June Reading List on Feminism, Labour and Work
“…we were regarded as a women’s centre, …What we are is a legally established union for women…‘we are not excluding men, they can stand behind us… We tell them that [other] countries in fact have such unions… You do not include the problems we face as women in your reports. There is violence against women. You do not care what happens to women…”
“… we wanted to organise these [domestic] workers and wanted to discuss this with the General Secretary [of her union]. The first thing he said was, it’s a good idea you can organize but I don’t think our union can do it. Then I asked, why? Because they won’t pay subscriptions. So, I said, doesn’t matter. Subscription comes later. We’ll organize first.
Weerasooriya and Kandasamy are but two Sri Lankan women who have engaged in a decades-long struggle to gain recognition for all types of women’s labour and work and maintain and improve the living and working conditions of Sri Lankan women workers. Most importantly, they have placed the voice of women who are otherwise marginalised, forgotten or devaluated at the Centre of their demands. We only have to critically stand back and listen, learn and give recognition to these everyday feminists.
Labour and work are two core themes in feminist thinking, writing, and activism. While often used interchangeably, the two words can take on quite distinct meanings.
We understand “labour” to be the mental, emotional and physical effort applied to a task that helps to transform something and create something new. For example, we can take a piece of cloth, cut and hand stitch it together using thread to create a t-shirt. The t-shirt comes into being through our assembly of the raw items and the application of physical and cognitive effort. Alternatively, we can apply our labour effort to care for a baby — comfort her when she cries, feed her when she is hungry, rock her to sleep, and play with her; or care towards ageing parents or unwell siblings and relatives. The care labour continuum stretches the entire lifespan of families, communities and social groups.
It should come as no surprise that organisations, such as the Women’s Centre and the Domestic Workers Union in Sri Lanka, focus on the relationship between paid and unpaid work. The Women’s Centre runs a childcare centre for free trade zone workers in Katunayake. Other care options for women free trade zone workers includes a centre in the zone run by the Board of Investments (limited places) and informal care arrangements, including using boarding house ‘Aunties’ or grandparents. For single mothers, the Women’s Centre is a lifeline when because of their single mother status, they may be without the kinship networks that help sustain other women. Without the Centre, they cannot engage in paid employment, placing them in positions of extreme economic insecurity. The Centre is sadly underfunded, poorly resourced and requires greater support.
The Domestic Workers Union made up primarily of ex-estate sector workers (note many moves between sector), advocates for those doing the caring. It is a remarkable union given they formed when “domestic worker’ was not included in ‘worker’ in Sri Lankan labour law. This omission represented a form of great structural violence and erasure. While Cabinet approved the inclusion of ‘domestic worker’ in labour law in 2018, the country is yet to ratify the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) convention on domestic workers: C189 Domestic Worker Convention. Yet, without the service of domestic workers, many of the women who employ them will be unable to work in paid employment. The conditions under which the majority work is highly depletive and unsustainable. They, too, require greater support.
Below we present a short, curated reading list that delves into the points discussed above and touches upon work in multiple realms.
The value of labour
While Marx developed a complex labour theory of value, feminists have critiqued this approach because of the neglect of unpaid work. This summary from the Economic & Political Weekly synthesises these arguments.
Feminist economics is one discipline that attempts to move away from masculine assumptions within the discipline and male-centric approaches to economic analysis and policymaking. Naila Kabeer makes a case for why we need feminist economics more than ever. You can find more work by feminist economists on the International Association for Feminist Economics website.
Intersectional and postcolonial approaches to work and labour
In this think piece, Sara Salem outlines why we must always contextualise gendered experiences with other relations of power, from race to capitalism. Robin D.G Kelly explains what is racial capitalism and why it is essential. These issues are explored by Dina Siddiqi, Minh-Ha T. Pham and Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum in a recent panel discussion on fast fashion and racial capitalism. The emphasis is on racial and ethnic vulnerability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garment sector/industrial workers
Feminists and feminist organisations have written, blogged or organised women labourers in the apparel sector of Sri Lanka. These works have captured either the socio-cultural labouring lives or labour conditions and ethical trade governance.
Academic books include Caitrin Lynch’s Juki Girls, Good Girls that look at women workers in village factories, Sandya Hewamanne’s book on free trade zone workers in Stitching Identities and; Kanchana N Ruwanpura’s forthcoming book on the apparel sector’s ethical codes in Garments without Guilt?
Some recent blogs include Kanchana’s commentary on COVID-19 and ethical trade. You can also access some previous musings on ethical trade by Kanchana and an introduction to the apparel sector by Samanthi here.
You can read more about Kandasamy’s here in this study published by the Social Scientists Association. The Domestic Worker’s Union is also noted in a report released by the International Labour Organisation in 2020. It provides a snapshot of workers and working conditions in Sri Lanka.
For first-hand accounts of domestic work comes from India: Baby Halder’s A life less ordinary, of working as a domestic worker in India. This intriguing article in the New York Times looks at how domestic workers in the Gulf have been using Tiktok to highlight their experiences. If you are unable to access the article, see this summary on YouTube. For riveting scholarship, Cultures of Servitude by Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum look at domestic life and servitude in contemporary Kolkata, India, focusing on both employers and workers, men and women.
