How are market forces in the global economy transforming women’s work? Discuss with reference to a particular economic region.


Globalization appears to be the buzz word of the 1990s. Over the last few years, the number of books and articles on globalization has grown exponentially. Such is its attraction that it is now a research topic in many academic fields, including sociology, international relation, economics, anthropology, geography, and even cultural studies.1

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

During the twentieth century economic and social survival came to be associated with organization around production, trade unions bargaining for higher ways and better conditions at work. These have continued to be important aspects of material and social existence; indeed, women worker in poor countries have been part of a sustained struggle to organize in the workplace. However, the wage is only one aspect of human being’s survived, and exclusive preoccupation with the wage imposes a false demarcation on daily existence. In the poor countries of the world many people, including the majority of workers are making their living outside the regulated on organized sectors.2

‘WTO’, ‘Globalization’, ‘Global restructuring’, these words are often ringing these years in China. It seems that everyone can say something about what changes have these words brought to us. However, few of us have thought about the effect that the global economy transforming had brought or would bring to us.

Studies of global restructuring typically reflect two normative stances: a liberal internationalism that accepts “globalization” as a contemporary, market response to “internationalized” consumer and producer demands, and a critical reassessment of global restructuring as historically continuous, ideologically hegemonic, and materially impoverishing for the majority of the world. Despite these differences, both liberals and critics agree on the subject matter itself, i.e. “globalization’s” characteristics, impact, ideology, and culture.3

A few of days before, I watched quite a lot of programs shown in Channel 4 for the ‘China Season’. One of them, named “Mao’s Children” gave me a few elicitations about the women’s work transformation. According to reading the books about women and work in China and the article indicated Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, I have some ideas of the transformation of women’s work in China.

China’s reform and opening-up, started in 1978 have ushered in the transition from its planned economy to its socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics. The reform of the economic system and economic structural adjustment have injected great vitality and vigor into China’s social and economic development, brought about significant changes in the work and livelihood of people all over the country, and have given a great impetus to the advancement of Chinese women.


The response to globalization in China date from 1979 when Deng Xiaoping launched his programme of modernization (xiandaihua) and economic reform (jingjigaige). This programme, which gathered pace in the mid – 1980s and again from 1992, has entitled political and economic decentralization, agricultural decollectivisation and industrial restructuring along with openness to foreign trade and overseas investment and some democracy.4

Rural-urban migration was strictly controlled for planning seasons. As a result, women in the cities found work more easily than if they had faced competition from rural migrants. Moreover, most urban women worked either in predominantly ‘female’ factories run by the state or in collectives at lower pay and with fewer benefits relations to men. The communist rule of gender equality, however, suppressed gender biases to some degree.5 However, with the fast development of economy reform and globalization in these years, is this issue improved or got worse?

In order to discuss the effect that the globalization gives to Chinese women, I will discuss it with three different parts: women labour force in rural societies, in urban societies and women workers in the Special Economic Zones.

Women’s Employment in Special Economic Zones

As one of the important step of Chinese globalization: economy reform, policies carried out by the Chinese government affect people’s daily lives. The post-Mao policies (1976-present) promoted international trade through the establishment of four Special Economic Zones, privated agriculture by returning farms to the family, and put great emphasis on efficiency and markets.6 International trade has played a substantial role in China’s rapid economic growth during the reform period. Special Economic Zones were established in 1979 not only to generate employment and earn foreign exchange, but also to demonstrate the benefits of integrating capitalist institutions into a socialist setting.7

The opening to international trade has stimulated the economy and provided many opportunities for Chinese women. In the Special Economic Zones, as in most export-processing zones, young women (18-23 years old) hold an average of 70-80 per cent of the newly created production jobs.8

While employment creation is positive, the hiring pattern reflects the global tradition of female predominance in the assembly work of light industries rather than an overt decision to employ women.9 The positions are at the lowest level, in monotonous, assembly-line work with little if any chance of promotion. As in export-processing zones of other developing nations, the tradition hierarchy of male managers overseeing unskilled female employees is maintained.10 These factors (along with the relatively small number of workers employed in the zones) limit the ability of export-processing positions to improve women’s position relative to men.

Still, wages in the Special Economic Zones are more than double the average wage paid outside the zones, and the jobs created in the zones help to offset the trends of increasing employment discrimination against women elsewhere in the country. 11

The employment opportunities provided to women have had a positive impact on the well-being of women. The zones provide paid employment to young women who are looking for their first jobs and who have the hardest time finding employment in China today. The zones also impact women who live elsewhere. The number of Chinese women employed in the Special Economic Zones may be low compared to the amount of surplus labour in the country as a whole.

