The two books in this review focus on specific groups of workers in the manufacturing sector on four Caribbean islands: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. The methodology utilized in both cases involved personal observations and interviews with workers on each of these islands. Kevin Yelvington worked alongside his subjects and socialized with them after work, while Helen Safa acknowledges the help of other researchers and groups, including the Federation of Cuban Women.
The two studies also differ in scope and goals. Safa’s book is the product of a comparative research project involving three Caribbean societies, aimed at uncovering the impact paid employment has had on family and gender ideology. Yelvington’s work, on the other hand, focuses on a single community of workers in a factory in Trinidad. It attempts to uncover the extant relationships between ethnicity, gender, and class, and how these play into the relative exercise of power that has bound the diverse groups in a given historical context.
Although Safa is aware of the importance of race in employment and marital patterns, she laments that such recognition on her part came “too late” to incorporate its analysis into the present work (pp. xiii-xiv). Despite her preoccupation with the missing racial analysis, she provides a systematic comparison of women’s experiences in the changing worlds of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, where the economies are both shaped by and greatly dependent on the external forces dictated by the international market, its division of labor, and its available capital.
Focusing on three areas of women’s lives—work, family, and the public sphere— Safa explores the variety of roles women play and the place they occupy in the factory, the household, and the political system. She demonstrates that participation in the paid labor force does not necessarily increase female political consciousness; nor does it lead to greater participation in political parties or other mass organizations in any of the three societies. She also shows that despite the historical differences that separate socialist Cuba, for instance, from the two capitalist societies, women workers have more effectively challenged their subordinate conditions in the home than in the workplace, the political parties, or the state.
What Safa does very well in her study is to challenge the theory that the source of women’s inequality is located solely in the family. Her survey of the data on work and family reveals that women workers are still viewed, and often view themselves, as “supplementary workers” even when they contribute more than half of the house-hold income. Segregated into poorly paid, unstable jobs and barred from positions of power by traditional attitudes, competing males, and often, state policies, women fail to value their own contribution and to develop a class or gender consciousness of their subordination. Safa’s findings therefore suggest that the myth of the male breadwinner persists partly because it has become a useful tool in the manipulation of economic and gender issues by employers and state politicians.
In his study of the Trinidadian factory, Yelvington finds an orderly process of production in which race, gender, and ethnicity play important roles. For example, 80 percent of the line workers in the factory are women, almost all black or East Indian, and the supervisors are either white or East Indian males. Through a careful interplay of observation and interpretation of the factory workers’ words and actions, Yelvington tells a rich story about the lives of the individuals with whom he shared a year of his life. He compares the experiences that unite, as well as separate, the younger and the older generation, the men and the women, and the various ethnic groups. On that basis, he suggests that each group’s insistence on maintaining its own identity keeps the workers from taking collective action to change their working conditions. But perhaps the most important finding among the many this book provides is that women, like other workers in the factory, alternate between resisting and cooperating with the system that exploits them.