January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

World Social Forum

Labour at WSF

The rapid erosion of workers rights, particularly women workers, across the globe due to imperialist globalisation was the subject matter of numerous panel discussions at the World Social Forum in Mumbai


At the WSF that concluded a little more than a week ago, there were many, many work shops and panel discussions on the various aspects of what workers, both urban and rural, are undergoing in the times of imperialist globalisation.

The international phenomena of the erosion of workers’ rights, gained after years of bitter struggle and innumerable sacrifices; the determination of the international financial institutions and the WTO to eliminate the very notion of workers having any rights at all and abrogating all rights to capital and making this palatable by holding out the vague promise of ‘trickle-down’ benefits; the ruthless suppression of workers’ struggles by many ‘national’ governments and the enormous burdens that have been placed on the fragile shoulders of women workers all over the world. All found time and space for discussion and condemnation at the Forum.

It was not possible for me to attend most of these discussions but the panels that I did attend or participate in and what I heard in different places from different people left some indelible impressions that I will try to share coherently.

At a panel organised by the International Development Economists Association on Imperialism and Labour, an American trade unionist spoke about the ‘Wal-Martisation’ of retailing in the US. He gave some astonishing facts about the reach and spread of the Wal-Mart stores, which now have the retail trade in the US in their vice-like, monopolistic grip. A huge proportion of exports of fruit, processed edibles and other items are bought by this corporation which now controls more than half of the entire retail trade in the country.

Wal-Mart boasts that its superior managerial skills have enabled it to cut costs and therefore offer lower prices to its consumers. The actual truth is that it wields its ever-increasing clout to chip away at its employees’ wages and benefits and also to force its suppliers to sell their goods at rock-bottom prices. It also indulges in many unfair and illegal practices like the employment of illegal migrants from across the border, who do not have the courage to question its anti-labour practices.

The result is that Wal-Mart pays wages that are lower than the statutory minimum by changing the very understanding and definition of wages and goes largely unchallenged. Other retailers are now also trying to take away the benefits of their employees so that they can survive in the Wal-Mart era. And the result of this is that there is a nation-wide strike in 800 retail outlets and chains and a boycott of Wal-Mart stores is also being attempted.

At a panel entitled Women and Globalisation that was jointly organised by several women’s organisations, including the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and other women’s groups in India, professor Jayati Ghosh from the Jawaharlal Nehru University spoke on the impact of globalisation on the social sector. In addition to the obvious fields of health and education, she paid a great deal of attention to employment. She made several valuable points. She said that neo-liberal policies were creating a situation in which the very definition of terms like work and wages was being changed radically.

Deflationary fiscal policies aimed at curbing deficits were creating a situation where the already very meagre employment provided by the organised and State sector was dwindling. This was forcing large numbers of people, especially women, to seek any and every kind of ill-paid and completely unprotected work anywhere that it was available. Not only this, the amount of unpaid labour that was now being performed by women was increasing to intolerable levels. They were expected to perform all the tasks in healthcare and education that the State was withdrawing from and those that were the consequence of reduced State spending on provision of water and sanitation.

In cities, women were not only taking up work in the underpaid and uncertain ‘home-based’ sector but were also taking on innumerable underpaid jobs to keep their families alive. This was in addition to the ever-increasing unpaid chores that they were performing. The toll that this was taking on their mental and physical well-being was unimaginable. At the same time, reduced government spending on rural infrastructure and provision of rural employment was not only forcing women to work more for less as agricultural workers, it was also increasing their vulnerability to physical assault and violence.

All these factors were contributing to the unprecedented migration of women that we are now witnessing worldwide. In earlier phases, male-migration was a common phenomenon but today it is being matched by the migration of women in search of work. In countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines, women migrants now outnumber men. The migrations are in all directions – from the rural to semi-urban and urban areas, from one country to another. Today millions of migrant women work outside their own countries in conditions that range from slavery and bonded labour to the underpaid and unprotected. In addition to this, millions of women are also trafficked every year.

Jayati concluded by saying that the sector in which women’s employment was growing the fastest was the entertainment sector. While the glamorous models and film stars who occupy the upper end of this sector are projected as being the beneficiaries of globalisation that all women can hope to emulate, the vast majority of those employed in this sector lead extremely precarious existences that can degenerate into prostitution at any time.

The experiences of globalisation that we have witnessed and struggle against in the last decade in India, led me to voice some tentative conclusions at one of the panels that I spoke at. While many people agree that the processes of globalisation strengthen patriarchy and social divisions, little work has been done to gauge the impact of these on women’s work and wages. A few examples that we have looked at seem to suggest that this impact is not just incidental but actually intrinsic to not only perpetuating super-profits but also to keep the whole edifice of imperialist globalisation from crumbling.

For example, violence and the threat of violence is increasingly being used to keep women working in appalling conditions in the huge numbers of factories that MNCs have set up on the US-Mexico border, in export zones, in sweatshops everywhere and in rural areas too. Communal violence in Gujarat and other parts of India have created conditions in which Muslim women are too terrified to venture out of their ghettoes in search of work, or to physically get the cloth for embroidery or readymade garments along with the payment for their work when they deliver. This means that the money they now receive is less than it was when the violence took place – in some places, five years ago, in others two years ago.

The market also utilises and reinforces selected ‘traditions’ to benefit it and sell its ever-increasing number of, mostly un-needed, goods. In India, it has been AIDWA’s understanding based on an 18 state dowry survey that we undertook, that the practice of dowry as experienced today is the result of campaigns by market forces that continuously stress on practices, rituals and observances that lower the status of women, encourage son-preference etc. As a result, the practice of the bride’s family having to incur ever-increasing expenses on gifts for the groom’s family and on the actual wedding itself has assumed epidemic proportions.

Most of the nurses in private hospitals and nursing homes, working for low wages and with few benefits, say that they are ‘earning’ their dowries. Similarly, young women workers in Tamil Nadu who work in large export-oriented factories after signing bonds for three to five years and who are not allowed to leave their workplaces for that entire period during which they earn a fixed amount of money which has no relation either to the amount of work that they do or to the rising cost of living – also say that they are ‘earning’ their dowries. So a ‘tradition’ promoted and reinforced by the market becomes the motivation for millions of young women to work for a pittance willingly and without protest.

The void created by the withdrawal of the State from the social sector is also filled partially by the unpaid and often silent labour of women. It is silent largely because of the psychological burdens that patriarchy imposes on them.

It could, therefore, be argued that women’s struggle for justice and equality and against divisive ideologies like communalism should actually be seen as a struggle crucial for the demolition of the edifice of imperialist globalisation and should therefore be a common struggle for all those struggling for such an end.

(Subhashini Ali is president, All India Democratic Women’s Association).

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