Impact of Globalization on Women Workers in India
“Women do two thirds of the world’s work, receive ten percent of world’s income and own one percent of the means of production.”1 This is the present picture of women workers in the era of globalization. To understand the workplace culture for Indian women, a brief note on women’s empowerment in the present global scenario is highly essential. In the context of development, women’s leadership and agency in social change have been levers for women’s empowerment within communities. Women have sought to fight entrenched interests for community benefits, and through their collective strength, have earned a new identity. Women’s rights around the world are an important indicator to understanding global well-being.
Although women hold a unique position in every society, they still belong to a disadvantaged class of society due to various social barriers and impediments. Women are usually the most exploited and least privileged members of households and as the primary caregivers of their families, they are often overburdened with domestic work for their families. Notwithstanding their second-class status in several societies, women’s issues have acquired growing importance in all countries as the impact on gender discrimination in the political, social, economic and employment arenas have come to light.
Although the humiliation, harassment and exploitation of women have been commonplace throughout history, such treatment has become more widespread with globalization. Globalization can be viewed as the international integration of national economies, i.e., the process through which the people of the world are unified into a single society. Globalization embodies integration of international markets for goods, services, technology, finance and labor. Multinational corporations serve as the engines that are driving globalization. Multinational corporations, in particular, are assuming a major role in integrating the world economies through trade, finance, technology, investment, transfer and relocation of their business activities.2
Globalization at a minimum involves the creation of a world economy that is not merely the sum of its national economies, but rather is a powerful independent reality, created by the international division of labor and the world market, which presently predominates over national market. Large-scale, long term flows of capital, commodities, technology and labor across national boundaries define the process of globalization. However globalization has become a dominant feature of the world economy over the last decade, as more and more nations are becoming integrated into the global economy through trade and capital flows.3
DEFINITION OF GLOBALIZATION
Although academics and economists differ on the definition of globalization, globalization can generally be defined as the integration of world economies by removing barriers to trade and encouraging the free flow of foreign investment, private portfolio capital and labor across national boundaries. The main principles upon which the entire theory of globalization is based are as follows:
- Sustained economic growth, as measured by gross national product, is the path to human progress;
- Free markets i.e., markets that are free from government intervention, generally result in the most efficient and socially optimal allocation of resources;
- Economic globalization, is achieved by removing barriers to the free flow of goods and money anywhere in the world, which in turn fosters competition, creates jobs, increases economic efficiencies, lowers consumer prices, increases consumer’s choice and is generally beneficial to everyone by increasing overall economic growth;
- Privatization, which transfers functions and assets from government to the private sector, improves efficiency.
Despite this optimistic outlook towards globalization, globalization has a dark side and has the power to create highly undesirable adverse effects. In particular, globalization has the potential to lead to exploitation of the female workforce and even to jeopardize their safety. It is in this context that the following examination of the concept of globalization and its impact on the working women is necessary.
EFFECTS OF GLOBALIZATION ON WOMEN IN INDIA
The positive effect of globalization is that it has opened up broader communication lines and attracted more companies as well as different organizations into India. This provides opportunities for not only working men, but also women, who are becoming a larger part of the workforce. With new jobs for women, there are opportunities for higher pay, which raises self–confidence and brings about independence. This, in turn, can promote equality between the sexes, something that Indian women have been struggling with their entire lives. Globalization has the power to uproot the traditional treatment towards women to afford them an equal stance in society.
Despite the positive effects of globalization through increased employment opportunities for women, globalization has a darker, more sinister side. Out of the total 397 million workers in India, 123.9 million are women and of these women 96% of female workers are in the unorganized sector.4 Accordingly, although more women are now seeking paid employment, a vast majority of them obtain only poorly paid, unskilled jobs in the informal sector, without any job security or social security. Additionally working women in India are more likely to be subjected to intense exploitation; they are exposed to more and more risks that cause health hazards and are forced to endure greater levels of physical and mental stress. Thus it would appear, that globalization has made many international corporations richer by the billions at the expense of women who are suffering enormously due to this expansion of corporate empires.
HEALTH HAZARDS FACED BY WORKING WOMEN WORKING IN INDIA
One of the common hazards faced by the working class in the era of globalization is the increasing threat to job security, which in turn negatively impacts the health of female workers. Among the workers in the informal sector a large number of them are women, who have no job security. They are often unskilled workers who receive low wages. Availability of work is irregular; and when work is available, women must work long hours. It is not only in the unorganized sector or in small enterprises, but also in the modern sectors like the Information Technology and the automobile sectors where working women are forced to work for 12 hours while the local governments ignore this open flouting of the labor laws.5 The uncertainties of obtaining work and the dire need to retain a position in the midst of intense competition cause mental tension, strained social relationships, psychological problems and chronic fatigue, all of which are difficult to prove as work-related.