Since the zone employ people in the tourist industry, construction, and services, the number doing processing work must be well below the total working in the zones (a few million at present); at the same time the figure of approximately 200,000 given for 1988 is clearly too low. 12 But the new demand for female labour does relieve the problem to some extent. The zones have also demonstrated the prosperity of export-processing activities which has rapidly led to demands by other areas to participate more in international trade. This means additional job opportunities for women.

Urban Women Employment

Compared to the women employment in the Special Economic Zones, women in cites, especially in big cities, e.g. Shanghai, have their own characteristics of employment, which differ from those who employed in the Special Economic Zones.

At least two process of globalization or global restructuring operate in the world political economy today. One reflects a glitzy, Internet-surfing, structurally integrated world of global finance, production, trade, and telecommunicatuons. There is a second process of global restructuring. It is more explicitly sexsualized, racialized, and class – based than TMC (“techno-muscular” capitalism) and concentrates on low wage, low-skilled menial service provided by mostly female migrant workers.13 It is said Hong Kong, but I think it is also true in Shanghai.

Shanghai is the most modern and industrialized city of China. As the economic and financial centre of China, the development of Shanghai attracts most eyes all over the world. After the success of APEC meeting, many people compare Shanghai with Hong Kong, more people think that the achievement of the development of Shanghai is greater than that of Hong Kong. Early in 1920s, Shanghai is one of the most famous colonial cities in China. The band, horse – racing are known by most of Chinese people. Nowadays, with the development of modernization, Shanghai not only keeps its occident culture, but also creates its new modern culture. It is the combination of modern and tradition.

There’s a great development since 1992 when Deng Xiao Ping carried out the “Open and Reform” policy in Pu Dong New District of Shanghai. Many beneficial policies were supplied to foreign companies to attract their investment in Shanghai.

The reforms introduce capitalist principles on an extensive scale but they have “Chinese characteristics”. There are, for example, limits to competition both beyond and within the state sector and elements of the command economy and state control remain marked.14

(1) Peasant workers

The hukou system divides the Chinese population into two segments, those of urban and those of rural status. The former have much better life chances than the latter. Theoretically, this new social category of peasant workers (nongmingong) has become part of the Chinese industrial working class. In practice, however, their rural origin affects their experiences in the city and as industrial workers in very special ways. Rural status is a key factor in the segregation of migrants from indigenous urban workers throughout China and it denies them access to schools, hospitals and housing. This complex mix of ‘neoliberal’ freedoms and state controls is widening the gap between rural and urban workers.15

In addition to the substantial labour market inequalities between migrants and urban residents, there are also considerable disadvantages faced by migrant men.16 These disadvantages reflect previous gender inequalities under communism but also the contradictory effects of marketisation within the countryside. Men earn almost twice as much and are under greater pressure to migrate whether as husbands supporting their families or as sons contributing to marriage costs.17

Before 1992, peasant workers are most gathered in the majority of cotton factories. But situation changes now. There is only few cotton factories left in nowadays Shanghai. Most cotton factories are gathered in the nearby small cities – such as Suzhou, Wuxi. What do those peasant women do in Shanghai? How about their situation?

Let’s imagine that many Filipina domestic workers migrate to Hong Kong to provide menial service. The situation is quite same with Shanghai. The difference is that the former is the migrant from one country to another, bur the latter is the migrant from one area to another – those are in the same country. Unequally development leads to the migrant from urban to rural.

Nowadays, most peasant workers are also eager to leaving the fields to big cities. They want to have a better life chances. A few years before, many peasant workers move to Shanghai to work in the cotton factories. At that time, the working conditions in those factories are too horrible to imagine. But today, what those peasant workers do are no better than that time, maybe even worse.

Most of male peasant workers in Shanghai occupy most of the construction jobs. They are called “construction workers” instead of “peasant workers”. However, most of the female peasant workers feel it is harder to find a good job at first. Those peasant workers do not have high qualification, some of them run away from the schools when they were young. They have to leave schools, because most families are very poor in the widely Chinese villages. Each couple always has more than 1 child, so the parents do not have the ability to support all of their children to obtain the education. The most elder brother/sister always leaves the village to Shanghai when they are still “Children”. They need to earn more money to support his/her younger brothers/sisters to finish their study. No matter you are male or female, you have to find a job in Shanghai.

Most of female peasant workers are served as low wage, low-skilled menial workers. The average salary of them is 5yuan/hr. The salary maybe is not the lowest in Shanghai. But it is not easy for female peasant workers to find such a job. As a menial worker, she should stay in employer’s home for some time. Trust is a serious problem occurred when they supply service for the employer. Many of them will be looked upon down. It is often reported in the newspaper that when something is stolen in the employer’s family, the menial worker will be the first suspicious person. Although some of them are really the stealers, most of them are blameless. But no matter how they explain, it is more likely that they will lose their job definitely. It is really an instable job.

