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Globalization, the Feminization of Labor, and Women’s Resistance: Convergence and Divergence in the Global North and the Global South

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Globalization, the Feminization of Labor, and Women’s Resistance:
Convergence and Divergence in the Global North and the Global South

Globalization is considered to be one of the most important forces of change in contemporary society, ushering in greater integration and interdependency within countries and facilitating the unprecedented expansion of the global economy. However, globalization also creates uneven outcomes and widens the gap between the global North and South. A key-defining feature of globalization is the restructuring of production, made contingent by the increased competition between firms and corporations. The global restructuring process of production has a tremendous impact on labor relations within countries and directly affects women’s work. For one, the restructuring of production to reflect a global division of labor reflect and reinforce economic disparities between the global North and the global South through the changing nature of employment and labor force requirements. Likewise, global restructuring inevitably result in patterns of flexibilization and feminization of labor (Gills, 2002, p. 107). In particular, the tendency towards the feminization of labor in the new global economy has resulted in “the devaluing of jobs, the shift from full time to part time, the shift from jobs with upward mobility to dead end jobs, the increasing informality/casualization of the labor force” (Nagar, et. al., 2002, p. 263). The changes brought about by globalization in the patterns of employment and labor force participation among women results in the creation of a unique and complex situation of convergence in women’s working lives in the global North and South while presenting divergent patterns in terms of work and employment opportunities and degrees of marginalization and exploitation at the same time. Hence, the globalization of production has significant repercussions on women’s agency, organizing, and resistance in both the global North and South, especially in efforts towards increasing women’s ability to influence decisions pertaining to their participation in social reproductive processes.

Deindustrialization and the feminization of work in the global North Globalization has usually been depicted to be a positive force for developing countries, who are among the staunchest defenders of the neoliberal economic order. On the one hand, the global liberalization of markets enables the “inevitable leap into friction-free flows of commodities, capital, corporations, communication, and consumers all over the world,” (Nagar, et. al., 2002, p. 260) which benefits both the producers and consumers of products and services through the increased availability of cheaper products and the convenience and choice created by faster transactions and new distribution channels. Likewise, globalization encourages firm efficiency by exposing it to new competitors while lowering barriers to entry in many industries, resulting in the rapid expansion of industries and positive outcomes for the economy. Lastly, globalization creates new and widespread opportunities for labor and education through the increased importance of information and technology in the economy. On the other hand, globalization also has several trade-offs for rich countries especially in labor relations and employment. Mills, et. al. (2008, p. 562) observe, for instance, that “the promises of globalization… appear to be accompanied by painful adjustment consequences” in the form of the erosion of the welfare state, “decreasing job security and increasing job mobility and job hopping,” which indicate the rapid transformation of internal labor markets within advanced industrial nations due to globalization. The changing nature of labor markets in developed countries has severe repercussions particularly for women, who have traditionally been more affected by changes in labor market demand due to gendered conceptions of the social division of labor. Results from a study conducted by Kalmijn and Luijkx (2006, p. 85) on the effect of globalization on women’s employment in the Netherlands reveal, for instance, that “women’s careers are changing back to the traditional female pattern” that was predominant in pre-modern times, when women usually had “precarious and discontinuous careers.” Whereas women experienced a relative levelling of employment and career opportunities vis-à-vis men during the era of modernization, women experienced significant shifts in terms of labor force requirements under globalization, such as the demand shift from low-skilled, low-education workforce to high-skill, high-education labor (Mills, et. al., 2008, p. 571). Underlying the shifting patterns in women’s employment and labor market participation in developed countries was the increasing emphasis on labor flexibility by companies (Kalmijn and Luijkx, 2006, p. 85), the decline in agricultural and manufacturing employment and the growth of service sectors (Korpi and Stern, 2006, p. 121), and the renewed focus on streamlining and rationalizing production processes through emergent technologies (Mills, et. al., 2008, p. 571). Labor flexibilization and the deindustrialization of the North inevitably impact women’s participation in the labor market by bringing about significant adjustments in terms of wages, benefits, work environment, and job security in such a way that increases social disparities rooted in ethnicity, race, and class. This is evident in how women from ethnic minorities, lower socio-economic status, and the working class become exposed to higher risks of job insecurity and poor working conditions as employers seek to maximize efficiency and rationalize production processes with the goal of attaining a competitive advantage (Mills, et. al., 2008, p. 566). However, although highly educated, middle-class women in the North have not been as negatively affected by the proliferation and standardization of part-time, flexible work as women from poor, working class communities with little education and resources, restructuring processes also expose upper-class women to the inherent insecurity of flexible working arrangements and the threat of job loss in the face of company outsourcing activities (Golsh, 2006, p. 296).

