Cover Image
close this bookWomen's Rights and Development (Oxfam, 1995, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWomen in the new world order: Voices of workers from the Third World
View the documentA development agency as a patriarchal cooking pot the evaporation of policies for women's advancement
View the documentGender and development in European development cooperation
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentPanel session: The future agenda of the women's movement in relation to national and international structures
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentStrategies for achieving a women's rights policy agenda: over new of working groups
View the documentClosing remarks
View the documentParticipants
View the documentSeminar programme

Women in the new world order: Voices of workers from the Third World

Swasti Mitter,United Nations University Institute for New Technologies
(UNU/INTECH), Maastricht

I want to share with you today my own evaluation of the effects of globalization on the working lives of women in the developing world, and the demands that women themselves are making to ensure dignity and security in the midst of a rapidly changing world order. The material for this paper is primarily based on the research I have co-ordinated at the Institute in the area of gender, technology, and development. Our partners in research have been either women workers' organizations themselves (Ng, 1994), or academics closely associated with such organizations (Mister and Rowbotham, 1 995).t

What is the new world order?

At this point, I should like to make an apology for the use of the term 'new world order'. Like most cliches, this has often been used in an imprecise and subjective manner. But, like many other cliches, it also has an evocative quality: it captures the current uncertainty in the economic and political spheres. The collapse of socialism and the end of the Cold War sparked alternative visions of the emerging world order. While Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992) celebrated the victory of the ideals of capitalism, Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes (1994: 584) warned us that the forces of the techno-scientific economy are great enough to destroy the environment, the material foundations of human life, and the structures of human societies by the end of the millennium. The way the world is ordered is influenced by ideals and visions, and yet their assessment is beyond the scope of my talk.

As I am an economist by training and a professor of business management by occupation, it is understandable that I prefer to limit myself to the materialistic explanations of the new world order. I begin with the World Bank's definition of it as a globalization phenomenon:

World merchandise exports have risen from 11 to 18 per cent of world GDP over the past two decades.

Services have increased from 15 per cent of world trade to over 22 per cent since 1980. One of seven equity trades worldwide involves a foreigner as a counterpart. And world sales of foreign affiliates of multinational corporations may now well exceed the world's total exports.

What do these statistics have in common ? Globalisation, a change that is transforming the world economy ... pool widening and intensifying international linkages in trade and finance. It is being driven by a near-universal push toward ... Iiberalisation, ... and [by3 technological change that is fast eroding barriers to the international tradability of goods and services and the mobility of the capital. (World Bank, 1995: 1)

If the liberalization programmes were the catalytic factor, the information revolution has increased the speed of internationalisation. Computers and computer-aided technologies have made it easy for manufacturing companies to locate production externally, to geographically dispersed units within and across nations. Such externalization of work has been made possible since digital technology has given rise to the miniaturization of machines, as in personal computers; the modularisation of products, as in automobiles and television sets; the fragmentation of production processes, as in textiles and clothing.

The potential for out-sourcing production activities has led, significantly, to profound changes in the philosophy and practices of management in the corporate world. The pursuit of 'lean management', Japanese style, has resulted in a 'down-sizing' of companies, keeping the number of core workers in the main site to a minimum, and relying as much as possible on a network of subcontractors (Kaplinsky, 1994). The result has been a substantial reduction in personnel in parent companies and a more than commensurate increase in foreign affiliates and the offshore and onshore subcontracting units of corporate organizations.

The relationship between the parent company and the foreign affiliates has also become multidimensional, entailing a more complex integration at the corporate level. Foreign affiliates tend to specialise now in one of the many key functions such as assembly, procurement, finance, or research and development, with the common governance and a unified corporate strategy. With the growing importance of intra-firm international division of labour, the distinction between affiliates and the parent firm becomes less pronounced. The corporate organization resembles more a network than a hierarchy. Then again:

...these networks are connected with other corporate networks through a vane, of linkages, ranging from subcontracting, to licensing agreements and strategic alliances. (UNCTAD, 1994: 139)

It becomes difficult to determine the boundary of a particular firm.