Another problem is that these menial workers are always be neglected in the state social security system. Peasant workers also get fewer medical benefits.18 They can not get the feeling of safety. The lack of a “safety net” creates anxieties about their future.19 It costs all the money they have to leave the village to Shanghai. But is it worth for them to do that? Is there any fast way for them to earn large amount of money in a short time?

When I watched one of the “China season” programs, I find some answers. The fastest way for they to get a large amount of money is to be the sex workers. Compared to the salary of being a menial worker, they can earn 200-300yuan per night. It is really a fastest way for them to earn money. So many of them always have two jobs, one for the day work as menial workers; another for the night work as sex workers. Sex worker as a potential career widely exists in many large cities in China. What is the future of them? I feel a little upset about it.

(2) Edge balls players

Women in cities have also found new employment opportunities under the reforms, especially in foreign-fund enterprises and through self-employment. 20

In the late 1980s, some women were being sent home at reduced wages.21 These actions were taken by firms in response to a growing awareness of the cost of redundant workers; surplus labour is a particular threat to the employment of urban women. Increasing migration from rural areas forces urban women to compete with rural, as well as urban, men for scarce jobs. Employers typically choose to remove women from the payroll rather than men when cuts are necessary. Although it is not consistent with economic theory to identify an individual worker as surplus, such identification appears common in Chinese industry where workers targeted for layoffs are labeled ‘ surplus’. Media reports consistently state that more than 60 per cent of these surplus workers are female. (It should be noted that these percentages are greater than the female employment share in these industries.)

In the cities, women entering the workforce also find an increasing biased market. According to many job advertisements, attractive young women have a high likelihood of finding jobs. The markets, however, are in general unfavourable because of gender discrimination as well as higher costs associated with female maternity leaves and health care. The benefits that Chinese women receive place extra costs on factories, making managers reluctant to hire them efficiency and profits are their objectives. Even female university graduates frequently find that employers prefer to hire men.22

Professional women who are already employed face less discrimination than less-skilled workers. Recent changes in retirement policies reflect these differences. For professional women, the retirement age was raised from 55 years to 60 years to make it the same as that for men; for factory workers, however, women are now often compelled to retire at age 42.23

A small survey was carried by the department of Sociology, Shanghai University, China on 2000. The survey is about the living conditions of the group, which live in the lowest level of the whole city. We called them: “The group of being ignored.” Most of them are disabled persons, young persons whose parents are divorced, single – parent children, elderly people and a large amount of low – wage people. The aim of the survey is to research their actual conditions. However, some of them live much better than we have expected at first. Especially those who go to the government to get the alms every month, but they live quite better than anybody else. In our research, we called them the “edge balls players”. Who are they? Why they have the ability to have alms every month? What are their jobs?

In our survey, most of these “edge balls players” are whose women who aged 40 – 50, retire from their factories ahead of schedule. They have the rural hukou and have worked for the factories for at least 20 years. Their factories are the old stated cotton factories, mill factories, elding factories or chemical factories. Because of the development of economic reform, the benefits of these factories are to the bad every month. So most of the female workers can retire ahead of schedule (they suppose to retire at their ages of 50 – 60). When they are at work, their salaries are 400 – 500 per month, when they retire their salary remain the same. They needn’t wake up early to go to work everyday, but they can earn money as well as working. Most of them are willing to staying at home.

These years, Shanghai government tried its best to improve the living conditions of Shanghai citizens. The lowest salary of Shanghai employee is 429 yuan per month. Many of the female workers I mentioned above suffer between the 400 – 500 yuan. The leader of their community always provides some working opportunities for them to get higher salaries. But these women refused to do so. They are good at calculator. Every month, they can earn 400 yuan from their factories. They can also get extra 29 yuan as government pay to reach the lowest salary. Besides that they also do mini business, which can provide them to have a satisfied life. That is the shadow of Chinese social welfare system. Huge population leads to the “edge balls players” come forth in nowadays China.

Rural Women Employment

Most Chinese women remain in agricultural wok, which is now centred on family farming. As men migrate to city for more profitable work or find jobs in industries nearby, the share of women in the agricultural workforce has grown. Although the arrangements increase total family income, they also augment men’s traditional patriarchal control over the household. The enthusiasm for househould responsibility system’s impressive income gains has warned with the awareness that women are being pushed back into traditional family settings for earning activities. The absence of an explicit wage blurs women’s contribution to total family income, reducing their intrahousehold bargaining power. 24


Women’s role as migrant labour in China shares much in common with their sisters elsewhere in Asia, but there are several respects in which their circumstances are unique because of the historical legacy of the command economy and the distinct ways in which globalization is transforming both rural and urban employment. Rural-urban inequalities are a product both of Maoist policies (some of which have been retained) and of recent market reforms.25

With the developing process of China, there are many special characteristics shown in the labour market. Especially, with the entry of China into WTO, more and more competition is introduced into Chinese labour market. However, as developing unequally, there is a labour migration in one country, from urban society to rural society, from poor to rich.