Cheap labor, contractualization, and women’s labor in the global South The global South, meanwhile, represents the other face of globalization, where poor and debt-ridden countries attempt to maximize the gains of globalization in inducing economic growth. However, the participation of poor countries in the globalization process often entails sacrificing concerns of sovereignty and the protection of local cultures and populations as governments are compelled by intergovernmental organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to implement structural adjustment policies that “directly or indirectly promote commodification, deregulation, the privatization of space and economic activity, and the downsizing of government, including the scaling down of social entitlements” (Denis, 2003, p. 492). Under the global division of labor, the global South primarily functions as the supplier of cheap labor, thereby fulfilling the need for flexibility and efficiency of global North companies. The accession of global South countries to globalization paradigms directly impacts women’s participation in the labor market through the passage of labor policies that are aimed at restricting wages and controlling workers’ organizing activities with the explicit aim of attracting foreign capital and investment. Patterns of employment in the global South are therefore converging with the employment structure of the global North, wherein labor is increasing feminized through rationalization and flexibilization efforts. One of the glaring results of the global orientation of poor countries is labor flexibilization, wherein majority of work opportunities for women are to be found in subcontracting arrangements offering below-minimum wages and no benefits such as health coverage or maternity leave (Mitter, 1999, p. 5). The rise of subcontracting in manufacturing and service sectors represents what Nagar, et. al. (2002, p. 261) calls “a series of spatial shifts (from factory to sweatshop to home) and ideological shifts (from family-wage work to poorly paid feminized work)” that “cheapen production costs for global investors and producers.” Likewise, similar patterns of demand shifts in labor market, arising from technological changes that are happening in the global North are experienced by women in the global South. For instance, the automation of factories usually leads to the “obsolescence of existing skills, on the one hand, and to demands for a new expertise on the other” (Mitter, 1999, p. 5). Unlike the women, in the global North, however, who have managed to achieve a relative parity with men in the labor market prior to globalization, the women of the global South continue to be considered outsiders to the labor market. Female workers in the global South “are discursively constructed as temporarily in the labor force” by firms in order to justify the low wages and lack of career mobility in the employment opportunities offered to them (Nagar, et. al., 2002, p. 261). More importantly, labor flexibilization schemes in the global South are even encouraged by governments as advantageous employment arrangements for women, as in the case of part-time, home-based work which supposedly enables women to engage in paid work while simultaneously fulfilling their domestic and childcare responsibilities.

Intersection of women’s identities in the global north and the global south Clearly, the restructuring of production processes under globalization results in the convergence in women’s experiences of marginalization and exploitation as workers. The homogenization of economic, political, and social structures under globalization “connects women into networks across varied spaces and plays on and reconstitutes differences among them,” (Nagar, et. al., 2002, p. 259) thereby creating points of similarities in women’s realities in both developed and developing countries. As workers, women from both the global North and South are subjected to labor flexibilization and rationalization efforts, which are driven by gendered ideologies of employment. Drawing from George Ritzer’s critique on the powerful influence of McDonald’s on labor relations practice, Barndt (2002, p. 88) observes that labor and employment in a globalized world is increasingly shaped by the “dominant values of globalization,” which emphasizes efficiency, calculability, predictability, control, and the irrationality of rationality. In turn, workplace rationalization efforts have intensified the exploitation of women workers through depressed wages, lack of benefits and job security, and lesser opportunities for advancement and mobility. In the same manner, the trend towards the feminization of labor and the withdrawal of the state from the provision of social services in both global North and global South has increased the multiple burdens of women, who are increasingly forced to contribute economically while retaining their traditional roles as the primary labor force in the domestic and community spheres. However, the global restructuring of production processes have also heightened the divergent realities of women in the global North and the global South produced and reinforced by the existence of the economic and political divide between rich and poor countries. The full impact of globalization on women in the developed world is mitigated and restrained firstly, by the presence of employment and labor policies which have hindered the rapid adoption of labor flexibilization measures by the private sector (Kalmijn and Luijkx, 2006, p. 86); and secondly, by the existence of “welfare regimes” that “filter the market forces of globalization by offering varying levels of decommodification of workers via income supports” (Mills, et. al., 2008, p. 573). Moreover, strong social policy support for expanding educational opportunities for women in developed countries allow women to easily adjust to the shifts in labor market demand, which enhances their ability to re-enter the labor force of the new knowledge-based economy. As a result, majority of women in the global North experience a relatively high level of protection from unemployment and its dire impact on the family’s standard of living.
The same cannot be said of women in the global South, who experience the brunt of the globalized assembly line through their forced participation in “informal economies of production and caring” that “subsidize and constitute global capitalism through cheapening production in sweatshops and homework” (Nagar, et. al., 2002, p. 261). In contrast to women in developed countries, women in the developing world are exposed to exploitative labor relations that are often justified—or even legalized—by structural policies supportive of labor export, contractual labor, and the creation of a cheap, docile, non-unionized workforce. Labor export policies within Third World countries, in particular, promote the emigration of women workers to become domestic helpers, factory workers, and entertainers in developed countries as a viable alternative to the lack of opportunities for work and social mobility in their homelands (Lindio-McGovern, 2003, p. 518). In effect, the women of the global South often fill in the vacancies in the spheres created by the relocation of labor of global North women to the knowledge-based sector of the new global economy. The dichotomous experiences of women in the global North and the global South is reflected in the cultural or symbolic representation of women in rich countries as consumers of commodities vis-à-vis the role of women in poor countries as cheap and docile labor for the production of the same commodities in the global chain of production and consumption (Barndt, 2002, p. 83).