An increase in the share of service activities in global trade is another feature of the new world order (World Bank, 1995). Advances in telecommunication technology, including expansion in electronic networks, have propelled this growth. The growth has been particularly pronounced in information intensive activities such as data entry, analysis of income statement or development of computer software. These activities are particularly suitable for out-sourcing and thus for internationalisation.

Table 1: Some of the largest recipients of foreign-direct-investment flows in the developing world, 1986-1992: actual amounts and rates of growth (Millions of dollars and percentage)

Host economy (selected)


































All developing countries





Percentage share of the 10 largest host countries*

in total inflows to developing countries





* The other four countries are Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Sources: UNCLAD, Division on Transnational corporations and Investment, based on International Monetary Fund, balance of-payments tape, retrieved in April l 994; estimates of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and

The flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) significantly reflects the trend in world trade, favouring service industries over others (World Bank, 1995: 4)

Transnational corporation (TNC) activities, in the manufacturing and service sectors, thus dominate urban industrial employment of the developed and developing world. At a very conservative estimate, there are now 150 million people working, directly and indirectly, for the TNCs, representing 20 per cent of employment in the non-agricultural sector (UNCTAD, 1994: xxiii).Echoing Fukuyama, the World Bank observes (1995: 52) en 'end of geography' in our transnationalised information era.

Gainers and losers

In this global order, countries that attract a greater volume of FDI stand a better chance of achieving a high rate of growth and international competitiveness. It has become less common in our profession to question the desirability of such goals, either in the developed or in the developing world.

Overall, developing countries have done well. Between 1986 and 1993, investment flows to developing countries increased fivefold, accounting for 33 per cent in 1992 and an estimated 41 per cent in 1993 of global FDI. South, East and South-east Asia, as well as Latin

Table 2: The ascent and descent of the 'big three' economic blocs

Share of Gross World Product

Rate of Growth (annual percentages)

Estimated 19

Projected 201


















3. Six emerging economies*




*Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

America - but not Africa - participated in this increase (UNCTAD, 1994: 13). In fact, 76 per cent of the total FDI to developing countries is concentrated in only ten developing countries of Asia and Latin America. China has emerged as the largest recipient, accounting for nearly one-third of total FDI flows to developing nations. In contrast, Africa's share declined from 12 per cent in 1985 to less than 7 per cent in 1993.

Rates of growth in per capita income in favoured Asian countries reflect the efforts of FDI (Tables 1 and 2) and seriously question the validity of grouping disparate countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America in an undifferentiated category called 'the Third World'.

The use of information technology - the spearhead of globalisation - likewise has been far from uniform. If one takes the number of computers registered on the Internet, a reasonable indicator of the spread of this technology, one can say that the information revolution has, so far, eluded most of Africa and a large proportion of people in Asia (World Bank, 1995: 46). In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 per cent of the labour force are employed in the agricultural sector; in Asia, the comparable figure is 65 per cent. The majority of people in the non-European world still rely on the local economy and traditional technologies: globalisation is by no means universal.

Even the countries that have had considerable success in attracting capital do not necessarily thereby ensure a certain future. The recent Mexican crisis illustrates the damage that developing countries encounter from hosting speculative, portfolio investments from abroad. Globalisation is not always beneficial.

It is against this background that I wish to set the challenges and opportunities that the workers and the workers' movement face in our transnationalised world. Industrial workers, the focus of my analysis, account for only a small proportion of the workforce in the developing world. In that workforce, the proportion of women is even smaller. Yet the issues, I feel, are vital, as potential gains and losses in the nonagricultural jobs become the major arena of negotiation between the developed and the developing world (Wood, 1994; Sachs and Shatz, 1994).

Women's gains in the services sector

It is in this context that the question of women industrial workers becomes especially significant. In open economies, women have become major beneficiaries as well as prime losers in the restructuring process. A focus on women highlights the contradictory nature of impacts of globalisation (Mister and Rowbotham, 1995): a feature that is omitted from aggregate figures related either to gross domestic products or to FDI.

