Eileen Boris on “Making the Woman Worker”

Illustration by Esther Liu

Ivy Li
Contributing Writer

This past summer, Eileen Boris, a professor in the feminist studies graduate department at U.C. Santa Barbara (UCSB), released a book focusing on the history of the International Labor Organization (ILO). In an interview with The Bottom Line (TBL), Boris explains what inspired her to write this book.

In “Making the Women Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019,” Eileen Boris studies the history of the ILO and explores how it impacts the classification of different divisions of labor. In addition, she explains how it promotes the benefit for workers of all genders in industries.

In the interview with TBL, Boris gives a brief overview of the ILO’s history. Founded in 1919 alongside the League of Nations, the ILO establishes international labor standards and aims to support men and women workers for decent employment and income. It was not until after World War II when the ILO shifted the focus from simply enhancing male workers’ benefits in western societies to also addressing the global differences in women’s work, and bringing them to development.

The ILO is closely tied with Boris’s academic career. In 1989, she was invited to a conference in India along with two other scholars to serve as the knowledge base for an ILO. Boris recalled that the organization had a convention proposal that aimed to set up standards and help improve local laws for industrial homeworkers in the garment and incense industry.

Boris, in return, uses the organization as an archive for research into the transnational terms regarding maternity standards in a project that compares Latin America and the United States data. The latter data was available when the U.S. government ratified their relationship to ILO convention in 2010, and Boris decided this could be a hook for her new book.

As Boris also explains, the ILO proposes special treatment laws for women workers, including maternity leave and limits on work hours and night shifts. Some feminist groups argued that the ILO was the enemy to gender equality at workplace because it reinforces different roles at workplace.

On the other hand, labor feminists believe that these laws can compensate for the disadvantage of the sexual division of labor and the fact that many women laborers are not organized into trade unions.

Boris empathizes and calls the special treatment a “double bind.” According to Boris, “You get a shift in part because [of] what women are pushing for, but also because nations need to deploy women’s power in employment. And to maintain that workforce of women … [you have to] have equal pay for work of equal value, comparable worth, which is what the ILO has.”

“But,” continued Boris, “you also want to maintain the next generation, so I think this flexibility, this move toward its formal equality is both a response to women’s movements but also to the labor market and family formation needs, the social reproductive needs of national economies.”

Historically, nation states operationalize labor standards. Boris explains that with the ILO setting international standards, workers are now granted more power. Domestic organized workers are made delegates, and they can work with governments to reconstruct a system to deal with the changing nature of work in the global economy.

Despite the progress, challenges persist on the future role of domestic care work in both paid and unpaid occasions, which is related to the employment of women workers.

“Making the Woman Power” presents the history of the ILO’s shifting understanding of the nature of labor and thus the changing goal to combat sexism in the workplace. It reveals a larger picture of the increasing importance of women laborers and introduces a glimpse into the future balance of labor.

For her next major project, Boris will delve into how immigrant domestic workers strive for justice and will take a similar approach by examining the history after World War II of the internal migration from the south to north. She is also interested in placing their story within the larger scope of domestic workers’ struggles worldwide to present an impartial scholarly work that brings attention and recognition to all groups.