Peru: Textile Workers Demand Factory Obey Labor Ruling

Amed Huber, secretary of Legal Affairs at the Topy Top union, joined a rally in support of Hialpesa textile factory workers. Photo: Gerardo Olortegui, National Federation of Peruvian Textile and Apparel Workers

Amed Huber, secretary of Legal Affairs at the Topy Top union, joined a rally in support of Hialpesa textile factory workers. Credit: Gerardo Olortegui, National Federation of Peruvian Textile and Apparel Workers

Peruvian textile workers are standing firm in their demands that a textile company obey a recent Labor Ministry ruling requiring the company to transition workers to permanent job contracts.

Since November 1, members of the Hialpesa Workers’ Union have been reporting to work without signing fixed (short-term) contracts. The Hialpesa textile factory is refusing to allow workers who have not signed a new contract back to their jobs.

In September, Peru’s Ministry of Labor ruled that all 1,008 workers at the Hialpesa textile factory in Lima be transitioned to indefinite term (permanent) contracts that would guarantee job security. Despite the Ministry’s ruling, Hialpesa has conditioned employment by offering workers only fixed-term contracts.

Peru’s complicated export laws have led to the abuse of short-term contracting, which not only severely restricts worker rights but also discourages workers from reporting workplace violations and exercising their rights because they fear their contracts will not be renewed. Although numerous short-term contracts have been renewed over the years, the lack of employment guarantees means workers are unable to plan for the future and adds to their economic vulnerability.

“The union is standing firm and we’re not going to sign any more short-term contracts or deals that fall short of full recognition of our rights,” said Pedro Broncales, general secretary of the Hialpesa Workers’ Union. “The Labor Ministry has issued its resolution. Now it’s time for Hialpesa to respect it.”

The Hialpesa workers’ demands are both legal and with precedent—in September 2013, another Solidarity Center partner, the Union of Workers at Franky and Ricky apparel factory in Arequipa, campaigned successfully for its employer to move 300 workers who were on short-term contracts onto permanent contracts. The Solidarity Center has partnered with members of the Franky and Ricky union on trade union capacity building and labor rights enforcement campaigns since 2011. As a result, the largely female apparel workers now have more employment stability.

Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the global union federation IndustriALL, is urging the ministry to enforce its decision.

Earlier this year, six international apparel companies threw their support behind repeal of a law in Peru that allows employers in the garment and textile export industries to hire workers on consecutive short-term employment contracts.

Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Plenary

Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Moderator
Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director, Solidarity Center

Panelists
• Dorothy Sue Cobble, Distinguished Professor, Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and the Department of History, Rutgers University, U.S.
• Chidi King, Equality Department, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
• Lisa McGowan, Solidarity Center Senior Specialist for Gender Equality
• Gertrude Mtsweni, Gender Coordinator, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

Shawna Bader-Blau convened the final panel by saying the plenary was a time to “think together about what really has affected us,” and noted that “this is a room filled with action and we want to give some space and time for this room to reflect.”

She then asked Dorothy Sue Cobble for a historian’s perspective on the issues discussed during the conference.

Cobble began by saying it was “really inspiring for me to be here for two days with this group of women leaders.” One recurring issue hit her hard: “I have been stunned by the violence people experience every day.” She then explained that the prevailing academic theories of collective mobilization are outmoded and predicted the emergence of a new and stronger collaboration between the women’s movement and labor movement. She noted that “unions have changed … and are more open to partnerships.”

She also mentioned the importance of documenting stories and sharing them globally. “We’re really at this very exciting moment of partnership between the women’s movement and unions. Many of the partner groups have changed and are open to unions, and many unions have changed, and are open to partner groups.”

She recalled several phrases she will take back with her from the conference:

• We are not alone. We have to work in alliance.
• We are not defeated. She noted this point was repeatedly made in discussions on organizing.
• We are not going away. “Iris (Munguía), said it poignantly when she pointed to the book written by the banana workers. It’s very important to write down our stories for future generations.”

Gertrude Mtsweni listed some of her key takeaways from the conference, including the importance of organizing women workers in the informal economy, the value of partnerships and solidarity and the need to eliminate poverty and child labor. “Child labor is a key enemy,” she said.

