On production and reproduction


The complex interlocking and interaction of race, class, gender and labor has been stressed by many feminist scholars throughout the years. The recognition of the gendered segregation of labor, the existing and thriving racial inequalities and the crucial value of domestic labor in the existence and continuity of the capitalist economy, have become more and more urgent assertions in today’s feminist movements. Although labor is thought to be understood in a common way under the capitalist umbrella, this concept is actually more broad and depends on various social constructions of the identity of the worker and the spheres that can lead directly to a significant financial contribution to a state’s economy (Paltasingh & Lingam, 2014). In order to address these issues, this essay will deal with the concepts of production and reproduction, its different definitions and applications, what is their relation to gender, as well as to care work and waged/unwaged labor. Finally, these concepts will be addressed through an international perspective, uncovering the reality for many migrant – domestic – worker women.

A conceptual analysis.

Production and reproduction are two concepts describing the waged and unwaged, public and private laboring activities inside the liberal, capitalist economy; these activities aim at the maintenance and reproduction of life. Production and reproduction were first introduced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and then later discussed, expanded and criticized by many feminist scholars.

These two concepts are immensely interrelated and inseparable that many academics’ argumentation trajectories focus on both as the two sides of the same coin. This inseparable relation between production and reproduction is crucial and needs to be stressed out, since the undervalue of the one (usually the reproduction) creates instantly a problematic imbalance. In his critique to the capitalist economy, Marx (1995) argued that everything has a certain value in a capitalist society and the value that people have as capable and potential laboring individuals is named labor-power. “Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance” (Marx, 1995, p. 120 – 121). Marx, here, described clearly the interrelation of the two concepts; labor – power is crucial for the production, while the reproductive activities are crucial for the maintenance of the productive, embodied labor – power. So, Marx argued that these two concepts cannot be examined separately, and may actually consist and address the same thing.

Fraser (2016), a Marxist – feminist thinker, through her historical analysis of the contradictions of capital and care, illustrated a concept of production that focuses on financialized capital and on the unlimited accumulation of it. Through this perspective, productive labor refers to all the activities that go inside the market and have a financialized value, while reproductive labor is used to describe all the activities that are outside the market, like “activities of provisioning, care- giving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds, although [capitalism] accords them no monetized value and treats them as if they were free” (Fraser, 2016, p. 101). Capitalism creates a specific structure of an hierarchical social order, in which social reproduction is neglected (and subsequently the people who perform it), creating a huge gap in the sustenance of the productive population and the productive economy. This social order, which is embedded with gender, class and racial inequalities, illustrates the embodied identities of the ideal productive workers, who automatically are considered the income generating ones and thus their status value is considered higher and more precious than the individuals performing reproductive activities. That is due to the lack of remuneration of the reproductive work.

Anderson (2001) questioned the non – remuneration of the domestic work, revealing all the problematic aspects that many domestic workers face. In her article “Just another job?” (2001), Anderson pointed out that the concepts of production and reproduction denote something more than a plain categorization of paid/unpaid activities. While the production of commodities is associated with a more technical and lifeless character, reproductive work “is not only about the essential maintenance of physical bodies, and is not confined only to caring for people who are part of the labour force” (Anderson, 2001, p. 25). Reproductive work, and specifically domestic work, is part of a wider cultural and social spectrum, which concerns household lifestyle norms and social status maintenance. The inevitable human, affectionate and caring nature of reproductive work is often seen as a contractual obstacle for both the employers and employees. Emotions and forming human relations are the key ingredients that incorporate the waged domestic worker into the private household and draw the line between employer/domestic worker blur and ambiguous. Anderson (2001) illustrated the problematic reality that is created when, due to the care crisis that Fraser (2016) described, applying the qualities of production to reproductive work and neglecting the core qualities of reproduction.

The gendered aspect.

Like in any other institutional system, capitalism functions with an hierarchical character, and by being strongly embedded with other hierarchical systems, such as racism and sexism, produces and reproduces certain inequalities. Production and reproduction are embedded with gendered hierarchies, which lead to the division of the society and the market into the private and public sphere. Acker (2006) developed the term “inequality regimes”, in order to draw a coherent picture of the institutional inequalities in the productive organizations. Gender is one of these regimes which, often being integrating with class, creates certain unequal conditions for women in the workplace. Managerial positions in companies are associated with a better status and higher wages, thus are primarily occupied by white men. Although, there has been a rise of women in managerial positions, but “secretaries, clerks, servers, and care providers are still primarily women” because “gendered and sexualized assumptions still shape the class situations of women and men” (Acker, 2006, p. 444). The fact that women still have more reproductive responsibilities outside of the productive market, creates a prosperous soil for these inequalities to continue to exist. Employers prefer to hire flexible workers, without many obligations outside of work, distributing women and men unequal in the organizational class hierarchies.

