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Helena Hirata
Gender and International Labour Relations

* [GEDISST-CNRS, Groupe d’Etudes sur la Division Sociale et Sexuelle du Travail, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France.]

1. Globalisation and its impact on women’s work

The current process of globalisation is often associated with a series of phenomena that are closely linked:

  • a constantly growing interdependence and integration of the national markets

  • increased international trade and international exchanges of goods and services

  • deregulation and opening up of the markets and economies, due to neoliberal government policies

  • an accelerated development of the information technologies, expansion of networks, and, more generally speaking, the rapid development of new technologies due to microelectronics

  • the creation of regional markets (the European Union, NAFTA, MERCOSUR): regionalisation seems to be the other aspect of globalisation.

  • the emergence of many economic poles which are at the same time production centres – the United States, Japan, Europe which, on the one hand, attract direct investments and, on the other hand, invest in foreign countries

  • a new logic in connection with the spawning of multinational corporations which is reinforced by the market integration processes themselves.

We are witnessing an expansion of the globalisation process that runs parallel to the development of other processes. The degree of this development differs depending on the various countries. We are witnessing:

  • privatisations

  • the development of subcontracting (relation client-supplier)

It seems obvious that the socio-economic consequences of that phenomenon that people call globalisation are not the same for the countries of the North and those of the South and within each and every region and country, some of the existing social divisions are exacerbated while others emerge. Globalisation, while being an "ever growing interdependence of all national markets through the establishment of a unified world market" (A. Lipietz 1996, p. 43) does not suppress the existing diversity of the working worlds; quite on the contrary: we believe that the pursuit of an internationalisation process of capital will rather sharpen the diversity and heterogeneity of work and employment situations of men and women’s ways of insertion into the economic activities, of North and South. "Inclusion" or "exclusion" could be the terms – used here mainly as a descriptive means – in order to define the structurisation of the developed zones (Europe, Japan, the United States, certain Asian and Latin American countries) and those "excluded" from development (as in the case of Africa, for example). [For a critique of the concepts of "exclusion" and "inclusion" and an analysis of alternative concepts, see "Salariat, précarité, exclusion? Travail et rapports sociaux de Sexe/genre, une perspective internationale".]

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The different consequences that globalisation has on the sexes still need a thorough analysis. Almost all of the numerous studies that have examined the phenomenon that was just mentioned above (and we are only referring to French authors, among others, R. Boyer 1996; M. Freyssenet, Y. Lung 1996; F. Chesnais 1997; G. Caire 1997) do not take under consideration the fact that here, it is either the male or the female population which is to suffer the consequences of those macroeconomic and social changes. These studies are "gender blind" reports which do not consider the dimension of difference that exists between men and women.

Based on a certain number of surveys that can be considered as exceptions to that rule, since they analyse globalisation parting from a gender point of view (S. Mitter, S. Rowbothan 1995; R.R. Mears 1995; M.F. Labrecque 1996; N. David 1996; L. Abramo 1997; H. Hirata 1997; S. Yañez, R. Todaro 1997; H. Hirata, H. Le Doarè 1998), we can draw a first conclusion which states that the process of globalisation has both complex and contradictory consequences.

It is true that technological changes and the intensification of international exchanges have the tendency of increasing work opportunities for women: In Malaysia, the percentage of women working as skilled workers in the computer sector, for example, increased from 16% in 1975 to 40% in 1990 (S. Mitter, S. Rowbothan, C. Rapkiewicz 1997, p. 142). Nevertheless, an analysis of the women’s jobs that have been created by the flexibilisation of work shows, that in Asia, Europe and Latin America, these jobs were blemished by the seal of precariousness and vulnerability (e.g. for Europe see M. Maruane 1997; for Latin America, L. Abramo 1997; for Japan, see M. Osawa 1996). From the point of view of work organisation, we are witnessing a "juxtaposition" between taylorism (women) a flexibility (men) or an accumulation – in the case of women – of the qualifications needed for the different production models and the traditional qualities of the female workforce (D. Kergoat 1992).

The study of the outsourcing processes has also shown that the consequences of outsourcing data processing and programming activities, while creating new job opportunities for women could also come accompanied by a duality of salaries when the new salaries were compared to the salaries that the women earned in the countries where the company was originally from. A women working in a factory in the Caribic could have a salary that is six times lower than her American counterpart (S. Mitter and S. Rowborthan, id. ibid.)

Following this line of thought, a survey that we did covering two subsidiary companies (one in Brazil, the other in Japan) of a French multinational in the agro-food branch, showed that the Brazilian men and women factory workers considered the level of their salary and social benefits as being satisfactory within the context of the local job market. However, when you compare their salaries to those prevailing in France, then they are clearly much lower (In Brazil the reference salary – the SMIC – is ten times lower that in France).

