The recognition of women as important contributors to the world of work and economy is rarely matched with the spirit of inquiry this book shows. Stitching scattered facts and data together it presents a holistic picture of globalization as it impacts the women workers. This book fills a lacuna at several levels—from the rudimentary level of pointing out the absence of sex desegregated data to analysing those where present to demonstrate the complex web of contradictions women experience under globalization: getting displaced/losing/gaining/ dwindling employments and continually occupying the informal/less privileged ends of the job in terms of: wages, work conditions, increasing intensity and insecurity. They now face new developments of changed relationships with employers/contractors, bearing along the way other forms of intersectional inequalities. The author has captured that face of globalization which is so elusive and invisible that the direct or indirect linkages with it are hard to decipher. The labyrinths of incredibly fast changing lanes and by-lanes, across borders and quagmire of policies and agreements otherwise hard to track down have been brought down on earth.
Pegging the study in the capital city of Delhi, and its satellite townships of Noida, Gurgoan in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana respectively, between the years 2002-2004, the author says that the research, a combination of structured questionnaires, individual and group discussions covered 500 women workers. The structured questionnaires in the form of a primary survey covered a total of 410 women workers of which 150 were from garment export factories, 150 from the home based sector engaged in a range of manufacturing processes and industries, 60 from the electronics manufacturing and 50 in Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES), principally in call centres belonged to the middle class. Hard bound and prefaced with an introduction, an overview of globalization and a formal conclusion at the end, the four chapters in the center of the book on the sectors mentioned earlier follow a common pattern. Delineating the broad global trends in each sector these contexts are brought nearer home within India as she explores and cross references the post liberalization/current situations with the state regulated era until the 1970s termed as the ‘golden age’ though not exactly the best the period was nonetheless amenable to change with the state regulating relations between capital and labour, wherein recognition of worker’s rights too followed. All the sectors now show the brunt borne due to the various signed agreements and the cross currents of power, and politics that governed them since the decades of the 1980s.
With impeccably researched data Mukerjee demonstrates the detrimental impact the free markets and the competition driven global economy has on the working class and the women in particular. So that, right at the end of the each chapter when the survey results are presented the analysis is all of a piece of the same picture that she has carefully built chapter by chapter, through several spans of time, picking up facts and figures from government sources and research papers; indeed the notes that follow each chapter indicate the depth and the extent of her input. This is not a book that one can simply pick up off hand and flip pages. It demands exclusive attention. The long sentences with a terminology that is specific to labour and globalization together with the dense presentation compound matters.
‘The Garment Export Industry’ starts with a brief outline of a woman worker’s struggle to make a living in the garment industry in the face of unstable and exploitative work. Mukerjee goes on to give quantitative data that shows her story to be quite common, using already published data as well as a survey of 150 women in the garment industry in India. She notes a few trends that have contributed to the increase in instability, unemployment, and the hardening of work conditions. First, the well documented shift of export industry to developing countries and the concentration of the import industry in the developed countries created a consumer/producer dynamic wherein an increase in productivity and profit is achieved by exploitative labour practices. Women are the cheapest of labour and so are sometimes given the opportunity of employment in these factories. These started to import the machinery, under the assumption that it was more advanced, to impress consumers, rather than for increasing productivity by efficiency or increased capacity. The workers compensated for the cost with longer hours and by working faster. Those who could not increase pace like the older workers were usually fired.
The observed increase in productivity was not achieved by an increase in the labour force, but rather by a shift in the labour force to developing countries (i.e. Asia) where wages and labour standards are lower. Once the market was situated in developing countries, competition between neighbouring states for cheaper production resulted in many factory closures and relocations, therefore job instability.
Legal violations are backed with data showing clearly the violation of labour laws and minimum wage. Mukerjee discusses current political agenda to create more non-permanent positions that are unable to attain benefits and fair wage. Longer hours, upwards of 10 per day with only 2 days off per month, leave no time or energy for unionization. Garment Industry is a large employer of women, historically and currently. Specifically the garment export industry with the rise of ‘chain’ labour, or unskilled assembly line style. Women are employed to a higher degree in places where the gender wage gap is wider, and vice versa.
