Feminism, Women Workers, and Globalization: Films and Books

by Jean Grossholtz

DOLLS AND DUST: WOMEN WORKERS IN SRI LANKA, THAILAND, AND SOUTH KOREA. 60 mins. 1998. Prod.: Committee for Asian Women (CAW). Distr.: WAYANG, P.O. Box 52, Bungthonglang, Bangkok 10242, Thailand; email: waying@yahoo.com. Purchase of video and companion book (see below) together, shipped to U.S. address: US $67.00 (includes check clearance fee and airmail postage).

DOLLS AND DUST: VOICES OF ASIAN WOMEN RESISTING GLOBALIZATION. Bangkok, Thailand: Committee for Asian Women, 2000. 238p. pap. Companion book to video (see above for ordering information).

MARKETISATION OF GOVERNANCE. 34 mins. 2000. Prod.: Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). Distr.: WAYANG, P.O. Box 52, Bungthonglang, Bangkok 10242, Thailand; email: waying@yahoo.com. Purchase of video and companion book (see below) together, shipped to U.S. address: US $67.00 (includes check clearance fee and airmail postage).

Viviene Taylor, MARKETISATION OF GOVERNANCE: CRITICAL FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES FROM THE SOUTH. Cape Town, South Africa: SADEP/DAWN, 2000.171p. pap., ISBN 0-7992-2019-1. Companion book to video (see above for ordering information).

NEW DIRECTIONS (WOMEN OF ZIMBABWE, WOMEN OF THAILAND, WOMEN OF GUATEMALA). Three-part series by Joanne Burke. 90 mins. color. 1997, 2000. Distr.: Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; phone: (212) 925-0606; fax: (212) 925-2052; email: info@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com. Rental (video): $90.00. Sale (VHS): $295.00. Order #: W01735.

These films, taken together (along with the books that accompany two of them), provide a rich background for students in a global feminism course or for grassroots organizers attempting to link local, national, and global struggles. Dolls and Dust is a detailed description of the effects of globalization on women in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Korea. The different experiences of women in these cultures and countries are made clear while we are shown in intimate detail the painful similarities of their plight under the neoliberal trade system. Marketisation of Governance introduces the viewer to the world of women working for social change, relying more on the talking heads of a wide variety of women activists. The sheer number of women and their passionate statements is impressive. The three films that make up the New Directions series describe particular women-centered projects intended to better the lot of women.

Dolls and Dust, the Committee for Asian Women's documentary on women workers, makes very clear the effects of the privatization and deregulation policies of the global trade system. The film shows women workers and union organizers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Korea struggling against the effects of neoliberal economics, debt, and structural adjustment. Women in these countries were driven off the land and out of their villages by World Bank and corporate economic development projects in the first decades after independence. Mobilized into a new work force employed by companies that make export goods for transnational corporations, these women now serve as the world's cheapest labor force. Their governments, who earn large amounts of foreign exchange from the labor of women either in the home country or working abroad, serve the needs of transnational corporations for cheap labor by putting legal and extra-legal barriers in the way of labor union organizing.

This film presents a firsthand look at the period of the "Asian miracle" and how it went bust from the point of view of the neglected community--women. It is a remarkable document, accessible and useful both to those who have knowledge of the World Bank and to those ignorant of its work.

In the broader context outside the purview of the film, the struggles of these women represent the powerless stance of labor against the economic force of global corporations that are able to transfer capital instantaneously all over the world. Capital moves freely from country to country. Governments in search of foreign exchange to pay their debt willingly build new factory sites and pass laws to discourage labor union activity.

Describing the new world economic order, Susan George writes: "Starting from a tiny embryo at the University of Chicago with the philosopher-economist Friedrich von Hayek and his students like Milton Friedman at its nucleus, the neo-liberals and their funders have created a huge international network of foundations, institutions, research centers, publications, scholars, writers and public relations hacks to develop, package and push their ideas and doctrine relentlessly."1 To the neoliberal, capital becomes the critical force in development. If capital makes a profit, the benefits are supposed to trickle down to everyone. Thus it follows that all governments and laws should be constructed and enforced to allow profit to corporations. To maximize corporate profits, cheap labor and unlimited access to resources and markets are necessary. Prosperity for all will be built on an international trade system that emphasizes the private ownership of any potential profit-making enterprise and seeks an end to any national or local regulations that interfere with access to markets and to cheap labor and resources.

But the film and its accompanying text make clear that quite the opposite has happened.

