A visit to Malaysia’s only (legal) casino

Malaysia’s only casino, Casino de Genting at Genting Highlands Resort, is for high rollers. For the filthy rich and for the middle men. And for those with dirty money that needs washing.

By Anya Palm 

The big room is less glitzy than in Hollywood movies. The lighting is too bright and the colors too dim and dusty. But that’s all. Other than that – the casino is exactly like in the movies. Piles and piles of chips in front of eager players of all ages. Slots. Slick dealers with empty faces and silk ties. Neon lights. Monotone little melodies from the many machines placed in rooms with names like “Monte Carlo”, “Fortune Corner” and – yes- “Hollywood.”

The Genting Highland Resort Casino in Malaysia is the only casino in the country, seeing as gambling is illegal, save for this one spot.

Tourists come here and the resort has other attractions too. But that’s not interesting. Because regular tourists are not admitted through the doors behind the metal detector and the two armed guards. Into the Silver Lounge where membership card and a certain amount of cash is required. THIS is where money is laundered.

An elderly man sits at one of the hundreds of tables in the lounge. In front of him is a massive amount of yellow chips – 80? 100? 200? Stacked in nice piles, each orderly next to each other.

The Genting Resort Union President, Robert Henry, is present. Besides his job as a union leader, he also works as a guard in the casino. “Each yellow chip is worth 5,000 dollars,” he whispers, as he passes the man with the piles. Dollars.

Later, he reveals that it is not uncommon for the Silver Card Members to come here and gamble for well over a million dollars. And then – like an afterthought – that some of it is money laundering.

– How else would you explain suddenly having millions more than yesterday? “I went to the casino and won.” the president explains. But of course, this is hush. And that is of course just a non waterproof suspicion, he has. He does not ask.

And without knowing it, Henry just made a very excellent point. Because money laundering – or corruption for that matter – is like smoke. Once the money hit the casino, the origin is obvious and hidden at the same time. The union president tells of one client, a Cambodian man that comes every three days with more than a million dollars to gamble for. He always likes to live in a suite and he pays good tips. Who gets a million dollars every third day? In Cambodia? What is this man’s job? Obviously, there is no answer.

In Malaysia corruption cannot be categorized as an overshadowing problem. Malaysia ranks as number 47 out of 180 over Transparency International’s corruption index and thus is in the better end than many of her neighbors. But the thing is that corruption cannot be defined, not in any way that makes sense. It is not excluded to businessmen and shady realty deals or crooked politicians. It is your friendly policeman in the little local station, your children’s math teacher, your mom when you needed vaccine as a child, you. It is a part of the Malaysian culture, which is not easily categorized – nor altered.

Corruption has always been there and we all know it is bad – why talk about it now?

Because of what happened just outside the capital in Malaysia this June:

The Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium collapsed.

The Stadium was built in 2008 and it cost a good billion dollars to build. It holds 50,000 spectators when sold out and sold out it was on Wednesday June 3, when the Public Institute of Higher Learning Games was to be held here. The night before, the gargantuan concrete rooftop collapsed and crashed down over the seats, leaving no doubt that had this happened just 12 hours later, thousands of lives would have been lost.

On the day of the now cancelled event, Malaysia was very quiet. Those, who had their tickets still, got their money back.But guess which money did NOT come back? The dollars that were supposed to go to building a decent stadium. The money, that may or may not have been spend, not on good building materials and competent construction workers and architects, but on chips. Possibly yellow.

So why does Malaysia rank so low on the corruption index, when it is so painstakenly clearly infiltrating this country? And why is there a legal casino in a country that forbids gambling? Who are these people that can gamble for millions and millions on a regular basis? Obviously, the public deserves an answer.

Gendered Globalisation and Social Change by Nira Yuval-Davis

The social change affecting gender relations in society as a result of globalisation is paradoxical. On the one hand, as a result of globalisation women are allowed entry to roles and arenas of society in which they were not allowed in many societies before and thus the distance between the ways masculinity and femininity are constructed in the society lessens. On the other hand, however, the effects of globalisation on contemporary politics of belonging have been such that in many places we see new kinds of conservatism and tribalism which, under the claims of going back to ‘authentic’ culture and tradition, radically enlarge the differential ways manhood and womanhood are constructed, as well as overall power relations between men and women in the society.

Like Saskia Sassen I see globalisation as an ‘epochal change’ which is just in its beginning (Sassen, 2006) and following Scholte I consider the time/space compression, the ‘respatialization with the spread of transplanetary social connections’ (Scholte, 2000:3), as the most specific aspects of globalization, of which the conference ‘Gender at the interface of the global and the local’ is just one small example.

