Wondering how gendered relations have changed with globalisation and full-blown neoliberalism? Well, here is an article about the ideas sorrounding the stereotypes of docile and productive cheap Asian women workers and their resistance to Transnational Corporations.
‘Cheap Woman’: The Prometheus of Neoliberal Development?
In the following essay the feminine productive trope (Salzinger 2003) – the discursive formation of the docile and productive ‘cheap’ woman worker in the transnational productive nexus- will be explored within the current capitalist accumulation order through the neoliberalisation process. It will be argued that following the internationalisation of production; the coming of a post-Fordist mode of production bound with the feminisation of labour (Standing 1999) has meant the creation of an image of a feminine productive trope, producing discoursively (Foucault 1978) an exploitable subject bound with a specific work ethic (Osorio 2012): ‘cheap woman worker’, embedded within institutions, experts, managers, corporate capitalists and women in manufacturing factories. To the extent that this gendered structure of capitalism has colonised a great number of techniques to enable the governance over the bodies of woman ensuring the construction of a specific work ethic, (docile, disciplined and productive ‘cheap’ woman) they have been geared towards the production of subjects for maximum capital accumulation. However, contrary to the hegemony of the feminine productive trope, these discursive asseverations can be lived and experienced in different manners, which is dependent on spatio-temporal contexts and locales. This entails that the main trope can be interpellated (Althusser 1971) by the subject by a wide variety of discourses along the long chain of meanings, such that in reality the woman worker is to a certain extent produced, but coincidentally also diminished or differentiated by local practices, lived experiences in the factory as well as by agents prepared to resist this powerful trope and seek political freedom to be less governed (Foucault 1997). Thus, the consequences vary according to the differentiated lived experiences, beneficial at times for Transnational Corporations and the managers and at other times constituting subjects that differentiate themselves from the dominant trope and resist it.
In the first part of the paper a broad understanding of the relationship between the neoliberal internationalisation of production and gendered subordination will be explained. This new gender order functional towards the globalisation of capital placed the dominant feminine productive trope at its centre of its reproduction, acting as a cause and a consequence of the construction and production of the docile and productive ‘cheap woman’ in the third world, in the benefit of vampire-like Transnational Corporations sucking living labour to accumulate, expand and also exploit invisible reproductive labour of women (Federeci, 2004). The differentiation within locale spaces and contexts will redefine this dominant trope interpellating the subject producing a variety of gendered meanings within the assembly factory not only amongst woman worker but also amongst the men workers and managers in a deep engrained transnational-corporate-factory discursive nexus. In the second part, the dominant feminine productive trope will be put into question with relevant ethnographic studies, representing the possible re-articulation of the main interpellation subjects acquire and disfigure, that is, locally and contextually redefined lived experiences and gendered meanings as well as moments of resistance to be less governed that defy the wider feminine productive trope.
Feminine productive tropes: Fantasy or reality?
The approaches treating labour markets as gendered institutions are varied in terms of the neo-classical, institutional and Marxist approaches in addressing issues of gender inequality, empowerment, and development. The neo-classical approach acknowledges the presence of sex discrimination in labour markets, if differences in the hourly earnings cannot be accounted for by differences in variables such as education and on-the-job experience. Sex discrimination is thus treated as a residual, stemming from the tastes of employers, to be acknowledged as an explanation when other explanations fail. So it happens that from this utopian, ahistorical and patriarchal perspective discrimination of women is a “puzzle”, in their parlance, representing irrational actions, since it does not maximise profits (Elson 1999). Institutionalist approaches, on the other hand, acknowledge that institutions are ‘bearers of gender’, that is, that there are social stereotypes, which associate masculinity with having authority over others in the work place and social stereotypes about what is “man’s work” and “women’s work” (Whitehead 1979). Furthermore, they argue that informal rules, which structure the operation of labour markets, are instantiations of the gender relations of the society in which the labour market is embedded (Elson 1999). Nonetheless, institutionalist approaches dismiss the social relations embedded in capitalism that subordinates women and disintegrates their autonomy, that is, regulating, producing and disciplining bodies for exploitation. Moreover, both approaches perpetuate gender as a fixed category applicable only to women that exclude non-heteronormative binary categories in discursive formations within institutions (World Bank and IMF), experts and the transnational production nexus thus forming a static, ahistorical understanding of what gender inequality is and how it links with capitalism (Griffin 2010, World Bank 2013). Furthermore, these two approaches dismiss the dark side of the economy, that of, the reproductive and caring labour of women. In addition, by assuming that women are always in competition and individualised as subjects, the governance discourse eradicate all other behavioural possibilities of women such as collective action in terms of a political conflict between sisterhoods amongst women workers against capitalist-managers and the patriarchal norms that embed them (ibid.).
