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.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of migrant workers have been forced to return to their homes or are languishing in their destination countries without jobs, and Nepali migrant workers are no exception.
In 2019, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment issued 236,208 labor permits for migrant workers, 8.5 percent of which were issued to women. As the pandemic spread, work in major destination countries for Nepali workers in Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also came to a halt. Sudden job loss and pay cuts pushed migrant workers into precarious positions. The government’s decision to cancel all international flights to contain the spread of the virus added to their stress and uncertainty. The nationwide lockdown began March 24.
After more than two months, the Nepal government’s repatriation plan came into force. The government arranged to hold returning migrant workers in quarantine centers in Kathmandu until their respective provinces arranged departure to their home districts. On the first repatriation flight, 306 women, all previously working as domestic workers and granted amnesty by the Kuwaiti government, landed in Nepal in June.
Bijaya Rai Shrestha, founder and chairperson of Aaprabasi Mahila Kamdar Samuha (Returnee Migrant Women Workers Group, AMKAS) in Nepal, knew she had to help. “I could hear my inner self telling me that I have to step up to do my part to support these sisters,” she says. The first flight from Kuwait landed while AMKAS was navigating the procedures and formalities to get authorization to host returnees at its shelter. After 12 hours, they received approval—and later that evening, they were notified 10 women were headed their way. The shelter has capacity for 15 women following quarantine procedures.
Reaching Migrant Workers and Relating to Their Pain
AMKAS—created, led by, and working for migrant workers to make migration safe and dignified—advocates for the rights of migrant women workers and provides them with a variety of services. It is a Solidarity Center partner.
“On the first day, around 8 p.m., I received the message that 10 sisters from Kuwait would be brought to our shelter. I had no clue that they would come that late. My team had already gone home. I could no way to request that they postpone bringing the sisters the following morning. I still remember in my quivering voice I said, ‘Yes, please bring them!’” she says. That night, Bijaya booked a hotel near the shelter so the women had a place for the evening. They came to the shelter the following day. Despite insufficient resources to support the influx of women, Bijaya says the humanitarian need outweighed the obstacles.
Complicating the return and reintegration of the workers is the stigmatization that they might be virus carriers. Her landlord wanted her to move operations. He sent the police, then the Nepal Army, but their paperwork was in order. The soldiers, she says, “thanked us for the work that we are doing and requested the neighbors to extend their cooperation to us.”
AMKAS has successfully hosted 109 women in different groups. The organization books other returning women into a hotel near the shelter.
I was also a migrant worker,” Bijaya recalls. “From the beginning of the pandemic, I could relate to the pain that thousands of women were going through. She adds, almost all women who we hosted were not paid for up to six months. Returnees must cover the cost of travel to their home district.
Chandra Maya BK, a returnee migrant from Kuwait says, “I do not have the 1,500 rupees (approximately $13) to return to my home district. This explains how much I wish to get my six months pay that is due. At the shelter, I learned that the government has some loan provisions and legal aid facilities for us. Help me get my pay, I can start something on my own.”
At present, the shelter is at capacity with returned workers waiting out their 15-day quarantine [and test results]. The organization also serves other returned migrant workers for whom AMAKS helped find positions but who are also jobless because of the pandemic.
“We couldn’t leave them to survive on their own,” says Bijaya. “Masks are in need, so we managed to provide 30 returned workers with virtual mask-making training. After the training during those strict lockdown days, we delivered sewing machines along with the raw materials to all of them,” she says. The women are making masks and AMKAS is helping them sell them online.
AMKAS is planning an awareness program covering various aspects of the government’s reintegration provisions, legal aid, migration cycle and trafficking at the shelter and also at the community level, with support from the Solidarity Center.
Eight years ago, Rubina Lama moved to Kathmandu from her nearby village and started working as a cook in a student hostel. One day, flipping the national daily newspaper Rubina came across an advertisement for a “golden opportunity in Japan.” Instantly, she knew she should grab this opportunity.
The next day, she visited the labor recruiting agency providing the chance to work in the Japanese garment industry. The agent assured her that there would be no fees as long as she began language and tailoring training. For Rubina, there was nothing more to ask. She immediately started classes, joining some three dozen other trainees, almost all under the age of 30.
It never occurred to her that the agent might ask for money in near future. Two weeks into the training, the agent asked her for 40,000 rupees (approximately $400) to cover costs.
A labor broker promised Rubini Lama a job in Japan but seven years later, it never materialized. Credit: Courtesy Rubini Lama
Managing her work as a cook and taking two classes were not easy for Rubina. But nothing could beat her determination, she says. In addition to her coursework, she continued working in the morning and evening at the hostel. Rubina says, “Only after I finished my work late at night at the hostel, did I have time to study and do the homework given in the language training. The girls of the dormitory always used to joke of my determined dream of going to Japan.”
