As a young woman working in her company’s IT department, Jayne Muthoni Njoki was frustrated by what she says were employer attempts to push her around because of her youth and sex. But rather than quit her job, which she contemplated, she ran for a leadership position in her union, determined to work with others to make change on the job—and in society.
“I needed to fight for people whose voice can’t be heard,” she says.
Now 31, Njoki is the only young person in elected leadership in the Central Organization of Trade Unions–Kenya (COTU-Kenya), a Solidarity Center partner, and also president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa Young Workers Committee.
Njoki discussed how she is working through unions in Kenya and around Africa to educate and train young workers, especially young women, this week on the Working Life podcast, hosted by Jonathan Tasini (Njoki’s interview starts at 30:02).
Many Young Workers Work in Jobs that Don’t Pay Enough to Get by
With 71 million young people around the world unable to secure employment and 156 million more working poor because they have unstable income in the informal economy, the lack of jobs that pay living wages “is a global issue,” she says.
“We need to now think of the informal sector. When I talk of informal economy, that’s where you see the majority of young people are based.
“But unfortunately, we don’t think the informal sector is part of the economy.” Enabling informal-economy workers to have a voice through unions and associations is key to advancing their rights as workers—and once the informal economy is organized, “then everything will fall into place,” she says.
Through COTU-Kenya, which she says has encouraged young workers and women to become union leaders, Njoki also is working to create awareness among domestic workers about their rights and advance their efforts to become union leaders. Many are sexually harassed and assaulted, and fearful of speaking out about their treatment, she says.
Women workers and even women leaders “can’t come out because they are afraid, they are threatened. It’s not easy to come out and say ‘this is my right [to not experience gender-based violence on the job]’ as a young person, as a young lady.”
As she takes on the challenges facing young workers, Njoki is optimistic about the future. “So many ladies, even young people and young men, they are ready to listen and they are ready to work together so we can drive the agenda together.”
The Solidarity Center and allies throughout the international labor, human and women’s rights communities are campaigning for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention to stop violence and harassment at work. As part of the process, begun many months ago, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is now spearheading efforts to lobby governments and employer organizations around the world for their input and support. (The ITUC campaign toolkit includes talking points, resources and tips for lobbying your government.)
Allies are building awareness for passage of a convention and distributing an ILO questionnaire to their government representatives soliciting comments and support in advance of a September 22 deadline. When ILO member states ratify a convention, they commit to applying it in national law and practice, and complaints can be made against countries for violations. In June 2018, the ILO International Labor Conference (ILC) will take up the issue.
Gender-Based Violence: Worse Without Freedom to Form Unions
Domestic workers, whose isolation in employer homes makes them especially vulnerable to abuse, are strongly championing its passage. Building on the tactics of their successful global campaign for the 2011 ratification of ILO Convention 189 covering domestic workers—the last convention the ILO passed—they are reproducing those steps to ensure support for a convention to end gender-based violence at work, says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).
“Gender-based violence is always worse when there is no freedom of association,” Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy said earlier this year. “When workers are not organized (in unions), they don’t have resources to tackle gender-based violence.” McCoy moderated a Solidarity Center panel in New York on gender-based violence at work in conjunction with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meetings.
Gender-Based Violence Includes Physical, Mental Abuse
In a detailed report issued in advance of the 2018 ILO conference, the ILO describes gender-based violence as affecting both women and men, but notes that unequal status and power relations in society and at work often result in women being far more exposed to violence and harassment, which can be physical, psychological and sexual.
In addition, the ILO uses the term “world of work” for a proposed convention, because gender-based violence occurs not only in the physical workplace, but during the work commute, at work-related social events, in public spaces—the primary venue for informal workers such as street vendors—and in the home, in particular for domestic workers and teleworkers.
Addressing violence and harassment through an international standard is key to the objectives of achieving decent work for all and addressing gender inequality in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Goal 8 and Goal 5). A new standard would be preventative, by addressing negative societal and workplace cultures, and “should also be able to respond to the new challenges and risks which might lead to violence and harassment in the world of work, such as those arising from changing forms of work and technology,” according to an October 2016 report by the UN Meeting of Experts on Violence against Women and Men in the World of Work.