Lisa McGowan noted the common thread running through the conference workshops: “We want to come as a whole person but don’t know how to do it.” Doing so, she said, means connecting and integrating the heart, mind and body, and this takes courage. “If you have been traumatized, chances are you have been cut off from one another,” she said. “Our consciousness around that and our gentleness around that are really important.” McGowan discussed the importance of adopting a strategic approach toward achieving gender equality, one that deserves attention and resources, and emphasized the need to start by understanding ourselves rather than with a predetermined answer.

Chidi King began by saying the conference was “a wonderful reminder of just what a powerful movement we are. It’s been inspiring to see that women are leading our movement. Women are transforming our movement.”

She noted that global union organizations, including the ITUC which is now headed by a woman, have increased the number of women in leadership positions. But “leadership is not only about occupying those decision-making positions,” she said. “It’s about leading your peers.”

King then discussed the role of the ITUC in promoting gender equality. She explained that a core aspect of ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow’s change agenda is women’s role in the trade union movement. She also mentioned the ITUC’s gender equality initiatives, including the Decisions for Life campaign to empower young women and the Labor Rights for Women program.

Shawna Bader-Blau then asked conference participants to share one new insight they gained from the conference about how they do their work and why it’s important.

Participants from around the world then shared their reflections from the conference. Common themes included the universality of the struggle for gender equality, the need to move beyond discussion to action, the importance of strategic thinking and the value of educating and empowering young women union leaders and activists. Participants also emphasized the importance of building and maintaining alliances at the national, regional and global levels.

“Women globally have the same problems. I thought it was just us here in Liberia,” said Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia. “One of the things we can do is to take action.” For instance, “in the workplace, men also have problems, but they are afraid to challenge management. Women aren’t. We have to bring (women and men) together.”

Maria Auxiliadora dos Santos, from the Força Sindical’s Women Secretary, urged everyone to take everything from the conference and “put it into practice—don’t keep it on paper.”

Iris Munguía, coordinator for the Latin American Banana and Agro-Industrial Unions, also noted the strength she derived from recognizing the challenges she faced are shared around the world. “It was positive for me to see that we have problems in common. But we are all working on strategies to solve them.” She said she planned to take what she learned at the conference back to Latin America, especially for her work among banana plantation workers. “The space that we have here is a good space. We’re taking away new alliances to strengthen our work with women.”

Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar, secretary of Women’s, Child and Adolescent Affairs at the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Camposal in Peru, said she will take the examples she heard at the conference back to her brothers and sisters in Peru. “These are things one learns not to keep but to share.” She concluded her remarks by saying, “We are strong women. We have the capacity to lead.”

Julia Quiñonez, a representative of women workers in Mexico´s maquiladoras and part of the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras, said she was “deeply impressed by the degree of inclusivity. These gatherings have to happen and keep happening.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf, secretary of Social Development in the City of Canoas, Brazil, said “in these two days, we exercised a method of refection and exchange of our experiences so we understand better our difficulties.” The next step, she said, is transformation, and Dias Wolf suggested the Solidarity Center follow up with an international training project for women.

In addition, conference attendees raised the issue of the role of men in promoting gender equality.

Nhlanhla Mabizela, Solidarity Center program officer for South Africa, said what he took away from the conference is the “clear roadmap how patriarchy hurts women.” But patriarchy also hurts men. “What is it that we’re doing as men? Are we blind to see that patriarchy also hurts us?” He suggested that men needed to listen to discussions about these issues to facilitate progress. “I think it’s about time that we as men begin to embrace gender equality, particularly in regard to emotional investment. We’re afraid to show that part of us that shows we care.”

Michael Merrill, dean of the Harry van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at the State University of New York Empire State College, commented that empowering women is a way to transform the labor movement. “I believe labor needs to be transformed and women are key to that.  When only men are involved in the labor movement, “we’re working with one hand behind our back,” he said. “We’re half as strong as we could be.” With women as partners in the struggle for worker rights, “we’ll be twice as strong.” Regarding the prevalence of violence against women, a topic which emerged in conference discussions, he reminded participants of the familiar phrase, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Bader-Blau concluded by challenging participants to maintain and realize a vision for a better society and a better world.

“The global labor economy is designed by power elites, designed to keep us down. The labor movement fights that. What I heard these last two days is that everyone is fighting.”

Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Workshop Women Workers Organizing: Examples from India, Brazil and Liberia

Workshop

Women Workers Organizing: Examples from India, Brazil and Liberia

Panelists
• Geeta Koshti, Coordinator, Legal Department, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India
• Sonia Maria Dias, Ph.D, Sector Specialist, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), Brazil
• Creuza Maria Oliveira, President, Domestic Workers Federation, Brazil
• Oretha Tarnue, Vice President, United Workers Union of Liberia

Moderator
Neha Misra, Senior Specialist, Solidarity Center, Migration; Human Trafficking

Geeta Koshti first described the origin of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which formed in 1972 and now includes 1.7 million women workers throughout India. For the past 25 years, SEWA has organized women in the bidi trade, a home-based occupation in which women roll cigarettes. The bidi trade is the only one in the informal sector covered by national labor law, and bidi workers have access to social services through the Bidi Welfare Board.

Koshti then overviewed the association’s approach to campaigns, which include both short- and long-term efforts. Campaigns are run at the local, state and national levels and have sought to boost wages, streamline worker access to social services and improve national laws for home-based workers.

Sonia Maria Dias introduced herself as a sociologist who focuses on garbologists (academics who study “clean” garbage collected by people who go through others’ trash to learn more about the group). Dias indicated that there are millions of people worldwide who focus on solid waste management and are commonly known as waste pickers. The majority are women–in Brazil, for example, some 50 percent are women and in India, 80 percent are women. Waste pickers are a vital component of the informal economy and their work benefits the environment. In Brazil waste pickers now can be formally hired.

Dias’ research takes a gendered approach to waste picking. For example, she analyzes women’s access to certain recyclables and women’s access to positions of authority among waste pickers. Sonia’s assessment is that waste pickers are generally invisible, and women waste pickers are even more invisible.

Dias, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, conducted a participatory research project focused on women waste pickers—their workplaces, their lives and their place in the national economy. The project sought to provide women waste pickers with tools to work toward equality in the workplace and in their personal lives and well as increase women’s leadership roles in the associations and empower them economically. The participatory rapid assessment project was based on Paulo Freire’s approach to popular education. (Freire, a 20th century Brazilian educator, developed a “pedagogy of the oppressed” which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning to effect social change.)

The project organized workshops for women workers. Findings from the project include the following:

  • Women who reported cases of discrimination and violence no longer considered themselves victims as a result of the project
  • The women desired to learn more about the topics and issues explored in the project’s workshops
  • The women increasingly recognized waste picker cooperatives as a space of refuge that helped them confront domestic violence
  • Women looked forward to spending time at the waste picker cooperatives and being safe from violence

See her full presentation.

Creuza Maria Oliveira said the domestic workers’ union she represents includes 28 local unions that are affiliated with the Brazil labor federation, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT). Oliveira described domestic workers as isolated in homes, frequently targets of sexual abuse and suffering from low self-esteem. Domestic workers are trained to be clean, passive and honest. She described domestic workers as part of the working class. Domestic workers face double violence—at their homes and on the job. Domestic workers also face violence at work from other women.

Domestic workers, Oliveira stated, are not educated in politics, and unions involve political action. One reason why it’s important to educate women in politics is that women need to run for political office, Oliveira said. Further, it’s important domestic workers join in campaigns to improve their legal rights. Workers at formal workplaces in Brazil are covered by 36 worker rights on the law books compared with domestic workers, who have only nine legal rights.

In the past 10 years, government policies have begun to address the issue of domestic workers, she said. To support passage of ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers, Brazil government officials took domestic workers to Geneva for the ILO meeting where the Convention was debated.

Official statistics for Brazil show that 7.2 million domestic workers are employed across the nation. In reality, she said, there are more than 8 million, most of whom are women. Men do not like to say they are domestic workers. Domestic workers issues are the following:

• Labor rights
• Social rights
• Decent housing
• Daycare
• Full-time education for children (In Brazil, children are in school only a half day.)
• Traffic/time to travel to work. Because of long commutes, domestic workers get home very late at night.
• Children of domestic workers fall victim to drugs and gangs because they are in the streets with no parent at home.

Former President Lula decreed that domestic workers could legally work only if they are 18 years old or over. In this case, Oliveira said, the law is good, but not enforced. In Brazil, teens and children are still working as domestic workers.

