Globalization: Use this word in a sentence, especially as the cause of something bad, and you will get knowing nods all around. But then press those same listeners to give you a definition of globalization, and watch the silence set in. Globalization has become one of those catchall words now used with great profligacy and imprecision to cover all manner of economic, political and cultural changes on the planet. Generally, it is understood to refer especially to the international flows of money and information across borders, the power and reach of multinational corporations that often override the interests of nation-states and the ongoing dominance of the rich North over the poor South. But what, exactly, do these broad concepts translate into on a day-to-day basis?
Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hoch- schild seek to put a human and, more precisely, female face on the abstractions of globalization in their edited collection of fifteen essays, Global Woman. They persuasively argue that in all the generalized and sometimes highfalutin talk about globalization, the central role that women play in the massive migrations that define and sustain the new economy has been ignored. This they seek to redress, but the book takes a particular angle, focusing not on female factory workers or those in the service or tourism industries but rather on those who travel often thousands of miles to work in the “care” business as nannies, domestics or prostitutes. “Women are on the move as never before in history,” they write, “assuming the cast-off domestic roles of middle- and high-income women in the First World.” Thus the book is really about the “feminization of migration,” in which “half of the world’s 120 million legal and illegal migrants are now believed to be women.” Women have become “crucial economic actors,” moving to where the jobs are and sending remittances back to their families, sometimes to husbands who can’t find work at home or abroad. Most of the articles detail the economic inequities and emotional costs of working as a nanny or domestic worker, and two focus on prostitution.
Although it will come as no surprise that these women are overworked, underpaid and often have lives indistinguishable from slavery, the details of their oppression are gripping and infuriating. The essays on sexual slavery in Thailand and migrant domestic workers in the United States are especially moving exposés that deserve a wide audience. But just as distressing are the stories about the choices these women face: Stay in your own country and raise your children in abject destitution, or leave them behind so you can work in a richer country and send monthly remittances that will lift them out of poverty. The mothers we meet in this collection who leave the Dominican Republic, the Philippines or Sri Lanka to work as nannies in the United States, Hong Kong or Greece miss their children desperately, and are participating in a reallocation of emotional resources in which the nanny’s “love of a First World child [is] being extracted from her own Third World children.” Ehrenreich and Hochschild astutely identify what they call a “care deficit” in wealthier countries, as women who used to stay home and provide the emotional sustenance for a family now go off to work, leaving a nurturing vacuum in the home. The solution? Hire women of color from poorer countries to pick up the emotional slack.
As with most edited collections, Global Woman is very uneven, but Kevin Bales’s “Because She Looks like a Child” is alone worth the price of admission. Here we meet 15-year-old Siri (not her real name), sold into prostitution by her parents when she was 14, her genitals aching from sexually servicing fifteen men the previous night. Siri is one of approximately 35,000 rural girls in Thailand sold into a sexual slavery from which they cannot escape. But Bales is not simply out to shock: His piece is a model essay that places this repugnant practice within its historical, cultural and economic setting, so that readers appreciate the full range of forces that produce and legitimize such a situation. Globalization here also exerts powerful pressure: the explosion of the international sex trade (two-thirds of tourists to Thailand in the 1990s were unaccompanied men); the influx of seductive, high-end consumer goods that families can buy in exchange for their daughters; the rapid rise in wages for men in cities that feeds the prostitution industry; the economic undermining of rural economies and cultures.