Chemin Eugène Rigot 2A
in Geneva 1202
“Indispensable to All Working Women and to Mothers in the Home”: that is how the French organiser of garment outworkers Jeanne Bouvier characterised a proposal for an eight-hour day, forty-eight hour week which a century ago became Convention No.1 of the newly formed International Labor Organization (ILO).
In differentiating “mother in the home” from “all working women,” Bouvier reinforced the separating of mother work from the world of employment that has haunted the formulation of global labor standards. This binary – what some theorists refer to as productive and reproductive labor, others as paid and unpaid work and the ILO as work and family responsibilities – cordoned off care from employment.
By tracing the construction of the woman worker, responsible for care work, under global labor standards, this talk probes paths to equality between men and women and among women amid regimes of inequality.
Most ILO standards were facially gender neutral with gendered and racialised impacts. They defined what is work and who is a worker, seeking to formalise the informal through rules for the workplace. But some standards applied only to certain workers, singled out by gender, occupation, or geographic location, the latter referring to workers and subsistence producers in colonialised places racialised by white Western Europeans, as well as indigenous peoples facing dispossession of land and livelihoods. These standards policed morality, sexuality, and the organisation of social life as well as promoted the civilising mission and development.
Over time global labor standards also served as mobilising and organising devices for those previously outside standard employment: home-based labourers and household and care workers, whose demands for rights and recognition have upended the traditional structure of the ILO. With the unraveling of the employer-employee relationship under global supply chains and the fissured workplace, the past of feminised labor illuminates the future of work. Whether the new carework economy, touted by the ILO as central for gender equality, merely relabels the old inequalities will depend on the struggles waged in its name.