In addition to mass movement of people across the globe, the development of the virtual space via the internet as well as other means of communication and transportation, have made dialogues across different positionings and locations, across borders and boundaries much easier, cheaper and more frequent. This, in addition to mass movement of people across the globe, made Castels and Miller (1993) talk about ‘the age of migration’ as typifying contemporary society. Women have played major roles in these processes. One of the characteristics of ‘the age of migration’ is ‘the feminization of migration’. The 2004 world survey on the role of women in development states that 49% of all migrants are women. This includes women who migrated as family dependents – either with their husbands or following them, as well as the growing number of women who migrated on their own, leaving or not behind them families of their own in their countries of origin. However, the dichotomy between women workers and family dependents which exists in official statistics is fictitious as so many of the women who migrate as family dependents both want and need to work. The situation is similar concerning women asylum seekers and refugees. Often both husband and wife were politically active but only the husband received the status of refugee. As a result there have been many cases in Britain, for instance, when the husband dies and the legal protection of the refugee status is taken away from the family whose immigration status becomes precarious (Bhaba & Shutter, 1994).

The gendered character of women’s migration can be detected in several major ways, although it is important to remember that gendered analysis needs to be part of an intersectional one, as the situations of professional and unskilled women, single and married, young and old, who migrated from the South or from other European countries, are vastly different. However, it is usually only women who are dependent for their immigration status on that of their husbands’ and it is usually women who are super-exploited by family and other men from their diasporic community who mediate between them and the outside economic and social world. In many branches of the economy the labour market is gender specific. Women’s only migrations focus around traditional roles of women – as domestic workers (from cleaners to nannies) on the one hand and as sex and entertainment workers on the other hand. In the phenomenon of ‘mail brides’, in which women are selected, often not met beforehand, as brides for lonely Western men, these two roles merge together.

As Spike Peterson (2003) has argued, when discussing labour in general, but especially women’s work under globalisation, we need to differentiate as well as relate to its reproductive, productive and virtual aspects. In the latter two, like when women work in manufacturing in free trade zones or in call centres, women have entered sections of the labour market to which they have not had access before, either because they used to work outside the money economy, in their households or – in rural sectors – in the fields, and/or because these kinds of work did not exist before the micro-chip revolution. In the reproductive arena, women usually continue to work in what is considered traditionally to be ‘women’s work’, such as domestic work, child care and care of the old and the infirm, but often in new sites, either in national metropolitan areas or internationally, to replace care work of other women who have entered the formal labour market.

Women’s roles, belonging and the politics of belonging

It is important to differentiate between belonging and the politics of belonging (Yuval-Davis, 2006a). Belonging is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home’ and – as Michael Ignatieff (2001) points out – about feeling ‘safe’. In the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 in London, such a definition gets a new, if problematic, poignancy. Belonging tends to be naturalized and becomes articulated and politicized only when it is threatened in some way. Belonging also assumes boundaries of belonging and the ‘natural’ division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The politics of belonging are comprised of specific political projects aimed at constructing belonging in particular ways to particular collectivity/ies which are, at the same time, being constructed themselves by these projects in very specific ways. Central to these projects is the construction and reproduction of the boundaries of belonging according to some specific principles which can be of many different kinds, from the phenotypical to the social.

The analytical differentiation between belonging and the politics of belonging is, therefore, crucial for any critical political discourse of nationalism, racism and other contemporary politics of belonging. It is also crucial for any analysis of gender relations and the constructions of femininity and masculinity.

It is crucial in two different ways. Firstly, in the same ways that they naturalize boundaries of collectivities, political projects of belonging also tend to naturalize gender roles and relationships. The feminist political struggles aimed at women’s emancipation depend on the denaturalization and debiologisation of women’s roles and thus the possibility of change. This is one of the reasons why so often feminists find themselves in oppositionary roles to hegemonic political projects of belonging which construct women’s roles as wives and mothers as part of women’s bio
logical destiny and equate between hearth, home and women’s domestic roles in their constructions of safe belonging.

Secondly,  this is important because so often political projects of belonging tend to construct differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, civilised or moral ‘us’ vs barbarian or immoral ‘them’ in cultural terms in the heart of which are different constructions of gender relations in general and womanhood in particular.

Globalisation, social change and feminist ‘transversal politics’

Feminist activism related to situations of ethnic and national conflicts and wars has been another major front for the development of the international women’s movement (Cockburn, 1998, Zajovic, 1994). Meetings among women who came from different sides of the conflict often took place in neutral zones and with the support of other international women’s groups, as well as in NGO UN forums. Identity politics could not survive in their previous feminist format during these activities. The women who took part in the meetings were conscious all too often that they could not be seen as representing all women, let alone all members of their ethnic and national collectivities, as most of the latter often supported the continuing confrontation and conflict. While the membership of these women in the conflicting collectivities was crucial to their participation in the encounter, their common aspirations to find common emancipatory solutions to the conflict have been just as important.