Women’s resistance and labor struggles in the global North and the global South The intensification of women’s marginalization and exploitation as workers under the forces of globalization invariably create new opportunities for the advancement of women’s struggles on a global scale. Beyond the disparate and divergent realities between global North and global South women maintained by the economic and political structures of globalization, the global restructuring of production ultimately results in the construction of a similar identity among women workers as flexible, repressed labor. Moreover, women have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to resist and challenge the dominant values of globalization through their involvement in numerous efforts to improve their individual situation and to engender social change in their communities and in the wider world (Denis, 2003, p. 504). Hence, an “analysis of women’s labor in globalization should not simply be a description of their suffering,” (Gills, 2002, p. 109) but should also recognize the various strategies employed by women to cope with their increasing poverty and declining power under a global regime. For instance, Nagar, et. al. (2002, p. 262) points out how “women have often collectivized their gendered work, such as the provision of food and struggles for community infrastructure.” In addition, women have also made significant contributions to the advancement of their political and labor rights through their affiliation with women’s movements at local and international levels to actively resist and criticize the imposition of patriarchal frameworks of economic development that systematically marginalize women. The Asian Connections, an international meeting of scholars and activists in 2000, exemplifies efforts to make sense of and negotiate the impacts of globalization on women and women’s labor through the formation of regional networks for knowledge sharing and collaboration in order to identify the manner by which globalization processes contribute to the maintenance of global inequality (Currie and Thobani, 2003, p. 151). Similar movements can be found at the grassroots level in both the global North and South, which aim to support women workers in confronting the changes and challenges brought about by the integration of local economies to the global economic order. Thus, the restructuring of production processes and the global division of labor has brought about new forms of employment arrangements that intensify and heighten the existing inequalities between women in the global North and South. However, the homogenization of economic, political, and social structures also produce similar realities for women despite their disparate locations by increasing their marginalized position in the labor force and in society in general. The continued exploitation and marginalization of women in the new global regime therefore creates several opportunities for women’s organizing efforts in light of the increasing convergence in women’s realities and experiences in labor relations.


Barndt, D. (2002). Tangled routes: women, work and globalization on the tomato trail. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Currie, D. and Thobani, S. (2003). From modernization to globalization: Challenges and opportunities. Gender Technology and Development, 7(1), 149-170.

Denis, A. (2003). Globalization, women and (In)Equity in the south: Constraint and resistance in Barbados. International Sociology, 18(1), 491-512.

Gills, D. (2002). Globalization of production and women in Asia. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 581, 106-120.

Golsh, K. (2006). Women’s employment in Britain. In H. Blossfield and H. Hoffmeister (Eds), Globalization, uncertainty, and women’s careers: an international comparison (pp. 275-301). United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Kalmijn, M. and Luijkx (2006). Changes in women’s employment and occupational mobility in the Netherlands 1955 to 2000. In H. Blossfield and H. Hoffmeister (Eds), Globalization, uncertainty, and women’s careers: an international comparison (pp. 84-114). United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Korpi, T. and Stern, C. (2006). Globalization, deindustrialization, and the labor market experiences of Swedish women 1950-2000. In H. Blossfield and H. Hoffmeister (Eds), Globalization, uncertainty, and women’s careers: an international comparison (pp. 115-141). United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Lindio-McGovern, L. (2003). Labor export in the context of globalization: The experience of Filipino domestic workers in Rome. International Sociology, 18(1), 513-534.

Mills, M., Blossfeld, H., Buchholz, S., Hofäcker, D., Bernardi, F. and Hofmeister, H. (2008). Converging divergences?: An international comparison of the impact of globalization on industrial relations and employment careers. International Sociology, 23(1), 561-595.

Mitter, S. (1999). Globalization, technological changes and the search for a new paradigm for women’s work. Gender Technology and Development, 3(1), 1-17.

Nagar, R., Lawson, V., McDowell, L., and Hanson, S. (2002). Locating globalization: Feminist (re)readings of the subjects and spaces of globalization. Economic Geography, 78(3), 257-284.

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