Climate change and environmental degradation have exacerbated gender inequality and worsened existing inequities resulting from resource scarcity, conflict and climate-related shocks. Women workers—particularly those in the informal economy—bear significant burdens due to the impacts of the climate crisis.
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Trade union women, activists and advocates gathered on March 17 for a virtual panel to discuss the impacts of climate change on women workers and the importance of their inclusion in developing climate solutions. The panel was sponsored by HomeNet International, HomeNet South Asia, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), StreetNet, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and the Solidarity Center.
Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center Global Lead on Climate Change and Just Transition, moderated the panel. She framed the discussion, saying, “There is no denying that the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world, with many of the worst impacts being experienced by those who have contributed least to the problem.” Mistry outlined the panel’s objectives, including highlighting the impact of climate change on women workers, emphasizing the role of workers and their organizations as critical partners in driving worker-responsive climate solutions, and recognizing that climate action requires coalition-building across social movements.
Navya D’Souza, Regional Coordinator for HomeNet South Asia, spoke about how climate change affects women workers in South Asia, where her organization represents 900,000 workers, 95 percent of whom are women. “Climate change is also a very, very gendered issue,’ she said. And home-based workers are seeing “an exponential increase in their already unfair burden of care work. This affects their ability to participate in the labor market.”
D’Souza said climate change also means more dangerous working conditions for home-based women workers. “Heat is rising, and because heat is rising, it affects our productivity,” she said. “We cannot work when it is too hot, and in urban settings, we live in crowded slum settlements. There is no respite from the heat, and we can’t go outside and work because it’s hot outside as well.”
D’Souza said HomeNet South Asia studied the impacts of climate change in South Asia by reaching out to 200 women across five locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The study found that:
66 percent reported a loss of income due to heat and water stressors.
33 percent reported health implications, such as waterborne diseases, and increased healthcare spending.
47 percent reported an increase in unpaid care work, making it difficult for them to operate in the labor market.
A home-based worker focused on tailoring, pearl stringing and applying Kundan stones on fabric work, Sushma Mishra spoke of how climate change has impacted her work. “The roof of my house is made of cement, so it is very hot,” she said. “We face a very difficult situation in cold weather. It is very cold so we have to use electricity when working inside the house. We have to use lights. And there is no ventilation. There are no windows in the house. So that is a major challenge we are facing.”
Due to climate change, the frequency and severity of natural disasters also impact women workers. Albertina Simango, Vice President of Associação da Economia Informal de Moçambique (AEIMO) said, “Here in Mozambique particularly, because of the country’s geographic location, we have been suffering many natural events provoked by climate change. Just to give you an example, in less than 20 years, we have been hit by more than 15 climate events.”
Natural disasters, Simango said, have caused a steep increase in the growth of the informal sector. “Unfortunately, women are the base of the pyramid. The vulnerability of informal women workers is so bad that even children are affected,” she said. “I feel very sad to see women who lose everything they had because of climate events, and afterward they have to have their children negotiate and do business to help support the families.”
Additionally, women workers often work longer hours and face violence and harassment due to traditional gender roles.”They have to work very, very long hours to support their families. Some of them have to work 18 hours a day. This means getting up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark and going back home at 9 p.m.”
According to Rina Begum, President of the Bangladesh Waste Pickers Union, environmental workers like waste pickers get short shrift. “Waste pickers keep the city clean, but they don’t get good prices. We have no value. If the government provided jobs, we could have a better life.”
In Brazil, Carmen Helena Ferreira Foro, secretary-general, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), said that the effects of climate change are exacerbated by industrial projects that do not consider the impact and are slow to benefit indigenous populations. “Everything is interconnected,” Foro said, “deforestation, water problems, rains — all the causes and effects of climate change impact the livelihoods of indigenous populations.”
“I am a family farmer from a part of the Amazon. I have to daily live with large projects in the Amazon region. They do not consider people’s lives. They exploit them and never redistribute the meaning of this energy,” she said.
