Gender and Capitalism
Posted on: Wednesday, January 1, 2003
Gender and Capitalism
By Yifat Susskind
Associate Director, MADRE
In every society in the world, women have less economic power than men. They are over-represented among the poor; they are the most impoverished members of poor families and communities; and the hardest hit by policies that hurt poor people. Women’s lower economic status is a result of gender discrimination, which denies women resources and opportunities ranging from fair wages, land, credit and inheritance rights to education, political participation and freedom of movement and barred from equal participation in the economy. Consider the distribution of the most basic necessity: food. Around the world, women and girls are less likely to receive the most nutritious foods when they are available, and they generally eat last and least when food is scarce. As a result, most of the 840 million people in the global South (and 8 million in the US) who go hungry every day are women and girls. Conversely, where women control a bigger portion of family resources, they and their children are more likely to eat well.
In addition to discrimination, another major determinant of women’s economic status is their responsibility for “social reproduction,” which is the work of caring for children, the sick, disabled and elderly and for maintaining households, communities and cultural practices. In every society in the world, women are the primary care-takers, which means that policies that harm women also threaten society’s most vulnerable members. Women are assigned the unpaid, undervalued and unrecognized labor of social reproduction whether or not they also do paid work. In fact, women’s unpaid work is the most fundamental source of profit in capitalism. The cooking, cleaning, care-taking, laundering and maintenance of social networks that women do at home enables men to devote their time to paid work. Men’s work is counted as a cost of production and remunerated (paid an equivalent for) in the form of wages. But since women work for free, the value of what they produce (just under half of the officially estimated $23 trillion a year of global output) is not remunerated. Instead, the dollar-value of women’s work is absorbed as profit when goods and services produced by the men they care for are sold on the market. One aspect of the relationship between capitalism and gender then, is that, effectively, women work for their husbands’ bosses for free.
Most mainstream economists haven’t given much thought to the social consequences of economic policies like trade and investment. But a closer look at discrimination against women and women’s role in social reproduction shows that the impacts of economic policies are not gender-neutral. Rather, gender, or the socially-assigned differences between men and women, partly determines how economic policies affect people and how people respond to policies. Because we experience gender in relation to other parts of identity such as race, ethnicity, caste, sexuality and class, we need to understand how these categories work together to shape people’s lives. When we look at the whole person in this way, we see that different groups of women and men may be impacted in diverse ways by the same policy. And yet, though they may take on different forms, women’s role as primary caretakers in the family and discrimination against women remain universal. If we look at contemporary capitalism through the lens of these twin social realities, we can see a relationship between gender and capitalism; more specifically, we can see that poor women around the world bear the brunt of capitalist policies.
What’s So Liberal About Neo-Liberalism?
Contemporary capitalism is governed by a doctrine called neo (or new)-liberalism. The term can be confusing in the US, where "liberal" is associated with left-of-center politics. Economic liberalism, however, holds that minimal government intervention and unrestricted (i.e., "liberal") manufacturing, commerce and trade are the key to economic growth. In theory, this growth is supposed to benefit everyone. But the theory ignores inequalities inherent in our systems of gender, nationality and race, which ensure that not everyone benefits equally from economic "good times.”
In fact, neo-liberalism works to ensure that the world’s elites stay at the top and get richer. Over the past quarter-century, wealth (mostly in the form of natural resources, wages and social benefits) has been siphoned away from poor and middle-income people worldwide and reallocated to the richest (mainly in the form of corporate profits). The trend is visible both within countries (in the US, the percentage of national assets owned by the richest 10% has more than doubled in the last 20 years: the top 1% now own more than the bottom 92% combined); and between countries (the gap between poor and rich countries has doubled since 1960, with a total transfer from poor to rich of more than $400 billion between 1982 and 1990).
