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World systems theorists were among the first to use the concept of an international division of labor by illustrating how the production of goods and services for ”core or more developed countries relied on the material resources of ”peripheral or developing nations. Their work describes the changing political and economic relationships among nations over the last six centuries, beginning with the period of colonization. By the middle of the twentieth century, most colonies had gained their political freedom and titular control over their own resources, but were never able to break away from their economic dependence on highly industrialized countries.
In the twentieth century a new process, called global or economic restructuring, created a new form of international division of labor between the developed countries of the global North and the developing nations of the global South. Beginning in the 1970s, in order to lessen production costs and enabled by new information and production technologies, corporations began to ”off shore” some of their production processes to the global South, often moving to export-processing zones (EPZs) that provided manufacturing infrastructure, tax reductions, low labor costs, lax environmental regulations, and other incentives.
Simultaneously, international development or funding agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, influence global South economies when they loan money to these nations, because loans are often tied to austerity measures known as structural adjustment programs that require the debtor countries to reduce government expenditures on social services and increase production for export, rather than supporting independent local businesses that produce for local consumption, in order to earn more foreign currency to pay back these loans. A byproduct of these two processes is that developing economies are indirectly controlled by transnational corporations and/or funding agencies located in developed nations, thus reinforcing a new international division of labor.
This international division of labor is gendered in at least four ways that Maria Mies, et al. (1988) named an international “housewifization” of all labor because jobs are taking on the characteristics of women’s work and because women are the source of new labor, worldwide. First, paid work is becoming increasingly feminized, with new jobs in the service sector drawing more on women s than men s labor. Second, paid work is increasingly organized like women s housework – with jobs that require flexible schedules and are occupation-ally segregated. Such “flexibilization” of the world economy refers to the growth of part-time, temporary, or seasonal employment, as well as to the need for families to have multiple income sources. Third, many of these jobs, like market trading, factory outwork, or off-the-books childcare, are found in the informal sector of the global economy that is rapidly expanding but, like housework, is not regulated by national labor laws. Finally, since women s traditional tasks are stereotyped as unskilled – although they are not – employers can more easily pay less and provide less job security.
Recent scholarship illustrates that there also is an international division of reproductive or carework labor. Parrenas (2000) argues there is a labor chain, transferring white women s domestic and reproductive labor in developed countries to women of color, who migrate from developing nations for these jobs. This creates an international system of racial stratification in reproductive work in which temporary overseas ”contract workers become a new export commodity for some developing countries.
- Mies, M., Bennholdt-Thomson, V. & von Werlhof, C. (1988) Women: The Last Colony. Zed, London.
- Parrenas, S. (2000). Migrant Filipina domestic workers and the international division of reproductive labor. Gender & Society 14 (4): 560-80.