The post-Mao economic reforms in China have achieved impressive rates of growth. The gains have been broadly distributed since most people in rural areas have access to land and most urban residents have jobs; poverty has been siginificant reduced except in isolated pockets.

Many Chinese women have benefited from the growth in family incomes. The economic reforms have also expanded job opportunities for women in the Special Economic Zones, and in rural and urban industries.

The adverse impact of reforms on women, however are serious and merit attention. Women are often concentrated in traditional, low-level jobs with little promotion. They are discriminated against in hiring and layoff decisions; the threat of female job losses looms as planners discuss the need to make state firms more cost-effective. With the return of farming to the patriarchal household, rural women may experience reduction in their bargaining power. In addition, traditional preference for male children and cutbacks in social services have resulted in significant costs for women during the reform period; girls who are pulled out of the schools have lost an array of future opportunities.

The future of women in China remains uncertain given the lack of gender-oriented policies. Women’s well-being depends on numerous factors, not all of which can be automatically resolved by an increase in the role of markets. Economic growth, surplus labour pressures, population policies and traditional biases will continue to create a complex web of contradictory outcomes. For Chinese women, the next decade offers both opportunity and danger.


1 Marianne, H. Marchand and Anne Sission Runyan, Gender and Global Restructuring: Sightings, Sites and Resistances, P3

2 Sheila Rowbotham and Stephanie Linkogle (Ed.), Women Resist Globalization: Mobilizing for Livelihood and Rights, P1

3 Marianne, H. Marchand and Anne Sission Runyan, Gender and Global Restructuring: Sightings, Sites and Resistances, P28

4 Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P170

5 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P113

6 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P114

7 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P116

8 Andors, P. (1988) ‘Women and work in Shenzhen’, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 20(3), P28

9 Grunwald, J. and Flamm, K. (1985), The Global Factory: Foreign Assembly in International Trade, P168

10 Andors, P. (1988) ‘Women and work in Shenzhen’, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 20(3), P30

11 Beijing Review (1988) ‘New challenges to women’s employment’, 31 Oct, P18

12 Beijing Review (1988) ‘New challenges to women’s employment’, 31 Oct, P18

13 Marianne, H. Marchand and Anne Sission Runyan, Gender and Global Restructuring: Sightings, Sites and Resistances, P27

14 Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P170

15 Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P171

16 Huang, X. (1999), ‘Divided gender, divided women: state policy and the labour market’ in J. West, M. Zhao, X. Chang and Y. Cheng (Eds) Women of China: Economic and Social Transformation, P97

17 Song, L. (1999), ‘The role of women in labour migration’ in J. West, M. Zhao, X. Chang and Y. Cheng (Eds) Women of China: Economic and Social Transformation, P55

18 Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P178

19 Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P178

20 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P119

21 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P122

22 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P113

23 See for Chinese retirement policies.

24 Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, P119

25 Zhao, M. and J. West (1999), ‘ Rural female labour in state cotton mills in China’, in Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, P169


1. Dong – Sook S. Gills and Nicola Piper (Ed.) (2002), Women and Work in Globalizing Asia, Routledge

2. Marianne, H. Marchand and Anne Sission Runyan, (2000), Gender and Global Restructuring: Sightings, Sites and Resistances, Routledge

3. West, J, Zhao M, Chang X ; Cheng Y (eds) (1999) Women of China : economic and social transformation, Macmillan

4. Linda McDowell (1997) Capital culture :gender at work in the city, ,Oxford : Blackwell

5. Todaro, Michael P. (1976) Internal migration in developing countries :a review of theory, evidence, method, International Labour Organization

6. Susn Joekes (1987), Women in the world economy, Oxford

7. Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman and Gale Summerfield (Ed.), Women in the Age of Economic Transformation, Routledge

8. Margery Welf (1985), Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China, Stanford

9. Shirin M. Rai (2002), Gender and the Political Economy of Development, Polity: Blackwell

10. Sheila Rowbotham and Stephanie Linkogle (ed.) (2001), Women Resist Globalization: Mobilizing for Livelihood and Rights, Zed Books, London

11. Janet Henshall Momsen and Vivian Kinnaird (ed.) (1993), Different places, different voices: Garden and development in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Routledge

12. Pamela Yatsko (2001), New Shanghai: The Rocky Rebirth of China’s Legendary City, John Wiley ; Sons (Asia)

13. Watson, James L. (1984), Class and Social Stratification in Post-revolution China, Cambridge


I'm Niki!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out