Global Resources

Globalisation, Labor Standards and Women's Rights: Dilemmas of Collective (In)action in an Interdependent World

Author: N. Kabeer
Publisher: Taylor and Francis Group
Publication Date: Jan 2004
In the context of trade liberalisation and the deregulation of the labour market, there has been an emergence of a northern-based alliance demanding that certain minimum labour standards be observed by all multinationals. This paper questions the view that globally enforced labour standards are in the interests of workers everywhere. It argues that advocacy for global labour standards has often been based on a characterisation of export-production in the 'Third World' as 'sweatshops', which, based on the author's research in Bangladesh, is a misrepresentation. Interviews carried out with women workers in Bangladesh show that the violations they articulate are not adequately captured by the demands for social clauses and global labour standards.

For instance, the issue of wages crop up frequently in women workers' accounts but not necessarily in relation to a demand for minimum wages. Indeed, it is the higher wages paid in the garment sector relative to most other jobs available to women in Bangladesh which drives women's entry into the industry. Instead, it is the irregularity of payments that constitutes the major source of grievance. The biggest flaw in current debates on labour standards is thus that comparisons are being made between the wages that women earn and the prices that their products sell for in richer countries, or else with the wages earned by workers in the equivalent sector in richer countries. Yet for women workers in Bangladesh, it is the wages and conditions that prevail in the other jobs available to them and the implications of not having a job that exercise the greatest influence on their labour market decisions.