A new kind of feminist politics has been born, called ‘transversal politics’ by the Italian feminists who sponsored many of the initial meetings of feminists from Israel/Palestine and the different components of Former Yugoslavia (Yuval-Davis, 1994; 2006c; Cockburn & Hunter, 1999). Based on common feminist emancipatory values, dialogical in nature and with transnational participants of feminist advocates across borders and boundaries, it made important contributions to general human rights and feminist struggles across the globe and has presented an important front for local and global progressive social change. This has been recognized by other glocal networks of conservatives and fundamentalists, and in forums like the Beijing +10 and other UN +10 forums, the close relationships between the participation of women and the participation of feminists has been problematised. In many cases feminists have had to work very hard in order to be able to keep the achievements of the 1990’s conferences, let alone improved on them. The cooptation of ‘the women’s question’ to discourses such as the so-called ‘humanitarian militarism’ and the wars in Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree in Iraq, have also been reflected in the recent election campaign in the USA, for instance.

This brought many feminists active in these global networks to question whether the NGO Forum of the UN is the best arena in which to continue to carry out feminist struggles for emancipatory social change, and to some extent global feminist organizations such as AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) have taken their place. Currently for instance, AWID is carrying out a comparative action-research in 140 countries in which it examines the effects of and struggles against religious and ethnic fundamentalisms in these countries. The stakeholders are all those who work in various feminist, human rights and development organizations in these countries.

A concluding remark

This is a time of global economic and political crisis. Women bear the brunt of this crisis both as members of their societies and as participants in the labour market, as well as symbolic and embodied targets for the fears and frustrations of the men in their societies, mobilized by various defensive political projects of belonging. This is a crucial time for global women’s and feminist solidarity. However, it is also crucial that such solidarity will be transversal in that it will recognize the intersectional differences in women’s ‘situated positionings and power, carry out the dialogue within the boundaries of  emancipatory value systems, encompass discourse of difference with discourse of equality and conviviality and will not confuse the notion of ‘women’ with that of ‘feminists’. This is not the time to go back to identity politics.


Bhabha, Jacqueline & Shutter, Sue (1994), Women’s Movement: women under immigration, nationality and refugee law, Trentham Books, Stoke-on-Trent

Castles, Stephen & Miller, Mark J., (1993), The Age of Migration, Macmillan, London

Cockburn, Cynthia (1998), The Space Between Us, Zed Books, London

Cockburn, Cynthia & Hunter, Lynnete (1999), Transversal Politics, special issue of Soundings, no. 12 (summer)

Ignatief, Michael (2001), Human Rights as Politics and idolatry, Princeton University Press, Princeton

Sassen, Saskia (2006), Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton University Press, Princeton

Scholte, Jan Aart (2000), Globalisation: a critical introduction. Palgrave Macmilasn, London

Yuval-Davis, Nira, (1994), ‘Women, Ethnicity & Empowerment’, Feminism and Psychology, special issue Shifting identities shifting racisms ed. by K Bhavnani & A Poenix, vol 4 no.1: 179-198

Yuval-Davis, Nira (2006), ‘Belonging and the politics of belonging’ in Patterns of Prejudice, 40(3):196-213

Zajovic, Stasa (ed.) (1994), Women for Peace, Women In Black, Belgrade

Foreign companies and local workers in China by Merete Lie and Ragnhild Lund

Over the past twenty years the authors have studied how Norwegian companies have transferred production to Asia. Their focus is on the micro-level of globalization processes and their ambition is to bring ordinary people into studies of globalization by showing how Norwegian companies in Asia function as meeting places for global and local actors.����� During the early 1980s, we studied the relocation of Norwegian production to the Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) such as Singapore and Malaysia and what impact this development had on local female workers. Another shift of global production took place during the early 1990s, when the increasing flows of information, knowledge, and services became more prominent. We studied how these changes affected production as well as workers in the increasingly more consumer and market-oriented societies in Southeast Asia.� This development coincided with the new economic policies in China, which facilitated a shift towards China becoming the main target of foreign investments.

The story of one Norwegian company’s transfer to China, as described in the box below, may serve as a good example of the development referred to above. It is useful as a backdrop to understanding different dimensions of social and economic change, and how this changes the lives of those who are recruited to work in the foreign-owned companies.