Oretha Tarnue, a former domestic worker, now assists domestic workers form unions in Liberia. During Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1996), when men were threatened, many women, including Tarnue, became the breadwinners for their families. Once in the workforce, Tarnue immediately joined a union. Before the civil war, Tarnue stated, trade unions were not substantive entities and women’s participation in civil society was insignificant and burdened with cultural and traditional stereotypes. The civil wars severely injured people physically, emotionally and mentally. After the second civil war (1999-2003), women took the lead in unions and her union, the United Workers Union of Liberia, is now the fastest growing in the country.

A decent work bill covering domestic workers is now before the Liberian legislature. The lower house has passed it, and passage is pending in the upper house. At present, domestic workers are seen as informal economy workers.

Domestic workers are paid between $21 and $50 per month, which is barely enough to buy a bag of rice. Their human rights are frequently violated.

Tarnue listed the following among the challenges women face in Liberia:

• Cultural stereotypes/prevalent discrimination against women.
• Issues with nursing mothers on plantations.
• Balancing tasks associated with skilled work and family responsibilities.
• Inadequate support from male unionists for women running for elective offices.
• Lack of funding for education/awareness programs on gender equality

Mainstreaming women into male-dominated careers, such as rubber tree nursery work, is a big focus of her union. She said women need scholarships so they can acquire the skills needed for employment in male-dominated trades. She also encourages women to run for elected offices in the union.

See her full presentation.

Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Workshop – Mechanisms for Increasing Women’s Participation in Unions: Education, Policies, Quotas and Budgets

Workshop
Mechanisms for Increasing Women’s Participation in Unions: Education, Policies, Quotas and Budgets

Panelists
• Sally Choi, Project Coordinator, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Hong Kong
• Khamati Mugalla, Executive Secretary, East Africa Trade Union Confederation, (EATUC), Kenya
• Rosana Sousa de Deus, Executive Committee, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil

Moderator
Kate Doherty, Solidarity Center Deputy Executive Director

Kate Doherty opened the workshop by noting it will include participant and panelist discussion of successful and not so successful strategies for increasing women’s participation in unions.

Sally Choi began with a quick overview of the HKTCU, which represents an equal number of women and men. Fifteen percent of HKTCU’s 29-member Executive Committee is women, indicating low involvement of women in union leadership.

Looking at ways to increase women’s participation in leadership, HKTCU devoted a year to discussing whether it should establish a quota system. Some expressed concern that quotas would be unfair to male members and some women believed quota positions (seats set aside for women) were inferior. The union ultimately adopted a quota system for its Executive Committee, including a mandate that a maximum of four seats be reserved for women candidates.

However, the quota system proved unpopular among members because the quotas were underutilized—there was no large increase of female nominations from affiliates, or significant change in affiliate leadership. Structural problems also worked against the quota system—low leadership turnover prohibited new candidates from running for office and no additional resources were allocated to the women’s committee for leadership building and gender training.

Further, class differences emerged among female unionists. Women from white-collar professional unions (university, teachers, flight attendants) believe the women’s committee and quotas are not relevant to them.  The women’s committee is dominated by blue-collar workers—domestic workers and those in the cleaning, textile and clothing industries who support the quota.

See her full presentation.

Khamati Mugalla centered her discussion around the metaphor of a tree to convey how women learn their roles in trade unions. The roots, she said, supply nourishment, that is, socialization. A union must examine the customs of behavior by understanding that they are:

• Passed from generation to generation (older members)
• Storytelling—stories about great trade unionists. (if no women leaders, heroines, then no model)
• Traditional songs and dances: Do we know the background of “Solidarity Forever”?
• Traditional ceremonies

The tree trunk enables transmission: institutional structures, laws, and policies.

• Policies
• Legislation
• Affirmative action
• Protocols
• Rules and regulations

The tree’s leaves are the symptoms:

• Discrimination
• Stereotyping
• Gender Gaps
• Gender-based violence
• Harmful cultures
• Honor crimes, e.g., punishing “immoral” behavior of women
• Female genital mutilation
• Gender selection (preference for boys)
• Mortality differentials

It’s essential for unions to understand how an organization functions before drafting policies and budgets. The East Africa Trade Union Confederation recently conducted a needs analysis before developing a gender strategy. From it, they learned that if a union’s constitution does not allow for women in leadership, the first step is to amend the constitution.