The advent of assembly line jobs and the increased use of machinery has resulted in a degradation of working conditions for women in India. For example, piece rated work, where assembly line workers are paid per piece produced, contributes significantly to the level of fatigue felt by the workers. The wages of piece rated workers depend on the speed with which they work. When a person’s compensation is tied to increased physical output, negative health consequences will almost inevitably ensue. While women working in piece meal industries have seen machines negatively impact their health, women in other sectors have lost their jobs as a result of technological advances. For example, several traditional industries where women work in large numbers like handloom and food processing have undergone changes in the forms of production with the introduction of machines, power looms etc, which have result in the loss of employment for large number of women.
Unemployment, underemployment and temporary work are more common among women than among men. This subset of workers do not have any social security or health care benefits. As a result, the work-related illnesses, which they suffer from, remain hidden. Furthermore, long-term unemployment constitutes a serious risk for the worker’s emotional stability, because it leads to poverty and deteriorates self-image and self-esteem.
HAZARDS RELATED TO THE ATTITUDE OF SOCIETY AND FAMILY
Though more and more women seek paid employment, the stereotypical attitude towards women and their perceived role in the familial hierarchy has not undergone much change. Women continue to be perceived as weak, inferior, second-class citizens. For working women, this discrimination is extended to the workplace also. The improper and insufficient dietary intake along with the heavy workload results in nutritional disorders. In addition, this perception that they alone are responsible for the domestic work, leads to a feeling of guilt when they are not able to look after the children or family members due to their official work, often resulting in emotional disorders.
SEXUAL HARRASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE
One of the evils of the modern society is the sexual harassment female workers endure from their male counterparts and other members of the society. Regardless of whether they are skilled or unskilled laborers or work in the organized or unorganized sector, a large number of women are harassed sexually at the workplace. In 1997, the Supreme Court, in the Visakha case, instituted a set of guidelines to ensure the prevention of sexual harassment and to protect women. The guidelines include rules against engaging in certain conduct that is deemed to be sexual harassment. The Vishaka case is considered to be a landmark case by the Supreme Court of India as it was the first time the Court ever officially recognized the need for sexual harassment laws. Until Visaka, there were hardly any laws in place to protect women against sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court judgment’s in the Visakha case, the government has yet to enact legislation which is adequate to combat the evil of the sexual harassment at workplace.6 Even the Supreme Court’s guidelines on instituting complaint committees, amending standing orders, and educating workers about sexual harassment have not been implemented in most workplaces.
In addition to sexual harassment in the workplace, women who are employed in Special Economic Zones, specially created geographical areas in which Indian laws typically do not apply, are being opened in large numbers throughout the country. While there is no explicit provision that labor laws would not be applied in these zones, in practice, even labor commissioners are not allowed inside these zones and the workers are practically at the mercy of their employers. Neither the central nor the state governments intervene to protect the interest of the workers. Without effective government oversight, workers in Special Economic Zones are subject to exploitative working conditions.
One example of women’s labor being exploited would be the Noida Export Processing Zone, which is 24km from New Delhi. These “zones,”’ prefer to hire women because they are more docile and more productive than men. In short, they are easier to control and less likely to retaliate against less than ideal working conditions, which are exactly what thousands of women encounter 12 hours a day. This Zone at Noida is dangerous, hot and unsanitary. Unnecessary body searches are routine and complaints of sexual harassments occur more frequently in these zones. Overtime is compulsory, but women are paid lower rates than men. There are no maternity benefits and minimum wage is never enforced. Women who become pregnant or marry are immediately fired. In order to avoid being fired for becoming pregnant, women turn to unsafe abortions performed by unqualified doctors. Those who work in Special Economic Zones are more likely to suffer from respiratory problems, pelvic inflammatory disease, and severe cases of dehydration and anemia are common.7 Although these Zones bring economic opportunities to women in the region, government regulations must be in place to safeguard workers.
For years women have been working in hospitals, in the telecom department and in the fish processing industry during the night shift. In the era of globalization, the number of women working the night shift is increasing with call centers and export oriented companies located in the Export Processing Zone employing women in large numbers during the night shift, without providing proper protection or transport facilities to them.
The Factories Act, 1948 is a comprehensive legislation drafted incorporating various protective provisions that provide just and humane conditions for the workers. The Factories Act was also a landmark piece of legislation, as it theoretically should have provided sufficient protection to women workers as the legislative intent was to enact laws that protected women from harassment and exploitation at the workplace. For example, section 66 of the Factories Act expressly prohibits employment of women in night shifts. Although, section 66 contains a saving clause under which state governments have been given powers to vary the limits on night shifts, such variation shall not authorize the employment of women between the hours of 10pm and 5pm. However, in Triveni K.S and others v. Union of India, ‘the constitutionality of section 66(1) clause (b) was challenged as being discriminatory on the basis of sex. Consequently section 66(1)(6) of the Act was struck down as unconstitutional by the Andra Pradesh High Court.8
Under section 66(2) of the Factories Act, 1948 the State Government has been authorized to make rules providing for exemption from restriction of working women in fish–curing or fish canning factories where employment of women beyond the permissible hours of work is necessary to prevent damage to or deterioration of any raw material. Yet in, Smt. R. Vasantha V. Union of India, the Madras High Court has struck down section 66(1)(b) of Factories Act, 1948 as unconstitutional which prohibit the employment of women in night shift.9 In this case, in upholding the contention of the women’s forums, that women should also be permitted to work during the night shift, the court had issued elaborate guidelines in furtherance of the Vishaka’s directives to be followed by the employers when women are permitted to work during night times. In the elaborate guidelines the court has extended the protection to women workers and transportation is one of the main aspects among the guidelines. It makes mandatory on the part of the employer to provide separate transportation facility to them.