From a macroeconomic point of view, the analysis of the structural adjustment policies in connection with the evolution of salaries has also shown an important process of salary deterioration in Latin American countries. In Mexico, in 1980, women’s salaries were 80% that of the men’s. By 1992, this difference had fallen to 57% (PNUD 1997, p. 69).

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2. Women’s employment and work: an international perspective*

* [The statistical data given here was drawn form the following documents: PNUD 1996; PNUD 1997; United Nations 1995; OECD 1995.]

In spite of the emergence of the feminist movement after the sixties in Europe and later in the countries of the South; despite the United Nation proclamation of the Women’s Decade (1975-1985) and the significant progress achieved in the field of education [In France, for example, women’s education advanced more in just one century than in the 1000 previous years according to a survey done by C. Baudelot and R. Establet in 1992.]; despite

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women’s access to contraceptives and to paid work, the social inequalities due to the gender issue still persist, in fact, they are getting worse in just about every area, but most specifically, in the working world.

Here, we are dealing with gender inequalities at an international level, especially in relation with the workplace and working conditions. We are entering the territory of the labour market, although our usual field for work deals with the organisation of industrial labour and work processes. This is necessary because nowadays, more than ever before, the changing modalities of work also have repercussions on the organisation of labour and it is not possible to deal with one without considering the other.

The rate of women’s participation in economic activities has gone through a significant progression in the developed world, increasing from 38% in 1970 to 52% in 1990. According to the last PNUD report (1997), the latter represent almost 44% of the working population, but they only hold approximately one fourth of the leading positions (9% in France). In some developing countries, the percentage of female economic activity is almost comparable to the one found in the OECD countries: 42% in Southeast Asia and 45% in East Asia (including China), but for the whole group of developing countries, only 39% of the women are officially part of the working population [Sub-Saharan Africa has been the only region in the world where there has been a drop in the rate of female activity in the last twenty years. In the countries of Northern Africa, there has been a significant progression. The participation of women in economic activities has increased from 8% in 1970 to 21% in 1990.]
"In all the countries of the world, the proportion of those working longer than 15 years is higher than the percentage of the active population" states the demographer J. Véron (1997, p. 143) who points out the systematic disparity between the sexes: 10 points difference in Poland, 14 in France, 40 in Mexico.

It must be emphasised that the steep progression of female activity in countries like Brazil (C. Bruschini 1997) has not only been due to women’s simultaneous insertion into the formal and informal sectors of the economy, but also into all areas of economic activity (service, commerce, industry) in a myriad of occupations and liberal professions such as banking and insurance clerks, civil servants, part of the cleaning crews, etc.

Pay discrepancies – for the same value of work – have been observed all over the world, including in those countries that have signed the conventions of the International Labour Organisation which prohibit this practice. In Europe, this is not as serious, however, among some of the countries from which statistical data has been collected such as: Cyprus, Japan, and South Korea, the pay difference is more striking: up to 50%. In the industrial sector of developed countries, the average pay for women is only 75% of men’s salaries. Part of it is due to lower qualifications, but it is also the result of an unfair distribution in the different areas of the economy and the positions offered. This is why the division of labour between the genders is still at the core of the discrepancies both in pay and legal protection. Moreover, it could be said that those discrepancies are reinforced by the fact that men’s work is always represented as being of a higher value than women’s work. A study carried out in Canada by the economist M.T. Chicha on the laws governing equal pay and their practical application showed that "in a certain county, female nurses employed by public medical institutions were receiving a net pay that was lower than a gardener’s salary. In another study, a county librarian also earned a lower salary than the amount of money proposed for the maintenance of the lawn. The women who worked in child care facilities also earned less than the men working as parking attendants." (M.T. Chicha 1997, p. 14)

There are also inequalities when it comes to unemployment and part-time work which have developed as a result of the changes in the economies and the growing flexibility of work.

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Men and women are affected differently by unemployment, depending on their age, qualifications, and family situation. The most affected are young women who have little or no qualification at all. [It must be underlined that the statistical data concerning un employment is very difficult to handle: Often they do not differentiate between the sexes. The criteria used to define the status of the unemployed vary from country to country and sometimes various definitions are binding in just one country.]
In two thirds of the richest countries and three fourths of the developed countries, unemployment among women is higher than among men. The following statement is a pertinent illustration of the existing situation: "With respect to gender differences, the probability of finding a full-time job after being unemployed is much higher for men than for women. The opposite is true regarding part-time employment. It is also true that unemployed women are more likely to leave the labour force and to be excluded from it" (OCDE 1995, p. 34).

This is partly due to the fact that the conditions to have access to a new job are not the same for men and women. For instance, when a French woman loses her job, this means that her school-aged children will also lose the right to eat in the cafeteria or that her younger children can no longer be sent to the public day nursery. How can she, under those conditions, have the time to look for a new job? This does not usually happen when men, the husbands, lose their job. There is a clear situation of inequality between men and women with respect to having access to re-employment or the probabilities of remaining unemployed.

