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date: 06 July 2022

Labor and Genderfree

Labor and Genderfree

  • Juanita EliasJuanita EliasDepartment of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick


Writings on women workers in the global economy have generally taken as their starting point the rise in female employment in industries in the light manufacturing for export sector. Another issue covered by the literature on gender and labor is migration, where the racialized as well as gendered nature of employment is thrown into sharp focus. Migration has been a major concern in much of the recent feminist literature on gender and employment is because one of the most significant features of contemporary processes of migration has been the feminization of these flows. But given the ways in which women workers both in export sector factories and as migrant domestic workers are subject to harsh workplace practices, social stigmatization, and systems of intense workplace control, the possibilities for resistance and change for some of these groups of workers are considered as well. Three intersecting literatures that focus on the topic of resistance to regimes of labor control in a variety of different workplaces (including the household) are discussed: first, those that focus on “everyday” forms of resistance; second, those that look more at resistance as an organized political strategy taking the form of trade union activism or involving nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and third is a literature that considers the possibilities and limitations of a wider politics of resistance offered by things like corporate codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility.


  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender


In recent decades, the rapid growth of transnational corporations (TNCs) and transnational networks of production and consumption have been presented as hallmarks of the processes associated with economic globalization. It is notable that studies of globalization that emphasize these trends tend to disregard the gendered nature of these processes (Griffin 2007). Yet, when we look at issues such as the increasingly mobile nature of capital, as production processes have spread in order to take advantage of low-cost labor, or the movement of labor across state borders, what is clear is that these processes involve vast numbers of women and have quite dramatic impacts on gender relations. The specific focus of this essay is on those writings that offer particular insight into how gendered employment relations and practices are undergoing transformation via processes associated with globalization. Thus, of particular concern to this essay are those studies that look at two important global “shifts,” (1) the transnationalization of production and (2) the movement of migrant labor, and the impact of these global flows on the gendered nature of work and employment.

In the review of the literature presented in this essay, one of the most important themes explored concerns the relationship between capital accumulation and gender inequality, witnessed, for example, in the feminization of work in key low-wage sectors of the contemporary global economy. Furthermore, the analysis of women and work in the global economy has required that feminists focus on more than just women’s formal participation in paid employment, including also social relations of reproduction – the kinds of care and domestic related activities that women are involved in on a day-to-day basis – in explaining the gendered nature of “productive” work.

There is a huge interdisciplinary literature that looks at the relationship between gender and labor in the contemporary global economy, only some of which will be overviewed in this essay. These writings have contributed greatly to feminist scholarship in International Studies. For example, in a number of key feminist books looking at gender and international politics, the female worker (specifically, the female factory worker) is placed in a centrally important position in terms of the discussion of the gendered nature of global economic restructuring (see, for example, Enloe 1990; Pettman 1996:167–71; Peterson and Runyan 1999:130–46; Rai 2002:147–51; Steans 2006:84–8). The significance that these feminist scholars attach to studies of women’s work and employment in the global economy is reproduced in a number of more critical accounts of globalization and the global political economy (see, for example, Scholte 2005:336–7; Rupert and Solomon 2006:96–7; O’Brien and Williams 2007:273–7, 288–91).

Research into the impact of economic globalization on women’s labor presents a mixed picture. On the one hand, we can point to the opening up of employment opportunities for groups of women in the rapidly expanding service economy as well as in highly globalized manufacturing sectors such as electronic component assembly and garment production. The argument is frequently made that such job opportunities have granted women – particularly women in the developing world – access to greater levels of economic freedom as they move out of the household and into the (global) market economy. This perspective – one that stresses women’s “empowerment” as they enter paid employment – has underpinned much thinking within the neoliberal-oriented international development donor community in recent years (Elias and Ferguson forthcoming 2009). In this view, economic growth is presented as having a positive impact on female workers – especially if states pursue policies of export-oriented growth that tend to absorb high numbers of women into labor-intensive forms of work. However, this perspective overlooks the extent to which women ever enter the labor market on equal terms to men, owing to discriminatory attitudes within local societies and multinational corporations as well as women’s relationship vis-à-vis social relations of reproduction (Chant 2002:550). Indeed, the optimistic “empowerment” perspective is frequently countered by critics who suggest that women entering globalized industries are overwhelmingly stratified into the lower rungs of the occupational hierarchy.

One important point that needs to be raised from the outset is that focusing on the gender dimensions of work and employment in the global economy cannot be undertaken in isolation from other social relations and identities – namely race, class, and nationality (Pettman 1996:171). For example, while women’s working lives in the Global North and the Global South have undergone great changes owing to the processes of economic restructuring associated with both globalization and neoliberalism, these processes are experienced very differently by different groups of women and point to the fact that there is no straightforward explanation of the role and position of (all) women in the global economy. The construction of women as a source of low-cost flexible and efficient labor is frequently a deeply racialized process – drawing upon ideas of “Third World” women as well suited to the monotonous working conditions found in some of the most globalized sectors of the world economy.

This essay is structured as follows: The initial discussion concerns the development of literature focusing on gender and employment in the global economy – much of which is concerned with the relationship between gender and work in factory settings. The second section moves on to look at the issue of migration and gender and overviews some of the key trends and concerns raised in the literature on this topic. The third section considers the resistance strategies used by workers engaged in highly feminized forms of work and the possibilities and limitations of such strategies. Finally, the essay concludes with a commentary on future research directions.

