To promote the rights of women workers, especially women domestic workers and women farm workers, it is essential to seek solutions to build women’s capacity to defend their rights to equality, decent work and an end to violence and abuse, according to Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center director for North Africa as she opened a three-day forum in Casablanca, Morocco, this morning.
“This forum is an opportunity to build solidarity between women domestic workers and farm workers”–Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center program director for North Africa Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“This forum is an opportunity to build solidarity between women domestic workers and farm workers,” says Cherrouk.
“We express our solidarity with our sisters who are migrants,” says Saida Bentahar. “We will always stretch our hands out to help them. We are going to remove the pressure of discrimination against our sisters wherever they are.” Bentahar, a Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) women’s committee member, works to empower farm workers in Meknes El Hajeb, Morocco.
Some 30 worker rights advocates from countries that include Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco are meeting to discuss how such factors as gender, ethnicity and race are used to deny workers their rights and, ultimately, to build the connections and solidarity needed to take on the power structures that profit from their marginalization. The November 29–December 1 Forum on Decent Work for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers is sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the CDT.
“If you don’t fight, nothing will happen,” says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation. Tang, who spoke during the morning session, described how domestic workers around the world came together to fuel the 2011 passage of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic workers, and later created IDWF.
“If you don’t fight, nothing will happen”–Elizabeth Tang, IDWF secretary general Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“If domestic workers stop fighting, then the convention will just be a nice looking paper,” says Tang. “So we decided to form a permanent union of domestic workers so we can keep fighting in unity so we can speak in one voice.” IDWF now includes 65 affiliated organizations in 53 countries.
More than half of the workers around the globe are not employed in the formal economy. Yet most informal economy workers, such as those cleaning houses and toiling on farms, have little access to decent work—which includes family-supporting wages, safe workplaces and social protections like paid time off and pensions. Decent work is one of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, a series of targets the UN hopes to achieve by 2030.
Representing a range of unions and associations assisting workers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, participants described the challenges they face as domestic workers and agricultural workers and how, as worker rights activists, they are facilitating efforts through their organizations to achieve decent work.
Isolated in Homes, Domestic Workers Vulnerable to Abuse
Camara Hassanatou, a domestic worker in Morocco, described how her employer forced her to work without rest. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Of the more than 150 million migrant workers in the world, 11.5 million are migrant domestic workers. Primarily women, domestic workers provide essential support to families, cleaning homes, cooking meals and taking care of children. Yet their isolation makes them especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“I asked my employer how long I will work,” says Camara Hassanatou, an African migrant worker in Morocco. “ ‘You will work as long as I tell you,’ she said.” Hassanatou accepted the job because she needed to support herself. Yet she received no time off, even when she was ill.
Now an activist with the Coalition of Migrant Workers in Morocco (CTMM), Hassanatou joined participants in small group discussions in which domestic workers and farm workers shared their challenges. The women discussed how migrant domestic workers often are recruited by labor brokers who lie to them about the wages and working conditions in destination countries. After they are arrive in another country, their passports and mobile phones often are taken, trapping them in employment situations where they often face physical and sexual abuse, while forced to work long hours with no time off.
Former domestic workers from the Philippines were trafficked to Morocco and now are part of the Instance of Solidarity with Asian Workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Romaric Hocine, a member of the CTMM, which was formed in 2013, outlined how the organization works to educate migrant domestic workers about their rights. Under a recent legalization campaign by Morocco, migrant workers who have been employed for five years in the country, among other criteria, were eligible for amnesty if they applied in 2014 and 2015 and renewed in 2016. CTMM activists reached out to workers across the country to enable them to get formalize their status and attain basic rights.
Leadership training is central to the coalition’s work: “It is essential to develop leadership among migrant workers so they can defend their own rights,” he says.
From Kuwait, where two-thirds of its population is comprised of migrant workers, Mai al Tararwah, a lawyer with the Humanitarian Foundation for Legal Aid, described how a team of lawyers works to assist domestic workers and other migrants with legal support and vocational training. Farah Abdullah from the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) discussed the union’s objectives, which include creating “an independent structure for migrant domestic workers” in that country, where an estimated 250,000 migrant labor as domestic workers.
Farm Workers ‘Treated Like Slaves’
“Trade unions can reverse the factors that undermine vulnerable workers in society”–Saida Bentahar, a CDT women’s committee member Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Many workers on agro-industrial complexes are seasonal employees and, like domestic workers in many countries around the world, they are not covered by national labor laws guaranteeing minimum wages and social protections like pensions and paid time off.
