Women union activists and their allies in Morocco and Tunisia celebrated International Women’s Day this week with events that highlighted the need for a global standard to address gender-based (GBV) violence at work.
“Violence is escalating dramatically. Without an international agreement and deterrent laws that protect women at home, in society and in workplaces, we cannot move forward,” says Saida Ouaid, a member of the Executive Office of the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDT) in Morocco.
Ouaid and other women union leaders and allies took part in a March 6 event “Toward an International Convention for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence in the Workplace” at the Parliament in Rabat, in coordination with Morocco’s Secretariat of Equity and Equality.
Touriya Lahrech (far left),coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department, joins women union members to discuss an ILO convention addressing gender-based violence at work. Credit: Mohamed Yakkane
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is considering a convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment against workers. The Solidarity Center is part of an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) campaign for passage of a strong ILO convention.
In Tunisia, 100 union members from across the country gathered for a March 8 event where they also discussed the need for passage of an ILO convention on gender-based violence at work.
“The gathering is an opportunity for women to stand up for their struggles to defend their rights and freedom, and to promote equality and an environment free of violence,” Samir Al-Shefi, deputy general-secretary of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) Women, Youth and Association, said in opening the event.
Naima Hammami, one of two women on the UGTT’s executive office, paid tribute to the struggles of Tunisian, Palestinian, Syrian and Arab women around the world. The event was sponsored by UGTT’s Women, Youth and Association Department, together with the Solidarity Center.
Gender-Based Violence ‘Widespread at Work’
At both the Morocco and Tunisia events, experts discussed preliminary findings on gender-based violence at work based on participatory field research sponsored by the Solidarity Center and CDT in Morocco and the UGTT in Tunisia.
Discussing the research in Morocco, Najat Al-Razi, a gender specialist and sociologist, says gender-based violence is “widespread in the world of work,” and “the most common form of violence against women in workplaces is sexual harassment.”
Asma al-Marani, a member of the Moroccan Union of Labor and the Arab Trade Union Confederation, pointed out that her union receives daily complaints about violence at work from women working in the precarious and informal economy.
CDT leaders noted that as part of the global campaign for an international convention on the elimination of violence in the world of work, the union will continue meeting with a range of allies at the grassroots level until the Geneva Conference with a campaign to push the government to support the ILO draft convention, supplemented by a guiding document implementing the convention.
Representatives from the Njda Center, the Jusour Association, the Women’s Labor Union, the Association of Women for Equality and Democracy (Afed) and other union leaders and journalists also took part in the Rabat event.
Violence against women takes many forms, and can happen in the home, in public spaces—and on the job. At the workplace, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced violence.
This November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, unions around the world are calling for the International Labor Organization (ILO) to pass an global convention on gender-based violence at the workplace. As the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points out, “anyone can be a victim of violence at work, but gender-based violence typifies unequal economic and social power relations between women and men.”
Union leaders and allies are re-submitting a proposal to the ILO Governing Body requiring the ILO to develop an international standard to guide governments and businesses in formulating strong laws and policies to prevent and remedy gender-based violence at work. The ILO Governing Body adjourned this month without considering a similar proposal, and will meet again in March 2015. (You can take action through the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s “End workplace violence against women” campaign.)
This fall, workers in the Middle East and North Africa waged rallies and sit-ins to highlight the issue. The General Federation of Iraq Trade Unions (GFITU) organized a solidarity gathering in late October at Al Qushla Square in Baghdad. Hashmeyya Al Sa’adawi,IndustriALL executive board member and president of the electricity union in Basrah, read the statement of the Arab unionist women network, which expressed concern over increased violence against women.
“We believe that the violence against women issue is a crucial matter that requires immediate action,” she stated
In Morocco, the Democratic Labor Confederation (Confédération Démocratique du Travaille, CDT), organized a sit-in outside Parliament to raise awareness about gender-based violence in the workplace and request support for the convention (watch a video clip of the event).
The Jordanian Federation of the Independent Trade Unions sent a letter to the country’s chambers of commerce and industry and Jordanian government officials urging their support for passage of the gender-based violence standards in the ILO Administration Council.