Female (Factory) Workers in the Global Economy: Key Academic Trends and Debates

Writings on women workers in the global economy have generally taken as their starting point the rise in female employment in industries in the light manufacturing for export sector. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist scholarship traced the way in which the relocation of labor-intensive manufacturing industry from the Global North to the Global South was a distinctively feminized process. This new international division of labor was characterized by the rapid increase in employment opportunities for women, particularly within export processing zones (EPZs) established by states in order to bolster export competitiveness and (though not always) to attract foreign direct investment (Arrigo 1980; Salaff 1981; Fernández-Kelly and Ong 1987). It should be noted, however, that export-oriented development was not confined to industrial sectors; commercial agriculture has long been an important source of export revenues, while many, though not all (see, for example, studies of labor market feminization in the banana plantations of Central America, e.g., Frank 2005), sectors of the “plantation” economy remained male-dominated. An interesting development came in the rise of feminized forms of horticultural work. The emergence of cheaper and easier air travel stimulated the development of highly feminized labor-intensive horticultural industries producing goods with limited shelf lives for Western markets (Arizpe and Aranda 1981; Stephen 2000; Hale and Opondo 2005).

This section of the essay focuses on employment in the export sector, particularly in the manufacturing for export firms (or “world market factories” – Elson and Pearson 1981) that have been the subject of much feminist analysis. Three broad trends can be identified in this scholarship: (1) writings from the 1970s and 1980s that drew upon the structuralist New International Division of Labor (NIDL) paradigm; (2) the “feminization thesis” that has dominated the study of this topic by development economists; and (3) an ethnographic approach focused on women’s experiences of employment and the shifting nature of gender relations that occurs with women’s entry into factory employment.

A Gendered New International Division of Labor

A recognition of the gendered nature of export-led growth strategies emerged in a number of key works from the late 1970s and early 1980s. These writings noted the establishment of patterns of female labor force participation whereby large numbers of young, unmarried women migrated from rural to urban areas to work in the expanding export sector (Fernández-Kelly 1983; Nash 1983). These authors sought to focus on the growth of women’s employment in light manufacturing for export within the context of the established academic discussion of the emergence of a New International Division of Labor (NIDL) (Fröbel et al. 1980) which drew upon the structuralist-Marxian traditions of dependency theory. Feminist scholars drew attention to how the NIDL was dependent on the existence of a gender division of labor. The NIDL was, therefore, characterized by the shift in the most labor-intensive aspects of global manufacturing industries to low labor cost countries (Safa 1981; Nash and Fernández-Kelly 1983) and the resulting rise of female employment in some parts of the developing world, which was directly linked to a decline in female employment in labor-intensive manufacturing in industrialized countries (Mitter 1986:2).

The NIDL writers portrayed women’s employment in export sector manufacturing as low-wage, monotonous, assembly-line work in jobs structured in such a way as to limit career progression. Thus, despite access to formal waged employment, women remained peripheral to the process of economic development. Employer attitudes are seen as a significant element in this model of women’s employment in the export sector. Elson and Pearson’s classic essay, “The subordination of women and the internationalisation of factory production” (1981), for example, emphasized the persistence of employer attitudes such as those concerning women’s “innate” skills of manual dexterity (“nimble fingers”), diligence, and a level of docility that fed into a preference for women workers in the newly established export sectors of developing countries. The idea of women workers’ innate “docility” has been challenged in a number of texts (the more recent of which will be overviewed in a later section of this essay). Mitter, for example, writing in the 1980s, argued that the lack of unionization in the export processing zones of the developing world was more a reflection of authoritarian state governance strategies that had sought to maintain a low-wage feminized labor force through the suppression of unions. She notes, for example, the success with which militarized and authoritarian states have been able to attract foreign direct investment (Mitter 1986:69–70). Drawing heavily upon NIDL analysis, Mitter points to an alliance of interests between the state and multinational capital which locks states into a position of “dependent development” whereby “the only benefit seems to be the creation of employment of a rather vulnerable and unbalanced nature” (Mitter 1986:69).

It is not only state authoritarianism that is presented as a key factor in maintaining a low-wage and disciplined workforce for export industrialization. These early writings also pointed to the intersections between state authoritarianism and patriarchal social relations (both inside the factory setting and within the household). This is particularly the case in a number of studies to have emerged from East Asian states (Arrigo 1980; Salaff 1981; Greenhalgh 1985) whereby single young women were shown to remit their wages to parents in order to fund the education of male siblings. Such practices reflected a local gender order based on notions of filial piety whereby daughters would effectively leave the household on marriage and, it was believed, could not be relied upon to care for elderly parents. Employers clearly benefited from the secondary labor market status of these “daughters” whose wages were seen as merely supplementing family incomes while the fact that women would only work for a limited period of time prior to marriage ensured a high labor turnover that also contributed to low rates of pay (and also meant that firms could absolve themselves from responsibility for the deterioration of health amongst workers employed in repetitive and intensive forms of work). As Greenhalgh (1985) shows, the system of funding sons’ upward mobility within families through the abundance of low-paid female dead-end jobs ultimately benefited states such as Taiwan because it provided a relatively “democratic” means of ensuring household prosperity. The household strategies for social mobility outlined in these studies therefore underscore the way in which patriarchal social relations are deployed in order to accumulate capital, in particular how the association of women with the household realm of socially reproductive work locks them into low-paid, low-status, short-term employment.

Indeed, an emphasis on the social relations of reproduction is found in much of the early, more structuralist literature on women’s labor in the global economy. These writings emphasize how unpaid socially reproductive work in both the household and the subsistence economy ensures that the household’s needs are met through a non-cash domestic economy (Mies et al. 1988). In other words, the intensification of women’s domestic labor accompanies the expansion of low-wage labor based regimes – effectively, corporate practices, state authoritarianism, and patriarchal constructions of gender that “naturalize” and invisibilize social relations of reproduction, all central to the perpetration of low-wage labor based regimes.