The systemic link between gender subordination and capitalism lies in the subordination and violence over women to merely reproductive labour beings, carried out on the transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production, has been acknowledged by Feminist Marxist scholars (Federici 2004, Fortunati 1996, Fraser 2013). They investigated how the concept of primitive accumulation controlled the female body, that is, how ‘enclosures’ violently eradicated alternative subject positions of women, and their conflictual struggle against their domination, rejecting their political autonomy as midwifes, healer, shamans through the witch-hunt trails instituted in the US and Europe. This process configured a new gender order functional to capitalism limiting women to reproducing labour to further capital accumulation (ibid.). While taking into account social relations as their starting ground, the discursive element originated by managerial-corporations of the transnational productive network, in this case, is neglected such that fantasies of certain stereotypes linked to specific work ethics come to be seen as ideological productions (illusions) rather than discursive formations that construct and produce the body into a certain categorisation of ‘womanhood’ as docile, dextrous and productive excluding abnormalities from this central discursive framework (Butler 1990. Foucault 1978, 1997. Osorio 2012. Salzinger 2003). As such, discursive articulations constituted subjects that were interpellated by a prefigurative and hegemonic feminine productive trope (Butler 1990, Salzinger 2003): an interpellated gendered meaning about herself and its activities as a docile and productive ‘cheap woman’ in production lines, in the context of neoliberal restructuring and the relocation of production in third world countries, serving to understand the current phase of capitalist gendered order. The notion of the productive femininity thus crystallized and naturalised the image of the cheap woman as a fixed entity repetitively cited by transnational managers, and came to embed in the imperative to hire such workers operating as a creative force, shaping both workers and the technical structure within which they worked (Salzinger 2003, p. 15).
The production of the ‘cheap woman’ in third world came in the context of the neoliberal process through which gender roles and norms played a central role for capitalist accumulation. Neoliberal restructuring introduced Structural Adjustment Policies in developing countries in the 1980s: the privatisation of public entities, the deregulation of capital through the slashing off of tariffs and subsidies and the liberalisation of the market through, and with the facilitation of the neoliberal state (Harvey 2007, Vergara-Camus 2009), which led to the crisis of the old gender roles. This transformation entailed the shift to an uneven economic development between core and peripheral nation-states and the restructuring of the labour market to include women geared towards furthering exploitation with the relocation of production in developing countries. The feminisation of labour understood widely as a discursive construction and the restructuring of the new international division of labour opening the market for women in the third world, especially in the establishment of the Export Processing Zones or Free Trade Zones in unskilled, low-paid and poor working conditions furthered this neoliberal restructuring process (Salzinger 2003, Standing 1999). The labour-intensive agricultural activities shifting to developing countries was welcomed by most governments, as they faced unemployment and poor economic growth liberalising their economy for capital investments and bringing in foreign currency through exports (Arizpe & Aranda 1981). Behind these neoliberal restructuring were capital forces; Transnational Corporations seeking lower production costs, and the rationale of comparative advantage, according to which different economies were advised to specialise in those products that they can sell profitably in the international market to the detriment of the domestic market and subordinating gender into the global factory (Fuentes & Ehrenreich 1983). As Arizpe and Aranda (1981) remark, the “advantages” were closely linked to the cheap labour costs that came from women’s social and economic disadvantages (usually poor, rural, young and single women from third world countries). In addition, the effect of new reproductive technologies, including the impact of feminism as a social movement (transnational and inclusive of the sexual liberation movements), as well as the rapid diffusion of ideas in globalised culture with the advance of telecommunications (thus transforming selfhood) were all co-part of the gender integration into the internalisation of the economy. Crucial to the neoliberal restructuring of the economy were the reproduction of wage differentials and the subordination of women within the global factory, in which the ‘production’ of knowledge/power relations within discourse justified the contractual, sectoral and wage differentials in the manufacturing sector fostering benefits for the state and vampire-like Transnational Corporations, framed in flexible, risky and insecure working conditions through which women and managers came to be interpellated by the image of the cheap worker that was both ‘docile, productive and dextrous’ (Salzinger 2003, Foucault 1978).