Gender dimensions should be looked at in every phase and aspect of program planning.

Affiliate unions spend a lot of time dealing with symptoms. Rather than focusing solely on the numbers of women in top leadership positions, she said, unions should also quantify women’s involvement in the union.

Rosana Sousa de Deus opened by saying the capitalist system depends on exclusions: homophobia, racism, discrimination against women. If women are absent from the collective bargaining process, their interests are not represented because men often value economic objectives more than social objectives when negotiating union contracts.

Her union, CUT, takes a special interest in training women around issues of equality, communication, patriarchy and capitalism. Through the training process, women learn that their presence is important. They learn they need to intervene in leadership spaces like men.

In 1993, CUT approved a 30 percent quota for women in leadership. Some women believed quota positions are inferior, as Sally mentioned. Her union tried to help everyone understand that taking on leadership roles has been historically difficult for women, because of lack of child care, lack of sharing responsibilities in the home and lack of flexibility in work schedules. Now, women understand the need for quotas. But it took 10 years for women to take advantage of the quotas.

In 2008, the union made quotas part of its statutes and affiliate unions were required to adhere to them. By 2015, women must comprise 50 percent of union leadership. Unions are also required to provide child care during union activities; offer flexible meeting times and mainstream gender issues into all secretariats.

Kate Doherty summed up the presentations, pinpointing three themes:

1. Change is hard and long term.
2. Constitutional change is not enough, change also must be political.
3. The root causes of gender inequality include socialization and culture.

It’s not enough to say all we need to do is change the numbers of women in leadership positions, Doherty said. We need to change the way we do things to allow women to participate.  Three different environments, with mixed experiences.

Plenary Conclusions Panel: What Did We Learn/Where Do We Go From Here?

Workshop Building Women’s Power in Times of Political Change: Examples from MENA

Zeinab Hashem Mahmoud Ahmed (left) described the role of Egyptian union women in strikes leading up to the 2011 uprising. Credit: Tula Connell

Zeinab Hashem Mahmoud Ahmed (left) described the role of Egyptian union women in strikes leading up to the 2011 uprising. Credit: Tula Connell

Workshop

Building Women’s Power in Times of Political Change: Examples from MENA

Participants
• Zeinab Hashem Mahmoud Ahmed, Treasurer, Union of the Workers of the Egyptian Company for Iron Alloy, Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress (EDLC), Egypt
• Alyaa Hussein Mahood Al-Rubaye, Executive Board Member/Secretary of Women’s Department, General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), Iraq
• Ilham Abdulmaabood Majeed Al-Jasim, President, Telecommunications Workers Union in Basra/General Federation of Workers and Unions in Iraq (GFWUI), Iraq
• Touriya Lahrech, Executive Office/Coordinator of Women Department, Confédération Démocratique du Travail, Morocco

Moderator
Francesca Ricciardone, Solidarity Center Program Officer, MENA

Francesca Ricciardone said one goal of the workshop is to avoid “exceptionalizing” the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) experience for women seeking to achieve power in times of political upheaval. The question we ask today, said Ricciardone, is “what role can unions play in creating more just societies and more equality in society?”

Zeinab Hashem Mahmoud Ahmed opened by noting the role of women and unions leading up to Egypt’s January 2011 uprising. Women played a major role in the 3,000 strikes by workers in the four years prior to the uprising, even though unions are made up of mostly men. There is no quota system to help women advance in Egyptian unions. Further, there are no child care facilities in workplaces and women don’t know their rights—they don’t know what the law says, so the only way they get those rights is through union membership. The January 2011 uprising called for equal job opportunities for men and women, and workers were pushing a law in the legislature that would permit creation of unions without the permission of the government.

She said “the Morsi regime was excluding women from political life,” even though “Islam itself calls for equality between men and women. But no one implements these laws.” Further, under Morsi, 151 workers were illegally fired in one year, she said. The year he was in office “was a tragic year for the working class. Many more suffered harassment” and much of the harassment was directed at unions, she said. Workers held rallies to demand work, and protests rose from 160 a month to more than 1,000 in six months. The 300 unions in eight regional federations of the EDLC “try to defend the rights of workers, especially workers who see their salaries are being slashed,” Ahmed said.