Critics of the more structuralist approach embodied in the work of Mitter and others (e.g. Mies et al. 1988) have suggested that there is a tendency in this literature to overemphasize the role of “footloose” multinational capital in shaping structures of female employment in the developing world (Lim 1991) and exaggerating the extent to which women can be found as employees of TNCs. Overall, women are more likely to be found employed in locally owned industries and in subsistence agriculture than they are to be found working for multinational manufacturing firms. However, these early writings did not focus exclusively on TNCs. For example, Mies’s study The Lacemakers of Narsapur (1982) pointed to the ways in which groups of homeworkers were producing handicrafts for the global market, while gender ideologies concerning the “good housewife” served to keep wages low by confining women to the home and preventing them from seeking out alternative employment opportunities. Mies’s study is an important example of the way in which the naturalization of women’s position vis-à-vis social relations of reproduction serves to undermine their status within the productive economy.

Another criticism of the NIDL writers is that their work rests on the assumption that employment in export manufacturing, especially in TNCs, results in negative outcomes for women. By contrast, Lim (1991) suggests that TNCs have the potential to significantly improve the status of women owing to the fact that they tend to pay higher wages than those available in locally owned industries. This (liberal) perspective, one that emphasizes the benefits of employment in multinational firms for women, is found in a number of feminist and non-feminist writings whereby it is argued that TNCs not only pay better wages, but have in place better working conditions and act as role models to local firms (for example, by having equality of opportunity policies in place (UNCTAD 1994:2002–3)). Furthermore, several studies focusing on the global garment industry have noted that working conditions in export sector factories in the developing world are often superior to those found in the inner-city sweatshops, employing low-wage migrant labor, found in cities in the Global North (Kabeer 2000; Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000; Whalen 2002).

It has, therefore, been suggested that NIDL writers simply cast women as “victims” of global capitalism and fail to recognize the many benefits that waged employment may bring to women (Kabeer 1994). However, the NIDL approach did raise some important issues – most notably, a recognition of how gender inequalities are a central feature of the processes of foreign direct investment and export-led economic development. Indeed, it is widely recognized that NIDL writers raised important concerns that continue to be of central importance to feminist scholarship on gender and labor (Marchand 1996; Barlow 2007). An emphasis on women’s employment in “world market” or export sector factories remains an important concern in feminist scholarship looking at the global political economy. This is because in today’s world the model of pursuing economic growth via export expansion is frequently presented as the only viable economic development strategy for states in the Global South. A continuing preoccupation of feminist scholarship, therefore, has been to expose how such strategies are deeply gendered. For some of the most recent examples of this literature, see studies by Pun Ngai and Ching Kwan Lee of female factory workers in China (Lee 1998; Pun 2005), Melissa Wright’s work on factories in China and Mexico (Wright 2006), Jennifer Bickham Mendez’s research into organizing workers in the Nicaraguan Maquiladora factories (Bickham Mendez 2005), Juanita Elias’s study of a Malaysian garment firm (Elias 2004), and Teri Caraway’s study of gender relations in Indonesian factories (Caraway 2007).

Export-Led Growth as Female-Led: The Feminization Thesis

The expansion of employment opportunities for women that accompanied the shift to export-led development is well documented. For example, Heyzer (1989:1117) notes that in the 10 years following the adoption of export-led industrialization in Malaysia, women’s employment rate in the wage sector doubled. This trend is certainly not unique to Malaysia, with Greenhalgh (1985) noting that the economic growth experienced in the Asian “miracle” economies was as much female-led as it was export-led. The discussion of global trends in female employment in export manufacturing is one that has warranted particular attention from economists writing in journals such as World Development. These authors have sought to develop, through empirical statistical analysis, an analysis of the linkage between export-led development and the feminization of employment (Joekes 1987). Wood (1991), for example, notes the strong tendency for increased export orientation to lead to a net increase in women’s employment in the manufacturing sector.

But in explaining the high levels of female employment in export-oriented sectors of the manufacturing economy, it is important to note that female employment remains concentrated in specific sectors – notably in key export sectors such as garment manufacture and electronic assembly (Seguino 2000). Standing (1989; 1999) has linked these developments to a deregulation of labor markets that has accompanied the global shift toward a more liberal market economy. Labeling this process “global feminization through flexible labor,” Standing’s work suggests that policies of export-led industrialization (as well as structural adjustment) lead to the emergence of flexible “feminized” forms of employment which offer little or no protection to the worker.

This concern is echoed in the work of Mehra and Gammage (1999) who found that male–female wage differentials are greatest in countries where the female share of employment is increasing most rapidly. Thus, despite the better wages that are on offer to women workers in multinational firms compared to local firms (Joekes 1987), the absolute picture in states pursuing export-oriented industrialization is one of extreme gender inequality. Seguino’s work on gender inequality and economic development in Asia, for example, found that gender inequality in East and Southeast Asia (regions in which export-led growth has been widely adopted) is amongst the highest in the world. Furthermore, high levels of gender inequality were fundamental to the making of the so-called Asian “economic miracle” (Seguino 2000).

What these studies fail to do, however, is to consider how gender becomes such an important component in the making of this economic development model. This is hardly surprising given that most of these studies employ traditional tools of economic analysis, such as theories of comparative advantage, in understandings of gender inequality. Gender inequality therefore becomes largely a debate about rates of pay, with little to no analysis of why women’s rates of pay are so much lower than men’s in the first place (Tzannos 1999:558).