The company in case is a 100 percent family-owned Norwegian enterprise. At present, it has subsidiaries all over the world, but the major part of the production takes place in Asia.The company became �international’, by setting up a factory in Singapore in 1972. The main purpose was to gain admittance for its products on the market in Asia and Oceania. At the same time, production of some of the more labour-inten�sive products was transferred from Norway. The Singapore factory was made as technologically advanced as the one in Norway, and the products were mainly of the same type.

After some years in Singapore, the simpler manual tasks were set out to home workers, often wives or relatives of employees, and eventually transferred to a subcontracting company which established itself in a residential area and employed former housewives. Wages were rising quickly in Singapore during the 1970s, which resulted in a scarcity of this type of labour. The Singaporean authorities encouraged companies to transfer labour intensive production elsewhere, because they wanted to attract high-tech enterprises. Accordingly, in 1979, the company established a subsidiary across the border in Southern Malaysia.

In the beginning, the Malaysian company was set up on rented premises. It was owned and managed by the company in Singapore, supplemented by a small share by a local owner. The production in Malaysia was almost entirely manual, and the great majority of the workers were young women. After 10-15 years a subcontractor was established in the Philippines to take care of the most labour-intensive tasks.� Some of the manual tasks were also gradually transferred to a subcontractor in Mauritius. The factory in Malaysia was reorganized with machinery transferred from the enterprise in Singapore and became a production unit technically in-between the advanced one in Singapore and the low-tech one in the Philippines.

In 2001, the company established itself in China. Machinery was transferred from the other production sites. In China, production has expanded fast, whereas activities have been scaled down in Norway, Singapore and Malaysia.

Our study in China is based on interviews in seven Norwegian companies in the Shanghai area, where we have interviewed employees from the top to the shop floor level. Here, we will focus on the blue-collar workers.

In this work, we have understood globalization as interface situations, in which the foreign companies are meeting places of local and global actors. Too often, globalization is presented as a one-way process where multinational corporations (MNCs) are seen as the vital actors and driving forces, whereas local populations are presented as passive recipients of social change. Based on our previous studies in Southeast Asia, however, we hold that globalization is not just a one-way process. The strategies of local actors are important to the global actors, though this is not saying that they have equal influence on the processes of change.

Questions raised in relation to globalization are usually of a general character and concern macro-level issues. For example, will globalization result in increasing or decreasing social difference, and will people and places become homogenized throughout the world? Too seldom do we hear about what actually takes place when global actors such as multinational companies meet the local population. Our ambition in our research is to bring ordinary people, who live their lives locally, into studies of globalization. How do people at the local level experience and adapt to the changes brought about by the processes of industrial restructuring, and how do they try to benefit from a new situation?

Company motives

Asking why the companies have chosen to move production to China, the motives can be summed up as a combination of costs, skills, infrastructure and market.

Production costs are an important reason for most companies to locate themselves in China. The low costs are mostly related to wages but also to cheaper raw materials. The estimates given suggest that labour costs are about 10% of the costs of running a similar factory in Norway, whereas in Malaysia 20 years earlier, the same estimate was 20% of running costs in Norway. The low wage-level relates to China’s great surplus of labour, providing a never-ending stream of applicants for unskilled work.

However, it is not only cheap labour that is available in China but also highly skilled personnel. This concerns technical staff from operators to engineers, as well as management personnel for sales, marketing, human relations, etc. A well-qualified staff, including human relations officers, accountants, commercial managers, and technical managers, is usually recruited locally. Thus companies are not only attracted to China because of an inexhaustible pool of labour for industrial work, but also because they can recruit well qualified staff. Companies are dependent upon a staff with local knowledge of how to deal with workers, customers and authorities. In addition to their professional work, they play important roles as mediators between foreign managers, boards and owners on the one hand, and the local
employees on the other. This large and growing number of ambitious young people for high-level positions has not received the same media attention as the large number of industrial workers.

Workers in the �New China’

Most workers in the companies we studied were below the age of 35. In the job market, companies generally specify their preferred gender and age (for instance 18-22) when they advertise for new production workers. Accordingly, to be over 30 years old is considered �old’, and workers who fall into this category have more difficulties in finding new jobs. Still, there was a sharp distinction between workers who grew up in the 1970s and those who have grown up since China opened up its economy. Workers in their thirties represent �old China’, many have work experience from local, state-owned companies (SOEs) and are generally married, some coming from formerly rural areas. The young ones, who grew up during the 1980s, represent �new China’. They have limited experience of working under the old communist regime, many have grown up in the city or in towns, and they are generally unmarried. We found these two groups to be different in their ways of approaching industrial work and in terms of ambitions, dreams, and future plans.

