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The unions on the frontline of the feminist struggle

10 March, 2016Unions are setting new precedents for women's rights across the world.

On 8 March this year, people around the world celebrated International Women’s Day, demanding decent work, equality, safety and respect. Originally celebrated more than a hundred years ago, Women’s Day has its roots in the labour movement, and in the struggles of working class women.

The profile of the day has risen in recent years, as people come together to demand an end to violence against women, and discrimination in the workplace and across society.

The focus of Women’s Day in 2016 is equality, with the aim of achieving parity by 2030:  in the past 20 years, very little progress has been made in closing gender gaps in the work place. We are not doing enough, and urgent action needs to be taken.

According to an ILO report launched on Women’s Day, women are 27% less likely to be in paid employment than men, and when they do work, they earn less and work longer hours. On top of this, women also have caring responsibilities and the expectation that they will perform the emotional labour – providing tea and sympathy - necessary to keep society flowing smoothly.

This is particularly the case in the global South, where women are entering the workforce at an unprecedented rate, but find themselves subject to traditional expectations of women’s roles. Globally, we are seeing a dramatic feminization of the workforce, with employers using women’s subservient position to drive down wages. Much of this work is precarious, and performed at home.

IndustriALL’s biggest sector is textiles. Most textile workers are women, mostly in the global South. They are some of the most marginalized and precarious workers in the world, and our affiliates in these countries are on the front lines of fighting for better conditions.

Women’s Day is more than just a quest for equal pay: it is a life and death struggle, a fact brought brutally home by the rape and murder of a young girl in India on the day before Women’s Day this year. In addition to low pay, terrible conditions and caring responsibilities, women – like miner Pinky Mosiane, raped and murdered at work in South Africa - face horrific levels of violence in the workplace.

Unions organizing women in these conditions are on the frontline of feminist struggle. They are fighting not just exploitative employers, but deeply sexist societies. That is why it is so important when an Indonesian union votes for a 40% gender quota, or a woman is elected leader of an Iraqi electricians’ and technicians’ union.

Women marched in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile and across Latin America. In Thailand, South Korea and Cambodia, women workers and their unions made their voices heard, and stood up against discrimination and for maternity pay.

In Bangladesh, textile unions held vibrant rallies, but also women’s empowerment workshops. In India and Sri Lanka, women came together to fight for their rights.

In Pakistan, rallies were held in in Karachi, Multan and Hyderabad, and the IndustriALL Pakistan Council and All Pakistan Labour Federation celebrated Women’s Day with a conference at Quetta. The meeting heard that women face discrimination in every sphere of life – including the union movement. This holds the movement back, as employers exploit the low status of women to extract as much profit as possible and divide workers.

At the rally in Hyderabad, speakers told of how in feudal areas, women are treated as livestock, and traded to settle disputes. Others are imprisoned and subject to sexual torture.

Home–based workers turn their homes into factories for employers, and work 12-14 hours a day for low pay and no rights. IndustriALL affiliate the National Trade Union Federation supports the efforts of the Home Based Women Workers’ Federation to organize women working precariously at home.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary and director for women, Monika Kemperle, said:

“We salute the work done by our affiliates, who are setting new precedents for women’s rights in their societies.

“Women perform some of the most poorly paid and precarious work in the world. They also face severe repression outside the workplace, in deeply sexist societies. To challenge this, we need a powerful labour movement organizing women workers. Our unions need women in leadership positions, who are able to take the decisions necessary to transform our workplaces and society.”

These unions are changing the lives of women, giving them a voice, and bringing them together to fight for their rights. In many instances, they are fighting the accumulated weight of centuries of tradition, as well as the economic power of multinational corporations engaged in a race to the bottom.