This transnational feminine productive trope originated from the construction of managers’ multiple unconscious desires. They are formed by the fantasy of a naturally productive femininity even as it attempts to describe them setting the parameters through which workers were identified and assessed on shop floors around the world (Salzinger 2003). The framework relied on the image of “femininity” as closely linked to productivity and “masculinity” with sloth and disruption, shaping hiring, labour control, and assessments of what is possible on global shop floors (ibid. pp.10-11). Thus the icon of the docile and dextrious woman worker emerged as a standard against which all potential workers were assessed in these industries. However, managerial images of pre-established feminine productivity did not describe shop-floor realities accurately; docility was not already biologically constituted but was produced on the shop floor and thus the notion of an “always-already” docile, dextrous and cheap women was a transnationally produced fantasy. The local variations of this hegemonic trope are due to the way such images enter functioning social arenas. In the words of Salzinger (2003), every shop floor is a discrete, multiple linked, social universe, structured through the intersection of a unique set of imperatives and understandings. The trope is cited, filtered and moulded within each locale performative- context so that it takes a wide variety of forms, some of which can coincide and others of which clash, and which vary in both local importance and overall fixity (ibid. p. 23). Thus, although we remain “female” or “male” as we move across social space, our experience and enactment of these categories can shift, radically as we move across a landscape, and within a confined space individuals can find themselves interpellated within a veritable cacophony of gendered meanings (ibid. p. 24)
The consequences of this fantasy varied on the perspective it is looked at in that gendered discourses affected the decisions about production and the shop-floor subjects’ constitution as productive or resistant to this trope. For instance, the managerial image of an appropriate maquila failed to constitute itself as a reality during the debt crisis of 1982, as workers availability diminished and their image of the docile worker failed to constitute itself for the lack of characteristics, and eroded the docility of those available (ibid. p. 43). In addition, managers faced strikes and collective action from the women workers in various plants, and thus they hired men assessed by the dominant feminised trope, which came to form over 45% of the labour force in maquiladoras by the 1990s (ibid. pp. 43-50). In the case of women workers, the ethnographic study produced by Salzinger (2003) in the Free Trade Zones in Northern Mexico this could take a productive and assertive category of the cheap woman with the entire characteristic it endured in the fantasy produced, while in another it could take a non-traditional aspect gendered meaning, a masculinised producer in the third, and at times embattled, that is, would-be men in the fourth factory. This latter variation demonstrated the flexibility of the trope and the instability it could suffer from the resistant subjects, that is, in Foucauldian words a form of resistance to be governed and navigating governmentality power techniques, to produce political freedom amongst the subjects working in manufacturing sites (Foucault 1978, 1997).
Docile or Anarchist subjects?
In this next section I will draw upon an empirical example to illustrate that specific locales and performative contexts can foster a variety of subjectivities of women workers such that the docile and productive ‘cheap’ worker remains a fantasy with resistance on the side of women workers and the changing of strategies by fascist managers. Ngai Pun (2007) poses that certain moments of resistance were fostered even in the small confines of the dormitory labour regimes in Elton company, in China, whereby over 70% were young single women, who came into conflict against the fascist managerial system. Confined in tiny dormitory labour regimes, in what the author terms the “political technology of the dormitory labour system”, women workers had to follow strict rules, regulations, and punishments geared towards the production of docile and disciplined bodies following a strict work ethic. Interviews carried out on managers confirmed the trope, who justified the dormitory labour regime because ‘females’ were seen as vulnerable beings and needing protection from managers, that is, forming a masculinised authority and gaze over ‘female’ bodies. This in effect, confirmed Foucault’s productive power as it intended to create a self-discipline regime on the workers, so that workers self-disciplined not only individually but also amongst themselves in a locale temporal space; an internalised surveillance, deploying a series of disciplinary rules over their everyday lives blurring the lines between work and leisure time. Sites of resistance grew through the intensive human interaction and the networks of the workers as grievances amounted among the women workers against the managers, such that the dormitory constituted a gendered place, including kinship and ethnic lines that linked the workplace to the outside world and one that generated emotional links and sisterhood aiding to seek job opportunities and strengthening workers’ mobility power. These sites helped create a resource for industrial struggle that while limited and partially successful helped foster in March 2003 a one-week strike as a petition letter circulated amongst the dorms, and in which the laid-off workers received overtime payments that were owed by the company. However, as a result the labour leaders were all forced to quit their jobs and none of them struggled to stay for further protests due to the ‘disposable’ precarious conditions of the workers.
In the case of the managers, the clash between global discourse and the local possibilities generated, led to a wide proliferation of gendered meanings and subjectivities such that labour control strategies changed, as managers had to develop new strategies to address unimagined subjects. Such that the consequences for their capital accumulation of plants had to either be relocated down to the South seeking that paradise lost of docile and productive subjects, or otherwise seek a feminised version of men to hire, assessed within the feminine productive trope.
More Illusion than reality
To conclude, the feminine productive trope formulated a discursive formation of the docile and productive ‘cheap’ woman worker in the transnational productive nexus, which was both a cause and a consequence for production of a variety of subjectivities both for managerial fantasies and for the lived experience and practice, the interpellation, of the women workers within the manufacturing working sites. It was argued that while the trope constituted itself as the hegemonic encompassing discursive formulation, which both constructed and produced subjects, these diverged and fragmented in locale and performative contexts as workers redefined and reconstituted the discourse into several and variegated gendered meanings, and even at times resisted the governmentality of such productive power by establishing strikes and collective action against fascist managers for political freedom.
In the first part of the paper the systemic relationship between gender and capitalism was explained such that the new gender order remained functional towards the globalisation of capital establishing the dominance of the feminine productive trope as the centrepiece with the coming of neoliberal restructuring in the 1980s. The trope constructed a dangerous false fantasy for managerial-corporate Transnational entities seeking a docile and productive ‘cheap’ women that did not exist, or if it did, constituted itself in the factory and was not “always-already” pre-constituted, given its innate biological category as a ‘woman’. Rather the trope and the surveillance apparatus was redefined and resisted by workers within the plant putting them into question as was sought out in the empirical case studies in the Elton Company in China by Ngai Pun through the instrumentalisation of the network support along gender, class and ethnic lines creating sisterhood and an affective relationship for collective action against a fascist managerial system.
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