Gender-based violence at work is far more prevalent than reported and ending it will require women coming together to challenge male-dominated structures—whether in corporations, governments or their own unions, according to leaders and experts from a variety of unions and nongovernmental associations (NGOs) speaking yesterday in New York City.
“As prevalent as gender-based violence is in workplace, it goes unrecognized—Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“As prevalent as gender-based violence is in workplace, it goes unrecognized,” said Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy.
McCoy was among participants on two panels Monday that focused on gender-based violence at work, part of events the Solidarity Center and its partners are holding in conjunction with the March 13–24 meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
Gender-Based Violence Worse without Freedom to Form Unions
Panelists at the Solidarity Center session, “Eliminating Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work,” explored how unions enable workers, especially women workers, to speak up when experiencing sexual harassment and other violence on the job by providing a network of peer support.
“The absolute most important thing is that we organize for worker power”—Julia Rybak. New York Hotel Trades Council. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Workers having the resources and the community of support is something most workers don’t have,” said Julia Rybak, director of the New York Hotel Trades Council. “The absolute most important thing is that we organize for worker power.”
“Gender-based violence is always worse when there is no freedom of association,” said McCoy, who moderated the panel. “When workers are not organized (in unions), they don’t have resources to tackle gender-based violence.”
Conversely, McCoy said, “the persistence and prevalence of gender-based violence has an impact on freedom of association. Gender-based violence is very much a tool used to repress worker rights, to silence workers and to isolate workers so they can’t stand up for themselves and fight gender-based violence.”
“There are extraordinarily high rates of gender-based violence against women at the workplace,” said Robin Runge, a lawyer who represented survivors of violence and abuse for more than 20 years. Runge is author of the new report, “Ending Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work in the United States,” written with support from the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center.
Women Empowering Themselves through Unions
“Only by organizing can we get out of situations I faced when I was 12 and protect other domestic worker”—Ernestina Ochoa Lujan, IDWF. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Several panelists recounted their own experiences with workplace-based violence. Ernestina Ochoa Lujan, a domestic worker and vice president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), began work as a domestic worker in Peru at age 11. At age 12, she was attacked by her employer.
“I couldn’t call my parents because I didn’t have parents, I couldn’t call authorities because we are not believed. I cry not because I have no hope but because I went on to organize with my union,” she said through a translator.
“Only by organizing can we get out of situations I faced when I was 12 and protect other domestic workers.”
“We have to think about all those workers whose voice is not here”—Kazi Fouzia, DRUM. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Panelists and some of the several dozen audience members who spoke during a question and answer period described widespread violence against women workers—in Algeria, Argentina, Colombia and wherever women work and in whatever sector they are employed.
“We have to think about all those workers whose voice is not here,” said Kazi Fouzia, director of organizing at the New York-based Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) organization, a 4,000-member worker association that includes primarily women in the informal economy.
Join the Stop Gender-Based Violence Campaign
Earlier in the day, 75 participants discussed steps involved in building support for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on ending gender-based violence.
“It’s important we go to the governments to make sure they support an ILO convention. We need a critical number of governments to move it forward,” said Marieke Koning from the Equality department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The ITUC sponsored the panel, “Stop Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the World of Work Campaign: How to Support an ILO Convention.”
Amrita Sietaram, ILO ACTRAV section, described the process of creating and passing a convention to end gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Koning was joined by Amrita Sietaram from the ILO ACTRAV section, who described the process of creating and passing a convention to end gender-based violence at work, which she says has moved forward because of the efforts of the ITUC and global union federations. The ILO will discuss a draft text in June 2018 and unions, employers and others have from May to September this year to comment on the draft text.
Sietaram also described significant “employer resistance to a gender-based violence at work convention,” and noted that discussions will determine whether the final product is a “convention”—which governments agree to follow, or a “recommendation,” a weaker outcome that provides direction.
Speaking from the audience, IDWF General Secretary Elizabeth Tang described how domestic workers around the world worked for years to achieve 2011 passage of ILO Convention 189 covering domestic workers—and how the union has begun to reproduce those steps to move passage of a convention to end gender-based violence at work.