Today, more than 1.3 of the world's 6.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. Over 70% are women, many of whom work as many as 90 hours a week to maintain the same marginal standard of living that they possessed a decade ago. Just as profits depend on treating women’s labor (and natural resources) as a free and infinitely elastic ingredient of production, neo-liberal policies that generate super-profits depend on increasing the exploitation of women’s work, both paid and unpaid. One of the clearest illustrations of this dynamic are structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which are the cornerstone of neo-liberal policy worldwide.
First imposed in the 1980s through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), SAPs are meant to ensure that poor countries make debt payments to foreign creditors, re-orient their economies towards a global market and create favorable conditions for foreign investors. Most SAPs consist of a set of related policies based on: 1. loosening government control on manufacturing and investment (deregulation); 2. promoting export production and reducing subsidies and tariffs (“free trade”) and; 3. cutting government spending and selling state-owned resources to corporate investors (privatization). A closer look at deregulation, free trade and privatization shows how these trends have hurt poor women and their families, especially in the global South.
Deregulation: Women Win the “Race to the Bottom”
A main goal of neo-liberal policies is to limit government control of corporate profit-making. This trend, known as deregulation, applies to both investment and manufacturing. Lifting restrictions on international investment and marketing has allowed corporations to manufacture goods in poor countries where costs are low, while maintaining the same access to profitable US markets as if they were producing in New Jersey or Michigan. Meanwhile, deregulation of manufacturing has undermined laws that protect the health and safety of workers, consumers and the environment. These two trends are mutually reinforcing: workers, communities and even governments have lost leverage to demand standards for corporate conduct because corporations can simply relocate to a country with even lower standards. This dynamic has helped spark a worldwide downward spiral in social, environmental and labor conditions, as communities and whole countries compete to offer corporations the cheapest deal. Poor countries are most vulnerable to accepting degraded conditions, while US workers suffer plant closings, increasingly hazardous work places, downsizing, union busting and benefit cuts. In fact, the rights of workers in all countries are eroded by policies that prioritize corporate profit over people's needs.
The new “mobility of capital” sparked by deregulation has shifted manufacturing of goods such as garments and small electronics from large, sometimes unionized factories in the global North to non-unionized plants and sweatshops — sometimes called “export processing zones” (EPZs) — in the global South. For corporations like Gap, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and many others, the profitability of EPZs depends on a gendered division of labor, with women filling as much as 90% of low-skilled, low-paying, labor-intensive jobs. The Thai government, for example, tries to attract investment from foreign textile companies by advertising the “dexterity of the small hands of the Oriental woman and traditional attitude of submissiveness.”
In countries such as the Dominican Republic and Bangladesh, EPZs have increased rates of women’s employment. Some economists argue that this change constitutes an advancement for women. But because women are still responsible for social reproduction when they take jobs for wages, policies that increase women’s employment without accompanying services such as day care and family health benefits simply increase the work burden of women. Moreover, the jobs available to women in EPZs usually do not enable them to lift their families out of poverty, to develop skills that can lead to advancement, or to enjoy work that is socially or intellectually satisfying.
As a Box/A Closer Look:
Export-manufacturing sweatshops (maquilas in Spanish) have quadrupled in number since 1994. Maquilas have become emblematic of Guatemala’s new role in the global economy as cheap producer of textiles for Northern markets. Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere, over 80% of Guatemala’s maquila workers are young women who work longer hours than men and are paid half of men’s wages. In Guatemala, the minimum wage hovers at less than a third of what it costs to meet a family's basic needs and many maquila workers are the sole providers for their families. Without adequate labor laws and enforcement of those laws, workers suffer human rights violations, including physical assaults, mandatory pregnancy tests and the forced consumption of amphetamines to increase output. Garment workers often sustain permanent lung damage from textile dust. Other workers live with chronic pain from the strain of repetitive manual work.
For many of the women who work in these factories, the only thing worse than their exploitative jobs is the prospect of no work at all. That’s why activism in solidarity with maquila workers needs to steer clear of tactics that can result in plant closings or punitive lay-offs. In the US, a call to “shut down the sweatshops!” may evoke the need to end abusive labor conditions. But organizing that truly supports women workers in the global South needs to recognize that families depend on these jobs for their survival. Linking workers’ rights to international trade agreements is one important way of holding factory owners — and governments — accountable to core labor standards while minimizing the threat of lay-offs. (footnote: list international instruments for core labor standards?)