The federal government is now proposing to amend this section 66 of the Factories Act to permit employment of women in night shifts. The proposed amendment attempts to generalize, legitimatize and even makes women employment in night shifts mandatory. It is pertinent to mention that the working hours of the women employees in service industry, especially modern industries like Information Technology enabled services and Business Processing Outsource services, like call centers are not well defined under the existing labor laws. Therefore they employ a large number of women in night shifts. However the proposed amendments pertain only to the Factories Act, 1948 which covers the manufacturing industry only.
Moreover even though night work will help to usher gender-parity in the work force, the apprehensions about incidents of sexual abuse are a matter of concern. The case of Pratibha Srikant, which involved the brutal rape and murder of a woman who was working in the multinational company HP in Bangalore, on December 13, 2005 highlights the serious hazard that women working in the night shifts face.10 The Supreme Court in this case has dismissed the plea of Som Mittal, former Managing Director of Hewlett Packard, to quash the First Information Report against him.11 The Supreme Court in allowing prosecution against Som Mittal stated that it is the company that is responsible for the safety of women working under them, and when there is a ban by the government on night shifts in Karnataka, Som Mittal was liable for flouting all rules and regulations. In short, Som Mittal was vicariously liable as the head of the company as it employed women workers during night shifts in direct violation of the local laws banning night shifts.
In the present global scenario women have entered all field despite various societal pressures. Thus with regard to night works, though there are guidelines provided by the highest court of the country, it is essential to ensure if the guidelines are carried out in reality. Further, it would be highly appreciable if steps are taken to curb the activities that may lead to harassment and also steps should be taken to ensure, that in each and every establishments women are safe and secure.
From the above observations, it is evident that the harassment of women is a major social problem with the wide spread entry of women into the labor force. Sexual harassment is a multidimensional phenomenon that needs to be studied from multidisciplinary perspectives. No doubt, the aspects of globalization have provided women with greater opportunities to work but. However, it has also led to gender wage differentials and the marginalization of women which is clearly reflected through segregation of women workers in certain specific jobs. Unfavorable working hours, lack of training and skill up-gradation opportunities and lesser career mobility in the formal sector of economy still prevail in almost every country. Therefore, a new vision for the future is required and we need to create an alternative society based on gender justice, ecological sustainability and local global democracy.
At this juncture, societies need to see women as dynamic promoters of social transformation, and have a powerful influence on their ability to control their environment towards contributing to economic development. Though umpteen steps are taken in this direction like invoking equality and equity, discouraging discrimination, and lengthy legislations, the picture is still disheartening and remains only in the talk. Thus creation of an environment that imparts equal status to women in family, society and the country as well is highly vital at this moment.
- 1. Richard H.Robbins, Global Problems and the culture of Capitalism, Allyn and Bacon, 1999, p.325 (quoting Martha Ward in “A World Full of Women,” p. 221, 1996).
- 2. Sumit Roy, “Globalisation, Structural Change, and Poverty,” Economic & Political Weekly, August 16-23,1997, p. 23.
- 3. James Petras “ Globalization: A Socialist perspective,” Economic and Political weekly, Feb 20,1999.
- 4. Women Workers in India in the 21st Century – Unemployment and Underemployment (2004) available at: http://www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2004/febraury/WomenWorkers.htm
- 5. Indian labor laws clearly state that the hours of work shall be only 8 hours, but in practice, companies do not comply with this rule. There is little interest on local governments to require companies to comply with the labor laws.
- 6. Visaka & others v. State of Rajasthan & others (AIR 1997 SC 3011), available at http://www.iiap.res.in/files/VisakaVsRajasthan_1997.
- 7. Sita and her daughters: Women Workers at an Indian Export-Processing Zone, available at http://www.twnside.org.sg/title/sita-cn.htm.
- 8. Triveni K.S. And Ors. vs Union Of India (Uoi) And Ors. on 2 November, 2001 available at http://indiankanoon.org/doc/432677/.
- 9. Vasantha R. vs Union Of India (Uoi) And Ors. on 8 December, 2000, available at: http://indiankanoon.org/doc/715470/3.
- 10. Pratibha case takes a new turn, The Hindu, Feb. 22, 2008 pg 13 available at: http://www.hindu.com/2008/02/22/stories/2008022258760300.htm.
- 11. The First Information Report (FIR) is the first step towards filing of a case against any person. Once a FIR is filed, it cannot be withdrawn and the case further proceeds in the respective court.