Unit IV: Gender and Work in the Global Economy

Racialized, Gendered, and Sexualized Labor in the Global Economy

The structure of the global economy affects people differently not only by the economic situations of the nations in which they live, but also by gender and race. Predatory trade relationships between countries roughly reproduce the political situation of colonization in many nations of the Global South. This has led many to characterize neoliberal economic policies as a form of neocolonialism, or modern day colonization characterized by exploitation of a nation’s resources and people. Colonialism and neocolonialism are concepts that draw attention to the racialized global inequalities between white, affluent people of the Global North—historical colonizers—and people of color of the Global South—the historically colonized. Postcolonial theory emerged out of critiques of colonialism, empire, enslavement, and neocolonial racist-economic oppression more generally, which were advanced by scholars in the Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas. Postcolonial scholars primarily unpack and critique colonial discourses, depictions of colonized Others, and European scholars’ biased representations of those they colonized, which they figure as knowledge (for example, see Said 1995 and Spivak 1988). Decoloniality theoretical approaches, emerging chiefly in Latin America, illuminated how colonization invented the concepts of “the colonized,” “modernity” and “coloniality,” and disrupted the social arrangements, lives, gender relations, and understandings it invaded, imposing on the colonized European racialized conceptualizations of male and female (Quijano 2007; Lugones 2007).

Women of color of the Global South are disproportionately impacted by global economic policies. Not only are women in Asian and Latin American countries much more likely to work in low-wage factory jobs than men, women are also much more mobile in terms of immigration (Pessar 2005). Women have more labor-based mobility for low-income factory work in other countries as well as in domestic and sex work markets. When women immigrate to other nations they often sacrifice care of and contact with their own children in order to earn money caring for wealthier people’s children as domestic workers; this situation is known as transnational motherhood (Parreñas 2001). Domestic work and sex work are two sectors of the service economy in which women immigrants participate. Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, have few options in terms of earning money, and economic circumstances are such that undocumented immigrants can make more money within illegal and unregulated markets in nations of the Global North, rather than regulated markets of the formal economy. Thus, it is not uncommon for women immigrants to participate in informal economies such as domestic work or sex work that employers and clients do not report in their taxes.

Women immigrants also participate in other parts of the service economy of the Global North. Miliann Kang (2010) has studied immigrant women who participate in beauty service work, particularly nail salons. This type of work does not require high amounts of skill or experience and can support women for whom English is a second language or those who may be undocumented. Like any service job, work in nail salons involves emotional labor. While clients may see the technician in the beauty salon as their confidant (like Queen Latifa’s character in Beauty Shop), their relationship is primarily an unequal labor relationship in which one party is paid not only for the service they perform but also for their friendly personalities and listening skills. Kang (2010) refers to this type of labor involving both emotional and physical labor as body labor. To engage in both emotional and physical labor at work is exhausting. In addition, workers in nail and hair salons work with harsh chemicals that are ultimately toxic to their health and make them more susceptible to cancer than the general population.


Not only do gendered, racialized, and sexualized differences exist in the US domestic labor market, leading to differences in work and pay, these differences also characterize the globalized labor market. Trade relationships between countries and the ideology of neoliberalism that governs them have profound effects on the quality of life of people all over the world. Women bear the brunt of changes to the global marketplace as factory workers in some countries and domestic, sex, and beauty service workers in others. Fortunately, fair trade and anti-sweatshop movements as well as indigenous, decolonial, feminist and labor movements are fighting to change these conditions for the better in the face of well-funded and powerful multinational corporations and global trade organizations.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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