Recent work by Caraway (2007) suggests that we should not simply assume that the export orientation of an economy results in higher female labor force participation. Caraway argues that the “feminization thesis” that underpins much of the scholarship on women’s employment in the global economy needs to be subjected to some important qualifications. For example, not all export sector industries are feminized – certain export industries which are less labor-intensive tend to employ more men than women. Furthermore, if an economy starts to move away from labor-intensive manufacturing industries such as garment production and toward more “high-tech” or capital-intensive sectors, then it is likely that women’s labor force participation rate in the formal economy will decline. In addition to this point, Caraway suggests that the extent to which industries become feminized is dependent on certain local contextual factors – for example, she finds that in countries with strong trade union movements, the entry of women into the formal labor market is much slower. Male-dominated trade unions, then, play a part in preventing the entry of women into formal employment. And, consequently, those states that have pursued repressive anti-union policies have witnessed a much higher level of incorporation of women into the industrial labor market. Finally, Caraway suggests that the preference for employing women workers in export sector work is often not simply a matter of the low cost of female labor. Although the jobs that women move into are low-paid, there may well be groups of men within society who are equally willing to work for these wages.

Gendering Global Production

Many early studies of female factory workers sought to incorporate a strong normative emphasis on the importance of including women workers’ voices and stories – something that is clearly lacking in the more economistic accounts detailed above. By bringing in women’s voices, scholars have also been able to challenge some of the criticisms made of the NIDL approach in which women were seen as “victims” of globalizing capital, and instead place women’s agency more centrally within accounts of gender and employment in the global economy. For example, the following quotation comes from Ong’s classic study of women employed in Malaysian electronics firms in the late 1970s and early 1980s – the excerpt is taken from an interview with a young Malay woman factory worker and exposes both the harshness of the factory environment and the agency of women workers – the ways in which factory workers sought to resist factory discipline:

[…] sometimes […] they want us to raise production. This is what we sometimes contest (bantahlah). The workers want just treatment (keadilan), as for instance, in relation to wages and other matters. We feel that in this situation there are many [issues] to dispute (bertengkar) over with the management – because we have to work three shifts and when the midnight shift arrives we feel sort of drowsy and yet have to use the microscope, and with our wages so low we feel as though we have been tricked or forced (seolah macam dipaksa).

(Ong 1987:202, emphasis in original)

Bringing in women’s voices thus exposes the contradictory processes at work when women enter the labor market. The focus on women’s experiences remains a key element in studies of women’s employment in the global economy. Take, for example, this quotation from an interview with a Bangladeshi garment factory worker from Kabeer’s study The Power to Choose (2000), which introduces important themes about women’s agency and the transformatory potential that factory employment brings to the lives of poor women:

Garments have been very good for women, even for me. I have become more courageous […] Now I feel I have rights, I can survive […] Suppose my husband says something, I won’t care because I can feed myself. If any relatives say anything, I won’t bother, I will think I don’t need to go to their house. I can earn and survive – I have got the courage.

(Kabeer 2000:175)

Another significant theme that emerges from these more ethnographic studies, and something that marks them out as very different from the work of economists working on labor force feminization, is how understanding production as “gendered” is about more than a straightforward counting of the numbers of male and female bodies found in particular industries and jobs. Understanding production as gendered requires that we focus on how both gender relations and gender identities are fashioned and refashioned through engagement with the productive economy. For example, women entering formal paid work may experience greater levels of autonomy and power (perhaps because of their ability to contribute to household finances or their new-found status as consumers), but at the same time they may experience new forms of patriarchal power relations within the workplace. Elson and Pearson (1981:31) thus employ the notion of a “decomposition,” “recomposition,” and “intensification” of gender relations as women enter formal employment, drawing our attention to the intersecting forms of gendered power relations in society that confront women workers. For example, women’s ability to earn an income may increase their status within households and increase their sense of independence and autonomy. But while local gender relations are being transformed and challenged, workers are exposed to new sets of gendered power relations within the factory. Finally, local gendered power relations may assert themselves in new forms. An example of this would be the way in which female factory workers are often stigmatized within local societies by being referred to as having loose moral values that come into conflict with hegemonic and/or nationalistic local values around gender and sexuality (Ong 1987; Lynch 2002).

As was discussed earlier in this essay, the perpetuation of gendered forms of inequality as women enter waged employment also demonstrates the centrality of social relations of reproduction to capital accumulation. This is witnessed, for example, in how employers perpetuate ideas about women as mere “secondary” income earners whose primary responsibilities lie with the household in order to justify lower rates of pay. Such gendered assumptions are often backed by state gender ideology. Drawing on research into South Korea’s industrial transformation in the 1970s, Moon (2005:75–8) observes how the effective “secondary” status of women workers was supported by repressive anti-labor policies in the feminized export sector and the state’s provision of domestic training for women workers in the expectation that they would leave the industrial labor force on marriage.

In Muñoz’s study of employment practices in the tortilla industry, the significance of state power in fashioning workplace gender (as well as racial) inequalities takes a somewhat different form (Muñoz 2008). Drawing upon research from a company with operations in both the USA and Mexico, she shows how the militarization of US borders following 9/11 meant that family migration from Mexico was gradually replaced by more male-dominated patterns of migration. The case study firm at the center of her study has benefited from these developments – employing a largely feminized low-wage workforce in its Mexican plant made up mainly of women providing for families “left behind” by male migrants, and a largely male workforce in the USA. Despite the historical association between women’s work and the production of tortillas, the US factory preferred to employ a predominantly male workforce because the unstable employment status of the largely undocumented workforce meant that this group of workers could be tightly controlled – a process aided by the repressive anti-immigrant stance taken by the US government in recent years. Thus Muñoz’s study is interesting in terms of showing how state and multinational interests can overlap in ways that result in unexpected gender outcomes.

