With Union, Street Vendors, Bidi Rollers No Longer Invisible in India

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Self-employed bidi rollers in India have access to social services because of SEWA’s efforts. Credit: SEWA

Each day this week leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center will highlight an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.

India passed a landmark Street Vendors Act this month that, for the first time,recognizes the country’s 40 million street vendors as workers deserving of rights and labor law coverage equal to all other wage earners.

Behind the passage of the Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act are decades of struggle by a dedicated group of women who in 1972 began organizing women workers in informal economy jobs like home-based cigarette (bidi) rollers. Today, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) includes 1.7 million women workers across the country, 200,000 of whom are street vendors.

“This is a proud moment for us at SEWA as we have struggled hard to improve the situation of street vendors, many of them women who were earlier denied the right to a respectful livelihood and subjected to severe exploitation,” says SEWA National Secretary Manali Shah.

SEWA members and allies waged a hunger strike in New Delhi and took other action to press lawmakers in India’s upper house of Parliament to pass the bill, which the lower house approved last year. Their actions exemplify the type of public education and outreach members have undertaken to make visible workers who are not accorded the same rights and protections as those employed in formal sector jobs.

SEWA members are among the most marginalized of India’s workers: Self-employed, their income is unpredictable and few receive social welfare benefits, unlike workers in formal-economy jobs. More than 94 percent of women workers in India work in the informal-sector economy.

The union began when five women went door to door to learn the most pressing issues for self- employed women, said Geeta Koshti, a coordinator in SEWA’s legal department. The early SEWAorganizers then identified women who could take leadership roles, and they recruited local organizers who, as trusted members of their communities, could better connect with women workers.

Women who join with SEWA go on to form their own local trade union councils where they make decisions about the types of campaigns they want to pursue and hold trainings on membership education and leadership development. Some have created worker cooperatives and other organizations to assist their members.

SEWA is very much a member-driven organization, said Koshti, and the union prioritizes its efforts in accordance with its members. For instance, if workers say they want clean water, the union does not run other unrelated campaigns.

From a handful of women in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, SEWA has expanded to represent women in 14 Indian states. One of SEWA’s most successful endeavors involves women in the bidi trade. Koshti, whosemother was a bidi roller and SEWA member, said SEWA’s multiyear efforts culminated in a Bidi Welfare Board, one of the few such institutions for workers in the informal sector. The board is responsible for implementing a benefits program that allows bidi workers to have access to social services, such as healthcare and educational scholarships for children.

SEWA, which its leaders describe as both an organization and a movement, includes programs such as a shareholder organization to assist artisans in marketing their crafts and a microcredit bank.

Koshti adds that SEWA’s integrated, holistic approach addresses all the issues women face, such as child care. In short, the union is driven by a real strong commitment to ensure members are involved.

Bangladesh: Workers Say They Were Attacked after Forming Union

Workers at the Taratex BD Ltd. garment factory in Bangladesh have been targets of violence and mass firings, according to the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF).

The workers filed for union registration at the factory in Gazipur, outside of the capital, Dhaka, on February 4, 2014. Since then, they say they have since endured a fierce anti-union campaign by management. A reported 86 union supporters at the factory have been fired, including 12 members of the union’s factory-level executive committee.

Many of these workers told BIGUF they have been verbally or physically assaulted and asked to sign papers of an unknown nature. Factory workers who support the union also report being visited at their homes and threatened.

On February 22, union vice president Farahad and union supporters Sohel and Mostak told BIGUF they were detained and physically assaulted as they attempted to enter the factory. They said police refused to accept their crime reports or pursue the incident. Six union members told BIGUF they have been forced to leave their homes for fear of their personal safety.

BIGUF filed an unfair labor practice on February 24 and contacted the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) for assistance in resolving the issue. BGMEA, the trade association representing Bangladesh export manufacturers, has not yet responded.

Four South African Unions Tackle Gender Inequality

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Phumzile Mashishi, HOSPERSA gender project officer, helped lead the gender action learning process in her union.

Each day this week, leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center is highlighting an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities. 

Unions around the world are at the forefront of the struggle for gender equality. And sometimes, that means taking a look at their own structures, policies and practices to ensure they, too, are working  to make equal treatment and non-discrimination central to their efforts.

In South Africa, four unions grappling with the complexities of gender inequality took part in a structured, multiyear process facilitated by the South Africa Gender Action Learning Program. The group is part of Gender at Work, a global nongovernmental organization that helps organizations become models for a more equitable and accountable world.

The unions—which represent building and construction workers, health care and retail workers and farm workers—recognized that male-dominated, hierarchical, union culture does not easily address issues such as sexual harassment and violence against women within the union, and they sought to develop alternative models of power. The process involves feminist popular education, interactive learning and a lot of work “at the consciousness-raising level,” said Nina Benjamin, who led the project which, for one union, began in 2005. Benjamin is gender research program coordinator for Labour Research Service/Gender at Work, South Africa.