Some of the major areas of expansion in the globalised economy are banking, finance and insurance. In numerical terms, women have done well, often gaining jobs at the expense of men. It is not possible as yet to give an exact estimate of women's gains in these sectors in the developing world. Some of the micro-studies, documented through research at UNU/ INTECH, however, capture the current trend.

In the last two decades, the Indian banking industry has experienced nearly 300 per cent growth in employment; women have gained a major share of the jobs. Women have fared particularly well in foreign banks. In Citibank, Bombay, less that 5 per cent of the workers were women in the early 1970s. They currently account for more than 70 per cent of the total workforce. Women are represented, but only marginally, in the programming and management areas; but they are markedly visible in the clerical and data-entry work.

The rationale for recruiting women is stereotypical but works in favour of women. According to a union official in Bombay:

Management feels women are better on computers [than men] as they have routine clerical skills ... firesides,] management realises that women are submissive ... and have less time for union work. (Gothoskar, 1995: 165)

As the share of new jobs, requiring computer literacy, rises, the traditional jobs, such as those of sorters or messengers, become redundant. The result has been a decline in the 'bargainable' posts - posts that carry with them the automatic rights of unionization. Women see the ambivalent effects of the emerging situation on the quality of their working lives:

As a unionist I would oppose computerization band liberalisationJ; as an employee, AT would welcome it. This is my dilemma. (Gothoskar, 1995: 154)

The emergence of a new white-collar female workforce in the information era makes particularly clear the need to differentiate workers, on grounds other than gender (Gannage, 1995; Ng and Yong, 1995). The new low-skilled data-entry workers share with blue collar women workers some concerns relating to their multiple roles as workers, mothers, wives, and homemakers. Nonetheless, the new white collar workers belong to a relatively more privileged class and hence have demands that are different from those of the blue-collar workers. In a programme for initiating or strengthening workers' organizations, it becomes important to bear in mind the divergent needs and backgrounds of specific groups of women workers. Ethnicity, too, moulds a worker's identity and status. The experience of Malaysia, as recounted by Cecilia Ng and Carol Yong (1995: 186), in the context of the telecommunications industry, is illuminating on this point:

... ethnic and class differentials are as important as (and sometimes more important than) gender differentials. In the telecommunications sector, the hierarchical occupational leader prevents the majority of men and women from climbing to the top ... but it remains easier for Malays of either sex or for Chinese men. Indians ... remain at the bottom.

The opening up of the national economies and the rising share of the information intensive services in the world export trade herald fresh opportunities in some of the larger and economically more powerful developing nations. India and Brazil have made considerable inroads, for example, into the software programming sector, both as consumers and as producers (World Bank, 1995: Mitter and Pearson, 1992). The software industry has created lucrative jobs, for men as well as for women.

Women account for nearly 48 per cent of all information processing jobs in Brazil: the largest number are in simple data-processing work. Nonetheless, women have managed to get nearly 20 per cent or more of the software programming and developmental work - a much better record than that in the traditional professional jobs, such as engineering (Gaio, 1995). In India, on a conservative estimate, women occupy nearly 20 per cent of software and related jobs. With the rising importance of the 'soft' side of technical knowledge, such as communications and user-producer interaction, women in future are likely to achieve greater economic power in the managerial and technical echelons. In the fields of software or information-intensive management, values associated with femininity such as teamwork, service orientation, and communication skills, are becoming highly prized. The picture of a confident Asian woman executive alongside Peter Drucker, on the cover of the March 1995 issue of the management magazine Work Executive Digest, is a telling sign of our times.

Women lose out in blue-collar jobs

The position of blue-collar workers in the emerging economic order, by contrast, is less optimistic and more complex. Robotic technology reduces the need for labour-intensive assembly-line work and thus for cheap unskilled labour in the developing world. As we move, in the area of world trade and competition, from the notion of labour- or capital-intensive to knowledge-intensive modes of production, TNCs direct their investment to countries that offer the promise of cheap, skilled labour and adequate infrastructures. In the process of restructuring, it is the workers with outmoded skills who face redundancy, while joint venture companies complain of unfilled vacancies due to shortages of expertise and skilled labour. Such trends are strikingly visible in transitional economies such as China or Vietnam (Meihe et al., 1994: 64). The representatives of labour federations from these countries recall:

In China, industries have been laying off surplus workers, many of whom are women ... [some] adopted the policy of 'ladies firsts in deciding who should be laid off.... In Vietnam, during the reorganisation of state enterprises and offices, many employees were laid off ... more than 60 per cent of them were woman.