“It took us 20 years to get any energy after they built a dam,” she said. “And now we are undergoing a new phase of building a waterway in the same river that was already affected.”
Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Regional Manager of the Shifting the Power Coalition, wrapped up the discussion by emphasizing the importance of including women workers in planning responses to climate-related disasters. “We’ve been working to ensure that women who have the knowledge, skills and capacity can articulate their needs and be at the table as they want to, and to be able to lead in disaster planning and response.
“The response aspect of disaster management is critical because the economic strategy, the recovery strategy, is vital at that stage,” Bhagwan-Rolls said. “The post-disaster needs assessment requires the feminist analysis, requires the visibility of women, particularly women workers in all the diversities presented by the speakers today.”
Informal workers are routinely excluded from economic and political decision-making, and their work is systematically devalued and made invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these dynamics and has resulted in skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, bringing a renewed urgency to address poverty, exclusion and precarious work.
Labor leaders, organizers and advocates from around the world gathered on December 2 for a virtual panel discussion of the impact of gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH) on workers in the informal economy. The discussion was sponsored by the Global 16 Days Campaign (coordinated by Center for Women’s Global Leadership), Global Alliance of Wastepickers, HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Solidarity Center, StreetNet International and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department co-director, moderated the panel, which included: Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO); Carmen Britez, vice president, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF); Janhavi Dave, international coordinator, HomeNet International; Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and a SEWA homeworker; and Saraswati Rijal, central committee member, Independent Transport Workers Association of Nepal (ITWAN).
Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO)
Chidi King framed the discussion, citing the themes and issues to be addressed. “As we all know, violence and harassment in the world of work is a manifestation of the societal issue that has deep roots in the continued tolerance of violence and harassment,” King said, “particularly towards women and population groups that too often find themselves on the margins of society.”
Women workers, who make up the majority of informal economy workers in many countries, are disproportionately affected. “Violence and harassment have deep roots in social norms and stereotypes,” King said, “especially around the roles assigned to men and women.
“And as a connection to inequality and discrimination suggests,” King added, “violence and harassment is also deeply rooted in unequal power relations, and the abuse thereof, in our societies, as in the world of work.” Thus workers play an important role in addressing and remedying violence and harassment, including addressing the impacts of domestic violence in the world of work.
ILO Convention 190 (C190) protects all workers and recognizes that for many the workplace is not an office or factory setting, but can be a public space or private. C190 protects informal economy workers, who work in their own homes or the homes of others, and recognizes the impact of domestic violence in their workplaces.
However, many countries’ laws do not recognize homes as workplaces, leaving many workers in the informal economy lacking protection against violence and harassment and without access to social safety nets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers have experienced high rates of domestic violence and difficulty accessing social support services that have been put on hold.
Saraswati Rijal spoke about working with women tuk-tuk drivers in Nepal to build support for women workers during the pandemic and supporting victims of domestic violence. COVID-19 has only made conditions worse, as women workers are forced to choose between their and their families’ health or earning an income and risking being subjected to unnecessary hazards.
Workers in the informal sector “do not have any economic security,” Rijal said. “And moreover, due to COVID-19, they are deprived of their daily wages, and they are also unable to earn their living and sustain their livelihood.”
Carmen Britez spoke of IDWF’s work with the Ministry of Labor in Argentina to develop exclusive protection for domestic workers around domestic violence. Domestic workers suffer not just from not having registered employment, but from also having no protection against violence. Britez said that lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many domestic workers to be shut in with their abusers.
Argentina ratified C190 in November 2020. Britez emphasized C190’s role as a tool to push for national legislation: “We were pushing for this convention so that it could become another tool in changing national law. If we have laws that protect us around violence, we want something that would not only include specific sectors but all sectors at a national level. Because that’s really important for us as women workers.”
“It’s also important to say this is not just an issue facing women. “We do account for the majority of those who are suffering from this kind of violence,” Britez added. “But it also is important for us to let our [union] leadership, who are often men, to let them know that it’s also their responsibility to push for a national law on this topic.”
To underscore the urgency of the issue, Britez shared that during her remarks her center received news of a woman whose employer broke her wrist.
