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).
Hundreds of high-level government delegates at the CSW will for the first time discuss women’s economic empowerment and the role of labor unions as core to achieving women’s rights—a huge milestone for working women around the globe in achieving recognition of their workplace struggles by the world’s human rights body—and one that worker rights organizations like the ITUC and Solidarity Center have long championed.
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.
Join the ITUC campaign to end gender-based violence at work.
Follow us here, on Facebook and on Twitter @SolidarityCntr for coverage of the following Solidarity Center and partner events:
- March 15, 12:30 ET: “Building Power for Women Workers in the Changing World of Work”—AFL-CIO
- March 16, 12:30 ET: “Impact of Corporate Power to Women’s Economic Empowerment”—Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) & Solidarity Center
Hundreds of high-level government delegates at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting at the United Nations in New York this month will for the first time discuss women’s economic empowerment and the role of labor unions as core to achieving women’s rights.
“Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work,” the topic of the March 13–24 meeting, represents a huge milestone for working women around the globe in achieving recognition of their workplace struggles by the world’s human rights body—and one that worker rights organizations like the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Solidarity Center have long championed.
Simultaneously, the global union movement, together with the Solidarity Center, is bringing together some 200 labor activists from around the world to New York for workshops and a four-day women’s leadership training.
Labor and allied sessions include the Solidarity Center workshop on eliminating gender-based violence at work on March 13 and a discussion on the “Impact of Corporate Power on Women’s Economic Empowerment.” The latter event, sponsored by the Association of Women in Development (AWID) and Solidarity Center, is based on a joint 2016 report, “Challenging Corporate Power for Gender Justice: Highlights from a Cross-Movement Dialogue,” which outlines how national and transnational corporations can exploit women and other marginalized people and offers insights into strategies for resistance.
Concrete Achievements through the UN Process
The Solidarity Center has long focused on making working women’s issues a priority for UN bodies and, most recently, had its recommendations on employment, gender-based-violence and other workplace abuses included in a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) report on behalf of Honduras.
Issued in November, CEDAW’s report, “Concluding Observations on the Combined Seventh and Eighth Periodic Reports of Honduras,” incorporates Solidarity Center recommendations to address the persistent gender wage gap; the lack of regulations protecting women from exploitative working conditions, like domestic work; and severe health and safety dangers for women agricultural workers. The UN formed CEDAW in 1979 following CSW’s recommendation that a single entity champion international standards on the equal rights of men and women.
Solidarity Center and Global Labor Help Shape CSW Document
The Solidarity Center and global unions contributed to a document on women’s empowerment at work that the CSW will discuss and amend before approving at the end of the March meeting. They urged the CSW to acknowledge the economic impact of globalization on women workers’ wages and the socioeconomic conditions fueling “the accelerated feminization of poverty.”
Crucially, global unions are recommending the CSW “recognize the importance of trade unions in addressing persistent economic inequalities,” in closing the gender wage gap, the gap between minimum and living wages, and social protection gaps.
The Solidarity Center participated in crafting the draft document throughout a yearlong process in advance of the CSW meeting. In 2016, the Solidarity Center and ITUC were among 25 participants at an Expert Group Meeting convened by UN Women to discuss and prepare the first draft. At the meeting, the Solidarity Center presented the paper, “Women’s Labor Rights and Economic Power, Now and in the Future.”
Created in 1946, the CSW is the main global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and is part of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Watch the Solidarity Center website for coverage of the global union events and follow the action at our Facebook page and on Twitter @SolidarityCntr.
In mid-December, a strike in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and a ready-made garment sector hub, quickly snowballed into widespread unrest. Garment workers abandoned their factories to call for a living wage in response to ever-rising costs. Mass arrests and firings ensued.
The minimum wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is $68 a month, an amount last fixed in 2013. When they took to the streets in December, workers were demanding the minimum be increased to $191 a month. Dhaka is the 71st costliest city in the world, in line with Montreal, Canada.
The strike started in Windy Apparels and rapidly spread to other units resulting in 60 factories suspending operations. On December 20, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) ordered owners to reopen factories and resume operations after a five-day break. However, upon their return, more than 1,600 workers were notified that they had been laid off due to their alleged involvement in the unrest. Labor leaders and activists collectively demanded the reinstatement of all workers but received no response.