Privatization has in effect turned the most profitable of businesses, even those built and sustained by public funds, over to transnational corporations. Under the rule of the international trade agreements and the World Trade Organization, these corporations move freely across state boundaries. Furthermore, the emphasis on the rights of capital to profit has forced the canceling of health, safety, and environmental regulations. Having no particular commitment to the land and people, corporations take what they want and move away, leaving behind devastated communities, governments corrupted by bribery, and land destroyed by unlimited, unregulated industrialization, mining, and agriculture.

The film gives the women workers a forum to speak out to describe the real effects of the "new world order" and "free trade." The accompanying text clarifies the developing regional and international resistance. It lays out the various strategies for controlling global capital and redistributing profits, and the kinds of controls and alternatives that have been proposed.

Marketisation of Governance: Critical Feminist Perspectives from the South is a report from the Political Restructuring and Social Transformation research project of Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN). Hundreds of participants from a wide variety of organizations took part in a series of meetings held around the world during 1999 and 2000. The film and the companion book provide a remarkable view of the world of women organizing for social change. And the message that comes through loud and clear is, "We realized that our shared experiences in the shifting, contested terrain of governance and political power had certain commonalities."

From this commonality, women from the global South confront and examine the place of the state and nonstate power in the globalized neoliberal economy. Along with the global social justice movement, the women of DAWN face the dilemma of trying to protect the states of the global South from the international economic and political attacks of the Northern capitalist states. The new world trade system (of GATT, the WTO, NAFTA, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) has been created by and for the profit of Northern--now transnational--corporations. In theory, the results of this enterprise will "raise all boats."

The state as the protector of domestic welfare is under challenge. In the Western hemisphere, for example, "dollarization" is being pushed to bring all economies under the direction of the U.S. dollar. Local regulations to protect local economies, public safety, or the environment are outlawed if they prevent corporations from making a profit. Capital is king. Feminists find themselves working to protect the state and its commitment to domestic welfare, while at the same time challenging the state's masculinized and classist reality.

The book raises a challenge to the oft-repeated argument that the "democratization" of South America--that is, the replacement of military dictators with elected officials--has provided more spaces for women to participate and push their agenda. In fact, there has been no democratization and there are no such spaces. Instead, a new set of local millionaires tied to transnational corporations and committed to the "free trade" system has taken control of the state.

The incredible differences in economic well-being between North and South play out in this debate. North American and European feminists can often ignore the reality of their exclusion from state power. But in the global South, where political and economic agreements made through international institutions at the global and regional levels (most recently at Doha Qatar) have effectively disenfranchised citizens and the sovereignty of their laws, this is very clear. The causes of poverty, ignored in the North, are daily reality in the South. Northern feminists' commitment to providing a "helping hand" to Southern women ignores their own governments' role in causing the desperate living conditions for most women in the world. The massive ignorance of Northern women of the realities of their governments' global economic policies is actually not seen as ignorance, but as agreement with the capitalist conspiracy; and the potential of a collective, global women's movement that could lead the anti-globalization forces is destroyed.

The question of the role of the state and state power is critical, but is often ignored in the face of the very real economic crises in the global South. The women of DAWN have brought this dilemma to the forefront in this amazing collection of the voices of women.

New Directions is a series of case studies of women-centered projects that have incorporated women into the "new" economy. The argument of the three films in the series is that with economic independence, women can stand up for their political and social rights. But if one takes a cue from the other films, the question remains whether being incorporated into a global economy that reduces the local political power of the state to a holding company is really a step forward for women. In my view, although these are short-term and very limited solutions, they save women's lives and enable them to raise healthy, educated children. Northern feminists may rail against actions that are less than adequate, but women of the global South need to compromise.

These films leave us both enlightened and hopelessly confused as to directions. One thing is clear: The women who made these movies will be out in force to fight against globalization and the globalized economy. Anyone who does not understand the fuss in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Genoa, and Qatar could do well to look at these films.


1. From "A Short History of Neoliberalism," a talk given at the Conference on Economic Sovereignty in a Globalising World, March 24-26, 1999, and posted on the website of the Global Policy Forum at http://www.globalpolicy.org/globaliz/econ/histneol.htm

[Jean Grossholtz is Chair of the Women's Studies Program at Mount Holyoke College. She works with the Western Massachusetts Global Action Coalition, Diverse Women for Diversity, and Women for Life on Earth to educate and mobilize citizens about corporate globalization.]


FEMINIST COLLECTIONS is published by the
University of Wisconsin System Women's Studies Librarian
430 Memorial Library, 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-5754

FEMINIST COLLECTIONS' copyright is held by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
Single issues of FEMINIST COLLECTIONS may be purchased for $3.50 (plus postal charges for non-U.S. requests--inquire about rates). Please send a check made payable to University of Wisconsin-Madison to Women's Studies Librarian's Office, 430 Memorial Library, 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706

Mounted May 23, 2002.