T3-13: Women’s voice

6 September 2019, 16:45–18:15

Chair: Isabella Biletta


Feminisation and exploitation of labour in India

Evidence from special economic zone

Sazzad Parwez, School of Development Studies, Indian Institute of Health Management Research University

This paper examines a new and ever-growing feminization of workforce in Special Economic Zone and implicative dynamism based on theoretical and empirical methodologies. It focuses on furthering the understanding and reasoning of prevailing employment pattern, working condition and resultant implications for women workers in the backdrop of absentia of welfare regime both at state and sweatshop level. The paper combines descriptive analysis of manual labour of women at economic enclaves leading to series of exploitative practices

This study applied a two-phase methodology, to gather both quantitative and qualitative data. For largely logistical and financial reasons, the quantitative survey was completed first. Then, about a year later, the qualitative research was undertaken. Field work for the quantitative data collection was undertaken in July-October 2015 in state of Gujarat.

The quantitative survey was completed with Secondary data has been taken from various government reports (National Sample Survey, Annual Survey of Industries, Economic Survey etc.), and other relevant data sources. The second phase was a qualitative survey designed to capture the perspectives of other stakeholder groups on issues affecting the labour condition. It involved interviews with workers, SEZ unit’s manager, labour contractors, labour officers, trade unions members and civil society members.

The feminization of the labour force is taking place in India since independence- first it was slow to begin with, but it surged after economic reforms in 1991. Even though employment opportunities may have increased, but weak immobile labour class has been left to the mercy of mobile and powerful capital. Currant form of the labour welfare legislations and implementation is with the capitalism and appropriation.

Evidently bargaining power of labour, irrespective of gender is on the decline. Traditionally, women workers have found themselves at even a greater disadvantage position. This ‘greater disadvantage’ can be explained through a patriarchal structure, formed with the status of identities and their bearing on society. The bargaining power of lower caste, lower class women workers in this structure is much lesser, not only from upper caste and upper-class men but also than that of men with similar socio-economic backgrounds as them. Globalization has escalated the social and economic marginalization of women particularly contributed in forming this new form of lower rungs. Their bargaining power in the society reflects their status.

Since women were barred from the sectors that was not considered essentially fit for employment particularly in the pre-reform era, but skepticism remains. Even meaningful economic contribution made by women workers is not recognized. The perception that women workers are inferior has perpetuated companies to secure command over them. But on the contrary, women are found to be efficient and less demanding as a worker and better than men. Manufacturing shops are in orders to cut down on labour costs, replaces man workers with women. Men have lost jobs to women; but women are no winners considering the dismal working conditions. Women are exploited in both at home and outside. Even though some time being at the upper end of the job hierarchy with relatively higher paying jobs, but women are seldom exploited if one considers worldwide evidence.

Women constraints by socio-economic restrictions are often succumb to the exploitation. But existing opportunities has not changed the situation of women as much expected, absurdly it has sustained the feminization of poverty to the greater extent. Market economy has been calling the shots in quest of manipulating the system of subordination to their advantage; as SEZs workers in general and women happens to be latest casualty. The gender socialization and the unequal power relationship that men and women share is largely dominated by women’s self-perception and how they perceive their male counterparts. They feel they deserve less because men deserve more. Socio-economic-political equality can be considered imaginary under prevailing identities and experiences of the women.

In a broad sense, the approach and actions of the state and the employers towards the worker (women), socio-economic circumstances and poor working conditions remained the same. Thus, it is easy to identify identical characteristics of workers’ plight and exploitation practices in sweatshops across the region and time.

Economic reforms have opened a new form of paid work opportunity for women. For long, women have remained marginalised and only represented overwhelmingly in the informal sector, domestic work and other casual work. Industrialisation and emergence of new formal enterprises provided impetus to the position of the poor working women. This stems from earning wage provide opportunity to take decisions, greater say in the family and community and relishing greater movement. Nevertheless, despite of new prospects, most of the women workers still live in precarious conditions with considerable insecurity in terms of the dependency on the western MNCs and import policy. Competitive global environment increases the race to the bottom among the developing economies. Women are often among the last to be included into the labour force, but in case of recession first to be terminated.