A key theme in much of the literature on gender and employment in the global economy to have emerged in recent years is an emphasis on the social construction of female workers as the ideal “docile and diligent” workforce. Salzinger (2003) found in her research into factory employment in Mexico that managers had very clear ideas about what constituted “feminine” employment and saw the importance of certain “female” characteristics in securing a productive and reliable workforce. Indeed, most studies of women’s employment in the global manufacturing sector have noted the widely held beliefs amongst managers that women are an important source of docile, diligent, and dexterous workers. These assumptions concerning women’s supposed “natural” suitability to monotonous work can also be understood as a powerful set of ideas that play a role in shaping workplace gender identities (Wright 2006; Elias 2008a). It has consequently been noted that these “gendered discourses of work” (Caraway 2007:5) have come to play an even more important part in gendering the workplaces of global factories than the ability to pay women workers low wages.

Such discourses of “productive femininity” are a key mechanism for maintaining control and discipline over feminized groups of workers (Elias 2008a). Thus we see in Pun’s study of export sector employment in China that managers enforced workplace discipline by explicitly identifying female bodies as “docile” labor (Pun 2005:143–5). Ecevit’s study across a number of different Turkish firms demonstrates how similar gendered workplace discourses intersect with local assumptions about the “proper” role of women in society. For example, employers discussed how patience was a “feminine virtue” (1991:61) common to Turkish women, making them well suited to monotonous work.

But workplace control is not enforced simply through these discursive mechanisms; high levels of control and surveillance are also part of the everyday experience of women workers on assembly lines, striving to meet ambitious production targets and finding that their performance is subject to constant observation by supervisors. However, as Wright (2006) has shown, one of the most powerful “myths” concerning the female factory worker is her “disposability.” Employers recruit women workers into assembly-line jobs that inevitably have high labor turnover because of the repetitive, mundane, and potentially debilitating nature of the work. Factory work is therefore viewed as a short-term strategy that young women undertake prior to marriage (at which point it is assumed that they move into the realm of social reproduction as wives and mothers). The reality is, however, that these women will often continue to combine paid work (in both the formal and informal sectors) with unpaid household work. This myth of female disposability is therefore a useful one for managers because it means that firms do not need to invest in training and developing their female workforce, pay higher wages to more senior employees, or put in place health and safety practices that ensure that workers do not suffer ill health or injury caused by the intensity of the work.

These notions of productive and disposable feminine labor are not unique to the manufacturing sector – although it has to be said that much of the research into this phenomenon has focused on manufacturing. An interesting example of similar processes at work in the service economy is found in Freeman’s study of Barbadian “informatics” (data-entry) workers (Freeman 2000). Another important point, and one that is clearly demonstrated in Muñoz’s research into the tortilla industry, is that gender is not the only social variable at work in the disciplining and control of labor; divisions between workers based on race and ethnicity also play a part in the construction of low-waged and disciplined workforces (Muñoz 2008).

Migration, Gender, and Employment

As Muñoz’s study demonstrates, the racialized as well as gendered nature of employment is thrown into sharp focus when we are dealing with the issue of migration. Migration has been a major concern in much of the recent feminist literature on gender and employment. This is because one of the most significant features of contemporary processes of migration has been the feminization of these flows. The first element of this (and despite the problems of collecting statistics on global migratory flows) is evidenced in how, since the 1960s, the number of female migrants has risen to around 50 percent of all migrants (Rupert and Solomon 2006:82). It should be noted, however, that although there has certainly been a rapid increase in lone female migrant workers in recent decades, large numbers of women have always migrated as part of family groups and consequently may go unreported in statistics on labor migration even though many of them will take up work in their newly adopted countries (Kofman 2004).

Second, there has been an emergence of female “sectors” of migration such as domestic work and nursing, other forms of care work, and sex work (see below). Female migrants overwhelmingly take up employment as domestic workers. What the case of migrant domestic workers demonstrates is the way in which the functioning of the global economy is as much dependent on those women who work cleaning homes and caring for children as it is on those women working in the factories, tourist resorts, and agricultural packing plants that are more readily associated with the globalized economy. Thus in discussing the global market for domestic labor, Hochschild (2000) uses the phrase “global care chains,” a play on the phrase “global commodity chains” that is frequently used in studies of economic globalization and transnational production. These migratory flows of domestic workers (and other groups of workers in care-related professions) are often overtly encouraged by governments, who see female migrants as an important economic resource. Ehrenreich and Hochschild note that women migrants tend to send back home at least half of their earnings – and are consequently regarded by governments as playing a significant role in a country’s economic development. As the authors comment, “[t]hese remittances have a significant impact on the lives of children, parents, siblings and wider networks of kin – as well as on cash-strapped Third World governments” (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2002:7). In fact, in the Philippines – a country that has actively pursued outward labor migration as both an economic development strategy and a solution to chronic unemployment – remittances from migrant workers constitute the country’s largest source of foreign currency. And yet, female labor migration also carries certain economic and social consequences for those who migrate and those families that are left behind. Female migrants may struggle to send money home to families and find themselves locked into low-paid work and working in difficult conditions. In the Philippines, where care workers (be they domestic workers, nurses, preschool teachers or caring assistants) are now one of the country’s major exports, it has been suggested that the country is experiencing its own “crisis of care” linked to the mass departure of female workers as well as the consequent separation of families and loss of women’s unpaid caring labor (Parreñas 2002). Such a process might usefully be understood as part of a “depletion of social resources” (Hoskyns and Rai 2007), a term that conveys how the expansion of capitalist relations of production leaves little space for the socially reproductive work traditionally provided by women.

