World systems theorists were among the first to use the concept of an international division of labor by illustrating how the production of goods and services for ‘‘core’’ or more developed countries relied on the material resources of ‘‘peripheral’’ or developing nations (Wallerstein 1974). Their work describes the changing political and economic relationships among nations over the last six centuries, beginning with the period of colonization when Western European nations took possession of other countries in order to gain access to their raw materials such as sugar, coffee, gold, silver, or labor sold into slavery. By the middle of the twentieth century most of those colonies had gained their political freedom and titular control over their own resources, but were never able to break away from their economic dependence on highly industrialized countries.
In the twentieth century a new process called global or economic restructuring created a new form of international division of labor between the developed countries (now labeled the global North, a term replacing the old Cold War label ‘‘First World’’) and the developing nations (now called the global South, which replaced the concept of a ‘‘Third World’’). Beginning in the 1970s, in order to lessen production costs and enabled by improvements in information and production technologies, US, Japanese, and Western European corporations began to ‘‘off shore’’ some of their production processes to the global South, often moving to export processing zones (EPZs) within these countries, which are defined as industrial zones that provide manufacturing infrastructure, tax reductions, low labor costs, lax environmental regulations, and other incentives. As a result of this worldwide economic restructuring, much basic manufacturing and heavy industrial production were relocated to developing nations, while corporate headquarters, service work, and final product finishing stayed in developed nations. This process was initially referred to as the growth of the global assembly line or the global factory (Kamel 1990). Instead of taking raw material resources from their former colonies, transnational corporations (TNCs) based in the global North rely on residents of the global South to provide inexpensive labor for factories now located in developing countries.
In addition, international development or funding agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank influence global South economies when they loan money to poor and developing nations, because loans are tied to required austerity measures known as structural adjustment programs (SAPs). SAPs require the debtor countries to reduce government expenditures on social services and increase production for export, rather than supporting independent local businesses that produce for local consumption, in order to earn more foreign currency to pay back these loans. An important byproduct of these two factors – TNCs relocating production overseas and structural adjustment programs – is that developing economies are indirectly controlled by transnational corporations and/or funding agencies located in developed nations, thus reinforcing a new international division of labor.
This international division of labor is profoundly gendered in many ways. Mies et al. (1988) observed there has been an international trend towards the ‘‘housewifization’’ of all labor – an interesting term that incorporates several aspects of the relationship between paid work and women’s unpaid work at home. First, paid work is becoming increasingly feminized, with new jobs in the service sector drawing more on women’s than men’s labor. Indeed, some of women’s traditional white and pink collar jobs, such as data entry or telephone call in work, are now being sent to workers in developing countries, especially to English speaking, former British colony nations (Freeman 2000).
Second, paid work is increasingly organized like women’s housework, with jobs that require flexible schedules and are occupationally segregated. Such ‘‘flexibilization’’ of the world economy refers to the growth of part time, temporary, or seasonal employment. In developed countries, this process is most visible in the growth of the service sector. In developing economies flexibilization usually refers to the need for families to have multiple income sources based on subsistence farming, vending, or other forms of self-employment, and perhaps some formal paid work.
Third, many of these jobs, like market trading, factory outwork, or off the books childcare, are found in the informal sector of the global economy that is rapidly expanding but, like housework, is not regulated by national labor laws. Therefore, increasing ‘‘informalization’’ of work often accompanies flexibilization.
Fifth, since women’s traditional tasks are stereotyped as unskilled (although they are not), companies or individual employers can more easily pay less and provide less job security. In other words, economic restructuring and the international division of paid labor created new jobs that have many of the characteristics of women’s paid work and unpaid carework and housework, which is not surprising since women are the source of new labor in most countries worldwide.
Recent scholarship by Parren˜ as (2000), Hondagneu Sotello and Avila (1997), and others illustrates that there also is an international division of reproductive or carework labor. This occurs when women from developing countries migrate internationally to more developed ones to perform paid carework for other women, then use their earnings to hire someone back home (often a rural to urban migrant or another family member) to take care of their own families. Parrenas (2000) argues that this labor chain, transferring white women’s domestic and reproductive labor to women of color from developing nations, creates an international system of racial stratification in reproductive work and makes temporary overseas ‘‘contract workers’’ into a new export commodity for some developing countries.
While the international division of labor continues to change forms, one of the constant features is its gendered and raced nature.
- Freeman, C. (2000) High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work, and Pink Color Identities in the Caribbean. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
- Hondagneu-Sotello, P. & Avila, E. (1997) ‘‘I’m Here, But I’m There’’: The Meanings of Latina Transnational Motherhood. Gender and Society 11(5): 548-71.
- Kamel, R. (1990) The Global Factory: Analysis and Action for a New Economic Era. Omega Press/American Friends Service Committee, Philadelphia.
- Mies,M., Bennholdt-Thomson, V., & von Werlhof, C. (1988) Women: The Last Colony. Zed Books, London.
- Parrenas, R. S. (2000) Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor. Gender and Society 14(4): 560-80.
- Wallerstein, I. (1974) The Modern World System I. Academic Press, New York.
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