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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Oct 20, 2009, 9:40 am

Women and the Global Labor Movement: In Search of ‘Decent Work, Decent Life’

BY Michelle Chen

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Delegates in Brussels this week at the first-ever "World Women's" conference organized by the ITUC, the world's largest trade union federation.   (Photo courtesy International Trade Union Council)

The recession has been hard on the working man, but often, the least visible and most resilient survivor of the economic crisis is a woman.

This week, delegates from 100 countries are gathering in Brussels at the first International Trade Union Council World Women’s Conference. The event marks a growing consciousness of women's issues not just in humanitarian terms—as they are often framed by aid organizations—but in the context of global labor struggles.

Under the theme of “Decent Work, Decent Life for Women,” the conference takes a broad view of women workers as they relate to challenges like social welfare policy, union activism, gender-based violence, healthcare and climate change.

The ITUC Charter of the Rights of Working Women emphasizes the right to secure employment with “no more arbitrary division between female and male tasks.” But the conference discussion guide notes that the synergy of economic and gender inequality has turned women into both the engines of global commerce and targets of exploitation:

Production has come to be increasingly organised through ‘global supply chains’ through which multinational firms have been able to source their goods from all over the world using diffused networks of suppliers often based on developing countries.

This has allowed them to take advantage of abundant supplies of less well paid and less organised labour, largely female, in these countries... With rapidly changing technologies in information, communication and transportation, there has been a massive growth in tourism and leisure services, as well as the outsourcing of more ‘mobile’ services such as data processing and call centres. Agricultural production also has seen changes.

These are all areas were women work in large numbers.

According to the ITUC, while women have assumed increasingly vital economic roles, "There is no country in the world that has yet achieved wage equality between men and women. The pay gap in some Nordic countries is now 12% but in many countries, it can be as high as 50%." (In the United States, a recent ITUC survey found a median full-time pay gap of about 33% in favor of men).

Racial discrimination and xenophobia deepen gender inequality. In both rich and poor countries, international migration has brought women into contact with new opportunities along with unprecedented threats.

Women are especially marginalized in the informal sector, such as domestic work (an increasingly contentious labor arena in the U.S and abroad). In these marginal industries, women tend to be alienated from government institutions and have little if any collective-bargaining clout.

To address injustice in the informal sector, the conference calls for a “three-pronged policy approach” for governments:

—Support the creation of jobs in the formal economy;

—Provide incentives to encourage the formalisation of jobs the enforcement of rules and regulations by allocating greater resources to labour inspectorates;

—Provide the necessary legal, financial and social means to enable those excluded from the formal labour market to become more productive, whilst at the same time providing support for basic social services and social security institutions.

Though the conference spotlights women in poverty, it also features the Internet-based Decisions for Life campaign, which fosters organizing among young women workers in the service sectors in 14 countries, including Brazil, India and South Africa.

A key subtext in the conference agenda is women's empowerment through political participation, especially in labor activism. Despite efforts to encourage women's involvement in collective bargaining and civic discourse, the ITUC reports:

[T]he participation of women in social dialogue has remained low – and this includes the trade union side.... the average of women trade unionists participants in social dialogue is around 13 per cent, dropping to only 4 per cent in Africa and 7 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean.

However, in Europe the level of female trade unionists participating rises to 21 per cent, the result of positive action taken by European trade unions.

While women may in many ways be underrepresented in organized labor, progressive unions are instrumental in countering gender bias. One analysis of 23 agricultural collective-bargaining agreements in African nations revealed that most agreements addressed major women's issues through provisions like healthcare and family leave time. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the ILO has helped establish special commissions for dialogue with officials on women workers' rights.

With the global financial crisis threatening to set back the movement for gender and economic justice, the delegates at this week's conference have their work cut out for them.

Some policymakers might be reluctant to consider dramatic social reforms amidst deep economic instability. But for the women who make up the majority of the world's poor, now's the perfect time to turn things upside down.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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