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The Scholar & Feminist Online is a webjournal published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
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Issue: 8.1: Fall 2009
Guest Edited by Gisela Fosado and Janet R. Jakobsen
Valuing Domestic Work

The Other Workers in the Advanced Corporate Economy

Saskia Sassen

In the day-to-day work of leading professional sectors, ranging from finance to high-end culture, in global cities, a large share of jobs are low-paid and manual, and many are held by minority and by immigrant women. Even the most advanced professionals require clerical, cleaning, and repair workers for their state-of-the art offices, and their work necessitates truckers to bring software, but also toilet paper. Although these types of workers and jobs are never represented as part of the global economy, they are in fact part of the infrastructure involved in running and implementing the global economic system, including, in one of its most advanced forms, international finance. The rapid growth of the financial industry and of highly specialized services generates not only high-level technical and administrative jobs but also low wage unskilled jobs. In my research on New York and other cities I have found that between 30% and 50% of the workers in the leading sectors are actually low-wage workers.[1]

Global cities concentrate some of the key functions and resources for the management and coordination of the most advanced national and global economic processes. The growth of these activities has in turn produced a sharp turn in the demand for highly paid professionals. Both the firms and the lifestyles of their professionals generate a demand for low-paid service workers. Global cities are thus also sites for the incorporation of large numbers of low-paid women and immigrants into strategic economic sectors. This incorporation happens directly through the demand for mostly low-paid clerical and blue-collar service workers, such as janitors and repair workers. And it also happens indirectly through the consumption practices of high-income professionals, which in turn generates a demand for maids and nannies, as well as low-wage workers in high-end restaurants and shops.

Low-wage workers participate in leading professional sectors, but they do so under conditions which render them invisible. Firms and workers that may appear as though they have little connection to an urban economy, which is dominated by finance and specialized services, can in fact be an integral part of it. However, this fact can be invisible even to the workers themselves, given sharp differences in earnings, and often sex and racial/ethnic segmentation. While working in the professional sector was once a position situated for growth, this segmentation has the power to undermine such potential. Cultures of solidarity and skill have historically been important in organizing workers, strengthening the effect of being in a growth sector. Given the extreme exploitation common in low-wage work, these cultures of solidarity are critical for today's organizing, as became evident in the successful struggle by Justice for Janitors. Critical to their success was the preponderance of immigrants and their focus on only a few cities and sectors; after decades of struggle they succeeded in organizing janitors in several major U.S. cities.

Few jobs can be as disempowering as domestic work. Domestic workers employed by top level professionals in global cities make visible what is easily obscured in households less strategically positioned in the corporate economy. The top end of the corporate economy—highly-paid professionals and the corporate towers in which they work—is far easier to recognize as integral to the economic system than are truckers, janitors and other industrial service workers, or maids and nannies, even though all of them are clearly necessary to a functioning economy. However, they their participation is under strict conditions of social, wage, and often sex and racial/ethnic segmentation.

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© 2009 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 8.1: Fall 2009 - Valuing Domestic Work