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1. Expansion Of Rural Industrialization
During the 1970s, transformative industries spread throughout the rural zones of many developing nations. These enterprises shared ﬁve features: they all involved industries engaged in the manufacture of basic consumer goods; the goods were produced in small-to medium-sized ﬁrms; working conditions and wages were marginal relative to those in the formal economy of state-regulated employer–worker relations; many, though not all, of the workers were women laboring in their own homes; and the women recruited for such labor tended to be young and single (Arias 1988, Wilson 1991).
Women have always participated in the domestic chores and contributed to the income of rural households, but heretofore their work was unpaid and involved activities that were labeled as ‘female.’ Rural industrialization changed all that and unleashed paid labor and contractual employment outside of the household yet within the rural setting (Bachrach Ehlers 1993, Boris and Daniels 1989). Until then, female contact with paid work and manufacturing employment only occurred through migration to the city.
The most common transformative industries now present in developing rural areas are, in decreasing order: the canning of fruits, vegetables, meats, and marine products; making clothing and fabrics; the manufacture of goods, candies, and electronics; and the transformation of popular crafts into marketable ‘folk art.’ Until recently, this manufacturing generally occurred in ‘traditional’ industries, which relied on the intensive use of poorly-paid labor as the preferred strategy for adapting to markets that are substantial, but fragmented and ever-changing, and to consumer demands that may be intense but ephemeral. Under these circumstances, access to a ready niche of low-cost labor has been crucial to sustaining the economic viability of these ﬁrms (Bradley 1989).
The expansion of industry into rural areas has been particularly intense in Asia (notably in China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan) and Latin America (especially Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic), as well as in the less-developed countries of southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Spain and Italy). Rural industrialization is more common in countries with high fertility and a large share of the population living outside of cities.
The association between rural industrialization and female employment across such a wide variety of countries suggests that, under the present global economic regime, certain industries have come upon a powerful political-economic strategy that takes advantage of and reinforces gender relations within rural environments. As a result, rural women have increasingly become one of the best options for securing a steady supply of labor that is cheap, docile, ﬂexible, and unorganized, that is widely available in many developing settings (Dwyer and Bruce 1988, Mencher 1988).
The rapid expansion of rural industrialization and its eﬀective rooting in many peasant societies has been interpreted from two principal perspectives: that of the labor market and that of the household. The notion of the social construction of diﬀerence is essential to understanding the issue that both perspectives seek to theorize: how to construct and maintain a workforce that will accept the low salaries, unstable working conditions, and discriminatory treatment of women that prevail in rural manufacturing?
The endless search for and creation of niches of cheap manual labor is made possible by what Maruani (1991) calls the ‘social construction of diﬀerence,’ which can be understood as a dynamic mechanism permitting the selective deﬁnition of jobs and wages along the lines of gender, race, legal status, and other demographic criteria in such a way as to invent, recreate, and conserve hierarchies that legitimate segregation, inequality, and discrimination. Through the social construction of diﬀerence, rural industrialists have been able to keep labor costs down by creating social categories of people who can be oﬀered lower wages for work under precarious conditions (Maruani 1991).
2. The Labor Market Perspective
The creation of niches of low-cost manual labor might be explained simply as a consequence of macroeconomic changes and recent policies of structural adjustment, not only in poor sectors, but in the traditional sectors that have assured the survival of rural society despite its long state of crisis. Indeed, the dyad of rural industrialization female work appears to be strongly associated with the deterioration and stagnation of tasks characteristic of rural life: agriculture, cattle raising, and sheep herding. This association implies an irremediable crisis of the proverbially male occupations of rural society that aﬃrmed the role of men as principal providers for their households.
In the context of local poverty and family crisis, women have been compelled to accept whatever oﬀers of work have come along, however undesirable. This acceptance was facilitated by rural women’s low level of education and information about the norms and rules of paid labor in formal urban settings. But education and information are not the only factors. Conserving female labor as a low-cost resource results from a social process of ‘deskilling’ of those tasks carried out by women.
3. Deskilling As A Social Construction
In rural society, it is commonly accepted that female employment occurs thanks to abilities acquired in the home, such as housekeeping, a knowledge of the kitchen, and dexterity at sewing, which together open the door to cannaries and workshops that make shoes, clothes, toys, and other consumer goods. As these abilities are taken to be ‘natural,’ or at least learned at home, employers treat them as ‘unskilled’ jobs to which a low value may be assigned relative to the manufacturing tasks learned by men.
This ‘cheapening’ of female labor also arises from seeing the work of women in terms of ‘feminine’ attributes: that they are careful, attentive, ﬁne, delicate, and sensitive. These qualities are seen as part of the innate character of woman, rather than as part of the skill set associated with paid labor and priced in the market.