The age of the worker counts as well. In the new economic regime, there is a strong preference for young, qualified workers. Even in the manufacturing sector, computer skills are increasingly sought; older women, with the responsibilities of childcare, find it difficult either to afford or to obtain relevant training in the requisite skills. The situation is comparable in most countries that are linked to the international economy, either in the labour-scarce countries such as South Korea or labour-surplus countries such as China and Vietnam. Preferential retirement policies are aimed specifically et 'senior' women workers, who are often not much over 35 years old.

Shifts in the location of work to the small-scale sector

The globalisation of national economies results not only in the loss and gain of jobs, it also results in shifting the location of work. The drive towards subcontracting means reduction in the volume of work at large sites and transference of jobs to subcontracting units in the Third World (Mister, 1994a: 20-22). This explains why the number of unionised workers declines even when the employment in transnational production goes up (Ling, 1994: 49).

Automation and subcontracting are two important facets of globalization and technology transfer. They both reduce women's prospects of assembly-line employment in the organised sector. Export processing zones typify such prospects, where the share of women in the total labour force shows a sign of decline (UNCTAD, 1994: 202). In rnaquiladora industries, the decline has been quite sharp (Hualde, 1995), as the upgrading of required skills has meant greater opportunities for men than women. In contrast, the number of jobs for women in small and medium-scale enterprises has gone up in almost all regions. Women workers view the situation with understandable alarm, as the small- and medium-scale enterprises offer workers far less favourable terms and conditions of work. In Bangladesh, young women who found jobs in the export-orientated garment factories are reluctant to give up their newfound status. The employment situation is not perfect in these factories, but it is better than in the alternative opportunities that women find, in the sex industry or agro-business, or in the small-scale sector. Women workers wish to retain the gains that the globalization of production has brought to them in formal sector employment.

We will not go back to the villages, we will not become dependent on others. (Mitter,1994b: 100)

Challenges for the labour movement

The phenomenon of globalization, then, has had complex and often contradictory impacts on the industrial and urban workforce of the developing world. It has provided new opportunities as well as fresh challenges.

It is at this point that I should like to question the post-modernist pessimism of the view that says 'everything is in constant flux' in the current global order. The new working class those who are on flexible contracts, employed in the services sector and small enterprises - are reasonably precise in the articulation of their demands. As women form a large proportion of this new workforce, it is important for the labour movement to give attention to women's needs and demands (Mister, 1994a). It would be wrong to assume that all women share the same aspirations and similar concerns. Yet, because of their role as primary homemakers and carers for children, most women tend to have different priorities in their workplace from men.

In order to ensure that women gain, on a par with men, from the benefits of the new economic order, women want the labour movement to have a more holistic and woman-orientated approach towards mobilising workers in the transnational world. It is timely to stress this point, as efforts in reorientating the labour movement focus mainly on its structure rather than on the nature of its demands.

The structural problems, of course, are crucial, especially in the context of the growing importance of TNCs in the developing world. As the World Investment Report (1994) so succinctly puts it, it is difficult for the trade union movement to match the organizational scope of the TNCs by transnationalising their own structures, because of:

... differences in labour market legislation, the problem of defining mutual interests atoning differently organised national groups ... and the difficulties of organizing workers from the increasingly fluid relations within TNC networks. (UNCTAD, 1994: xxxi)

Even in its exclusive focus on structure, the World Investment Report fails to take note of the challenges of organising the unorganized workers of dispersed small subcontractors of the national and increasingly transnational corporations (Martens and Mitter, 1994). In order to be relevant to the needs of women in the unorganized sector, the workers' organizations - within or outside trade unions - need to have a patient, long-term approach to organising, with a focus on campaigns that may last for years(Mitter, 1994b).