Janhavi Dave spoke of the scale of the problem of domestic violence and its impact on women workers. “According to one of the recent ILO studies, there are over 260 million home-based workers, which is around 8 percent of global employment. This was prior to the pandemic, and this number has only increased,” Dave said. “According to the same study, 56 percent of home-based workers are women. So we’re actually talking about a huge section of women workers.”
HomeNet South Asia, a regional organization, conducted a study on the impact of domestic violence on home-based workers in Nepal, and is conducting similar studies in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. “One of the key findings was that home-based workers faced rampant domestic violence,” Dave said, “which has a direct impact not only on physical and emotional health but also on productivity.”
Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
SEWA’s Sonia George introduced a traditional bamboo worker, who shared her experience as the sole earner for her family, which included her husband and their two children. Her husband, she said, was supportive in the beginning of the marriage, but became physically violent after he was out of work. Sibimol was forced to leave her traditional job and go to work in a latex factory in order to earn a livelihood and escape domestic violence at home.
“This is the experience of most of the women in India,” George said after Sibimol shared her story. “We know that most of these women have experienced domestic violence. One of the statistics states that during the time of COVID, domestic violence has increased 2.5 times. That means women in India are suffering that much more violence.”
Lorraine Sibanda shared how COVID-19 also worsened conditions for women workers in Zimbabwe. “The pandemic exposed adverse challenges for women,” Sibanda said, “because they are performing unpaid care work, domestic care work, on top of providing for their families.” Measures to control the spread of COVID-19 compromised livelihoods and increased economic strain on families supported by the informal economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions also increased rates of domestic violence. “It meant that women and girls were locked down in their homes,” Sibanda said. “They were forced to spend time enclosed with families, and possibly many were trapped at home with their abusers.”
Married and partnered women also faced physical violence from husbands and male partners for refusing to hand over their earnings. “They would be abused physically because they refused to hand over money, which they’ve been working for, to their partners, so that their partners could either go for a drink or use that money,” Sibanda said. She also suggested that Zimbabwe had seen an increase in child marriage. ”There was this rampant trait of people marrying off children in order to gain economically.
“All in all, the pandemic amplified the vulnerability of women and girls,” Sibanda concluded.
Tens of thousands of children in child labor have been rescued through organizations founded by Nobel winner Kailash Satyarthi. Courtesy: “Kailash”
“We were led by young people, many of whom were child laborers,” said Anjali Kochar, executive director of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. Kochar spoke at the U.S. Department of Labor, one of several locations in Washington, D.C., where the documentary was screened to commemorate 2018 World Day Against Child Labor on Tuesday.
“They demanded their right to childhood,” said Kochar, recalling the march. “They called for the elimination of child labor and for meaningful, quality education. It was truly electrifying.”
Satyarthi began rescuing child laborers in the 1980s. His first rescue attempt was unsuccessful because he was outgunned by human traffickers. Satyarthi then brought to court photos of the atrocities he saw when trying to rescue the children, and a judge then ordered they all be freed.
The more children rescued, the bigger the mission became until more than 200 activists, lawyers and social workers joined Satyarthi in the 1980s to form the BBA, an India-based organization that has rescued more than 80,000 child laborers. Mukti Ashram, the Delhi branch of BBA, provides shelter and education for liberated children.
Demand for Cheap Products Increases Demand for Child Labor
Satyarthi looked at the successes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and decided that a “global march” was best for bringing attention to a global problem. The increased demand for cheap products was leading to an increased demand in cheap labor, making abuse and wage theft common in supply chains, especially for women and children. Since The Global March Against Child Labor formed in 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed Convention 182 on elimination of the worst forms of child labor, child labor in homes was banned in India in 2006 and the South Asian March Against Child Trafficking took place in 2007, where 1 million people marched 3,000 miles to end forced labor.
Although the efforts of Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his efforts, and other global advocates decreased the number of child laborers from 260 million to 152 million in 20 years, there is still more work to be done. Of the 152 million child laborers, 73 million work in hazardous conditions. These children are between the ages of 5 and 17, spending their days in factories and fields instead of in school.