Many themes emerge in the literature on gender and migration that are very similar to those explored in the literature on gender and export employment already overviewed in this essay. For example, the recognition that while migration and employment into unskilled forms of work can be deeply exploitative, it is important to recognize the agency of the migrant worker and not to treat her merely as a “victim” of global capitalism (Gibson et al. 2001). This concern with workers’ agency also appears in an emerging literature focused on sex work – a sector that is frequently ignored in the literature on labor migration because of the dominance of perspectives that argue that women crossing borders to engage in sex work are merely the victims of trafficking. This trafficking perspective has been challenged by writers such as Agustin who argue that while sex work is a highly exploitative form of employment, we should not assume that all women engaged in this form of work are victims of trafficking. Many women are well aware of the work that they are moving into and the dangers and risks associated with sex work – and yet, they regard it as a viable strategy for earning an income (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Agustin 2007) (see Jeffries 2008 for a critique of this “sex work” position from a radical feminist perspective).

A focus on the migration of domestic workers, like employment in export factories, also provides an example of the intersections between gender and race in the global political economy. These “Third World” women are often regarded as a group of low-skilled, relatively uneducated workers whose race and nationality (as well as frequently their unofficial employment status) mark them as a group who can be paid significantly lower wages than “local” workers. However, as Kofman (2004) points out, migrant domestic workers are often highly skilled. Many migrant domestic workers may be qualified as teachers or nurses – thus labeling this “unskilled” migration is something of a misnomer. Similarly, McGregor (2007) has highlighted how Zimbabweans employed in the UK’s care work sector are often highly skilled professionals who, as undocumented migrants, have few other opportunities but to work in this “flexible” (i.e., low-waged) employment sector. But as the following quotation demonstrates – an account of a conversation between a Filipina domestic worker and her employer’s adult daughter – migrant domestic workers from the Global South are stigmatized because of their “Third Worldness”:

I was telling her, I never worked as a domestic back home. All of my family are educated, all the children and everything […] She said to me, even though you are educated, they don’t acknowledge your education here and you still belong to a poor country. (Quotation from England and Stiell 1997, cited in McKay 2005:314)

For migrant domestic workers some of the major problems that they face stem from their position as employees who are working in a household context. Frequently this means that the work that migrant domestics do is not officially recognized as “work” at all. For example, in Malaysia, because of their association with the household sphere and socially reproductive work, domestic workers are not officially considered to be “workers” and therefore do not have access to the same kinds of employment rights available to other groups of workers (Elias 2008a).

Shellee Colen’s work on West Indian childcare workers in New York also demonstrates how the household domain is not only difficult to monitor, but also constitutes a key location for the perpetuation of notions of class, status, and identity (Colen 1995). The tensions that exist between employers and employees are shown to arise from differing cultural (and class-based) expectations over how best to raise children. West Indian workers are valued because of their supposed “natural” abilities in caring for infants. However, the socialization of children by a care giver of a different class and race is shown to foster anxieties that frequently lead to the dismissal of the migrant worker as the child gets older. Such practices are shown to render the worker not only economically vulnerable, but also emotionally vulnerable, owing to the real emotional ties that exist between workers and their charges.

As Christine Chin’s work from Malaysia shows, the household functions as a site for the perpetuation of social fears over the intimate relationship between domestic workers and family members, leading to the view that domestic workers need to be tightly controlled. Chin’s work charts employers’ utilization of control and surveillance practices that serve to confine the worker to the home and prevent her from interacting with outsiders (Chin 1998). These practices contribute to a curtailing of workers’ access to the world outside of the household; this, clearly, prevents them from learning of their contractual rights (e.g., stipulations regarding rates of pay) and makes them especially vulnerable to highly abusive labor practices and even violence.

Resistances, Challenges, and Transformations

Having outlined the ways in which women workers both in export sector factories and as migrant domestic workers are subject to harsh (often abusive) workplace practices, social stigmatization, and systems of intense workplace control, this essay now turns to consider the possibilities for resistance and change for some of these groups of workers. Three intersecting literatures that focus on the topic of resistance to regimes of labor control in a variety of different workplaces (including the household) are discussed: first, those that focus on “everyday” forms of resistance; second, those that look more at resistance as an organized political strategy taking the form of trade union activism or involving nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and third is a literature that considers the possibilities and limitations of a wider politics of resistance offered by things like corporate codes of conduct and corporate social responsibility.

Discussions of women’s resistance to unfair or particularly harsh labor practices often focus on the everyday resistance strategies that workers engage in – so-called “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985). This might be as simple as challenging the employer’s authority and drawing attention to the similar class and education background that domestic workers frequently share with their employers, as this quotation from an interview with a Filipina domestic worker in Singapore nicely illustrates:

[T]he vacuum cleaner broke. It is really old. My employer said, “What did you do to the vacuum cleaner?” And I said, “I don’t know, it suddenly stopped.” My employer is an auditor and I happen to be in the accounting line. He said, “Don’t you know that this kind of anti-dust vacuum cleaner will still work even if it is almost 13 years old?” I said, “Sir, all electrical equipment has a life, every year it has depreciation, and over 10 years depreciation, meaning you have to buy a new one.” And you know what he told me? “In every question I ask you, you have an answer!”

(Yeoh and Huang 2000:424)

Although everyday strategies of resistance may appear unremarkable, they may also play an important role in the contestation of gendered social relations both inside and outside of the household. As Mary Beth Mills comments, “gender meanings, relations, and identities do more than merely sustain existing structures of power in global labor relations; these complex dimensions of gender also constitute a dynamic cultural terrain wherein forms of domination may be contested, reworked, and even potentially transformed” (Mills 2003:42). In Ong’s well-known study of Malaysian factory workers, we are introduced to another individual-level form of resistance strategy – so-called “spirit possession” incidents or acts of mass hysteria within the workplace. For Ong, such acts of resistance reflected how young rural women newly recruited into world market factories struggled to adapt to the rigors of capitalist control and discipline on the factory floor. However, Ong notes that “the enactment of ‘ritualized rebellion’ […] did not directly confront the real cause of their distress” (1987:210). Instead, these acts of resistance act more like a “safety valve,” granting workers a few hours away from the workplace during which time the workplace is ritually “cleansed,” but at the same time enabling employers to view female workers as essentially irrational and therefore unsuited to higher status or paid employment (see also Elias 2005).