Alyaa Hussein Mahood Al-Rubaye began by noting that Iraqis “lived through very difficult times after the fall of Saddam Hussein—double jeopardy for rural women who were completely isolated.” Further, “We live in a tribal culture that’s totally misogynist,” she said, one based on “inherited customs.”

However, windows of opportunity began opening for women when the need to economically support their families grew. As a result, “work helped open the way for women to gain freedom. The whole issue of women started to became important after so many years of being invisible.” Still, society overall does not recognize women, even though after Saddam Hussein fell, the government and other entities began reaching out to women.

Ilham Abdulmaabood Majeed Al-Jasim continued Mahood’s discussion about the issues women face in Iraq by stating that “women can’t even go out in the streets without being harassed.” She cited the need for capacity building to increase women’s role in politics and the need for data to understand what women and men face in their daily lives. In short, “the advancement of women’s social status can only happen through training,” she said.

Touriya Lahrech built on Ricciardone’s call to expand the breadth of discussion by stating that “we in the Arab Spring call it a movement. In fact, it’s not even Arab because the area is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. We can’t call it purely Arab from a cultural perspective.”

Morocco has traditionally lacked independent trade unions, she said. Further, society traditionally has focused on “cultural values, male pride, rejecting what the woman has to say.” She described common caricatures of women as deceitful, and said to counter such stereotypes, women workers are looking to develop movies and other popular media to change the culture.

Achieving gender equality in unions means women must change union bylaws to include gender quotas for leadership positions because “there is a large gap between men and women in leadership.”

Lahrech, who is the coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department, said that the confederation has mandated that any local council that did not include a certain number of women could not vote as a member of the federation’s national council.

Francesca Ricciardone asked panelists to discuss how we can raise the issue of women’s rights.

Majeed Al-Jasim, who is president of the Telecommunications Workers Union in Iraq, said whatever the union undertakes “we always try to include women’s participation.” Yet, “the old mindset is not favorable to women’s participation.” Because women are shamed for going out in the street, women have very little visibility in mass protest rallies, she said.

Mahood Al-Rubaye discussed efforts by unions, with assistance from the Solidarity Center, to meet with government officials as they drafted new labor laws to ensure they comply with international labor standards. A “diversity of unions” have joined forces in this ongoing effort because of the Solidarity Center, she said.

Lahrech said it should not only be women’s responsibility to increase their role in unions. “It should be part of the structure of unions, it should be part of the core of policies of unions.” To achieve this goal, “union leaders have to be convinced of the need to include more women. There have to be empowerment policies to integrate them fully.”

In the audience, Chidi King from the ITUC’s Equality Department, described her experience while in Tunisia for International Women’s Day in March this year, and remarked on “their drive, their commitment, their activism.” Yet, “they are not getting the support they need from union structures.” Women need the space to self-organize. “If we are truly going to build a movement that is fully inclusive, women need to be able to organize among themselves,” she said.

Ahmed asked that the international community apply pressure on the government for example, by urging it to follow a law on union freedom that will allow women to organize. “So many people are outside any union structure,” she said. “The Muslim Brotherhood refused to enforce the law that would give back the rights to workers that have been stolen from them.”

Ricciardone asked panelists how they are regarded by society for doing this work.

Majeed Al-Jasim stated that “the lack of opportunity for women is one of the things that pushed women into union work.”

Ahmed said Egyptian “society is all about men. Tribal problems also exist, she said. “One tribe won’t be represented by another.” Women won’t run for political office because they face smear campaigns. “Most women are totally oblivious to their rights as workers,” she said, and her union is pushing for the government to educate women about their rights.

Lahrech said there is a “relationship between unions and women’s committees.” Her confederation held popular protests and rallies and joined with 650 organizations to take to the streets to protest religious extremists’ efforts to take away women’s rights.

Mahood pointed out that women in Kurdistan have a lot of rights. But because Baghdad is not safe, “we feel a lot of insecurity.” Despite the external challenges, Mahood said unions have had some successes, such as wage raises.

Ahmed remarked that after the revolution in Egypt, unions established women’s committees and unions provide much assistance around such issues as sexual harassment.

(Amnah Mafarjah, president of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions  was unable to attend the conference. Read her presentation, “Toward Promoting Equality and Social Protection for Working Women in the Agriculture and Public Services Sectors in Palestine.”)

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