The film reveals the complexity of child labor, illustrating how poverty and education often underly child labor. Parents who are paid very little or are unemployed may need their children to work so their families can survive. Because of the lack of resources, impoverished parents are often uneducated and their children fall prey to traffickers promising work opportunities. The children are taken from their families and forced to work for months or years, escaping with burns and broken bones. This was the case for Sanjeet, who appeared in the film and was rescued by BBA. This young boy was found with dents in his face from hot powder blown by fans in a factory. He had not been allowed to go home in a year.
Acknowledging prior accomplishments as well as the work ahead, Satyarthi created the 100 Million Campaign in 2016, which seeks to mobilize 100 million young people to fight for 100 million child laborers. This program will not only benefit the children still suffering under forced labor but will provide a legacy so that future generations can continue to tackle this issue.
“We all have to work to globalize compassion,” says Satyarthi when discussing how movements make change. “Every child has the right to bread, education, love and play.”
Kailash Satyarthi, a Solidarity Center ally, won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his lifelong efforts to end child labor. He began this work much earlier, in 1986 in Jharkand province—one of India’s poorest regions at the time, a place where child labor was common across a variety of industries.
Recently, Satyarthi was in Washington, D.C., to address congressional lawmakers on the situation of child labor globally. The Solidarity Center spoke with him about his Foundation’s work and the role of the labor movement in combating child exploitation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been fighting child exploitation since the 1980s. How has child labor changed in this time?
Kailash Satyarthi Credit: Global March Against Child Labor
Satyarthi: The world has grown rapidly, but despite technological advancements and accumulating vast global wealth, we have not been able to safeguard our children’s freedom. Today, 168 million languish in labor while 5.5 million are enslaved. Two hundred and thirty million children are caught in conflict-prone environments. Approximately 21 million children today have been displaced and face poverty, violence and inhumane conditions. Globalization has presented new challenges: increased cyber-crime and violence against women and children perpetrated online.
But the internet has made activism more sustainable. People are more inclined to support this fight because of increased awareness and ease of access. With the advent of technology, we have been able to make significant progress. I believe if the power of the internet and young people are channeled properly, we will be able to bring justice into the lives of many children.
What role does the labor movement play in the fight against child labor?
Satyarthi: To fully realize the SDGs, the fulfillment and protection of the rights of children is central. Trade unions are indispensable to this mission in two ways.
First, while workers in developed nations often receive their fair and just share, their counterparts in poor nations or emerging economies are denied what is theirs by right. This creates formidable challenges, like struggling to meet daily nutrition requirements. Poor laborers then seek another pair of working hands; in most cases, it is their child’s. A strong trade union can deliver the promise of decent work and income to families and so protect the development of these children.
Second, while 168 million children labor globally, 200 million adults are unemployed. Labor unions can help organize legal employment for these adults, as there is clearly no dearth of jobs. There are no easy solutions, but we know by experience that with the strength and resilience of labor unions, we can reach many who are voiceless working in illegitimate parallel economies.
As you noted, stable, well-paying jobs are hard to find for workers of all ages. What is the relationship between the ongoing flexibilization of work and the prevalence of child labor?
Satyarthi: Unfortunately, the concept of a fixed job is being wiped out by the relentless pressures of globalization while the movement of labor remains tightly restricted. Until the 1980s, in a country like the United States, people expected to work in a factory or office, in semi-skilled or skilled jobs until retirement. That is no longer true. It has been replaced by a concept of labor which takes us back, in some ways, to the 19th century when workers lacked job security. In this situation, it’s difficult to send children to schools and colleges. Rather, children end up working to help supplement uncertain family incomes.
What can be done to ensure that children, especially those in rural areas, are protected?