Another factor in women’s low wages and hours of work is their responsibility for reproductive tasks and to domestic responsibilities (England 1993). Indeed, Dwyer and Bruce (1988) have calculated that most of the part-time labor done in the world today is carried out by women. This limits the possibilities for women to approach work as a career developed over the long term. Because of domestic responsibilities, in-home paid labor, which is easier to combine with domestic tasks, has been embraced among rural women. They know that it is poorly paid, but for some it is the only combination possible for making money while not neglecting household obligations (Fernandez-Kelly and Garcıa 1989).
In this way, there has been an eﬀective adaptation of the rural market for manufacturing labor to the situation of rural women. The instability of the rhythms of production, a key entrepreneurial element in cheapening the cost of manual labor, is manipulated as a mechanism to achieve labor ‘ﬂexibility,’ which in turn emanates from and is adapted to the needs of female workers. The irregularity and instability of production, the continual opening and closing of factory doors, and payment by piece rate (according to the number of units produced) all form part of the prevailing economic model, which comes to exemplify and derogate the women themselves: it is they who are unskilled, they who require labor ﬂexibility, and they who earn what they want, when they want it. In this way, rural manufacturing has been able to maintain and recreate the precarious conditions of the labor market such that they are viewed as a concession on the part of employers to women’s domestic responsibilities. This social disqualiﬁcation of female labor might diminish over time, but that process is slowed by another deeply rooted social fact: gender diﬀerences within the family.
4. The Household Perspective
It is only recently that investigators began to underscore the importance of household sur i al strategies as crucial mechanisms that permit poor households to organize production and consumption, not simply to adapt to changes associated with the life cycle, but to surmount the repeated economic crises that have buﬀeted Third World economies in recent years. We know that family survival strategies include not only cooperation, but also conﬂict, domination, and inequality, such that men are often able to impose their preferences and decisions on women (Dwyer and Bruce 1988, Ward 1993). The household is an arena in which the tasks and obligations of members, whose interests and powers may clash, are subject to continuous contestation.
Gender inequalities are manifested in the labor force behavior of family members. The broader political economy extends into intradomestic strug gles. Rural men and women conceive of, are conceived of, and for that matter oﬀer themselves very diﬀerently to the labor market, at least in certain core matters that not only signal diﬀerences, but reﬂect broader inequalities and hierarchies with respect to gender: the family–individual relation and conceptualization of male and female work.
4.1 Family–Individual Relations
During the 1970s, the availability of paid labor in cannaries, workshops, factories, and maquiladoras was, in many cases, something entirely new in the life of rural communities (Ward 1993). Given economic crisis, rural families could not aﬀord to pass up opportunities for work within their own communities. They began to redeﬁne priorities and reorganize to harness emergent opportunities; and they did this in accord with traditional gender hierarchies. It was clearly a complex undertaking trying to incorporate these new labor opportunities while conforming to the idea that the female condition is permanent and immutable. With the aim of mitigating the social eﬀects that women’s wages and the power they potentially bring, the family positioned itself as the crucial intermediary in recruiting and organizing the new systems of work that arrived in the countryside (Hareven 1982, Rosado 1988).
In general, families looked to assure the permanence of two basic principles: to assure new income for the family, and to safeguard ‘morality’ in the face of the compromises entailed in taking paid labor. One form of mitigating the potentially disruptive eﬀects of female work and extra-familial income was to send only young, single women into the workforce, i.e., those who lived in their paternal home and therefore had much less power to negotiate within the family. The selection of young unmarried women assured that the new earnings would be incorporated directly into the family circle. Under the authority of the father, the income generated by daughters was socially deﬁned as an obligatory family contribution, much the same as the fulﬁlling of any other domestic obligation of a daughter or sister.
The contrasting family responsibilities of men and women are also evident in what happens to the earnings. As has been shown in a variety of societies, men experience much greater latitude than women in deciding what to do with their money, even when they are unmarried (Dwyer and Bruce 1988). In the end, the conservation of family norms and values was more important to male family members than the struggle to better working conditions or wages for their wives and daughters.
4.2 Male Work As ‘Obligation’
The conceptualization of work and what one expects to achieve through it also distinguishes men from women. For men, work is viewed as an obligation through which the man must (but also can) fulﬁll the role of fundamental family provider. Through work, he hopes to generate income, suﬃcient to cover the basic necessities of those who depend on him, although this, as we know, is an ideological construction of relative recency in history, with little relation to economic reality (Rothstein 1995).
This social construction has assigned men both the obligations and the rights of a family provider. This means that men have the freedom to seek out the best pay and working conditions, rejecting jobs that cannot support their family. This makes it socially acceptable for men to reject poorly paid jobs and to migrate far from home in search of better jobs. Through mobility, men may avoid the low salaries oﬀered in agriculture, agribusiness, manufacturing, and the maquiladoras that were built throughout the rural world in the 1970s (Arias and Wilson 1997). This helps explain the association in the countryside between an abundant demand for labor and at the same time the ongoing departure of men for other regions or countries in search of work.