Women disproportionately work in precarious, low-income and informal economy jobs, where there are few mechanisms to prevent violence and exploitation. Women also are the majority in occupations where workers are more likely to be exposed to violence, such as domestic work and health care, the garment and textile industries and in agriculture. Many women do not report physical, psychological or sexual violence fearing they will be fired or because of cultural norms.
An ILO Convention would further acknowledge that violence against women is a human rights violation, and would be an important step to improving women’s working conditions worldwide and saving the millions of dollars spent every year on health care, lower productivity and sick leave because of violence against women,
Three times each month, dozens of women gather in dusty courtyards in rural towns in Manikganj, Dinazpur or other districts across Bangladesh to learn all they can about the only means by which they can support their families: migrating to another country for work.
In leading these information sessions, the Bangladesh Migrant Women’s Organization (BOMSA) seeks to assist women in understanding their rights—from what they should demand of those who facilitate their migration, to the wage and working conditions at the homes in Gulf and Asian countries where they will be employed as domestic workers.
“What I want for these women is that they are safe, they get their wages,” said Sheikh Rumana, BOMSA general secretary. Rumana founded the organization in 1998 with other women who worked with her for years in Malaysian garment factories. Before she migrated for work in Malaysia, Rumana was promised a good salary at an electronics plant. But when she arrived, she was put to work at a plant making jackets and paid pennies for each piece she sewed.
The gap between the promise and reality of migrating for work overseas is the focus of migrant worker activists across Asia. This month, Rumana and seven other migrant worker activists from Bangladesh, India and the Maldives are traveling across the United States as part of a Solidarity Center exchange program supported by the U.S. State Department. The group is meeting with U.S. activists working on labor rights, migrant rights and anti-human trafficking issues in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles to discuss best practices to promote safe migration and share ideas for raising awareness about the risks of migrating for work.
Like BOMSA, the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants Development Foundation (WARBE-DF) assists those seeking to migrate, provides support for workers overseas and assists them upon their return. The organization also has successfully pushed the Bangladeshi government to ratify the United Nations (UN) convention on the protection of migrant workers, and is campaigning for passage of the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention covering decent work for domestic workers, said Jasiya Khatoon, WARBE-DF program coordinator and Solidarity Center exchange participant.
“Lack of job opportunities” is what drives millions of Bangladeshis out of their country in search of work, Khatoon said. Some 8.5 million Bangladeshis are working in more than 150 countries, according to 2013 government statistics.
Many workers migrating from Bangladesh and elsewhere are first trafficked through another country—where a lack of proper documentation may result in their arrest. In Mumbai, India, a transit point for many migrants, human rights lawyer Gayatri Jitendra Singh works both to assist imprisoned migrant workers and to change the country’s laws so that, rather than penalizing migrant workers, the laws recognize the culpability of traffickers and corrupt labor brokers.
Singh, a former union organizer, and other migrant advocates, point to the actions of labor brokers as the biggest underlying problem in the migration process. Many labor brokers charge such exorbitant fees for securing work that migrant workers cannot repay them even after years on the job, essentially rendering them indentured workers. They remain trapped, often forced to remain in dangerous working conditions because their debt is too great. Unscrupulous brokers also lie about the wages and working conditions workers should expect in a destination country, the migrant advocates say.
Singh and the other migrant advocates came to the United States filled with fresh stories about the suffering of migrant workers and their families: a Bangladeshi domestic worker in Jordan and another in Lebanon who had just returned to Bangladesh, still suffering the effects of nightly sexual abuse by their employers; the family of an Indian construction worker who died in Qatar and is unable to pay for the return of his body; the 12-year-old Bangladeshi girl whose passport cites her age as 25 so she can migrate overseas to support her family because her father is ill.
Bangladeshis “wouldn’t go if there were jobs in their country,” said Rumana. But faced with grinding poverty and no chance for decent work in Bangladesh, they uproot their lives to make a living. But as long as they do, Rumana said, they “shouldn’t have to be tortured to have work.