What's So Free About "Free Trade"?
Advocates of neo-liberalism say they favor unregulated, or "free" trade. But in reality, governments of rich countries maintain their advantage by erecting trade barriers (usually in the form of tariffs, or taxes on imports) and subsidizing industry in their own countries. US enterprises that are internationally competitive, such as agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and high technology, are all heavily subsidized by tax dollars. Profits, by contrast, are pocketed by corporate owners. Neo-liberal trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), actually increase protectionist measures in sectors where the US has an advantage. In fact, the World Bank reports that this protectionism costs poor countries twice the amount that they receive in foreign aid. Meanwhile, only poor countries are held to the letter of "free trade" and barred from buffering their industry against foreign competition. One way to understand "free trade" then, is as the freedom of industrialized countries to exploit poor economies.
A look at free trade in agriculture shows how neo-liberal policies are weighted to benefit large-scale agribusiness based in the global North at the expense of poor women and their families. In much of the global South, women are the ones responsible for feeding their families and communities. Women account for 80% of the local food production workforce in Africa; 55% in Asia and 40% in Latin America.
As boxes/a Closer Look…
Before SAPs were imposed on Haiti in the 1980s, 70% of Haitians were peasant farmers. Most of the country's food came from women's small family plots. But SAPs mandated that Haiti cut tariffs on US-grown rice from 30% to 3%. By the mid-1990s, imports of cheap US rice had increased 27-fold, bankrupting peasant farmers and causing an alarming rise in hunger and malnutrition throughout the countryside. Today, Haiti is forced to import half of all its food — the highest percentage in the Western Hemisphere. Haitian women report price increases upwards of 100% on the imported food they are now forced to buy. These imports have almost wiped out local agriculture and Haitian women are struggling to feed their families.
"Food dependency" holds Haiti's government captive to further IMF demands, like an injunction against raising the minimum wage. A key ingredient of the neo-liberal recipe, "wage repression" is a disaster for Haitians and a boon to the many US assembly plants that have set up shop in Port-au-Prince. Disney, Nike and other corporations take advantage of a huge reserve of workers, including the tens of thousands of women who were driven off their land by US agribusiness and left with little choice but to accept jobs with US corporations for rock-bottom wages under miserable conditions. Many women have been pushed into even less desirable, sometimes dangerous work in the informal sector (the part of the economy not counted in government statistics), such as working as maids or prostitutes.
NAFTA locks Mexico into serving as a market for US agribusiness by creating conditions in which Mexican farmers cannot compete with their US counterparts. As Mexico's chief creditor and trading partner, the US demanded an end to Mexican farm subsidies. Meanwhile, large-scale US farmers receive as much as $360,000 a year in government aid. Since NAFTA took effect in 1994, US corn and grain has flooded the Mexican market, bankrupting nearly one million Mexican farmers. About 85% of the rural labor force has gone from being poor but getting by, to watching their children go hungry.
The crisis is acute in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. NAFTA is the latest in a long history of assaults on the rights and resources of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas. That's why the Zapatistas chose January 1, 1994, the day of NAFTA’s signing, to rise up and demand democratic reform as a basis for economic and racial justice. Some of the loudest calls to crush the rebellion came from US corporations like Chase Manhattan Bank, which had invested billions in Mexico under NAFTA. In response, the US stepped up training and funding for Mexico's army, which has fueled massacres, forced displacement of peasant farmers and a "scorched earth" campaign that has driven thousands more to the brink of starvation. In an attempt to terrorize and subjugate communities thought to be siding with the Zapatistas, Mexican paramilitary forces use rape and sexual slavery as weapons of war. Indeed, gender-based violence, which is a staple of armed conflict, is a growing problem in many areas where US-backed military violence has become the last word in enforcing a neo-liberal economic order.