The majority of the young unmarried workers we met live with their parents. Some workers share a flat with friends from their home town, or they live in dormitories or flats provided by the company they work for. We also found that after marriage, young people prefer to live by themselves, leaving the parents on their own. The husband-wife relationship is becoming the stronger tie in the family relationships, not the tie between parents and children.

All the young workers emphasised that a convenient age for marriage is around 25 years. This is the time when they consider themselves mature and to have managed to consolidate their education or work ambitions. However, the interviews show that women now increasingly get married in their early thirties, which is regarded as late by most Chinese. As to the question why, they claimed that times have changed; they have more pressure at their present work-places, they have ambitions of getting more education and work experience before they settle down, and some even consider it to be difficult to raise a child in today’s China because of the high costs of living, long working hours, time spent commuting, and lack of child care.

The elderly are increasingly left to look after themselves in their old age because of the preference for nuclear family households. However, our data shows a different type of dependency, namely that of the young depending on the old because of the lack of a proper child care system.

The two-income family is the common pattern in urban China today. Young couples tend to set up households separate from their parents, and increasingly so because of labour migration. The changes in family patterns and family support relating to child-care facilities and how people solve these new challenges will have a marked influence on the direction of China’s future development.

Global enterprises – are they all the same?

Studying foreign companies as meeting places of global and local actors in China, we understand that the foreign companies position themselves so that they can benefit from the new situation, but so does the local population. To a certain extent, their aims are compatible, in the sense that the foreign companies bring job opportunities and economic growth. Among the older generation of workers, job security is of foremost concern. The young generation is, however, eager to succeed in the new economy. They are highly career-oriented and expect promotion, that is, a rising salary over time. If it is not achieved within one company, their strategy will be to change jobs as they see fit.

We find that among workers, Norwegian companies are not considered particularly attractive work places. Even though their work conditions and work ethics are appreciated compared to those of other foreign companies, Norwegian companies are not generally held to be better than others. Their salaries are considered to be in the low range, while the working conditions are considered better than in large multinational companies, especially Japanese and other Asian ones. In one significant respect, however, they are found to be much better: they are said to be �women friendly’. Unlike other companies, both among workers and among highly qualified staff, women feel they are given opportunities for advancement and that skills are recognized and valued.

[i] The research is presented in Lie, M, R Lund and GH Hansen (eds): Making it in China. Kristiansand: H�yskoleforlaget/Norwegian Academic Press 2008.Ragnhild Lund is Professor of Geography/Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU. Her main research interests are�gender and development, development induced migration, post-crisis recovery and crisis communication, youth and organisational learning of NGOs. She is author of Gender and Place (1993), In the Maze of Displacement (2003), and Global Childhoods, Globalisation, Development of Young People (2008). She has also published articles on orphanhood and HIV/AIDS, urban poverty and livelihoods.

Merete Lie is a professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, at the Norwegian University of Science and technology, NTNU.

Her main research interests are gender and technology, and gender and globalization. She is i.a. editor of He, She and IT Revisited: New Perspectives on Gender in the Information Society (2003)

Lie and Lund have co-authored Renegotiating Local Values. Working Women and Foreign Industry in Malaysia (1994) and co-edited Making it in China (2008, with GH Hansen).

Sino-Icelandic relations in times of intense globalization – Mutual respect and benefits for all? By Lilja Hjartardóttir

Sino-Icelandic relations are a recent and undertheorised phenomenon compared with Sino-Nordic relations that were already established early in the 20th century. Once business relations took hold in the 1990s Icelanders moved quickly into the immense Chinese market. While trade relations have maintained their priority status in the execution of foreign policy, participation in the international human rights regime has taken a backseat. Icelandic authorities have pledged to promote and protect human rights and gender equality in their foreign policy and foreign trade policy. In spite of public support to find and develop new markets, neither private nor public enterprises are part of the policy to enforce international human rights, including workers and women’s rights, and they are not legally bound by international human rights treaties.

Iceland has been an active, albeit small, member of the international trade regime. From the early 1990s ministers of governments, members of the Reykjavik city council, business leaders and business enthusiasts all travelled to China to experience a new and promising market. As a new member of the European Economic Community in 1994, Iceland worked on deregulation and privatization of its economy with the now well known catastrophic consequences. New legislation and regulations were meant to ensure that the business environment would enhance foreign investment in Iceland (Ásgrímsson 1998, 2005).The Icelandic President, who has participated in promoting and supporting the Icelandic business community abroad, led a large delegation to China in 2005. The trip was successful in preparing for many new business contracts between the two states.  During the same period Chinese dignitaries visited Iceland. In spite of the great contrast between the two states, current relations have been grounded in mutual trust and admiration for the economic advancement reached by both countries before the economic crisis. China appreciates that Iceland was among the first West European countries that recognized China’s status as a complete market economy while neither the United States nor the European Union has done so.  Iceland was moreover the first European country to work with China on the feasibility of establishing a free trade zone.  Iceland and China are making good progress on their comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement.