Anju Begum, a garment worker and factory-level union leader in Bangladesh, describes how she became empowered through her union—and how she seeks to help other workers, especially women, advance their rights at work.
“I want everyone, here and abroad, all workers, especially women, to know their rights and bring them to the forefront.”
Union support goes beyond the workplace, as Anju explains in this video. When Anju was abused by her husband, her union stepped in to assist her. Gender-based violence is one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world and extends to the workplace, where gender-based violence often typifies unequal economic and social power relations between women and men.
The Solidarity Center is among many unions and other civil society organizations worldwide calling for the International Labor Organization to establish a standard covering gender-based violence at the workplace, an action that moved forward last fall when the ILO announced that a debate on the topic will be on its 2018 agenda.
Now president of a factory-level union affiliated with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), Anju says in factories where there is no union, “I want women workers like me to take a leadership role and try to become president of the union.”
Chumtoli Huq, created this video for unions to use in their meetings as part of a Law@theMargins documentary project and urges organizations and individuals to share it on Facebook. To help with the project, you can contribute to the project’s Gofund me campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/mzjx0w
Participants in Monday’s final session of the Solidarity Center labor migration conference engaged in a lively discussion with panelists in a discussion of migrant workers’ vulnerability to gender-based violence.
Lisa McGowan, senior specialist for gender equality, outlined the broad picture, pointing out that gender-based violence is “one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world,” and migrant workers are especially at risk of gender-based violence because they are often invisible.
“Domestic workers suffer violence for being women, migrants and indigenous people.”–Marcellina Bautista, leader of the Center of Support and Training for Domestic Workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
Describing her work organizing and supporting domestic workers, many of whom are migrants, Marcellina Bautista, the leader of the Center of Support and Training for Domestic Workers (CACEH), said that “domestic workers suffer violence for being women, migrants and indigenous people.”
Bautista, who worked as a domestic worker for many years, says domestic workers encounter “all kinds of violence in the homes where we work.”
“The majority of the 2.3 million people in Mexico who do domestic work are women and girls” who are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, says Bautista, who also serves as International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) regional coordinator for Latin America.
The CACEH works with domestic workers who face workplace violence, helping migrant workers understand that they have the same rights as other workers in Mexico.
Farm work is another sector where women workers are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence, and Agatha Schmaedick Tan discussed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) efforts to end sexual harassment and violence among tomato pickers in Florida. Tan cited a study that found some 80 percent of female farmworkers had experienced sexual harassment at work in 2010.
“Sexual harassment on the job persists worldwide,” Agatha Tan, counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
Describing Immokalee, Florida, as “not a town, but a labor reserve,” Tan outlined CIW’s path breaking Fair Food Program, which CIW negotiated with growers and which 14 major corporations have signed. Under the code, which covers as many as 100,000 workers in a year, farms must comply with fundamental labor standards, including preventing violence and sexual harassment at work. Corporations agree to buy only from farms that comply, and auditors annually evaluate the farms. Some 90 percent of Florida tomato growers have signed on to the program.
“Sexual harassment and violence on the job is illegal in most countries, yet sexual harassment on the job persists worldwide due in part to the difficulties of enforcement,” she said.
Closing the panel, Chidi King, International Trade Union Confederation Equality Department director, told participants: “We as a labor movement have not done enough to bring (gender-based violence at work) to the fore of our agendas. We still see this as a personal issue,” not one to be dealt with at the organizational level.
Chidi King, ITUC Equality Department director, rallied participants to push for an ILO standard on gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
King noted that the ILO has not taken up gender-based violence because of resistance of “very regressive governments,” and urged participants to push the ILO to create a standard covering gender-based violence.
“When you’re talking about your organization’s activities, have this front and center. It cannot be an issue we continue to remain silent about.”
More than 200 participants are taking part in the Aug. 10-12 event, Labor Migration: Who Benefits? A Solidarity Center Conference on Worker Rights & Shared Prosperity.
Follow the conference on the website and on Twitter @SolidarityCntr.
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