Rural women now contribute half of the world’s food and women in developing countries generate between 60 percent and 80 percent of the labor needed to produce food crops in developing countries.
Yet women working in agriculture “are being dismissed without pay, without severance, without justification with the stroke of the employer’s hand,” says Bentahar. “If they feel that the margins do not add up, employers will quickly lay off of women workers.”
Globalization has strengthened the negotiating hand of corporations at the head of supply chains. Faced with pressure to maximize profits, factory and farm managers typically pass on the costs and risks to the weakest links in the chain: the workers they employ.
Participants agreed that although domestic workers and farm workers may face different challenges, the common thread uniting their struggles is a lack of worker rights. But as Bentahar pointed out, unions provide a key path forward for many workers.
“Trade unions can reverse the factors that undermine vulnerable workers in society,” she says. “Our capital is our ablility to put pressure on our governments. We’d like your governments to put pressure on our governments to create momentum.”
“Things are changing,” says Tang. “You don’t have to look very far. Just look at yourselves.
“Together, we will make change.”
Stop back tomorrow for more coverage of the Forum on Decent Work for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers.
Agricultural work remains one of the most dangerous in the world. And women, who comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work.
Through gender equality training, Touriya Lahrech has enabled women farm workers to stand up for their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk
In Morocco, where the Solidarity Center partners with the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) to improve worker rights, the first step in addressing gender-based violence in the agricultural sector is enabling women to recognize its detrimental impact, says Touriya Lahrech, coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department and part of its executive board.
When women understand how gender-based violence at work is part of a larger structural system preventing them from attaining better wages and decent working conditions, they can go on “to denounce these kind of practices and exercise their rights,” she says, speaking through a translator.
As the United Nation commemorates November 25 as the Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Solidarity Center and allies throughout the international labor, human and women’s rights communities are working with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to campaign for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention to stop violence and harassment at work. (The ITUC campaign toolkit includes talking points, resources and tips for lobbying your government.)
November 25 also launches 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world.
Empowered Women Propel Landmark Bargaining Agreement
In Morocco’s fertile fields outside Meknes, some 1,000 agricultural workers on five large farms won a landmark contract in 2015 that boosted wages, provided safety equipment and other fundamental protections. Since then, union leaders have negotiated an extension of the contract to 200 additional workers at another large farm.
The success of the multi-year effort to achieve the agreement stems in large part from the gender equality trainings by CDT and Solidarity Center. Launched in 2007, the trainings enabled women to understand their rights and to take steps to improve their difficult conditions, says Lahrech.
Agriculture workers in Meknes, Morocco, head to work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk
The women help determine the issues important to them and also design their trainings, which are conducted through role play because many are illiterate. “The fact that they participate in the design of the role play which builds on their own experiences” is especially meaningful and effective, says Lahrech. Engendering conversation and listening instills participants with the value they deserve, she says.
Lahrech describes how women who initially sat in the back of the room too fearful to speak, have gone on after the trainings to take the microphone at massive rallies on Women’s Day and in CDT meetings where they articulated their rights.
The contract, reached with agro-industry employer, Les Domaines Brahim Zniber, includes first-ever maternity leave, a key demand of the women workers. The contract also is especially important for women because they now have equality with men, says Lahrech. Equality with men means women, who previously were blocked from “male” jobs, like truck driving, now have access to these generally higher paying jobs. “When women can drive trucks, they earn more pay and that is better for everyone,” she says.
Further, the agreement provides employment security for all workers, who had been classified as seasonal and so not eligible for social protections like pensions and health care. The precariousness of agricultural work is compounded by informal employment arrangements driven by the seasons when cash crops are planted and harvested.
Unions Key to Social and Economic Improvements
Lahrech, who also serves as a member of the ITUC’s Women’s Committee and the Arab Trade Union Confederation Women’s Committee, is a long-time union advocate who began working with agricultural workers after she discovered how women in the sector are “at the mercy of the employer, with no social security, no retirement, and in general, not many rights due to the lack of contract.”
Sparked by her participation in student protests, Lahrech made it her life’s goal to effect positive societal change—and soon realized the most effective means to do so is through unions.
“We can’t make the social and economic system change without union involvement,” she says. “When I saw the divide in social classes, I revolted, but I found the frame to challenge this anger—through trade unions.
“Together with others in the union, we share, through solidarity, because things can change with solidarity.”
Workers who migrate to other countries for jobs often do not know their rights when they arrive, and many, like domestic workers, toil in isolation, where they are easily exploited by employers.