Forces of globalization shape our daily lives and the functions of the international trade system benefits us even while betraying us. There is no lack of rules on behaviour and guidelines on how international companies should respect workers rights and be responsible actors in the international market. The rules are, however, voluntary and a system of implementation and enforcement has yet to be developed. Examples are the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations and the Global Compact initiative by the United Nations. What is needed is an international legal framework to deal with a new reality where over 2400 bilateral free trade agreements exist and the transfer of trade and finance is almost unlimited (Ruggie 2008).

Globalized forces affect the life of women and men at global and local levels. A close look at local communities, e.g. coastal villages around Iceland, shows that their existence has been threatened by lack of job opportunities. Since the early 1990s jobs in fish processing have declined by more than 60% (Sigurmundsson 2007). The reasons are not simple but the privatization of the fish industry in the early 1980s and the relatively high price of fresh fish do matter. In addition to the fact that in spite of low salaries in fish processing the workers cannot compete with cheap labour or labour made cheap elsewhere (Enloe 1990, Pun 1999). While China is by far the greatest fishing nation and a competitor on the market, Iceland is on the list of the  world’s 15 main fishing countries. More than being the land of ice and fire, Iceland is the land of fish and fisheries.

Gender division of power, resources and labour

Women have protested the ancient divide between the powerful public sphere of active men, the political citizens, where resources are distributed and decisions made, and the powerless private sphere of excluded women. This tradition in liberal Western democracies has proven a major hindrance for women. It transferred into the dominance of international institutions in the 20th century, inter alia, the international finance and trade institutions (Pateman 1989, Tickner 2001). The gender division of power, resources and labour is clear in the Icelandic fish industry (Karlsdóttir 2006, Skaptadóttir 2000). The political decision to privatize the fish industry in Iceland was accepted in the early 1980s when men dominated national and local politics. The control of marine resources and the majority of business enterprises continue in the hands of men. In addition, they are the skippers and owners of the fishing vessels.

Do gender relations matter in international trade relations? Are ideas about feminity and masculinity traded along with goods and services? Are the same gendered forces of our global market economy at play in the small village plant in the capitalist, democratic far North and a huge factory in communist China? Is the gendered division of labour in the Icelandic freezing plants exported and perhaps reinforced, to the Icelandic owned freezing plants in China? Known as the most valuable resource for global business (Peterson and Runyan 1999) and the ideal workforce (e.g. Caraway 2007) women in production are said to be cheap, as well as ‘docile and willing to work lon
g hours in dead-end jobs’ (Caraway 2007).  These attributes have been ascribed to women in labour intensive production especially in export processing zones (EPZ) in Asia. The research done by Pun Ngai (e.g., 1999, 2004) shows how ‘despotic labour regimes’ are created by global, national and not least local factors in China to the detriment of the well-being of the young migrant working women. While labour legislation is enforced in Iceland and freedom of movement is secured, could similar forces be at play in the (then) wealthy Nordic state known for its gender equality and welfare polices?

According to a study on Icelandic women, who have worked in fish processing most of or all of their working lives (Karlsdóttir, 2006), there are some similarities. The women are hard workers and serious about their jobs. Nevertheless, they receive low salaries and little respect and the public image of their jobs is poor. Most of them have never been offered promotion and they are hard to find in management or quality control positions. Commencements are exceptional, complaints are not. The gendered division of work in the high-tech fish processing and freezing plants of Iceland is clear. It seems that women can and will do all the different[SP1]  tasks while most of the male workers will neither pack nor debone. This work requires ‘nimble fingers’ and men are not understood to have such skills. The packing and deboning task seems to be the one most related to femininity and it is one of the most repetitive and strenuous types of work. One factor explaining why women kept their dead-end jobs in the plants was that it was easy to control the number of days they worked. The way women organise their paid work ensures responsibility for their families and thus for most of the caring in the community. Should they be labelled a ‘docile workforce’?