We can identify the maintenance of these hierarchies in Nicaraguan Free – Trade zones. Tornhill (2011) argues that Nicaragua is an example of an anthropocentric, state – organized capitalism, in which women’s labor is often depicted with gratefulness and respectability, while, in fact, it just constructs an image of the female worker as docile in the exploitative working conditions. Women entering the workforce does not necessarily challenges the gendered inequalities. In the example of Nicaraguan free trade zones this is clearly depicted. Women workers in developing countries constitute the exploitative means for the bigger project of the globalized capitalist economy. “To be a good worker and a good subject of development may also entail compliance and satisfaction with a designated and not-so-entrepreneurial role—learning to take pride in free- trade-zone work” (Tornhill, 2011, p. 85). Women as workers are portrayed within a gendered perspective, that pictures them as docile, nurturing, compliant and hardworking. Garment industries’ advertisements target working – class women that need to have wage labor, even though this can be low – ended. Capitalism takes advantage of the need for women’s emancipation, creating certain, controlled spheres in which this emancipation can act.

Another example of the gendered aspect of production and reproduction is Collins’ “gendered discourses of skill” (2002), which describe the patriarchal character of employment in the globalized, capitalist economy. Women’s skills and labor power in the production arena are often neglected and undermined. That is because women’s skills are often associated with the reproductive sphere, in which early socialization takes place. Since gendered inequality regimes construct the image of household as the natural environment for women, it is believed that female workers are born with certain abilities and skills or learn them under a naturalization process. As a result of this chain of social constructions, women are depicted as workers with no agency, as a natural commodity that capitalist industries possess, whom ‘natural’ capabilities and skills cannot be improved. Thus, women workers cannot be considered as valuable as men workers, who acquire their skills through hard – work. Collins (2002) argues that this belief has been more prominent in the garment industry, in which young girls are expected to acquire the skill of ‘fairy fingers’, a skill that is located in “the private realm of bodies and family socialization rather than in the public sphere of the market and waged work” (p. 926). Sewing skills are expected to be inherited in the female family members, but since this is not the case, capitalist economy creates a bogus gap of skilled workers, justifying the search of cheap labor in the developing countries.

Care work and waged/unwaged labor.

Acker (2006) argues that “wages, because they are essential for survival in completely monetized economies, are a powerful form of control” (p. 454). Wage – setting can function as an hierarchy creator and regulator in the workplace, deepening the social divide between the working class and the managers. In today’s financialized economy, where value is measured with money, remuneration is the only way the exchange of labor power can be done with. But when the economy leads to periods of depression, the significance of wages for the working class is used exploitative, creating a vicious circle of dependence and docility. Waged labor is thus considered more valuable for the society because it allows the gears of economy to move. On the other hand, unwaged labor (usually reproductive care work), is undervalued and diminished because it does not produce monetized values for the gears of economy (Fraser, 2016).

Even when care work is paid, reproductive workers earn less than other workers with comparable skills, experience and labor value (Budig, Hodges, & England, 2018). The nature of the contract between the employers and the care worker can be proven problematic. Do employers pay only for the physical activities or does emotional labor count as well? Care work presupposes an inevitable human connection through the constant face to face interaction of the worker with the beneficiaries, either young children ore elderly people. The idea that a care, domestic worker is considered part of the family, due to the very nature of the care work itself, establishes certain power dynamics that lead to undervalue, confusion and exploitation. Anderson (2001) argues that, by nurturing a domestic worker into the family, a prosperous soil for depressing wages is created. “Related is the assumption that because care work is often provided “freely” in the domestic sphere, through some combination of love and/or obligation, a cultural norm has arisen dictating care provision should be its own reward even when performed for pay” (Budig, et al., 2018, p. 296), contributing to the undervalue of reproductive labor and its commodified value.

Production and reproduction in the globalized economy.

