Understanding women’s labour

A chief takeaway from the book is an understanding of how supply of labour is determined by economic processes

Published - March 09, 2015 11:04 pm IST



This book is an analysis of the dialectic of women’s labour and the processes of capital accumulation in Asian economies — an analysis that blends empirical research with theoretical reflections. Indeed, one of the book’s stated aims is to examine the relationship between Marxist political and economic theories with feminism, and the author offers theoretical corrections — based on empirical data — to Marx’s and Proudhon’s theories on women’s labour and on women’s roles in society. In this enterprise the author enlists the help of feminist theoreticians of women’s labour, especially those belonging to the so-called ‘German Feminist School’, although he is, at places, critical of them as well. The volume participates, therefore, in the discourse around feminist (re-)interpretations of classical Marxism and is pertinent to scholarship on both theoretical disciplines.

The ‘Foreword’ by Gerrit Huizer, emphasizes this cardinal aspect of the book while placing it in the context of an increase of class-based disparities and class struggles around the world in the wake of neo-liberal late capitalism. Huizer sounds the key note of the book when  he  observes that it provides an example of ‘global Marxist theorizing’ that emerges from, ‘or at least [is] closely related to’ local realities and local ‘learning experiences’. These ‘learning experiences’ Custers draws from his observations of and studies in the ground realities of women’s labour in the Asian economies of India, Bangladesh and Japan.   

Before entering into discussions of the nature of women’s labour in these economies the author presents a survey of the ‘discourse on women’s labour’ through the history of Marxism and feminism. This forms Part 1 of the book and includes an acute analysis of the ‘patriarchal biases’ of working class theoreticians of labour, namely, Marx and Proudhon, a survey of the proletarian women’s movement in Germany, and a critical perspective on the debate on ‘household labour’ that is a legacy of second wave feminism.

In the garment industry Part 2 presents descriptive and analytical studies of ‘the industrial work of women in India and Bangladesh’, focusing on women labourers in the garment industries in West Bengal in India and in Bangladesh. While women workers in Bangladesh partake of ‘wage slavery’ in factories, their counterparts in Bengal work out of home. And this provides the context for another discussion of the ‘Thesis of Housewifization’ advanced by the German Feminist School at the end of the section.

Part 3 analyses ‘women’s role as agricultural producers’. The first chapter is typical of the way the book blends theory with field research and case studies: it looks at the actual conditions of peasant women’s labour in Bangladesh in the light of ‘developmental feminism’. The second and third chapters, however, are wholly theoretical, considering as they do first the ‘ecofeminist debate in India’, especially Vandana Shiva’s contribution to this discourse, and then, the German Feminist School’s thesis of ‘subsistence labour’.

Part 4 is given over to ‘Japanization and women’s labour’. The first chapter compares the Japanese style of management of labour with Fordism; however, the highlight of the section is the second chapter on Japanese women as a ‘vast reserve army of labour’—a chapter that discourses on the concept of surplus reserve labour under capitalism. The third chapter is a ‘Conclusion’ to the whole book and summarises Custers’ understanding of capital accumulation in contemporary Asia.

‘Original accumulation’ For researchers in labour market economics, one of the chief takeaways from the book would be an understanding of how the supply of labour is determined by and contingent upon economic processes — an understanding that would run counter to standard economic theories of labour that perceive the supply of labour as being exogenous to the economic system, capitalist or otherwise. Another important aspect of wealth accumulation under capitalism that the book explicates is the way capitalism globally has created its pool of original capital, namely land, by taking it away from collectively held proletarian resources and turning it into private property. This process, termed ‘original accumulation’ has been active prior to the industrial revolution and has operated through the dispossession of agricultural producers.

In his chapter on women’s labour in Bangladesh, Custers attempts to explain how this Marxist concept of original or ‘primitive’ accumulation is key to an understanding of the expropriation of Bangladeshi peasantry under the impact of ‘modernisation’. However, the relation that  women’s  labour in particular has borne to this process does not become too clear in the chapter.

The major contributions made by the book consist in its analyses of the significance of women’s labour in the capitalistic extraction of absolute and relative surplus value, the ways in which women’s labour, in particular, affects and gets affected by capitalist practices of labour management, and the part played by women in supplying global capitalism with reserve armies of labour. To this reader, one of the biggest values of Custers’ project consists in the way it re-shapes mainstream economic understanding of women’s household labour. Custers’ analysis of this form of labour — buttressed by global feminist theories on the subject — emphasises the exchange  value of the labour of house-bound women, rather than seeing it as merely producing use  value. He thus ties household labour to the complex dynamics of labour market practices under capitalistic systems worldwide.

A major deficiency of the author’s project, one reckons, is the absence of any attempt to engage with the processes of capital accumulation and/or women’s labour in the emergent and developed Asian economies of China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. It is hardly possible, one would think, to arrive at any comprehensive understanding of the workings of capital and labour in Asian economies without a study of how these processes have operated in these economies, particularly in China — which is at once one of the largest producers and among the largest consumer societies in the world today.  Perhaps, the author would apply his theoretical apparatus to the labour market realities of these countries in a future volume or in an updated edition of the present book.

The language of the book is lucid, if not jargon-free; and the style is such as to make the volume accessible to the scholar and the general reader alike. In all, a nice read that is hugely informative and enlightening.

CAPITAL ACCUMULATION AND WOMEN’S LABOUR IN ASIAN ECONOMIES: Peter Custers; Aakar Books, 28 E, Pocket IV, Mayur Vihar Phase I, Delhi-110091. Rs. 395

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