Industries tend to employ women from poverty ridden rural areas in order to leverage on availability of surplus labour and lower cost. Whole design is to create more capital in the process of exploitation and taking advantage of vulnerability of poor women. The poor socio-economic condition discourages women from protesting and tend to form allegiance with the management despite being exploited. The massive employment of women workers in SEZ contributes to the stagnation of labour movements in globalization processes.

The industrial zones have witnessed surge in employment of large number of women in last few decades. It has been beneficial for women in terms of paid employment opportunity, but the quality of work is in question. On positive note SEZs has provided opportunity to earn in the formal sector, thereby enhances their position in the family and society.

Companies in these economic enclaves hire young women workers only to reduce production cost as they lack bargaining power and considered docile in nature. Women worker’s related welfare measures are entirely absent in most of SEZ units. It must be noted that SEZ and other forms of economic enclaves has been designed to overlook welfare of workers and to concentrate only on investment, export, and creation of employment. Absence of labour welfare measures has critical impact on women workers.

Women are exploited as workers and as women, and many times, both issues are mixed in such a way that they cannot be treated separately.

So far findings suggest that SEZ symbolises lackluster approach of judicial and administrative affairs, and it has several provisions which are highly undemocratic. Given some of these concerns, SEZs cannot be the only strategy for industrialisation, and even within a broader strategy, the specific features of this policy need a systematic re-examination.

Keywords: Women; Labour; Feminisation; Exploitation; Special Economic Zone; Development

Invisible? Women unionists in sherry area. Obstacles and experiences

Eva Bermúdez-Figueroa, University of Cádiz

This paper aims to expose the process of invisibilization of women participation in the labor movement and their obstacles and experiences in taking part in the unions, as an exponent of hegemonic masculinity.  We will analyze the conclusions of research conducted in the University of Cádiz (2017-047/P01-BRM-EBF)   and financed by Electors Asociation Ganemos Jerez, with a qualitative methodology based in thirty women unionists life stories. In this project,  Women in labor movement in Sherry Area (1960-2017), we make an effort to synthesize a long period of political and economic changes in a very concrete scenario in the south of Spain, with a deep tradition on self-management and autonomous unions in an industrial area of wine and shipyards (Foweraker,1990) . Taking intersectionality as a means of analysis, in the case of this area we do not focus the ethnic or race discriminations as we do not find different ethnic groups in this area or sectors, but we do find class differences inside work and also unions (Hebson, 2001).  These women are representing different professional fields and sectors; some masculinized as the wine sector in Jerez or banking sector, some feminized professions as operators or family care, social work, teaching, and nursing. We will also make a distinction about women unionists and wives of man unionists in late Francoism period, when women in Spain weren't plenty inserted in labor market and any union activity was prosecuted by the regime. We will pay attention to the obstacles, experiences, and representations of these women about the different perceptions of dynamics in unionism, daily union company life, glass ceiling, lack of balancing of family and union and work life, protest repertories. We conclude  paying attention to the future of unionism and their necessary changes to include women in the decision making and all the areas. And this is, by the moment, very far from the reality of unionism in Spain, more specifically in Andalusia.

Context-based explanations for different occupational opportunities and employment conditions experienced by women and migrants

Andrea Signoretti, University of Trento

Addressing unequal occupational chances and employment conditions experienced by women and migrants through the application of equality measures has primarily concentrated on unions and on the cases of the United Kingdom (UK) and of the US. The context-based regulation theory has considered this research as highly useful to understand the subject but limited. Indeed, the specific focus on the UK and the US does not adequately consider and thus is not able to explain why equality outcomes vary among countries (Martinez-Lucio and Connolly, 2010, Connolly et al., 2014). These varied outcomes are seen as connected with different context-sensitive union strategies that, although playing a central role, should also be considered in interconnection with other stakeholders’ agency and external factors. This theoretical approach has been rarely applied; it has usually been enunciated in general terms. The article extends the theory through its detailed articulation.