A lot has been said and written about migrant domestic workers abroad. A classic is Michelle Gamburd’s The Kitchen Spoon’s Handle. You can also read about the complexities of regulating migrant labour conditions and attempts to organise migrant workers, including domestic workers.
COVID-19, work and labour
Many resources look at the impact of the pandemic on women and labour. A starting point can be this report from India on labourers and hunger during the first lockdown there in 2020. This report from India looks at the intersection of gender identity, livelihoods and hunger, while this report from South Africa picks up on the theme. There are also several ongoing research projects you can read about on the Gender and COVID-19 project.
Have a look at the latest resources on the landing page and then search for work and care in the search tool.
Paid and unpaid labour and work are covered in this poetry collection. Sonali Perera’s No Country on working-class literature includes a chapter on poems published in the Da Bindu Collective newspaper. You may also want to look out for a new novel about the life and disappearance of a Sri Lankan migrant domestic worker called Songbirds by Christy Lefteri (not neither Samanthi nor Kanchana have read this book yet, although it is on our radar!). A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman is another English language novel that features a child domestic labourer from the age of five in Sri Lanka
The labour of housework, housewives and the household form the basis for much feminist analysis. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale by Maria Mies is a ground-breaking historical analysis of “housewification” and the gender division of labour. Read it along with Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (see video summary here.). Then read:
- Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class. Chapter 13 is on housework and the ‘housewife’ for a much-needed intersectional perspective.
- Kanchana’s book Matrilineal Communities Patriarchal Realities casts an intersectional lens on female-headed household in East Sri Lanka. Notably, she also examines women’s resistance and achievements.
- To complement the above reading, you can also look at Suriya Women based in Batticaloa. They have several resources on social reproduction, including conflict-affected women.
- The Inclusive Economies, Enduring Peace: The Transformative Role of Social Reproduction project has researched how Sri Lankan women’s unpaid and paid labour is affected by conflict a decade after the end of the war.
- A fascinating new book Making the Right Choice, by Asha Abeysekera, looks at the relationship between marriage, morality and modernity among the middle class in Sri Lanka.
- This report on rural Sri Lankan women by Samanthi highlights the relationship between care and participation in agricultural labour across the life course/generations. It takes an intersectional look at post-war lives.
Look at the inherent contradictions of the sustainable development goals, namely Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth. Goal 8 neglects the value and costs of social reproduction, as Shirin Rai and Benj Brown write with Kanchana. Economic Development policies are often implicated in replicating structures of gendered violence, especially in conflict-affected contexts. The Political Economy of Conflict and Violence against Women, edited by Kumudini Samuels, Claire Slatter and Vagisha Gunasekara, outlines some important case studies.
Finally, what are the costs of unpaid labour, and how can the gendered harm of not recognising unpaid work be addressed? The concept of depletion has become an essential contribution to this discussion. See Shirin Rai, Catherine Hoskyn and Dania Thompson’s seminal paper on this topic (open access version is available here). A ‘regenerative’ state may help to address this depletion.
In terms of historical analysis, Princeton University has just released a new archive on Sri Lankan dissidents, including women workers. Kumari Jayawardena’s The Rise of the Labour Movement in Ceylon makes for compelling reading, with a Sri Lankan edition available at the Social Scientist Association and elsewhere.
While much has been written about estate sector workers, we would draw your attention to two key publications that examine women workers’ intersectional experiences and their activism and agency. Kumari Jayawardena and Rachel Kurian’s Class, Patriarchy and Ethnicity on Sri Lankan Plantations: Two Centuries of Power and Protest, look at the emergences of a new Malaiyaha (‘Hill Country’) Tamil identity over time. While this book relies heavily on secondary sources, Myrthi Jegathesan, Tea and Solidarity, Tamil women and work in post-war Sri Lanka draws on longitudinal anthropological research to present a contemporary account of worker’s lives. It is a beautiful book that places the narratives of the women at the heart of analysis. You can listen to her talk here.
Regionally, you can find out more about the women leaders in the Indian Farmer’s Movement here. Sri Lanka’s farming women have also been at the forefront of activism in their communities. KP Somalatha from the Uva Wellassa’s Organisation is one leader you need to know.
Follow the work of women’s organisations working with the apparel sector and industrial workers. This includes the Women’s Centre, Da Bindu Collective, the Stand-up Movement, and the Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED). Each of these groups has Facebook pages, which they update almost daily. Samanthi looks at women’s leadership during the pandemic.
The Women and Media Collective house several resources, and host the Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM). This media report looks at the plight of migrant workers amidst the pandemic.
Finally, Janaka Biyanwilla’s book on trade unions in Sri Lanka examines the contradictions of organising women workers into trade unions in the health, garments, and estate sector.
(Note: We are conscious that most sources are in English rather than equally, including Sinhala and Tamil; which is a reflection of our limitations rather than a conscious attempt at erasure of sources).
 Interviewed by Samanthi Gunawardana 2016, in Katunayake, Sri Lanka.
 Interviewed by Samanthi Gunawardana 2013, in Kandy, Sri Lanka.