Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Women's sweat in the global workforce

16 June 2009 |

Women's sweat in the global workforce

A new book based on three decades of pioneering research by Professor Ruth Pearson will shed light on the reality of women's empowerment in the expanding global economy, particularly in emerging markets such as China and Thailand, where they are often used as a source of cheap labour.

Professor Pearson from the Centre for Development Studies (School of Politics and International Studies) has received a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to write the book. It will explore how women now play an increasingly important role in global markets and supply chains to the West, not least because of their so-called 'nimble fingers' – the term was first used in Professor Pearson’s path-breaking article 'Nimble fingers make cheap workers', published in 1981 when she began her research in this area.

The new book will look at the current situation and consider women's future employment prospects in the face of the latest economic and political trends, the rise of outsourcing and subcontracting, decentralised economies, and changing global consumption patterns.

"I want to go beyond the generalisations and look at how new demands are being placed on women working in both traditional and new sectors of the global economy, such as clothing, electronics and horticulture," says Professor Pearson.

She says women in developing countries are generally employed below their educational level and their labour is often regarded as 'unskilled'. "There is a very gendered view of women’s work which is mixed in with social, cultural, political and economic reasons. I’m also trying to counter this myth of the male breadwinner, because in many cases women's wages are absolutely essential to support their families and pay for their children’s education. Unfortunately that means the stakes are much higher for them in the workplace, because they can't afford to lose their jobs, and they can be more easily exploited."
Professor Pearson's book will draw on her current research with Dr Kyoko Kusakabe of AIT, Bangkok, into the precarious situation of Burmese migrant women labouring in factories inside the borders of Thailand – part of the two-million plus army of migrant workers in the country. For these extremely vulnerable women, whose lives are caught between two countries, they have little bargaining power, employment protections, or even rights of citizenship. Despite the significant economic contribution they are making, these trans-national workers are never mentioned in accounts of the 'successful' industrialisation of east and south-east Asia.

A separate project led by Professor Pearson revisits the story of two major industrial disputes involving South Asian women, and highlights their little-known contribution to British labour history: the historic 1976-77 strike at Grunwick photo-processing plant in north London and the 2005 industrial dispute by women working for the airline catering company Gate Gourmet. She is working on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project with Leeds research fellow Dr Sundari Anitha and Professor Linda McDowell of Oxford University.

In the Grunwick dispute, the mostly Gujarati female workforce walked out over low pay and poor working conditions and garnered the support of other trade unions. They failed to win even their demand for union recognition, yet this long-running dispute is seen as a landmark in the British trade union movement because it made a space for women and minority workers.

By comparison, in the 2005 dispute at the Gate Gourmet airline catering firm, more than 600 workers, predominantly Punjabi women, were dismissed for taking what the company described as illegal strike action over a series of managerial changes, although their cases have been hotly disputed in a series of industrial tribunals. Of them, about 60 women are still in dispute over the union-sponsored 'compromise agreement' which has left them without jobs.

The project examines how both strikes were represented to the public through the media at the time. For the first time, it also gives a voice to the women directly involved by telling their side of the story in their own words. The research will be presented to the public in London from September alongside a major exhibition at the Women’s Library celebrating 40 years of the women’s liberation movement in Britain.

Professor Pearson's research on women's work spans three decades and has taken her all over the world to countries including Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia and Jamaica. She was deputy chair of the RAE development studies panel in 2008, sits on the board of Home Workers Worldwide, and is a steering committee member of the Department for International Development of the Decent Work and Labour Standards Forum.

Article: Ruth Taylor, The Reporter, 11 June 2009, Issue 541
Photo credit: Women crossing the river from Burma to Mai Sot, Thailand to resume work at the river factories (July 2007). Photo by Ruth Pearson.

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