Workers might also engage in more mundane everyday acts of resistance such as absenteeism or taking additional breaks during shifts. Theobald (2002) discusses the multiple forms of resistance in which female Thai workers in electronics firms are involved. Such strategies include making jokes at a manager’s expense in a language or dialect that he or she cannot understand or wearing consciously unfeminine clothing outside of the factory setting as a way of challenging the hyperfeminization of assembly-line work (i.e., the association between a feminine identity and feminized forms of employment) found on the factory floor (Theobald 2002:1465–7).

However, more organized forms of resistance amongst women workers in the form of trade union activism have been somewhat limited in the two sectors that have been the major focus of this essay – domestic work and export sector factory work. Migrant domestic workers, for example, might be prevented by government policies and laws from joining trade unions. Even in states with more progressive labor relations policies they may not join unions because they see domestic work only as a short-term temporary employment strategy. Within export sector industries too, there has been very limited unionization among female workers. In part, this is because states keen to attract much-needed foreign direct investment have often sought to limit labor rights in these sectors. Furthermore, in some countries, unions are closely tied into state patronage networks, thereby limiting the extent to which unions will act as effective champions of women worker’s rights. For example, in China, unions are part of the apparatus of the state and should not be understood as an independent force representing the interests of workers (Cooke 2008). Tran’s work on Vietnamese garment workers is more optimistic, suggesting that female workers are able to utilize notions of working-class solidarity, which were central to the nation’s experience of communist rule, in mobilizing and organizing resistance to the harsh conditions found in the factories (Tran 2008). However, Tran is keen to point out that, in many ways, Vietnam is an exceptional case and other writers have observed that frequently it is local nongovernmental organizations that have taken a stronger line on the rights of female workers than the trade union movement (Sim 2003; Ford 2006).

The organizing of women’s labor has often not been undertaken through the auspices of large trade union movements – rather it has tended to take a more “grassroots” (bottom-up) form. A good example of this is Bickham Mendez’s account of the Nicaraguan Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement, María Elena Cuandra (MEC), a grassroots advocacy organization seeking to organize women in the country’s EPZs. The MEC was founded by women activists who were disillusioned by the failure of the official trade union movement to elect any female representatives (Bickham Mendez 2005). Brown and Chaytaweep (2008) note how similar events occurred in Thailand where frustration with the male dominance and ineffectiveness of official trade union movements meant that female activists were at the forefront of labor activism taking place outside of the official movement. This has led to the emergence of important coalitions of activism around the rights of women workers, involving labor-focused nongovernmental organizations, civil liberty groups, academics, and certain trade unions that have taken a more progressive approach to issues of gender equality.

Organizing groups of workers such as migrant domestic workers, homeworkers, and sex workers has also proven to be a significant challenge for union movements. In part, this stems from the association of work with “productive” employment taking place in formal workplace settings (such as factories and offices). But it also reflects the sheer problems and difficulties involved in organizing workers in these sectors, which tend to involve high levels of undocumented migrants who would be unwilling (as well as unable) to become involved in union activities – a situation that is compounded for many groups of sex workers who are involved in illicit forms of employment. Trade unions are increasingly coming to recognize the need to become involved in organizing these groups of workers because of the highly exploitative nature of these forms of employment. In Malaysia, for example, the national trade union movement has been involved in (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to organize migrant domestic workers (Elias 2008b). Involvement in these non-traditional areas of union activity can also lead to non-traditional forms of trade unionism. This is charted in a study by Gall (2006) which looks at cases of sex worker organization in a number of Western states. Organizing workers in this sector is very difficult because of workers’ fear of identification and the levels of “self-employment” (for example, when dancers are considered “outside contractors” who must pay to dance). Consequently, unionization rates remain very low. What this has meant is that we can observe a new form of union emerging – one that is not based on high membership numbers and focused on the needs of workers in individual workplaces. Rather, what we see are activist-unions, collective self-organized groups that sit somewhere in between activist pressure group/NGO and trade union (Gall 2006). This is a very useful way of thinking about trade unions – especially in relation to some of the most unorganized and often deeply feminized sectors of the service economy; in other words, sectors in which the (masculinist) norm of the formal sector permanent full-time worker as trade unionist cannot be applied.

Codes of Conduct and Corporate Social Responsibility

For certain scholars, the opportunities for women to organize and resist repressive workplace practices lie in the campaigns around corporate codes of conduct that have forced many companies to adopt a commitment to improving labor standards in their supply chains. Codes of conduct are statements of minimum standards, usually pertaining to labor, environmental, and human rights standards, that many corporations have adopted in order to stave off criticism of their practices and are generally understood as being part of a firm’s commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, as emphasized in the work of a number of feminist scholars, a note of caution must be sounded when discussing these codes. After all, few codes of conduct actually mention the specific problems and issues that women workers face on a day-to-day basis – these include low wages and wage inequality, a lack of protection and respect for pregnant workers, inadequate occupational health, safety, and social security rights (especially for part-time workers), absence of freedom of association or the right to collective bargaining, enforced overtime and over-long working days, and the intensity of work and a failure to protect homeworkers (Pearson and Seyfang 2002; Brill 2002; Shaw and Hale 2002). The high levels of subcontracting in industries such as garment production compound these problems – making it exceptionally hard to trace when and where workers were covered by the particular codes of different brands (Hensman 2005).