Rubina was very excited as the training went well for the first few months. One day the agent told her, “A Japanese man is going to come soon to observe your tailoring skills and progress.” This information increased her determination. She felt closer to her dream of working and living in Japan. The following day, the agent said that each trainee would have to deposit 600,000 rupees (approximately $6,000) for visa application processing for Japan. He added that for those students who paid the fee quickly, the process would start immediately.” After a week or so, a Japanese man indeed visited the tailoring training classes. Meeting the Japanese observer confirmed that Rubina could not let her Japan dream slip away.
The sum demanded by the agent to process a visa was huge. Rubina confided her dream to her father, who wholeheartedly supported his daughter’s chance at a brighter future in Japan. Her father, however, had no source of income and decided to take a loan out against the only piece of land he owed to secure the fee. Rubina handed the $6,000 to the agent immediately after completing the bank procedure.
Days, months and years passed by after handing over the money. The agent kept saying that the process was moving. Rubina kept believing his assurances. Meanwhile, payment of the monthly interest for the loan was becoming increasingly difficult to pay on time. Around the same period, Lama’s father was diagnosed with cancer. Rubina was mentally and physically exhausted by juggling combined problems—the loan, her father’s worsening health and the stagnant visa process. However, Rubina continued to attend trainings provided by the agent.
Two years passed, the visa application still in process, which kept her hopes alive. One day, Rubina says the agent called advising her to quit her cooking job as her visa for Japan was on its way. Trusting him, she gave up her job and went back home to be with her ill father. Another year passed, with no visa. Rubina’s aspirations for Japan were still alive. Five years passed, and lost her father.
Completely broken inside and with empty hands, Rubina decided to return Kathmandu—still nurturing her spirit and determination to work in Japan. She started calling and calling the agent. One day, he answered her call, again reassuring her that the visa application process was continuing. He told her to trust him, and because of her dream, she did.
For survival, she started working as a day laborer. A month later, she found a job in a household as a domestic worker. Suddenly the agent called again and said he needed 150,000 rupees (approximately $1,500) to finalize the visa. Rubina provided him with the hard-earned cash she had earned over the previous two years—and then he disappeared. Now, seven years after trying to get to Japan on her own, she learned it generally takes a week for the embassy to process visa applications. She could not believe she had trusted a liar agent over six years.
Rubina had to move on. She took a job as a domestic worker and made plans to start a business, until the 2015 earthquake shattered that dream. Still, she says she is fortunate that she was able to fulfil her dream, at least in part. Today, after paying 400,000 rupees (approximately $4,000) to another labor recruiter, Rubina is working outside of Nepal—in Turkey as a domestic worker. She received a visa and, in 2017, left her country and began working for an affectionate family of three.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.
Shortly after they married, Sabir left for Saudi Arabia for work. Unable to find jobs to support their families, some 3.5 million Nepalis are working abroad. Many endure physical and other forms of abuse and some, like Sabir, cannot endure the suffering. Nine months after he left Nepal, Sabir committed suicide. At age 15, Roshan became a widow.
Losing her husband was not easy for Roshan. Her pain increased after she was pushed out of her home by her father-in-law, Leeyakat, who told her, “After losing our son, you are of no worth for us.”
Leeyakat travelled to Kathmandu to claim compensation for the death of his son. But when he learned that according to Nepal law the compensation money would be sent to Sabir’s wife, Roshan, Leeyakat said, “Let the body rot there, I don’t want it.”
Leeyakat returned to Kathmandu nearly nine months later, telling officials his daughter-in-law eloped so Sabir’s body could be returned to him as well as the compensation for his death. More than two months later, the coffin arrived in Nepal. His family performed the last rituals for Sabir according to the Muslim custom. However, Roshan was not informed. She did not even have the chance to see the body of her deceased husband.
During his visit to Kathmandu, Leeyakat had learned how to document his claim for compensation. He had even produced a forged document from the local village authority to pursue his claim. Leeyakat was almost successful in receiving the compensation. Yet just before receiving the payment, Leeyakat was caught.
But because Roshan does not have a marriage certificate, she cannot claim the compensation. Roshan only has a paper that states that she was married to Sabir as per the Muslim custom, which the government of Nepal does not accept as an authentic document. Further, because she was married at age 14, she is not technically a citizen of Nepal and so not eligible for government support.
Everyone in the village has tried to convince Leeyakat to come to a mutual understanding. Leeyakat has closed his ears. He doesn’t want to settle with Roshan, even though she indicated she would share half the compensation with him.
According to the insurance company policy, the claim must be settled within two years, leaving Roshan with only a few weeks before the time expires.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.
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