By: Harnoor Kaur | Edited by: Lavanya Goswami
Around the world, there are approximately 40-60 million garment workers, and the majority of them are women, playing a central role in the industry. The multifiber arrangement (MFA) of 1974 triggered a global shift of garment production from high-wage to low-wage countries, with Bangladesh seizing the opportunity. In Bangladesh, the number of garment factories multiplied from four in 1978 to 2,400 by 1995, employing 1.2 million workers, 90% of whom were young women under the age of 25. Since 2009, a significant portion of the country’s export earnings came from the ready made garment industry, increasing to 83.5% by 2018.
While this initially seems like a positive indicator of female labour force participation, the actual situation hints at a much bleak reality. Many of these women face stark wage disparities. To illustrate , women in Bangladesh garment industries earn 8% less than their male counterparts. In addition, women face gender-based violence, inaccessibility of maternity leave and childcare support, and unsafe working conditions. This article explores this gender discrimination from gendered segmentation of commodity chains, particularly in the globalised world and its relation to the household structures.
In the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein developed World-Systems Theory in which he argued that with international expansion of capitalism, there was vertical integration of commodity chains, i.e., the world economy was structured into a hierarchy of core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral regions. The core developed flourishing manufacturing, technologically progressive agriculture, skilled and relatively well-paid labour and this core relied on extracting surplus resources from peripheral regions to sustain its expansion. On the other hand, the peripheral regions mainly produced primary goods, coerced labour practices, lower production costs, technological stagnation, unskilled labour and flow of capital away from these regions toward the core. This asymmetrical and exploitative relations between different countries has percolated to different social classes and corporations, and is still prevalent to a great extent in this era of neoliberal globalisation. Multinational corporations shifted their businesses to developing countries in pursuit of cost-effective labour. This pursuit has led to a discernible trend wherein global buyers exerted mounting pressure on their suppliers and, subsequently, their workers in developing countries. This pressure is often framed as a ‘price squeeze’ strategy aimed at reducing the production costs and evading the responsibility of absorbing the costs associated with increasing salaries and improving labour conditions. The inherent drive within capital results in the manifestation of the ‘price squeeze’. This has resulted in power imbalances between finance capital and buyers that sit at the top of the chains and the suppliers and their workers at the bottom.
In this dynamic, women became the preferred workforce for these industrial roles, primarily as a result of a combination of socio-economic constraints, which limited their skill development opportunities, and socio-economic oppression, which coerced them into accepting even lower wages. The relocation of capital and the availability of a cheap labour force, particularly female labour led to the growth of the garment industry in Bangladesh, making neoliberal globalisation a gendered phenomenon. Additionally, these women employed in low-wage production jobs are hired on short-term contracts. In these roles, they are compelled to meet unattainable production targets by working long hours in unsafe working conditions.
The gendered segregation of occupation is the result of household structures which are central to capitalism. Immanuel Wallerstein in Historical Capitalism also proposed that ‘households’ are relatively stable structures in the economy that share a common fund of current income and accumulated capital. The labour provided by the households is divided into productive work, focusing on earning money and non-productive work, focusing on subsistence activities. This was imposed on the working class, such that productive work was predominantly assigned to adult men, with younger males also involved in workplaces, and non-productive work, mainly fell to adult women, along with other females, children, and the elderly within the household. This segregation institutionalised sexism wherein the women’s work was gradually devalued. This division of real labour by gender exacerbated with the increase in globalisation with another layer of complexity as the gender norms are deeply rooted in the organisation of labour in transnational production. Women bear the burden of productive economy i.e., earning a living and the reproductive economy i.e., unpaid activities such as child care, care of the elderly, house cleaning, etc. that sustain the labour force highlighting the gendered division of labour in the commodity chains. In this scenario, women are viewed as supplemental earners. This gender dynamics affects the workplace, influencing how employers assess productivity and labour management prioritising their economic interests. As a result, women face disadvantages, leading to jobs being segregated along gender lines.
The interplay of gender dynamics, global capitalism, and household structures in the garment industry reveals a troubling reality. These entrenched global and household structures, on one hand, perpetuate inequalities, relegating peripheral regions to fuel the growth of core economies and further, devalue women’s work, reinforcing a cycle of underpaid, insecure, and undervalued roles. The gender discrimination faced in the workplace exists in various other forms such as occupational segregation, motherhood penalty, etc. Hence, it is important to have policy measures to counter the structural gender inequalities in the workplace.