One of the main consequences of globalization is the effect it has to reproduction. In a frame of ‘care crisis’, domestic work no longer belongs to the realm of the private life and needs to be outsourced to the public market. The family members themselves cannot support the reproduction of their own household, thus these activities are outsourced to domestic workers. Globalization changed the identity of the worker this outsourcing is given to, since migration from developing to developed economies is more common than ever. Nguyen, Zavoretti, & Tronto (2017) draw from the Global Care Chain literature, in order to explain and critique the inequalities in the globalized care market. The concept of ‘care chain’ or the ‘international division of reproductive labor’ (Parrenas, 2012) describe the transformation of reproductive activities to commodities with waged value and the employment of women as domestic workers, coming from poorer to richer countries. The middle class woman in the developed economy passes the reproductive responsibilities of her household to the migrant worker, while the migrant woman passes her own household activities to other women in her home country. Parrenas (2012) argues that “the economic value of care work diminishes as it gets passed along” (p. 269). Through this process, it is clear that racial and gender inequalities thrive. The value of the migrant, domestic workers is diminished and their work mostly concerns the menial work, whereas the emotional support is usually provided by the employers themselves. Parrenas (2012) argues that this racial and gendered division of reproductive labor is transferred outside of the household in the service institutions as well, where migrant women occupy the lowest positions with the most manual laboring. The fact that men are still considered outside of the reproductive sphere, “leads to an understanding of care as an unchanging, one-dimensional relationship between providers and receivers” (Nguyen, et al., 2017, p. 201). Moreover, this outsourcing of the reproductive activities to migrant women is connected with the relocation of the production to emerging economies where cheap labor can be easily found. This relocation leads to a capitalization of reproduction in order to fill the gap of the care crisis in the developed countries.

Welfare structures seem to be withdrawn in favor of the self-reliance and self-responsible, neoliberal , marketized economy. The access to welfare services is technocratic and limited, creating divisions of people who deserve and who do not deserve welfare provisions (Nguyen, et al., 2017). That’s why undocumented domestic workers tend to be overlooked by the state, because they fill a huge care gap. While undocumented domestic workers are not protected by the state, exploitation and racist ideologies are enhanced. The employment of a foreign woman as a care worker for a household perpetuates the idea of a racial/ethnicity segregation; people from certain ethnic backgrounds are supposed to do the dirty work, while the other are too important to do it themselves (Anderson, 2001). A power relation between the domestic worker and their employer will always be there, and when race and wthnicity is entangled in this equitation, it looks like a neo-colonialistic form of labor is being born.


Production and reproduction are yet to be discussed and analyzed. While state economies are evolved and connected through the globalized, neo – liberal economy, racial and gender inequalities, though altered, are still prominent and promote the same patriarchal, racist and capitalist structures. A tremendous, yet undervalued problem that today’s economy faces is the care, reproduction deficit. Although there has been a commodification of domestic work and more waged domestic workers are hired, the existing assumptions regarding who has the power and who does not in a employing relation, illustrates a conceptualization of work that cannot be isolated from the power, racial and gendered institutional hierarchies. Anderson (2001) says that “we are all woven into structures of oppression and power, and our possibilities for response on an individual level are limited” (p. 32) and I would like to leave this statement as a closure, as a reminder that emancipation from structures of oppression is never an individual accomplishment.

Reference list.

Acker, J. (2006). Inequality Regimes: Gender, Class, and Race in Organizations. Gender & Society, 20(4), 441–464. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243206289499

Anderson, B. (2001). Just another job? Paying for domestic work. Gender & Development, 9(1), 25–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552070127731

Budig, M. J., Hodges, M. J., & England, P. (2018). Wages of Nurturant and Reproductive Care Workers: Individual and Job Characteristics, Occupational Closure, and Wage-Equalizing Institutions. Social Problems, 66(2), 294–319. https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy007

Collins, J. L. (2002). Mapping a Global Labor Market: Gender and Skill in the Globalizing Garment Industry. Gender & Society, 16(6), 921–940. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124302237895

Fraser, N. (2016). Contradictions of capital and care. New Left Review, 100, 99–117. https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii100/articles/nancy-fraser-contradictions-of-capital-and-care

Marx, K. (1995). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/

Nguyen, M. T. N., Zavoretti, R., & Tronto, J. (2017). Beyond the Global Care Chain: Boundaries, Institutions and Ethics of Care. Ethics and Social Welfare, 11(3), 199–212. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496535.2017.1300308

Paltasingh, T., & Lingam, L. (2014). ‘Production’ and ‘Reproduction’ in Feminism: Ideas, Perspectives and Concepts. IIM Kozhikode Society & Management Review, 3(1), 45–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/2277975214523665

Parrenas, R. S. (2012). The reproductive labour of migrant workers. Global Networks, 12(2), 269–275. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-0374.2012.00351.x

Tornhill, S. (2011). Capital Visions. Latin American Perspectives, 38(5), 74–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582×10390632

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