One wishes that more interviews with the unemployed women were also part of the book or we had heard more about the gendering of the jobs, or about the socialization that may take place on the factory floor—something that gives a sense of a woman’s spirit. If and how certain jobs came to be considered feminine or masculine, and how that shaped the numbers. Her reasoning for the percentage male:female of workers does not go much beyond the wage gap.
In the 1970s when the state’s goal was self reliance in electronics the manufacture of certain electronics was restricted to public sector or small firms. The latter dominated by the private sector consisted of consumer electronics. The former grew in telecommunications, with specialized industrial electronic firms such as ECIL, BEL and in large engineering firms like BHEL. Since the public sector followed non-discrimination policies this industry had large numbers of women employees, a trend present through the world, in India women’s employment grew faster in this sector than it did in other formal sectors. Gender biases of women’s ability to work with their fingers ensured their employment though at the lower end, the consumer electronics involving a labour intensive assembly form of production continued to retain women well up to the 1980s even though policy changes had been ushered. Between 1981 and 1990 around 155,000 new jobs were created of which 29,500 were in the public sector, 35,500 in the organized private sector and 89,000 in the small scale industries. In 1997 the government without a public debate signed on Information Technology Agreement (ITA-1) of WTO, ostensibly to provide a sound base for sustained development led to a loss of over 15,000 jobs in the public sector. Additions in the job over the two years now included high skilled workers who were generally men. Within an overall decline in the employment, it was the woman who lost the jobs. The share of components in the country’s electronic production declined from 25% in 1981 to 20% dipping further to 18% in 2001. Contract manufacturing was conceived as an area where the Indian manufacturers could enhance their export but this hope too fell through. The smaller firms could not compete with the outsourced contract manufacturing on a global level that moved towards acquisition, and consolidation, on less visible/known systems of trust, tight controls on intellectual property rights, cash flow and size. The whole system shuts off for the relatively underprivileged such as the small firms mostly Indian that cannot buy in bulk. The survey result in this book showed that many of the units covered in 1993-1994 survey had shut down by 2000-2003. The entry of the MNC, led to closures, relocation and casualization with small unorganized assembling workshop coming up in the computer industry which demands mobility—seen as unfavourable for women has stalled their recruitment. The survey showed that more than half were in the age group of 18 to 25. Most factories advertising for employees outside their gate asked for unmarried girls. Married men faced no such restriction.
The older Indian brand factories are no longer expanding, the gains made for the protection of labour rights lost, and as imagined the direct foreign investment in electronics has not expanded job opportunities nor has the quality of employment improved—long hours at work, including work on weekly day off, only one day off after 4-6 weeks, use of trainees or a keeping a permanent batch of casual workers for production work to enable evasion of minimum wages. It is an irony that even as the advances made in technology demand better education, the wages that are paid are almost equivalent to what the less educated garment workers got. Nearly 3% of the garment workers surveyed had been previously employed in electronics—a sign of distress and declining job availability in the electronics.
Mukerjee starts with a fairly lengthy run-through of debates on the terminology, definitions, and categories used in discourse on Home-based Work. She discusses how its position within the ‘informal economy’ affects and is affected by policy and political agenda, i.e. whether it is cast in a positive road to women’s independence or as an exploitative practice depends on who is paying for the study.
Her work surveyed 150 women in working-class colonies (bastis) in and around Delhi. These women are home-based workers in various fields including textiles, engineering, and chemical production. They work inside their homes, usually poorly lit and ventilated, and are paid generally at piece-rate. Daughters, often school-aged, usually assist mothers. Very often each member works a full 8 hour day or longer, and wages are often less than 1/5th of the minimum wage. Typically they must travel to pick up the supplies and sometimes their finished product is rejected by the manufacturer with no compensation. The trades the women are employed in rarely have any continuity with social tradition, rather the women were sought out by male manufacturers.