Part-time work has experienced a spectacular progression in many countries, among them, in Canada, Japan and just about all European countries with the exception of Portugal and Italy. The State has played a very significant role in this progression by granting diverse subsidies of tax incentives in order to help the companies achieve at least three goals: obtain flexibility, lower the costs and reduce unemployment. In countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, there is the option of reversibility (the possibility of going back to a full-time job) and people can also demand equal pay. In other countries like Japan or France, however, many part-time jobs – especially in the wholesales and retail sector – the part-time jobs are "imposed", "involuntary" or "compulsory". [Here we are dealing with an obvious situation of sub-em ployment and it is made up of three groups: 1) People who usually work full-time but are currently working part-time due to the economic slack; 2) People who usually work part-time, but who are currently working an even more reduced number of hours due to the economic situation; 3) Those working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job. (OCDE 1995, p. 65). In France, in 1996, the imposed part-time affected 53% men and 40% women. cf. INSEE 1996.]
Taking under consideration the situation in France, a positive picture of part-time employment that could be an option, reversible, appropriately paid and that would be covered by social security systems under the same conditions as full-time work seems to be nothing but a mirage.

The development of part-time work in the countries of the North could be compared to the rapid expansion of the informal work in the countries of the South, where women are also over-represented. In both cases, these jobs are precarious, badly paid, with almost no possibility of promotions or climbing up the career ladder, with almost no social rights or none at all. A better understanding of women’s activities within the informal sector will enable us to better comprehend the links and the complementary elements between formal paid work, informal work and unpaid domestic work. This will lead to more complete clarification of women’s insertion into the economy.

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3. Changes in the labour market and perspectives for alternative actions

Nowadays we are witnessing the creation of a flexible labour market where women occupy a strategic position due to their insertion, both, into the world of paid work and into the informal sector. For both men and women, a precarious majority sector and a stable minority sector seem to be in the making. Moreover, in the fight against mass unemployment, the

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European countries seem to be basically recurring to "job sharing" by cutting down the part-time hours women have, who are the only targets sought after to solve the employment crisis. In 1997, with the exception of Italy and Spain, where the percentage of women working part-time is not higher than 13% and 17% respectively, in the other European countries this percentage plays an important role: 29% in France, 34% in Germany, 31% in Belgium, 69% in the Netherlands, 45% in the United Kingdom, 42% in Sweden, 35% in Denmark. (Statistical data Eurostat 1997, in Alternatives Economiques, December 1997).

However important it might be to consider the multiple modalities of paid work – regulated, subcontracted, temporary, seasonal, etc.- the other modalities, such as non-paid, informal, homebased work, etc., should also be considered since the companies are increasingly recurring to all those forms of productive activities. Finding the link between these modalities of professional activity, domestic work and child rearing should enable us to grasp the points of convergence and the possible articulation of the extremely heterogeneous situations of women in the different parts of the world.

There seems to be a "new remunerated female figure" emerging from the crisis (H. Hirata 1997) who is drawing up in dotted lines the future tendencies of the labour market. In the wake of such a restructuration of production where the processes of job precariousness and its subcontracting practices are spawning at an extremely accelerated pace, alternative actions are necessary that will enable us to counteract the deterioration and vulnerability of female jobs in a conjuncture of mass unemployment.

First and foremost, it is important – this is a preliminary condition for any restructuration that should be followed by action – to know the most varied configurations of social gender relations which vary from one country to another. We consider these differences to be of paramount importance in the endeavour to restructure Continental/European trade union policies. It is also very important to know the reasons behind the national variations in gender relations, whether they are connected to a certain ideology or to the existence or non-existence of institutions, child care systems, etc.

Secondly, the expansion – in the activities of production – of subcontracting relations calls for joint solidarity actions between the workers of the supplier company and the subcontracted workers. In France there have already been cases where the workers of a subcontracting company and those of the supplier company have joined forces to demand, for instance, the right to vocational training.

Finally, in connection with the perspectives of alternative action, we believe that there is no determinism and that the relation of forces present will be essential to the issues – both favourable and unfavourable – of female work and employment. Nothing can be irreversible when dealing with social relations. In Japan there is a different situation, for example: part-time work was imposed and it developed without any opposition from the social movements. [Japanese women working part-time in Japan get very low payrates (lower even than the salary earned by a wet nurse which is between 5 and 6 dollars an hour). They do not benefit from rights such as bonuses (a variable part of the salary which people can get twice a year and can be six times higher than the monthly salary), paid holidays, social security, pension funds, trade union organisation, etc.]
In France, the women’s movement – women coming from 150 associations, trade unions, political parties, feminist groups – took part in a joint demonstration which took place November 15, 1997. They were demanding employment and a massive reduction of the working hours. With their demonstration they showed how necessary this type of joint actions are when fighting against job precariousness and instability in order to guarantee women’s place in the world of work and in society.

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