• Ishita Chakma

Gendering Economic Rights

Economic Rights are increasingly compromised as one moves down the social ladder. The economic rights of women who are marginalized at more levels than one, continue to be violated, and the structure of patriarchal capitalism can be identified as the root of the violation of these rights and the exploitation of the female workforce in developing countries. The ‘gendering economic rights’ debate facilitates the creation of a deeper understanding of such processes and their effects on women.

Economic Rights

As per Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” Article 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) speaks about ensuring “the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights”. As per Article 24 of the UDHR “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitations of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” The UDHR reflects the commitment of the United Nations to the indivisibility of human rights. The first priority of governments is to protect human rights.

However, in fast-growing economies and at the faster pace of globalization, economic growth has been prioritized over the economic rights of individuals contributing to the economy. Economic rights are increasingly compromised as one moves down the social ladder.

While globalization provides many benefits, the fact that the gains and costs are spread inequitably is a feature of the process that hinders the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly in developing nations. In order to fulfil the demands of the globalized world, human rights are compromised to provide the required supply of goods and services, leading to labor exploitation and the denial of economic rights. Women and children in particular become easy prey for the crime and labour market and are made victims of exploitation, with the annual monetary estimation of gender-based violence and violence against women being USD 12 trillion approximately (OECD Development Centre, June 2016).

Globalized markets expand the idea of consumption as a way of entering society, having a lifestyle, and continuing the cycle of having status. Consumption produces a demand for newer products, which is exacerbated by the public's perception of publicity and marketing. It is the basic system of the market to develop techniques for making a variety of items and consumer goods available to consumers through trade, facilitated by human labour which is remunerated, exploited, slave labour, or forced child labour.

Gendering the Debate

The economic insecurity and increase in poverty associated with globalization have made women more vulnerable to exploitation. People from one side of the world enjoy the products produced by the labour of the other side. The women in developing countries for export-oriented production are only one side of the global division of labour—economies thriving on the export of goods produced through the process of cheap labour. The Western discourse on human rights sidelines the violations of economic rights in the Global South.

As per UN Women, Turning Promises into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2018, empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work is key to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and contributing to the simultaneous achievement of Goal 1 – ending poverty, Goal 2 – food security, Goal 3 – ensuring the health, Goal 5 – gender equality, and Goal 8 – promoting full and productive employment and decent work for all.

In the OECD countries, an increase in the attainment of education of women accounts for 50 percent of economic growth (OECD, 2012) However, the challenges to access proper educational facilities and the rapid growth of the digital space further intensify the gender and economic divide. As per UN Women (2020), the global gender pay gap is 16 percent; women earn 84 percent of what men do. The disparity is substantially bigger with regard to women of colour, immigrants, and women with children. In every nation, across all sectors, for all levels of education and age groups, the average income of women workers is lower than that of men. Furthermore, women incur a wage penalty for having children. According to a 2015 report by ILO, working mothers earn less than non-mothers, and the pay gap widens as the number of children a woman has increased. (ILO, 2015)

The unpaid work that women are assigned in households constitutes anywhere between 10–39 percent of GDP (Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work, Report of the Secretary-General, E/CN.6/2017/3, December 2016). Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Women in the International Division of Labour (2014) is a historical analysis of the associated processes of colonization and 'housewifization,' as well as an extension of this study to the contemporary international division of labour. Mies' central argument is that capitalism cannot thrive without a patriarchal foundation. Instead of two independent systems exploiting women and their labour, she refers to the "capitalist-patriarchy."

Mies takes the debate on the role of domestic labour within the capitalist family and society further. She explores the oppression and exploitation, as well as the never-ending accumulation and ‘growth' paradigm, in the context of capitalist patriarchy. She suggests that capitalist institutions shape global policy and perception to exploit women in the role of underdeveloped-world labourers who produce consumer goods for consumption by women in the developed world, who in turn are objectified by capitalist systems and left to be housewives and consumers of these goods and services.

She argues that women are the best labour force at this stage of the world economy because they are universally defined as 'housewives’, not as workers. This means that their work, whether in use-value or commodity production, is obscured, and they can thus be hired at a cheaper rate and it is considered feasible to cheapen women's labour, establishing a political and ideological influence over them by classifying them generally as housewives.

Fast fashion, increase in consumption, cheap labour, and exploitation of labour are interrelated as brands meet the demand for their products by increasing the pace of production, exploiting cheap labour, and risking the lives of workers. As per a 2020 article by the Sunday Times, garment workers in Leicester are paid between £3.50 to £4 per hour against the national minimum wage of £8.72 an hour. Huge fast fashion brands tend to underpay the workers who work tirelessly at meagre wages in dangerous situations. According to National Geographic, Bangladesh's garment industry employs up to four million people, but the average worker makes less in a month than a worker in the United States earns in a day. As per Human Rights Watch “The $2.4 trillion apparel industry, which predominantly employs women as garment workers, witnesses a host of labour abuses. These range from poor wages to factory owners and managers denying paid maternity benefits or even firing pregnant workers to harassment of union leaders to forced overtime work to workplace sexual harassment.” (Kashyap, 2018).


In the era of globalization, when knowledge, languages, culture, and technology transcend borders and there exists a maximalist consumption trend, the economic rights of women are compromised. Despite being mentioned under the UDHR, the economic rights of individuals are violated as the paycheque for globalized advancements, higher demand for goods, and cheap labour as a result of unemployment due to social and economic disadvantages. To date, there exists an unequal division of labour, gender pay gap, and a lack of acknowledgment of the role of women in the world of work or in their day to day lives which can be linked to the age-old concept of patriarchal capitalism which demands unpaid labour and work from women and capitalizes on the exploitation of the marginalized.


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About the Author

Ishita Chakma is a graduate student of International Relations and Area Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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