The Deregulated Global Economy: Women Workers and Strategies of Resistance

Argues that women in the Global South are not only exposed the most to exploitation, but are at the forefront of local resistance. Despite this, their views aren’t heard in international debates regarding how to protect labour standards. Check out actual article here

Bangladeshi garment workers participate in a protest against the collapse of an eight-storey building that housed several garment factories and poor safety standards, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, April 26, 2013. The death toll reached hundreds of people as rescuers continued to search for injured and missing, after a huge section of the building splintered into a pile of concrete. (AP Photo)


  • overall functioning of the new economic system geared towards the success of the rich, and marginalisation of the poor- includes increased exploitation of women’s labour

Global trends:

  • common aspects of women’s experience can serve as basis for organised resistance:
    • privatisation and deregulation of labour markets (reduction in control state/law has over what happens to workers in the hands of corporations that do business in the country) -> widespread loss of well-protected jobs in public sector, expansion of female employment in low-paid, insecure, unskilled jobs (esp in exports)
    • female workers preferred because they  are cheaper to pay and more flexible, engaging in more temporary, causal, subcontracted, home-based work
    • cut-backs in services have increased burden of unpaid labour in the home on women
    • removal of governmental subsidies on basic goods (make them cheaper), and introduction of user fees for social services increase pressure on women to earn more -> expansion of informal sector
  • privatisation/deregulation reduces employment rights and neglects health and safety regulations, disregard for domestic responsibilities of women
  • changes particularly impact women workers in less developed countries e.g. Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Morocco
  • e.g. women working all night in garment factories to meet targets imposed by Western brands.
  • positives of deregulated market economy e.g. womens’ new freedom in a patriarchal society, new skills, greater status, independent income, more access to information and support, new opportunities for collective action


  • ability to organise restricted due to intolerance of trade unions and intimidation of workers
  • trade unions centred on male workforce, fail to reach many of women’s workplace
  • changing nature of work (temp and p/t workers, sub-contacted work) makes it more difficult to organise
  • despite difficulties, women still organising effective forms of resistance e.g. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is now a worldwide model for resisting the exploitation of self-employed and home-based workers.
  • Women workers often at the forefront of local action e.g. in July 1995 in Indonesia, the mainly women workers of the Great River Industries Corporation held a march from their factory to the Provincial Parliament, in the face of military attacks, in demand of basic labour rights.
  • In Honduras, approx 5,000 workers from a textile factory organised a strike after the dismissal of workers who had begun organising in response to poor working conditions. After occupying the factory for several days, the owners agreed to their demand to form a union.

Dilemmas of local action

  • organising can lead to widespread redundancy across workers, as companies move to places where workers are more compliant
  •  in 1989, women at a british-owned factory in the Philippines went on strike in their fight for legal minimum wage. After a year-long picket in front of the factory, production was moved to another site where workers were less organised
  • within Asia there has been a shift of production from some East Asian countries, with its increasing wages, to lower-wage economies including Bangladesh and Vietnam.
  • The challenge is to link the everyday needs and demands of women workers to strategies that curtail the power of multinational companies and ensuring respect for labour standards globally.

International strategies and dilemmas

  • International strategies have included social clauses in international agreements, company codes of conduct, boycotts, and fair-trade marks
  • Social clauses e.g. ILO conventions: labour standards integrated into trade agreements that, if broken by a country, could lead to sanctions imposed on the country eg. imports from countries with poor labour conditions restricted or banned.
    • workers in the South must be consulted.
    • groups in South suspicious that the purpose of social clauses implemented by trade unions in the North is to protect their own industry, keeping Southern goods away from the Northern market. E.g. the American Child Labour Deterrence Bill- proposed to increase the amount of garments ordered from countries if they banned child labour – workers organisations in Bangladesh argued children working was better than children being left destitute, needed to focus on strategies to address poverty and improve employment conditions instead
    • Danger regulations will be used selectively to keep out imports from certain countries- inevitable because no country fully follows the ILO convention social clauses.
  • International pressure for companies to adopt codes of conduct on working conditions
  • V complex to monitor production chain of clothes, with production often done in smaller, subcontracted factories, by home-workers etc, so v difficult for social clauses or codes of conduct to guarantee good working standards
  • need independent monitoring throughout subcontracting chains e.g.  independent monitoring found clear breaches of code of conduct by Levi Strauss in 90s e.g. young girls from Bangladesh and Cosa Rice working up to 16 hour days.
  • Local activists maintain that it is impossible for factories to comply with codes and still keep costs low enough to compete successfully for brand contracts.

Building stronger alliances

  • Forums where issues discussed dominated by the views of the North and men- need to incorporate perspectives of organisations representing women workers in the South.
  • Need stronger alliances within and between organisations in the North and South to ensure effective monitoring and to generate appropriate publicity
  • International alliances are strongest when they take place around issues and strategies identified by workers and local activists.
    •  E.g. Rugmark guarantee- campaign by Indian organisations where the end of child bonded labour was linked to the employment of other family members and maintenance of the carpet industry. Formed strong alliances with consumer organisations in Europe.
    •    E.g. campaigning groups in USA and workers organisations in El Salvador persuaded Gap to accept responsibility for working conditions, and the setting up of independent monitoring procedures
  • International alliances needed also to lobby economic and financial institutions e.g. IMF, WTO – formulate policies in these countries without any reference to the lives the policies actually effect. Policies and these institutions themselves need to change.

Women must be heard

  • need to pay attention to gender issues in strategies to improve labour conditions
  • women overlooked in decision-making policies
  • women underrepresented in institutions managing the economy (IMF, World Bank) and campaigning organisations e.g. ILO, NGOs, trade unions

Women workers and social clause proposals

  • women workers bypassed in social clause debate, discussions taken at high level forums of mostly men.
  • workers referred to in a gender-neutral way despite women having a v different experience to work than men.
    • bear majority of responsibility in the home
    • many women work in hidden homes or small workshops (informal sector), employed on a part-time, casual, temporary basis – not covered by labour laws and regulation protecting them
  • unclear whether international regulation w/ social clauses will help women
  • if women are employed in informal sector, social clauses won’t apply to them bc of lack of regulation
  • pressure to enforce standards could improve conditions in the formal sector, but neglect informal sector, leaving a wider gap between informal and formal work, widening gap between male and female workers
  • argued that bc women’s situation has been largely overlooked, international regulation would be a step towards ensuring serious attention to women’s working situation
  • women workers do not define most important rights these in the same way as men e.g. women’s concerns also include sexual harassment, maternity rights, childcare.
  • women’s rights inside and outside work make it difficult to ensure their rights as workers e.g. how can discrimination be ended in the workplace if women prevented from gaining qualifications employers may require.
  • internationally imposed regulations can only work if backed up by strong local actions, so demands in agreements need to be consistent with demands made by workers.
  • Support needed to ensure workers have freedom to organise and voice their demands- little evidence that support for this is being provided

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