Two thirds of the worldwide work, including reproductive work in families, is done by women, who still earn only 10% of wages. 70% of the poorest third of the world’s population and two thirds of illiterate people are female. Women own merely 0.98% of the world’s property.
Female labour on a world scale is of great importance for the capitalist ecomomy. Women’s labour is cheap; the biggest part of it is even for free. Only 33% of the work done by women is paid, the rest is done gratis in the households, by bringing up children as well as caring for husbands and sick and old family members, or work in the agricultural sector.
Employed women mainly work under irregular conditions. They earn less than their male colleagues and have less or no social protection.
Exploitation in the ex-colonial countries
Although also in developed capitalist countries the majority of women are oppressed not only because of their class but also because of their sex, their situation in the so called Third World countries is much worse.
The international financial and economical organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank play an important role in this development. By giving credits to the indebted ex-colonial countries, they put pressure on them to privatise state property and reduce social benefits and infrastructure. As a result of these reforms a large number of women are being pushed out of their traditional fields of work and are forced to work in unsafe conditions, as outworkers or as street traders for example. In India for example, 94% of women workers are employed in the informal sector.
Just as dramatic is the situation in the 70 or so African, Latin American and Asiatic free-trade zones, or maquiladoras. About 4.5 million people around the world work in these, of which 90% are women. The workers in the maquiladoras are working in inhuman conditions for the big multinational companies such as Nike and Adidas. Barbaric piece-work, no regular working hours, no legal safety, no payment for overtime work, no health insurance and extremely low wages are characteristic of these jobs.
Furthermore, women in the former colonial countries are not only discriminated against as female workers but also because of the traditional role of women in these societies.
Backward regimes keep themselves in power by the use of force and with the support of the West. Medieval religious and moralistic concepts are kept alive and together with discriminating laws, women are oppressed in a double sense. In many countries, certainly not just in Afghanistan, women are not allowed to take part in public life; they have no access to education and material resources. They live without basic human rights and have no chance to determine their own fates.
Demand for cheap labour
The worldwide exploitation and inequality is the basis for women being forced to leave their countries of origin, as refugees or immigrants. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that poverty is not the main factor for the existence of immigration to countries like those of the European Union or the United States. The most exploited and poor layers of the populations of the former colonial countries are not able to escape from hunger to the richer countries. The majority of the world’s refugees and immigrants move within their countries of origin or between the so-called Third Word countries. Despite the fact that the majority of the world population lives under extreme poverty, still only 2.5% of humanity lives outside the countries they were born in. Only a very small and relatively “privileged” layer of people is immigrating to the western countries.
The important factor which is the real precondition for the existence of immigration is the demand of the economies of the developed countries. They are not only passively receiving immigration but are intentionally producing it. Associations of employers are engaging workers over the world, networks are built to prepare the way for new generations of immigrant workers. Historically as well as currently immigration is a vital factor of the capitalist economies. Its main function is to provide the economy with specific and cheap labour. In periods of booms and low unemployment these workers are used to keep the general level of wages low. During times of economic slumps these workers are made scapegoats for the bad economic situation.
The immigration policy of governments is determined by the respective needs of the employers which of course has nothing to do with humanity. Nowadays all western countries carry on a restrictive immigration policy. Nevertheless there still is the need for immigrant labour and also a specific demand for female immigrant workers. On first sight there seems to be a contradiction between the policy of closed borders on the one hand and the demand for cheap labour of the employers on the other hand. In reality the opposite is true, because the closed borders are the precondition for the few immigrants who are able to cross being without rights and is so the precondition for their exploitation.
Women make up nearly half of the international immigrants. Their motives to immigrate are similar to these of men and also the immigrating women are not the poorest layer of the female part of society in their home countries. In the labour-importing countries women are only accepted to work in specific fields which are considered to be female.
The legal status of the majority of female immigrants is that of “relatives of immigrants” who are either their husbands or their parents. As a result of this legal situation they don’t have their own independent residence permits and at least for the first years no right to work. They are fully dependent on their husbands as far as their residency and also as far as their financial situation is concerned. If these women become for example victims of violence in their families they have no possibility to offer resistance. In case of a divorce they would be forced to leave and furthermore they have no chance to live financially-independent. They have no right to earn their own money and most of the social benefits are not available for them.
In connection with the immigration of whole families, it is also up to the women to make the private immigration work with their children. They have to find solutions not only to their own but also to the difficulties their children are facing as foreigners.
Women who follow their husbands to the countries they immigrated to, usually loose their social networks and suffer from being isolated in a new society in which they are confronted with racist prejudices. As a result of their financial and legal situation, a big part of these women are not even able to learn the new language.
Female immigrant labour
Those women who are “lucky” enough to have already achieved the right to sell their labour, are usually working in specific fields under highly discriminating conditions. They are working mainly on the assembly-lines of the textile, electronic and food industries but also in the sweatshops and as outworkers for the big multinational companies. In the field of service work female immigrants do the worst paid jobs like cleaning and serving.
Usually the labour-importing countries provide discriminating labour-laws for immigrants. They need a special work permit which is hard to get and easy to loose. As a result of this, they are highly dependent and vulnerable to extortion. They are the first ones to be expelled and usually the trade unions don’t recognize them as being part of the working class whose rights they should defend.
The most humiliating field for female immigrants is their work in the sex industry, as “dancers” and prostitutes. These “sex-workers” are sold like slaves and have no protection at all in the countries they are imported to.
Last but not least, one should not forget that a large part of the foreign population doesn’t have any residence permits at all. These so-called illegals are an important part of the labour force, for example in the building industries. Illegal women mainly work as private more-or-less house-slaves or in the sex-industries.
In many countries over the world immigrants have started to radically take part in the labour movement, as for instance in Spain one year ago. The latest example is the immigrant workers in Hong Kong who have successfully commenced militant action to prevent further wage cuts. Women play an important role in these struggles as they are the ones who have the least to loose. The main problem until now has been the separation of the immigrant’s struggle from the native labour activism in the different countries, which is weakening the whole movement. A solidarity movement of native together with immigrant workers will be necessary to achieve the basic rights for males and females who are misused for cheap labour. As explained above the policy of closed borders in connection with discriminating laws within the labour-importing countries produces an ideal situation for the employers. Under these conditions they can gain the maximum profit from the immigrant workers and at the same time misuse them to blackmail native workers and keep the general level of wages low.
The workers’ movement must understand that it is not, as the racist propaganda is claiming, the immigrants who are destroying jobs and are responsible for the deterioration of living conditions. This in reality is simply caused by the parasitic nature of capitalism. Our demand to stop exploitation of male and female immigrants is that of equal rights and open borders!