Windy Apparels is the same factory that denied a worker sick leave in October despite a very serious illness. She collapsed on the factory floor and died upon reaching the hospital. Her body was left at the factory gate for her husband to retrieve.
Since the factories reopened, union leaders and worker rights advocates have been detained or arrested on charges related to their alleged involvement in the strike. Union activists from different federations and from different areas of Dhaka—and unrelated to the Ashulia unrest—also have been swept up by police. Many have been charged under the Special Powers Act, 1974, which provides police with sweeping power to detain individuals. The act has been used to suppress political opposition and peaceful demonstrations, as well as to retaliate against individuals engaged in personal disputes with people in positions of authority.
Journalists and nongovernmental organizations that focus on worker rights are also being targeted and intimidated by security services. Ekushey Television Journalist Nazmul Huda, was arrested on December 23 and held in police custody for two days−during which time he was allegedly tortured−on charges of inaccurate reporting on the strike.
Last week, police arrived at a community center operated by the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, an ally of the Solidarity Center, and ordered its closure.
As a result of this and the arrests of union leaders who had no role in the unrest, a chilling effect has taken hold with some other union federations closing offices even though they have not been ordered to.
International worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, are monitoring the situation, and the Solidarity Center continues to track the registration of garment-sector unions in the country.
Your tax-deductible contribution to the Bangladesh Worker Rights Defense Fund will support Bangladesh garment organizers and worker-activists as they help workers who toil in unsafe factories for unfair—or unpaid—wages and who, without a union, cannot exercise their rights.
Activities your donation may support include:
• Medical care following an attack
• Safe spaces for organizers and their families who must go into hiding
• Legal assistance
• Awareness-raising activities regarding attacks on worker rights
• Replacement of belongings stolen during assaults
Your receipt for supporting Bangladesh organizers and activists will indicate The Solidarity Center Education Fund. The Fund is a tax-exempt charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Your contribution is tax deductible to the extent allowed by governing laws. In addition, pursuant to the Internal Revenue Code requirement stated in Internal Revenue Service publication 1771, no goods or services were provided in return for this contribution.
Esperanza Cardona, coordinator of the National Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina in Honduras, is working to end poverty through agrarian reforms and gender equality that will enable farmers to retain land rights. The organization represents two million women, 70 percent of whom live in poverty and 49 percent of whom live in extreme poverty, says Cardona.
“My name is Esperanza Cardona. I am from Honduras. I am the coordinator of the Comision Politica de Mujeres Campesinas (Policy Commission for Campesina Women). My organization is the National Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina in Honduras. It’s a mixed organization, one that fights for land rights and natural resources. We campesinos are worried about neoliberal policies that only bring us the violation of our lands and our rights, and exploitation of villages. [One such policy is] the modernization of agriculture law (approved in 1992), a law that only benefits large landholders and multinational companies … and the villages? The villages dying from hunger, poverty, malnutrition?
[In 2015], we women and our fellow campesinos, presented to the Congress a draft law on agrarian reform, food security and gender equity to replace the agriculture modernization law–which is only bringing us assassinations and discrimination. And still today, that law has yet to be considered. But we women—and the men working with us—are still fighting. And we are not going to stop confronting neoliberal policies. Latin American governments only care about money. They sell the best pasture, the best land, the best territory, and they only think about the accumulation of capital. And that’s why we women are going to keep fighting. We can’t stand any more hunger, any more poverty, any more child malnutrition, any more violations. In my country, Honduras, there’s a company that for 26 years producing corn and beans. Then one day a guy came—his name was Salvador (Savior) and expropriated their land. They brought in a lot of military. People were forcibly evicted from their land. This is the result of neoliberal policies. They are doing us great harm. This is why there is migration to the bigger cities or to countries to the north. And what do our governments do? That’s why today, I am asking women to reorganize to confront neoliberal policies. Otherwise, what are we going to do?”
Solidarity Center allies—congressional lawmakers, policymakers, union leaders, human rights and democracy representatives and others—gathered on Capitol Hill to mark the launch of the Global Labor Program, a five-year cooperative effort by the Solidarity Center and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote worker rights, gender equality and democracy worldwide.
“Development cannot be sustained or inclusive without the availability of decent work,” said USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith. “How do we reach workers? Through the Global Labor Program.
The following are photo highlights from the June 7, 2016, Washington, D.C., event.