But it is not simply a question of structure. In order to be credible to workers of both the organised and the unorganised sectors, the labour movement needs to take up issues that are particularly important for working women. Women, irrespective of their class and background, demand:

· provisions such as maternity leave and child care, which would allow them to combine their productive and reproductive roles and thus improve the overall quality of their lives;
· training and education, which would make it possible for them to have a sustainable and lifelong career in the urban industrial sector;
· flexible forms of employment, on terms that would enable them to combine their working and family lives without jeopardising their long-term health;
· knowledge regarding the health and safety aspects of computer-aided forms of production (Ng, 1994b; Pearson and Mitter, 1993).

In the privatised, deregulated national economies, it is neither feasible nor reasonable to expect the employers to meet all the demands. The demand for maternity leave, for example, can lead to corporate employers' preference for male workers. For unions, and for the women workers' movement outside the unions, it will be increasingly necessary to lobby for a different, more proactive, role for the national governments. This will be necessary to ensure a better working environment, with greater resources for education, training, and social provisions. The resulting benefits, of improved human resources and infrastructure, in turn, may entice a larger flow of FDI.

The withering away of the state is by no means compatible with the long-term welfare of the workers in the globalised economic order. In the coming millennium, women workers of the Third World will thus demand a new role for the state, for themselves, and for men.


I This paper, given at the CASID conference, Montreal, Canada (4-6 June 1995) is a more fully elaborated version of Swasti Mitter's presentation at the 'Women's Rights and Development' seminar.


Fukuyama, F (1992) The End of History and the Last Man, Hamish Hamilton, London.

Gaio, FJ (1995) 'Women in software programming: the experience of Brazil', in Mitter and Rowbotham (1995).

Gannage, C (1995) 'Restructuring and retraining: the Canadian garment industry in transition', in Mirter and Rowbotham (1995).

Gothoskar, S (1995)'Computerisation and women's employment in India's banking sector', in Mitter and Rowbotham (1995).

Hobsbawm, E (1994) Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London.

Hualde (1995): 'Changing gender structure of employment in maquiladoras: implications for training'. Mimeo, UNU-INTECH, Maastricht.

Kaplinsky, R. with A Posthuma (1994) Easternisation: The Spread of Japanese Management Techniques, Frank Cass, London.

Ling, Wong Wai (1994) 'Technological changes and the employmentsituation of women in East and South East Asia', in Ng (1994).

Martens, M H. and S Mitter, (eds.) (1994) Women in Trade Unions: Organising the Unorganised, ILO, Geneva.

Meihe Z. Yan Gue Itai, and Le Thi (1994) 'women and new technology in China and Vietnam', in Ng (1994).

Mitter, S (1994a) 'What women demand of technology', New Left Review, May/June.

Mitter, S (1994b) 'An overview', in Martens and Mitter (1994).

Mitter, S. and R Pearson (1992) Global information processing: the emergence of software and data entry jobs in selected developed countries, Sectoral Activities Programme Working Papers, ILO, Geneva.

Mitter, S. and S Rowbotham (1995) Women Encounter Technology: Perspectives of the Third World, Routledge, London.

Ng, C, (ed.) (1994) 'New Technologies and the Future of Women's Work in Asia: Conference Proceedings of the Workshop held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia', UNU/INTECH, Maastricht.

Ng, C, and C Yong (1995) 'Information technology, gender and employment: a case study of the telecommunications industry in Malaysia', in Mitter and Rowbotham (1995).

Pearson, R. and S Mitter (1993). 'Employment and working conditions of low-skilled information processing workers in less developed countries', International Labour Review 132 (1).

Sachs, J and Z Shatz (1994) 'Trade and jobs in US manufacturing', Brooking Paper on Economic Activity 1, The Brooking Institute, Washington DC.

UNCTAD (1994) World Investment }report, 1994: Transnational Corporations, Employment and the Workplace, United Nations, New York and Geneva.

Wood, A (1994) North-South Trade, Employment and Inequality: Changing Fortunes in a Skill-driven World, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

World Bank (1995) Global economy prospects and the developing countries, 1995, World Bank, Washington DC.