Concluding remarks

Despite different working and life conditions between women in Iceland and China there are similarities. The gender division of labour is a factor that has to be reckoned with in order to promote and protect human rights in foreign trade policy. To what extent are the economic and trade ties between Iceland and China based on mutual respect and benefit, also for women in both countries? Women in the fish industry in small communities in Iceland seem to lack status to pursue power to influence local and national politics of the industry. Are they glued to the ‘sticky floor’ in the plants and stuck in their local communities, while their Chinese co-workers are at least temporarily mobile and even experiencing personal and financial freedom for the first time? Will ongoing trade relations and the free trade agreement between Iceland and China reinforce the gendered hierarchies in these two societies or is it possible for both trade relations and human rights to thrive?  This is a major challenge in a globalized world.


Ásgrímsson, Halldór (1998) Report of the Foreign Minister to the Althing. Gazette of the Althing, B-deild 1997-1998.

–         (2005) Speech at the Business Forum of the Chamber of Commerce, February 2005.

Caraway, Teri L. (2007) Assembling Women. The Feminization of Global Manufacturing. New York: Cornell University Press.

Enloe Cynthia (1990) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. London: Pandora.

Hjartardóttir, Guðbjörg Lilja (2009) “Performance and Contribution of Iceland in the International Human Rights Regime 1946-1994.”  Forthcoming.

Karlsdóttir, Anna (2006)   “Women’s dilemma in times of changing labour conditions in the Eastern part of Iceland” (Tvístígandi konur á tímum atvinnuháttabreytinga á Austurlandi). Public lecture at the ReykjavíkurAkademía 10. October 2006.

Pateman, Carole (1989) The Disorder of Women. Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press & Basil Backwell.

Peterson, Spike V., Anne Sisson Runyan (1999) Global Gender Issues: Dilemmas in World Politics.  Colorado and Oxford: Westview Press.

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International NGO Projects and Women’s Development in Yunnan by Shen Haimei, Yunnan University, China


Shen Haimei, PhD, Professor, Ethnology/Anthropology Research Institute, Yunnan University, China. Secretary-general of the Feminist Anthropology Board, the Ethnology/Anthropology Committee of China. Author of two books: Research on the Life of Yunnan Women in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (Kunming: Yunnan Education Press, 2001). Middle Ground?Gender, Ethnicity and Identity in Southwest China. (Beijing: Advanced Education Press, Forthcoming 2009).

Since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995, the Chinese government has been endeavoring to carry out the commitments agreed upon by the international community and stipulated in the Platform for Action and the Beijing Declaration. Many Western Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) have become involved in supporting this work in China. Yunnan Province, which is located in the border area of southwest China, and where many ethnic groups live, was one of the first places where NGOs from Europe and North America initiated development projects in the 1980s. These NGOs have played an important role in developing civil society and mainstreaming gender in development, but have also encountered a range of problems in working with Chinese institutions.    

The international NGOs that work in Yunnan Province include organizations such as Save the Children, WINROCK International, Oxfam, International AIDS Alliance, the Ford Foundation and many others. They have played a major role in introducing new understandings and practices of civil society to China by supporting the establishment of Chinese NGOs to engage in their development projects. Mainstreaming gender into development projects has been a main aim of international NGOs. In general, the projects executed by international NGOs are abundant in content, and include such areas as rural women’s micro-credit loan schemes, women’s reproductive health, medical relief and AIDS/HIV control and rural development among others. They have thus covered several of the main aspects of the government Program for Work Concerning Women and Children in China for the years 2001-2010.

Advocating gender equality and promoting the mainstreaming of gender

The era of western NGOs stepping into China has seen a new wave of Chinese feminism influenced by the ideas introduced by these organizations. International NGOs have introduced methods of gender analysis through their assistance and cooperative projects, and they have required a gender perspective in the practice of internationally funded projects. In fact, gender analysis methods have been adopted from other parts of the world in response to satisfying the requirements of donors, rather than having been developed locally. However, this is a good beginning, and the significance is far-reaching (Zhao 2003).

As part of international NGO projects, the requirement to learn about feminism has been promoted as an element of gender mainstreaming. Books on feminism have been introduced to China by Li Xiaojiang, Wang Zheng and others. One of the earlier published books was The Feminine Mystique translated by Cheng Xiling into Chinese. Since then many books on feminist theory have been translated and many books on gender and development issues have been published by Chinese scholars and practitioners. In Yunnan, as well as elsewhere, local institutions and organizations of women/gender studies have been established. Some local NGOs already appeared in Yunnan before the United Nations World Conference on Women in 1995. These included organizations such as the Yunnan Reproductive Health Research Association, the Yunnan PRA Network (Participatory Rural Appraisal Network), Yunnan Reproductive Health Research Association and so on. Following the Women’s Conference other new organizations, such as CBIK (Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge) and the Yunnan Gender and Development Group were set up. These organizations have become main collaborative partners for international NGOs. Moreover, the knowledge and perspectives introduced by foreign NGOs has been further disseminated as scholars began to offer courses on feminist anthropology and gender and culture at universities in order to strive to transform understandings of gender analysis into public knowledge. Yunnan has become a foreland district in promoting the mainstreaming of gender in China as local NGOs and scholars interested in gender issues have worked together with various levels of government, research institutions, colleges, and social groups. The Yunnan Women’s Federation has been actively involved and has played the role of advocator of gender mainstreaming and organizer of projects to strengthen self-motivated activity of various target groups.