Rosalie Ewengue, a domestic worker in Morocco from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was among them. But after taking part in an awareness-raising campaign with Afrique Culture Maroc, she learned about her rights in the country and on the job, including how to apply for legal status—and now helps other domestic workers do the same.
Working with the Collectif des Travailleurs Migrants au Maroc (Morocco Migrant Workers Organization), in partnership with the Solidarity Center, Rosalie is reaching out to migrant domestic workers across Morocco.
Rosalie’s story is the latest personal narrative on the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum. The online, interactive Equality Forum connects working people and amplifies their voices by enabling them to share their stories, joys, struggles and strategies to better their lives and livelihoods.
Find out more about Rosalie’s story here and meet other workers from around the world, including Lwin Lwin Mar, a Burmese garment worker, and Sam Oliver, a union shop steward working on a Liberian rubber plantation.
Hi, I am Rosalie Ewengue, I am Congolese. I have worked as a domestic worker in Morocco for eight years, and have been an undocumented migrant worker for six years. I participated in an awareness-raising campaign with the Afrique Culture Maroc and Solidarity Center that focused on the issues facing undocumented migrant workers, and I tried to encourage undocumented women migrant workers to approach the regularization office and register themselves. That’s how I became an activist and a member of Collectif des Travailleurs Migrants au Maroc (Morocco Migrant Workers Organization).
In 2015, and always with Solidarity Center’s partnership, we launched an awareness-raising campaign focused on domestic workers. The goal was to identify the domestic workers and to learn more about their status and working conditions.
Globally, women are paid 30 percent less than men—but “imagine instead of corporations making 30 percent more off women’s labor, imagine if that 30 percent were coming back to our communities in the form of wages,” says Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
Speaking on the panel, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Workers Rights,” a Solidarity Center-sponsored session at the 2016 Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) Forum, Bader-Blau said challenging such wide-reaching corporate power means “we need to partner across social movements.”
Cross-movement building is a goal and theme of the September 8–11 AWID Forum, where more than 1,800 participants from 120 countries are gathering to find strategies for mobilizing greater solidarity and collective power across diverse movements.
Union and worker association leaders from Brazil, Morocco and the United States taking part in the panel shared how unions are helping empower women to achieve economic justice.
Seventy million women around the world are in labor unions or worker associations, says Bader- Blau. “The labor movement is by definition the broadest movement for women on earth that is membership based.”
“In the frontlines of this battle we have women who are fighting for labor rights”—Saida Bentahar, CDT Morocco.
In Morocco, the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDT) in Morocco is helping agricultural workers win bargaining rights with their employers. Most of the workers are women, who live in difficult, fragile conditions, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT Secretariat.
“They sometimes cannot read or write, they live in extreme poverty, they are not paid good wages,” she said, speaking through a translator.
Together with the Solidarity Center, the CDT is training women on their workplace rights, including standing up against sexual harassment.
“Some women wouldn’t even speak at first when we would hold sessions but now they really stand up for what they believe,” says Bentahar. “Together they have written a declaration to guarantee stable labor rights. They will now have equal pay, certificates to assure their skills and capacities. They will have equal opportunities for work and training as well.”
Junéia Batista, CUT national secretary in Brazil, describes union women’s efforts to negotiate day care and other key issues in bargaining with employers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Junéia Batista, national secretary of the Confederation of Workers Union (CUT) in Brazil, described how women in the confederation have worked to be part of contract negotiations to ensure issues like day care are included, and to achieve leadership since the confederation formed in 1983.
“We want more,” says Batista, speaking through a translator. “It has been 33 years with men, men, men presiding in the presidency,” she says, and women members are working to establish gender equality measures throughout their union structures.
In Mississippi, a state in the southern United States, the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights (MWCHR) is helping empower working people in Oxford, an impoverished area with a history of racial violence.
“Wages are not the only point of resistance and struggle we need to be dealing with,” says Jaribu Hill, MWCHR executive director.
Panelists also discussed the increasing attacks throughout the world on workers’ ability to form unions.
“Our broader labor movement is suffering from a closing of democratic space,” says Bader-Blau, citing a 30 percent rise in attacks on worker rights around the world. “Our governments, aided by corporate power, are defining worker rights in narrower and narrower terms.”
“In this environment, in this context, we feel it is so important that women’s work be respected and valued … and dignified and that we fight for this,” she says. “The primarily vehicle for fighting for women’s rights at work is trade unionism.”
As Bentahar says, “In the frontlines of this battle we have women who are fighting for labor rights.”