A recent Solidarity Center-sponsored report, “Bringing Back the Heart,” explores the Gender at Work process with these unions and details how the partnerships achieved tangible results:

• Increasing numbers of women joined the unions,
• More women ran for union leadership positions,
• Union leadership gained a deeper understanding of worker concerns and became more accountable in addressing them, and
• Union activists reported that the process reinvigorated and re-inspired them, even in the face of widescale workplace restructuring and deteriorating working conditions.

The process ensured that gender work was not relegated to the status of an “add on.” Leaders developed unionwide strategies for achieving gender equality—and made notable progress.

• The South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which organizes workers in the hospitality, catering, retail, service, tourism and finance sectors, includes a majority of women as members—but few had been union leaders.  Following its partnership with Gender at Work, women routinely ran for and were elected into key leadership positions at the worksite level.

• The autonomous, women-led trade union, Sikhula Sonke, reported that membership was growing, domestic violence was decreasing and union leaders were tackling broader discrimination issues (such as xenophobia, homophobia and HIV). The union, which organizes those who live and work on fruit and wine farms, also found farmworkers’ daily lives were improving and they were gaining access to new resources.

• The predominantly male construction union, the Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU) engaged key male leaders in the Gender at Work process, with the result that more women have joined the union, and they now increasingly participate in the union, such as by becoming shop stewards.

• Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (HOSPERSA), which represents public and private health-care workers, primarily nurses, expanded its reach to grassroots members. Together with union leaders, they are building a new culture of unionism—broadening campaigns from a focus on wages to include issues central to the lives and work of its predominantly female membership.

These four unions demonstrate the challenges of organizational change, but their experiences also show that even in unions with diverse memberships and experiences, a focus on gender equality can empower women and return the balance of power back to members.

Bangladesh Union Activists Press for Justice in Violent Attack

Bangladesh Union Activists Press for Justice in Violent Attack

More than 400 Bangladesh garment workers and trade unionists rallied over the weekend at the National Press Club in Dhaka, the capital, to demand police take action to find perpetrators who beat and badly injured a garment worker leader and four union organizers last week. The group was talking with garment workers when they were attacked, and police subsequently refused to accept a report on the incident.

After rallying at the Press Club, union activists and their allies marched to the Ministry of Home Affairs, where staff received a small delegation of activists and accepted their letter calling for government officials to pursue justice for the victims. Later that night, police accepted the crime report from the victims of the violent attack, the prelude to beginning an investigation.

Participants in the rally and march include members and leaders of the Bangladesh Federation of Workers Solidarity (BFWS), where the injured organizers work, the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation (BIGUF), the Sommilito Garments Sromik Federation (SGSF), Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Sramik Federation (BGIWF) and the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF).

The factory, which had been closed following a workers’ protest against the business not paying the minimum wage on February 18, was fully reopened on March 2. Some 30 workers now say they have been verbally terminated.

Global Union Movement: Making Equality for Women a Reality

As International Women’s Day approaches, the global labor movement is mobilizing to put teeth into the celebration’s 2014 theme, “Equality for women is progress for all.” Solidarity Center allies around the world also are getting set to highlight the struggles of working women with actions that include rallies by banana workers who are members of the union SITRABI in Guatemala and a conference honoring women workers from Jordan and Palestine. (Follow Women’s Day actions on Twitter with the hashtag #IWD2014.)

Two days after International Women’s Day, commemorated annually on March 8, union activists will take part in the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. There, they will push for concrete goals to redress income inequality that focus on employment, well being and security in large part by addressing gender inequality in the labor market and in social policies.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), along with several global union federations, issued a joint statement last week detailing recommendations they will present to the CSW to ensure women’s rights to decent work, quality education and quality public services are at the heart of its post-2015 agenda. CSW’s post-2015 agenda will supplement the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+20),” a plan for women’s empowerment that member states approved in 1995.

CSW, part of the United Nations, is a global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. Representatives of member states gather at the UN in New York each year to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality andwomen’s empowerment worldwide. This year’s meeting runs from March 10-21.

Ensuring the rights of the billions of informally employed workers, the majority of whom are women, is an essential part of the global unions’ recommendations to CSW. Fundamental rights and protections for informal economy workers, such as street vendors and domestic workers, must include coverage by national labor laws, access to social service benefits and a guaranteed minimum wage.

The global unions’ joint statement points out that the majority of jobs created in the past two decades are short-term, part-time, temporary, casual or informal—categories in which a majority of women are employed, making gender equality an essential part of meaningful solutions to the world’s growing income inequality.

Unions around the world organize and mobilize women, promote women as leaders and decision-makers and aim to achieve fair access to decent work for women. Each day this week, leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center will highlight an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.

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