Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Feminizing Responsibility? Women's 'Invisible' Labor and Sub-Contracted Production in South India

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Feminizing Responsibility? Women's 'Invisible' Labor and Sub-Contracted Production in South India

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the last two decades of the 20th century, there has been a growing global recognition of women as economic actors, who make a vital contribution to the survival of low-income households and communities. International aid agencies and national governments have promoted women's income-earning and market-oriented activities, so that they might more effectively assist their families in coping with economic stress and livelihood crises. The validation of women's role as family providers has accompanied the re-assertion of poverty-related concerns in the late 1980s and the 1990s (Razavi 1997). These concerns were triggered by mounting evidence of the adverse social impacts of neo-liberal economic reforms or the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on the world's poor, in particular on the health and well-being of women and children from marginalized communities--impacts that continue to have mixed, if not adverse, repercussions for women's economic and social rights and entitlements in the 2000s and beyond (Cook and Dong 2011; Cornia, Jolly and Stewart 1987; Elson 2002; Kawewe and Dibie 2000; Razavi 2011; UNRISD 2005; Wamala and Kawachi 2007). Concomitantly, a growing body of research showed that where women had access to independent incomes, they tended to spend more on the essential consumption needs of the household, on food and health care and the welfare of children. Men's earnings, on the other hand, were also directed towards recreational and personal consumption requirements. Dominant development actors, therefore, actively promoted women's incomeearning activities in order to meet the 'anti-poverty' objective of mitigating household distress among very poor population groups in a cost-effective and optimal manner (Razavi 1997). Women's economic contribution came to be regarded as part of the safety nets that sustain households living below the income-poverty line.

Against the backdrop of the international development sector's enthusiastic endorsement of women's market engagement, this paper explores women's experience of laboring in the lower end of the unorganized sector and assesses the significance of women's work to the survival and well-being of their impoverished households in Chennai city, the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (2) The paper draws on an ethnographic study of home and neighborhood-based food production units, informally and yet securely linked to well-established private sector companies that rely on a feminized and 'invisible' work force and sub-contracted production chains as the prime strategies of capital accumulation. The paper aims to show how women's work in these food production units is shaped by the intersecting dynamics of household and community-based patriarchies on the one hand and the profit maximizing ends of private capital, on the other. I discuss women's motivations for engaging in paid work in home vis-a-vis neighborhood units and for choosing to work within neighborhood spaces when other avenues of paid work are not entirely unavailable to them. I discuss the ease with which women are able to enter, exit and re-enter paid work in keeping with life-cycle changes as well as women's workspace negotiations for better working conditions and wage hikes. I seek to gauge women's work burden and to understand its implications in terms of occupational health impacts. I also discuss the centrality of women's earnings to the survival of their families, keeping in mind the different household structures that women belong to.

Women's home-based work, gender relations and capital accumulation

This paper is primarily concerned with women's work performed within community and neighborhood spaces in the lower rungs of the informal economy. Home-based work or small-scale, labor-intensive activities carried out within the precincts of the home for monetary remuneration, constitutes an important sub-set of the informal sector. …

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