Practice  Question  –  What is ‘reserve army of labour’ ? Present the position of feminist scholars on this. [UPSC 2019]

Approach – Introduction, Explain the Marxian concept of Reserve Army of Labour, What is the feminist take regarding the concept? Quote feminist thinkers, Illustrate its contemporary relevance, Conclusion.



In arguing that there is a general tendency for the process of capitalist accumulation to generate a relative surplus population of workers (an “industrial reserve army”), Marx
(1954) was specifying the mechanism by which wages are regulated. Just as competition in the marketplace forces the prices of commodities towards their value (determined by the labour time socially necessary for their production), so too the competition of the labour market regulates wages. The crux of Marx’s argument was that the supply of unemployed or underemployed labour on the market was a product not of demographic changes, as Malthus thus had claimed, but of the workings of the economy itself. That excess supply of labour largely determines the amount of competition in the labour market. 



When essentials are price tagged and people want not to starve, they started to earn money either by increasing own money or by working under the “owned-man”. These people are referred to as a labour force on which many sectors were depended for productivity. When years passed, needs of such force are not in demand, they were leftover and such situation was named as Reserve Army of Labour by Friedrich Engels which was further elucidated by Karl Marx in his “The communist Manifesto”. 

There are many categories of people who are being included in the mass of reserve army of labour and they are pointed below:

The really unemployed who are “officially recognised” by society
The part-time labourers who are seeking to work full-time
The self-employed people, those are doing occasional jobs
The labourers who are in a situation to lose their job soon
The people those who are not in active population count such as disabled and prisoners.



The “reserve army of labour” – a term associated with those on the left of the political spectrum – is disproportionately female. Marxist in origin, the existence of a reserve army of labour enables employers to maintain low wages, poor working conditions and a compliant workforce. For instance, those who are deemed troublesome or unproductive in the workplace can always be replaced by members from the reserve army of labour. The ranks of the economically inactive thereby maintain high levels of profit for the owners of capital. Revealingly, the reserve army of labour is disproportionately female.

Women are more likely to be in low paid jobs with less job security than men. It is also a fact that women disproportionally work in the five c’s (cleaning, clerical, caring, cashiering and catering). Women are therefore a key element of the precariat. This is particularly notable within third world countries in which workers’ rights are suppressed by the agents of the state. Multinational companies are attracted to those countries due to their relatively low wages and poor working conditions. That said, such observations also apply to a relatively advanced capitalist economic system such as the UK. For those on the left, this represents the exploitation of women by wealthy and well-connected capitalist organisations.

Marxist feminists argued that the reserve army theory is applicable to explain employment of women. Marxist feminist scholar Veronica Beechey (1977) argues that women constitute a flexible reserve which can be brought into paid work when boom conditions increase the need for labour. Women are forced to return to the home in time of economic recession.

Many women workers still play a marginal role in the paid labour market. They are heavily concentrated in part-time, low pay occupations, and it seems clear that their domestic roles disadvantage them in a competitive employment market that ignores family responsibilities and makes it difficult for women to defend their own economic interests.

Nirmala Banerjee (1985) using empirical survey and census data argues that in India unorganized sector is mainly composed of women. She points out that unorganized labour is more exploitative, oppressive and difficult to negotiate than organized labour. Contrarily, the connotations of unionization for political bargaining strength, formal work records, legal
support etc. are used for organized labour. She argues that unorganized sector is mainly composed of women. Most of the women who work outside home, work in unorganized sector. Hence, most of the women are forced  to live in the margins of survival.

Braverman in his analysis of gender relations in the context of development of capitalism argues that there is a progressive deskilling of jobs in the contemporary monopoly capitalism. Most often women take these less skilled jobs. Deskilling of jobs occurs as a result of the attempt by employers to increase their profits at the expense of workforce. He argues that deskilling is designed to reduce the cost by decreasing the need for expensive labour.

Maria Mies in her book ‘Patriarchy and accumulation on a world scale’ (1986) emphasized how the conceptualization of women as subsistence producers actually benefits the capitalist economy on a world scale. According to her, in the international division of labour, women are the most favourable workforce for the capitalist accumulation process on a world scale. In the world economic process, women are not defined as workers and their work does not appear as ‘free wage labour’. Rather women come to be universally defined as ‘housewives’. Men are considered as the ‘breadwinner’. Women’s economic activity comes to be seen as supplementary income to the ‘breadwinner’ husband. Hence, their work gets defined as an ‘income
generating activity’ rather than work. This definition of women’s work makes their work available at a much cheaper price than male labour.



The contemporary feminist theorization of class has conceptualized the way production relations play a crucial role in structuring systems of ownership of production, work organization, power and authority. The mainstream social stratification theorists ignored sex as a criterion for understanding social inequalities. Hence, feminist scholars like Joan Acker called for a
reconceptualization of stratification studies. For a holistic understanding of gender and class relations, the intersection of feminism with Marxism could be taken as a starting point of analysis. The scholars situated at the intersection of feminism and Marxism critically interrogated the concept of work, and analyzed politics of naming certain kinds of work as productive work and subsuming women’s work under the category of unproductive work. A thorough analysis of the productive nature of women’s housework is made by these scholars. The way capitalism structures women in the paid economy is also analyzed. It has been pointed out by scholars like Nirmala Banerjee and Maria Mies that women are situated at the margins in the paid economy. The conceptualization of women as subsistence producers benefits the capitalist economy as the unorganized sector is composed of more women. With globalization there is feminization of wage labour, wherein women from vulnerable sections, defined by social class, colour, race and ethnicity, are employed at a cheaper labour price and are more prone to exploitation.

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