Satyarthi: Traditionally, the prevalence of child labor in farms has been widespread, meaning from children helping their families to bonded labor. Today, in relatively poor countries like India, where 50 percent of the population depends on agriculture for a livelihood, the most common form of child labor is found in farms. Until recently, it was rare to find a functional school in rural India. Some children were forced to walk over 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) to attend schools where teacher absenteeism was rampant. Here, government intervention is necessary. Education is a fundamental right and a public good and cannot be left at the mercy of market forces and private players. We have seen welfare schemes that guarantee employment to poor rural Indians and free meals to children attending school lead to a dramatic improvement in school enrollment. Much more needs to be done.
Over your career, you’ve used many strategies to fight child labor. What initiatives stand out to you as you look back on your career?
Satyarthi: During the first phase of my fight in the 1980s, the world remained ignorant as 250 million children labored globally. In the South Asian carpet industry alone, the number of child slaves working as carpet weavers was slightly over a million. Despite conducting many on-the-ground raid and rescue operations, we were not making desirable progress.
In 1995, I started discussions with carpet manufacturers, middlemen, exporters, NGOs in India and elsewhere, and leading carpet importers in Germany and the United States. This became the inspiration behind GoodWeave. The idea was to eradicate child labor in the carpet manufacturing industry with well-placed interventions in the supply and demand chains. I believed that after sparking the will for change, the industry could help social development by disrupting the circle of poverty, illiteracy, poor health and illegal employment.
What do you say to skeptics of GoodWeave and other consumer-based approaches to promoting human rights?
Satyarthi: GoodWeave effected a decline in child labor in the carpet industries, from over a million in the 1990s to less than 200,000 today. The most remarkable fact is that there was no decline in rug exports. Optimism among stakeholders brought about a remarkable change channeled through the power and reach of the corporate sector. If corporate and civil society can learn from our experiences with consumer-based human rights advocacy, then we can usher in a new era of globalization.
What about arguments that socially progressive policies, like compulsory universal primary education or a living wage, place an unfair economic burden on developing countries?
Satyarthi: The positive effect of placing children at the heart of policy and action is evident. If all students in low income countries acquired basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, equivalent to a 12 percent cut in world poverty. Moreover, an investment of one dollar in the eradication of child labor gives you the return of $10 to $15 in 10 years. The same applies to investment in education: Every additional year of schooling a young person receives increases their average future earnings by 10 percent, and can boost countries’ average annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth by 0.37 percent.
So, I humbly appeal to the naysayers to focus on what is measurable. Child labor never did any family or any child any good. It has to go.
The United States and India are connected by a common philosophy and a common history of resistance to oppression. And trade unions are key to greater equality and inclusion, said Fred Redmond, international vice president of the United Steelworkers, at a conference in Delhi this week that focused on how democracy in Asia can be strengthened through inclusion, participation and rights.
“Today in the United States and around the world, social cohesion is threatened by rising inequality and the economic and social marginalization of large segments of the population. The breakdown of institutions, such as labor unions, that promote equality and opportunity and participation, creates not only a skewed distribution of resources but also a breakdown of trust,” said Redmond, who joined with Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi Monday to explore the global march for dignity and democracy.
They highlighted the common thread running through social movements around the world: Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful disobedience, which brought India independence, shaped the U.S. civil rights movement and continues to serve as a foundation for people around the world seeking justice and equality. Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau moderated their discussion.
Satyarthi, founder of Global March Against Child Labor and a lifelong campaigner for children’s rights, emphasized that the lack of economic security hinders the flourishing of democracy. When workers have no jobs, they also have no opportunities to join unions, which enable them to secure living wages and social protections like health care, said Satyarthi. He added that workers who lack economic security are often forced to send their children to work. The Solidarity Center has worked closely with Satyarthi for years to help end child labor.
Satyarthi and Redmond made their remarks as part of a panel discussion at the Strengthening Democracy in Asia conference organized by the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), Asia Democracy Network and the World Movement for Democracy held March 23–24.
Also at the event, Solidarity Center Asia Director Tim Ryan moderated a panel discussion on strategies to promote democracy among marginalized workers featuring Redmond; Manali Shah, national secretary of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA); and Ramachandra Khuntia, vice president of Building and Wood Workers International.
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