There was a sexual division of labour wherein thekedars were always male, while many of the home-based workers were female. Also, among home-based workers—there was a division among men and women’s work, though the division varied across bastis. Bindi pasting and embroidery work is largely women’s work. The majority of women in these fields reported stagnating or decreasing wage as well as irregular availability of work. This is attributed mostly to ‘excessive labor supplies’ (p. 219). There is a small section attributed to health consequences that is somewhat compelling, but overall the data is presented in dry charts. While the writing and documenting of this topic is feminist work in its own right, the detached, professional, statistical, or otherwise masculine quality of this chapter is not fully appropriate. The degree to which the researcher-subject division is made obvious is counter-productive to the aim of this sort of work.
The chapter on ‘Service Factories of the New Economy’ lingers too long on the differences in the emergence of the service sectors in the developed and the developing economies and the processes of the employment of the women therein. She etches in some of the global features of the service economy, its intersection with information communication technology (ICT) along with the processes of globalization: the General Agreement on Trade in Services that laid pressure for the privatization of the telecommunications or the information economy based on digital convergence of information and communication. The latter development paved the way for cross border services export mainly through the call centers. She points out that India has come to be the favoured destination for various countries to outsource their services because of a low wage structure. Compared to the US India’s call centres wage is less than one fifth and one third of those in New Zealand. Within India the wages are higher than what the lower division clerks or teachers in formal sector get: as a developing country getting caught in a ‘double bind’ is the rule. We get a glimpse into the interiority of call centers, which attends to anything from selling kitchen ware to life insurance, the extremely exploitative nature of work unfolds which is ‘more akin to manufacturing than services’ and does not involve high level of skill or technical expertise, the author states. Brought so far, we impatiently wait to read the results and the analysis of the survey but instead there is a long detour to give us a historical trajectory into the women’s employment and in the service sectors as a result. It seems to stem from a need to counter views elsewhere: the new economy based on ICT and globalization will bring prosperity, ICT generates an economy where knowledge is more important than money or machines or India can skip stages of growth and place themselves in a service dominated economy. A more concise rendering of the issues such as the recognition that agriculture is still a large sector which employs three out of every four women, or that the services account for only 14% of female work force and that women’s share of total services sector employment at 18%, is lower than their share of manufacturing employment at 28%, would have left a greater impact. This and the other surveys speak of the real practical situation.
In fact these adds to what Mukerjee demonstrates through various data, what the survey result reinforce: the exploitation of the call centers at a more realistic level, the hazards of continual night work, intensity of work, close monitoring and up scaling of the number of calls required to be made, the stagnation including the aspirations and the freedom that young women seek: the word ‘cultural degradation’ however was troubling. Affecting accents of service receiving countries cannot be seen as degrading. It is a skill that facilitates a market entry; it is also a form of mimicry, enabling one to laugh at the seamy side of life! It demonstrates powerfully the context of increasing disparities between nation states and within states the widening gulf between the rich, the poor men and women. A number of issues that she raises are well known and have been established. It would have been illuminating if the book had a chapter or two upon the roles of the unions/strategies adopted in the now ever-increasing informal sector. In the Introduction (p. xvii she says): ‘… This study however concentrates on only employment-related inequalities and issues.’ She goes on to say … ‘That while economic independence of women may be an essential prerequisite for emancipation, it does not automatically end patriarchal oppression’. The almost defensive note when she says: ‘What remains to be said is that there is also a need to give due importance to the issues of employment around which organization of women has an intrinsic potential for contributing to the subjective conditions necessary for the larger haul for elimination of patriarchy.’ The division of social and economic seems to surface, a question that comes to my mind, would an integrative approach be better as a strategy? Especially because Mukerjee herself raises it, ‘Greater closeness and mutually supportive action by the women’s movement with the workers’ organization from within and without trade unions is perhaps more necessary … in this era of erosion of labour rights,’ one wonders where and who is to begin towards reaching the closeness she advocates? We would have liked to read about these efforts and ideas.
This is a good source book with pretty thorough history and definitions and also has the newly published data specific to India/Delhi. It will be referenced to create more books of this kind, and while the data is heart-wrenchingly desperate, the text only hints at inspiring compassion, sisterhood, or humanity.
Maya Sharma, an activist, works in a grass root organization, Vikalp Women’s Group in Baroda, Gujarat.