This paradox illustrates another characteristic of male migration: that they can move away for work while still meeting their family obligations and not disturbing (indeed, reinforcing) the social framework in which they form a part, for they know that mothers, wives, and sisters will be charged with maintaining their ﬁlial and familial obligations (Massey et al. 1987). In most societies, as Dwyer and Bruce (1988) indicate, the time that men actually devote to their children has always been meager and is easily reduced without repercussion.
The situation of the rural woman is entirely different. For her, liberty and the freedom to disengage from domestic obligations do not exist, so that her justiﬁcation in leaving to look for work, or to ﬁnd better working conditions, is truly limited and is supposed to be arranged through a long and costly negotiation with other women to take charge of the domestic responsibilities that she will no longer be able to meet.
4.3 Feminine Work As Complementary ‘Help’
The paid work of women is governed by very diﬀerent notions; it is seen as complementary help. Women’s work is, and has always been seen as a form of altruistic collaboration, that is voluntary, generous, and absolute in comparison with male labor (Folbre 1988). That a woman is hardworking and that her eﬀorts indeed ‘help’ and ‘complement’ the family income speaks well of her in moral and marital terms, but may limit her cash contribution to the family. In this gendered process, women’s paid work, as ‘complementary help,’ is devalued. The eﬀorts of women are socially recognized, but they are not seen as important work and are assigned an inferior status relative to men’s work (Dwyer and Bruce 1988, Saﬁlios-Rothschild 1988).
To speak of work as ‘complementary’ because it is female is a way of downgrading and devaluing, a priori, the contribution of women to household resources. Moreover, as Dwyer and Bruce (1988) and Ward (1993) have pointed out, in many societies it is socially accepted that men can retain a part of their earnings for themselves (and often the family never knows exactly what proportion of male earnings are retained). In contrast, wives and daughters are expected to hand over to the family all-resources obtained outside the household (Mencher 1988). Thus, women’s earnings may be a resource families count on more than men’s. Thus, seeing women’s work as secondary ‘complementary help’ is a social construction rather than an accurate portrayal of the situation.
Seeing female labor as ‘help’ makes it socially manageable by the family. But, the notion of women’s work as ‘help’ limits it several ways. First, it reaﬃrms that the female priority remains reproduction and domestic responsibilities; if the work of the woman is only ‘help,’ it is by deﬁnition insuﬃciently important to require renegotiation of the distribution of roles and tasks within the household. Second, the notion of female paid labor as ‘help’ assures that it remains of lower value, and in this way, that the woman is always available to leave it to resume her function in the family if needed. Third, viewing female labor as ‘help’ guarantees that in the face of family economic crises, the woman can (and must) enter the market to work and to accept conditions and wages that men are not expected to take, but that once the immediate crisis passes, she will return to her fundamental priority of the family (Hareven 1982). Finally, the notion of female work as ‘help’ is a key mechanism to avoid discrediting socially or maritally the work and earnings of men. Facing transitional labor markets that have shifted the balance of work opportunities between the sexes, the notion of ‘help’ contributes to the maintenance of traditional obligations and rights within the family, in obvious detriment to the position of the women themselves.
Thus, the conceptualization of female work as ‘help’ of a ‘complementary’ nature can be seen, in the end, as a porous category in which the social devaluation occurring in the labor market intersects with the social hierarchies of gender within the household. This intersection is what permits employers continued access to sources of low-cost labor, on the one hand, and the perpetuation of female work as subordinate to family obligations, on the other.
5. Recent Changes
As expected, the experience of female labor outside the household has aﬀected gender relations within communities and families. Notwithstanding social resistance from employers as well as their families, women have begun to modify their relationships within the family and with employers. In rural societies in which the paid work of women forms an integral or intermittent part of local economic life, and where it is possible to encounter two or more generations of female workers, they have been renegotiating relations with their families that are less unequal, particularly with respect to education, mobility, and control over earnings, against the backdrop of a labor market ever more oriented to labor rights (Rosado 1988).
National and international struggles have been undertaken by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and women themselves during the 1990s, especially in Southeast Asia. The globalization of the economy has helped women to understand their conditions better and has extended the struggle of female workers to a geographic scale never before seen. Increasingly women have contested not only wages and work conditions that function outside the law, but those that violate basic human rights, such as the right of association, the limitation of child labor, and exposure to hazardous conditions, as well as combating diﬀerent types of labor market discrimination. The struggle by female workers and NGOs has now succeeded to the point where some large international companies operating at the global level have developed norms assuring human and labor rights for workers connected to them under various subcontracting arrangements. Al- though this is only a beginning, it indicates that rural industrialization may have entered a new phase of development.
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