Challenges and Difficulties

Nevertheless, when international NGO projects entered China and Yunnan in the globalization era, the theories and working methods they applied were confronted with many challenges and difficulties. International NGOs entered China about twenty years ago. However, an efficient system to manage their activities has not yet been constructed. The Chinese government has never provided a precise definition of their legal status, function and relationship with government. This situation is obviously problematic for NGOs that have entered China, and as pointed out in a report on the activities of Save the Children by Zhou Hao (2001), it potentially opens up for corruption by institutions and individuals. Moreover, some international employees have limited knowledge of how Chinese society works, and have communication problems when they work with local employees and local cooperative partners. These problems make it relatively difficult for international NGOs to function in Chinese society., It especially makes some international NGOs unsure of how to adapt to and collaborate with Chinese governmental institutions. For example, based on a field study of a micro-loan project site in Tiechang village, Malipo prefecture of Wenshan district, American scholar Sarah Tsien (2003) concluded that a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project had operated well until the local government became involved in a similar project in the same community. Then, all project related regulations were adjusted in terms of loan amount, return terms and women’s privilege. As a result, the scope of the INGO (International NGO) project shrank, and loan and repay rates decreased. According to Tsien, the micro-loan system builds on the practice of the Bangladesh Grameen Bank. However, the micro-loan project at Tiechang village changed the meaning and its regulations of practice of the Grameen Bank system. Al
though the two projects have similar philosophical foundations, the contexts were significantly different, and the Grameen Bank practice in Bangladesh may not be suitable for Chinese society, as China has a more powerful government and more complicated social conditions than that of the Bangladesh.

Another problem faced by the International NGOs is the Chinese traditional gender institution and its impact on women’s development issues. Historically, Chinese society has had a social structure based on a patriarchal family, clan and state system and has maintained unequal gender relationships. This gender institution is firmly rooted in rural China and has implications for contemporary land rights. Land is the main economic resource in rural China, and women seem to have equal rights of land ownership following the 1978 economic reform and land contract policy in rural areas. However, since it has ignored the characteristics of the patriarchal system, the land contract is based on the unit of the household. This means that some women have had to abandon their land ownership after having married out of their villages. Thus, in practice rural women’s land rights are not ensured by national legislation. Women’s status of dependence and affiliation will not change as long as land distribution is manipulated by a patriarchal system in rural China. International NGOs have to face the challenges of this system in connection with implementing development projects. For example, in the Lesha poverty alleviation project in Dali, micro-loan projects targeted at women were shifted to men by the village head and male villagers as men manage all productive matters and loans are therefore assumed to be ‘naturally’ relevant for men rather than for women (Deng 2005). In sum, the gender system is a huge issue. It is extremely difficult to remove obstacles to gender equality and maintain the achievements gained by previous projects if there are only relatively few projects and there are not continuous follow-up projects.

Furthermore, although gender mainstreaming has always been the a prominent  theme for international NGOs, this aspect of development work seems to be weak within new topics such as environmental protection and the conservancy of ecological diversity, that have become the main focus of international NGO projects within recent years. We need to pay close attention to this unfortunate tendency. The issues confronting international NGOs which I have mentioned in this article threaten to reduce the validity of international NGO projects in China, and weaken the attention to the initial target of gender empowerment and gender equality. The international NGOs that have entered China within the past twenty years have many lessons to learn and long roads to walk in future.

Deng Jin, Microlending: Breakthrough under Rural Financial Inanition – Experiment on Shale town. China Financial Net http://co.zgjrw.com/News/200533/XY/822118915500.html Issued on?March 3rd, 2005.

Sarah Tsien, Money for the Villages: Yunnan Poverty and Microlending. Sam Mitchell edit: Tourism and Development in Yunnan. Yunnan Fine Arts Publish House 2003. p79.

Zhao Linxue, M. Bringing the Consciousness of Gender into the Project of Social Development http://china-gad.org/version2004/ReadNews.asp?NewsID=343  November 26th, 2003.

Zhou Hao: Help-poverty Projects (China Projects Department) of Saving Children, www.help-poverty.org.cn China help-poverty net. Issued around September, 2001.