiency, generate growth and yield profits. But it misses out on the goals of equity, poverty eradication and enhanced human security’. (UNDP, 1999, 43-44)

Migration of human populations, patriarchy and the rise of capitalism had helped in the subjugation of women since early times; globalisation with its culture of consumerism instead of improving the situation has only reinforced the existing gender asymmetries. Just as eighteenth century capitalism demanded the ‘fantasmic nation’, twenty-first century capitalism demands the ’fantasmic globe’ even though this myth fails to account for the divisions that are left in the wake of global economy, dividing people along racial, ethnic, religious, and gendered borders. It is this myth of ‘fantastic oneness’ created by the global economy that in the final analysis ends up reinforcing and reconfiguring women into the established gender hierarchies of the north and south that continue to place the needs of women at the bottom of the global marketplace.


DAMYANTI BHATTACHARYA. Holds Masters in Philosophy from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She worked as a research officer for Vikas Adhyayan Kendra where she worked on a research project on ‘Women in Cotton Textile Industry in Maharashtra.’ She has authored a book, Invisible Hands, published by Women Networking, Documentation, Research and Training Centre, Mumbai.

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Holds Masters in Philosophy from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She worked as a research officer for Vikas Adhyayan Kendra where she worked on a research project on ‘Women in Cotton Textile Industry in Maharashtra.’ She has authored a book, Invisible Hands, published by Women Networking, Documentation, Research and Training Centre, Mumbai.

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