Like many heavily indebted countries in Africa, Asia and Central America, Tanzania has been pressured by the World Bank and IMF to shift land use from food production to large-scale industrial agriculture. Cotton, Tanzania’s main cash crop, is exported to raise hard currency in dollars, euros and yen that can be used to pay interest on the country’s huge foreign debt. The trend has been detrimental to rural women because cash crops are controlled by men, while food crops are traditionally grown by women as part of their work in social reproduction.
In the shift from corn to cotton, women have lost access to valuable farm land. Poor, rural households have lost a primary source of food and nutrition. Stripped of their livelihoods, women have become more dependent on men, leaving them with less decision-making power in the family and more vulnerable to abuse. Women’s lower status is reinforced by agricultural policy that discriminates on the basis of gender: although African women often do more farm work than men, less than 1% of agricultural loans are made to women.
Tanzanian women and their families are further threatened by a sharp rise in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides known to cause birth defects and cancer. Farmers have become dependent on these agents to offset the soil depletion and insect infestations caused by the single-crop cultivation that is mandated by the World Bank and IMF. Some of the most toxic pesticides sprayed in Tanzania are made in the US and Europe. Thanks to pressure from consumer advocates, these agents have been banned in their country of origin. But in the global economy, pesticide companies such as Monsanto and Ciba Geigy, can simply redirect their products to countries that are barred by trade agreements from enforcing environmental standards. The problem illustrates the need for global mechanisms to protect people and the environment in a global economy.
Sidebar: Women in the Global Assembly Line
A woman in rural Tanzania loses her land to a man subcontracted to grow cotton for export. The cotton is spun into textiles by another woman in a Guatemala City maquila. These textiles are shipped to Haiti, where a woman in one of Port-au-Prince’s many assembly plants sews them into name-brand clothing, which is then sold to a woman in the US.
Private Wealth Versus Women’s Health: Budget-Slashing and Privatization
When SAPs force governments to cut tariffs, tax revenues decrease. Governments often try to make up the difference by reducing spending on health, education, housing and other services that poor women and families rely on. Similarly, privatization, mandated by SAPs as a way to cut government costs, often results in a lack of access to critical services for poor people. When government utilities, hospitals, schools or transportation systems are sold to private investors, the new owners often increase rates or introduce “user fees” that put services out of reach of the poor majority. All poor people are hurt by privatization and cuts in services. But gender discrimination means that when resources are made scarce, the needs of girls and women are sacrificed first. In fact, women in poor countries have shown drastic drops in school enrollment, food intake and life expectancy since SAPs have taken hold. Moreover, when services become unaffordable, people’s basic needs do not disappear; instead, the job of providing necessities shifts to women, who must intensify their work hauling water, collecting wood, processing food and providing health care, day care and the minimum caloric intake once guaranteed by food subsidies.
Consider healthcare: in the world’s 37 poorest countries (more than three-quarters of which are in sub-Saharan Africa), SAPs have slashed national healthcare budgets by a whopping 50%. Today, 75% of health care in poor countries is provided by women in their homes, leading some economists to describe privatization of health care as “a direct tax on the revenue, labor and working hours of women”. The assumption that women will bear the burden of providing health care for their families and communities encompasses an unasked question: who will care for the millions of women made even more vulnerable to sickness and infirmity by worsening poverty and added workloads associated with neo-liberal policies?
Around the world, more than half a million women die each year during pregnancy and childbirth, mostly from preventable conditions. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in poor countries, where spending cuts and privatization of health care has decimated the provision of basic health services such as nutrition classes, immunization programs and prenatal care. In Latin America and the US, privatization has led to a sharp rise in the number of hospitals owned and operated by the Catholic Church. As a result, women are forced to seek treatment in facilities that refuse to provide critical reproductive health services. In the world’s 46 poorest countries, more than half the people have no access to health services at all. Meanwhile, US-based health management organizations (HMOs) make huge profits in poor countries running the newly privatized health systems serving those who can still afford treatment.