Another concern is that codes of conduct are concerned only with conditions inside the factory. In one of her most recent essays on the topic, Pearson (2007) suggests that one of the major problems with the notion of CSR is that it is based on too narrow a definition of corporate responsibility – one that doesn’t take account of workers’ roles outside of the workplace. Utilizing the example of the maquiladora factories of the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez – a town in which there has been both a massive influx of migrants and exceptionally high levels of murders of women – Pearson argues that because firms directly benefit from those social relations of reproduction that sustain and maintain their workforces, they have responsibilities to workers that extend beyond the factory or plantation walls. The question needs to be raised, therefore, whether a more holistic definition of CSR might better serve the needs of this group of female workers.

And still, codes of conduct are often presented as offering an opportunity for women’s activism – a space that allows women to push for positive change on a practical level. It is widely conceded that codes may eventually come to play an important role in the setting of labor standards that will benefit women workers. These writings call for codes to be developed in cooperation with women workers themselves and for activists to push companies continually to think through the impact of their practices on female workers (Prieto and Bendell 2002).

Concluding Comments and Future Directions for Research

As outlined in this essay, the study of gender and labor has made important contributions to the field of International Studies by illustrating how gender matters to the study of economic globalization. This is evident in those studies that have shown how the perpetuation of gendered patterns of inequality through processes such as migration or the transnationalization of production leaves women overrepresented in the ranks of the working poor. In this sense, a contribution of feminist studies of work and employment in the global economy has been to focus the attention of globalization scholarship onto certain blind spots – those voices of the disadvantaged and non-elite actors – that have by and large been overlooked in conventional accounts of globalization. There are parallels, therefore, between the clear tendency in feminist political economy (including the scholarship on gender and labor) to link “the macrostructural to the micro-personal” (Ling 2000:242) and the recent calls within more critical approaches to international political economy (IPE) for a focus on a more “everyday” political economy (Hobson and Seabrooke 2007).

Marcus Taylor (2009) argues in a recent special issue of Third World Quarterly that a new wave of critical studies of global labor is finally seeking to place issues of gender and race at its center by specifically recognizing the importance of gendered (and racialized) processes of social construction to the formation and utilization of national and transnational labor forces. What such studies indicate, therefore, is the possibility of ongoing and fruitful engagements between feminist scholars and critical political economists (working within both Marxian and constructivist traditions) in analyzing how the practices of globalization both generate and are supported by gendered, classed, and racialized divisions and inequalities (for current examples see Taylor 2009 and Davies and Ryner 2006).

The future of research on gender and labor will, invariably, lie in charting and analyzing the ongoing relationships between gendered global production, social reproduction, and the specific workplace and household relations that emerge as societies undergo processes associated with industrial development and restructuring, shifting migratory flows, and shifts in the organization of care work within society. For example, it is likely that there will be more studies of gender and labor that do not focus exclusively on factory settings. As Otis (2008) has argued, there is a need to move beyond the “industrial paradigm” (i.e., on manufacturing industry) and for more researchers to examine the gendered nature of work in non-factory and service-sector settings such as tourism or small-scale enterprises. One important area of work will be the development of studies looking at the informal sector, a sector characterized by unprotected and unorganized forms of work in which the boundaries between socially reproductive and productive work are indistinct (for recent studies see Kabeer 2008 and Ferguson 2007). Given the centrality of the informal (or “microenterprise”) sector to current pro-poor development strategies amongst international aid donors, such studies cast an important light not just on the gender dynamics of production and social reproduction but also on the gendered assumptions and biases that underpin international development thinking.


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Links to Digital Materials

Women Working Worldwide. At, accessed July 3, 2009. A UK-based NGO specializing in research into the conditions of working women in the global economy.

The BRIDGE group. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Research into the relationship between gender, development, and care work undertaken by the BRIDGE group, part of the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University, UK.

International Labor Organization’s Bureau for Gender Equality. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Includes details of ILO campaigns around gender equality and decent work for women. Also details ILO technical cooperation projects relevant to gender and labor issues in different countries around the world.

United Nations Fund for Women. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Details the work and position of the United Nations Fund for Women in the area of migrant women workers.

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Web resources concerning issues of gender discrimination.

The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). At, accessed July 3, 2009. An Indian-based organization, the first and one of the most well-known organizations made up of, and representing, home-based workers.

Homenet. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Homenet is the international network for home-based workers. It includes SEWA and other associations of home-based workers in both the Global South and the Global North.

Scarlett Alliance. At, accessed July 3, 2009. This website of the Australian-based Scarlett Alliance is a good example of the sex worker organizations based in Western states that are discussed in this essay.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development. At, accessed July 3, 2009. This website includes material on women’s employment and work, trafficking and migration.

Tenaganita. At, accessed July 3, 2009. Tenaganita is a Malaysian-based NGO that works on behalf of women and migrant workers. Their website provides details of the various programs and campaigns that they are currently involved in.

María Elena Cuadra. At, accessed July 3, 2009. In Spanish, this website belongs to the Nicaraguan women’s trade union María Elena Cuadra discussed in the essay in relation to Jennifer Bickham Mendez’s study of the organizing of women’s labor.

The Committee for Asian Women (CAW). At, accessed July 15, 2009. This organization is active in campaigns to improve the status of women working in formal and informal sectors of the economy. CAW is a transnational advocacy network made up of organizations from across East, South, and Southeast Asia.


I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their constructive and extremely helpful feedback on an earlier draft.