Starting with the actor-based dimension, unions’ representation of disadvantaged social groups is analysed by looking into the underlying concept of union identity in terms of internal solidarity (Heery and Conley, 2007) and approach towards employers (Hyman, 2001). At the same time, union action is considered in relation with employers’ competitive strategies and with vulnerable social groups. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that disadvantaged social groups can pose different issues to employers and unions, which may reflect specific and broad social identities, experiences and practices compared to the traditional union constituency. To this regard, unions can follow universalistic or particularistic representative strategies towards these specific needs or an integration between the two (Alberti et al., 2013). Moreover, stakeholders’ agency needs to be situated within external forces. Drawing from the conceptual work of Martinez Lucio and Connolly (2010), I map these factors as belonging to the socio-economic, structural and institutional domains. As regards the socio-economic domain, local labour markets can affect work demand amongst specific social groups. In the structural domain, technology plays a pivotal role. Finally, within the institutional domain, laws and centralised collective bargaining are significant, constituting important resources for union action at the firm level.

The research question consists of understanding if the resulting theoretical model can effectively explain the variation in the regulation of women’ and migrants’ occupational opportunities and employment conditions across different contexts through a comparison between one US and one Italian auto plants. The two contexts were selected since presenting important diversities especially in terms of union identities. The research design is placed within a comparative industrial relations tradition which helps in understanding the outcomes of different systems of regulation. In order to ensure comparability, the plants were selected as it shared several important characteristics. The research method was based on the triangulation of different qualitative research techniques. Direct observation was conducted in the period of permanency in the two plants, approximately three months in both cases (in 2010 in Italy and in 2011 in the US). Semi-structured interviews involved all of the managers in the two plants and all RSUs and shop stewards (three in each case). Employees belonging to the social groups of women and migrants were involved in the interviews. The subjects explored were drawn from the specialised literature, and included labour market access, pay rate and benefits, working time, career advancement, safety and ergonomics, and job rotation (the latter of which was primarily related to safety and ergonomic issues) (Klarsfeld et al., 2012, Connolly et al., 2014).

In the case study plants, the employment of women and migrants was remarkably different between the two factories. That despite employers followed similar cost-based competitive strategies within a tiring production process requiring technology to allow women work. In the US facility, women were much more present (39% against 2% of the Italian plant) while the reverse occurred in the case of migrants. This latter outcome was due to their different presence in the local areas, in turn deriving from different local labour market performances.

As regards employment conditions, in the US factory, shop stewards incorporated women’s representation within concessive negotiations by following an integrative approach. Indeed, after having integrated women into the workforce by assuring them equal occupational opportunities, the union started following a traditional collective based-approach of negotiation to address any possible discriminatory treatment. Women resulted to be satisfied with this action. In the Italian plant, unions clearly followed a class-based approach characterized by an adversarial stance. In such a way, unions were able to resist concessions required by managers for instance in terms of higher and less regulated extra time. Despite these results, unions were not able to fully represent migrant workers.

The theoretical model is found to be valid to explain the expected superior protection that vulnerable social groups experience in the US context compared with the Italian case. Union identity emerges as a crucial element in both contexts to explain the results, and turns out to be imbued with historical trajectories and models of union representation. However, this action was affected by the other actors and external factors considered.


  • Alberti, G., Holgate, J., & Tapia, M. (2013). Organising migrants as workers or as migrant workers? Intersectionality, trade unions and precarious work. International Journal of Human Resources Management, 24(22), 4132-4148.
  • Connolly, H., Marino, S. & Martinez Lucio, M. (2014). Trade union renewal and the challenges of representation: Strategies towards migrant and ethnic minority workers in the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 20(1), 5-20.
  • Heery, E., & Conley, H. (2007). Frame extension in a mature social movement: British trade unions and part-time work, 1967-2002. Journal of Industrial Relations, 49(1), 5-29.
  • Hyman, R. (2001). Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class and Society. London: Sage.
  • Klarsfeld, A., Ng, E., & Tatli, A. (2012). Social regulation and diversity management: a comparative study of France, Canada and the UK. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 18(4), 309-327.
  • Martinez Lucio, M., & Connolly, H. (2010). Contextualizing voice and stakeholders: researching employment relations, immigration and trade unions. Journal of Business Ethics, 97(1), 19-29.


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