In Tunisia’s southern Gafsa region, Naziha Kdimi, a higher education teacher, struggled for years to gain acceptance among her male union peers.
This year, Kdimi was elected assistant general secretary for a regional union body covering the area for the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)—the first woman to hold an executive position in the region.
In this video clip, Kdimi encourages union women everywhere to never give up the struggle for gender equality.
Her advice to women seeking to change male-dominated cultures that have long inhibited women from exerting leadership: Keep showing up every day. Eventually, the men will accept you. Don’t go away, because then they will have won.
The video featuring Kdimi is part of the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum, where working people around the world describe their challenges, successes, and hopes and dreams for a better world for all workers.
Sorting olives, picking peaches and cultivating fields across a vast agro-industrial complex outside Meknes, Morocco, Hayat Khomssi says women workers like her once did not have access to higher-skilled jobs and leadership positions. But after she and her co-workers took part in Solidarity Center gender equality trainings and other skills-building workshops, more than 1,000 farm workers at the Les Domaines Brahim Zniber farm in 2015 negotiated their first collective bargaining agreement.
“Now we have achieved a similar status to that of the men,” she says, speaking through a translator. “Now women are able to be supervisors, team leaders, and are able to do pruning as well. Now they are equal to men in term of tasks but also in terms of pay.”
This year, International Women’s Day draws attention to the rights and activism of rural women like Khomssi and her co-workers, echoing the priority theme of next week’s 62nd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York City.
Celebrated annually on March 8, International Women’s Day this year builds on the current #MeToo movement for women’s rights, equality and justice, with women union activists and their allies holding marches, taking part in social media campaigns and hosting events around the globe to call for gender equality in wages, working conditions, political representation and more.
Follow UN Women’s Day events on Twitter with the hashtag #TimeIsNow.
Women’s Empowerment through Collective Bargaining
Morocco farm women will be among several rural women union activists discussing their advancements through gender equality training and collective bargaining on a Solidarity Center panel at the CSW, “Rural Agricultural Women Workers Organizing to Increase Equality and Empowerment.” They will be joined by Ayat Al Bakr, a Jordanian agricultural worker.
Some 564 million women work in agriculture, and those in commercial agriculture are predominantly concentrated in temporary, informal and seasonal jobs, where they receive low wages and few or no benefits, and are exposed to dangerous and unsafe working conditions.
A key part of Solidarity Center gender equality training involves exploring strategies for addressing gender-based violence at work. Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world—yet not enough is done to prevent it, especially at the workplace.
Globally, after years of campaigning by workers and their unions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) is negotiating a standard addressing gender-based violence at work. Workers around the world could have access to a binding international standard covering gender-based violence at work after it is finalized. The Solidarity Center is working with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which is coordinating the global union campaign for its passage. Find out how you can get involved.
More than 300 the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) members took part in the PGFTU Congress in Nablus late last month, where delegates voted to boost representation of women and reinforced the federation’s commitment to worker rights. They were joined by representatives from 16 international organizations, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Delegates at PGFTU’s Fifth Congress voted to increase from 20 percent to 30 percent the representation of women across all PGFTU bodies over the next four years; agreed to enforce Palestine’s minimum wage law and work to make it a living wage; and reinforced the PGFTU’s stance in defending the freedom to form unions.
Also during the three-day conference, PGFTU General Council members elected Shaher Saad as secretary general and voted in 24 representatives of national general unions, including four women, to the executive committee, along with seven men and women unionists to the financial and administrative audit committee. All will serve four-year terms. The elections were observed by representations from the ILO, the Arab Labor Organization and U.S. and European trade unions and federations.
Delegates backed ongoing dialogue with allies as the PGFTU campaigns for fair labor laws that guarantee decent work for workers and a fair social security law for workers and their families. In ensuring that women make up 30 percent of the federation’s leadership, delegates seek to guarantee their input in designing labor policies and executing union resolutions and reinforced their commitment to promoting the role of Palestinian working women as a key force in the national and local markets.
Participants also emphasized the need to network with civil society organizations and legal groups that to work toward establishing a democratic and transparent civil society.
In his remarks, Saad said workers will achieve social justice and fairness through a strong and independent trade union movement that seeks to elevate workers’ voices and protect him from exploitation.
Women workers made important gains under Iraq’s new labor law, the country’s first ever to prohibit sexual harassment at the workplace. The law clearly defines sexual harassment and specifies penalties for perpetrators. Women union activists led their unions in fighting for this protection.
“The law also addresses the arbitrary dismissal of workers and other issues that will serve the interests of working women, which should encourage more women to work and enjoy those protections and rights,” says Saba Qasim Yousef, an officer in the women’s affairs department of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU). Yousef was among many women taking an active role in the union movement’s labor law campaign.
Crucially, the law aims for gender equality, specifically regarding wages, hiring and working conditions. It requires employers to provide onsite child care, and increases paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, with the option of additional unpaid leave for up to a year. Employers must allow woman workers to return to their jobs or equivalent positions.
In effect on February 1, the law was a massive victory for Iraq workers and their unions and followed the Iraq union movement’s three-year campaign for passage of a labor law in line with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. The Solidarity Center provided essential support to the union movement throughout the campaign.
Iraq’s labor law includes protection against workplace sexual harassment. Credit: GFITU
Women Union Members Took Key Role in Drafting Labor Law
The labor law’s provisions addressing gender equality came about because women union activists and leaders participated in all aspects of the campaign—drafting amendments, taking part in conferences and meetings with parliament and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) and advocating for its passage.
“Women had a leading role in the campaign to restructure the law draft by participating in the workshops and seminars,” says Ilham Abdul Ma’boud Majid, president of the Telecommunications Union, General Federation of Workers and Unions in Iraq (GFWUI), Basra Branch.
“Also, they were watching the developments in the process, despite their obligations as employees and mothers at home and the long distances they needed to travel to attend those activities,” she said. “They were motivated by the idea of having a modern labor law that will protect them from all kinds of discrimination.”
Labor Law Will Encourage Women to Join Workforce
The law’s new protections “will have a positive impact in increasing the number of women workers and guaranteeing their strong presence in the labor market, by treating them fairly at their workplaces with equality in terms of assignments and jobs,” says Alya’a Hussien Mahood, women’s affairs officer for the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU).
The final draft, passed late last year, retained the unions’ input and is a significant victory for all workers because it expands coverage to workers not included in the civil service law. This means that workers in the public sector who are not civil servants have the chance to join and establish their own unions.
The law allows for collective bargaining, including for workers without a union, and provides a good frame for freedom of association and protections for unions and their members. It further limits child labor, improves rights for migrant workers, provides better protections against discrimination at work and is the country’s first legislation to address sexual harassment at work. The law also enshrines the right to strike, banned since 1987. (Highlights of the law’s improvements.)
Solange Ambroise sells vegetables in the San Cristobal Municipal Market. Credit: Solidarity Center/Ricardo Rojas
Rarely do governments admit failing their citizens. However, on Friday the 193-member states of the United Nations did just that when they voted to rectify their failure to uphold the rights of workers and to ensure decent working conditions for more than half of the world’s working women and men.
By voting for an International Labor Organization (ILO) recommendation, The Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, the large majority of the world’s governments has done more than just pledge to provide the basics for the world most vulnerable workers—those struggling to make ends meet in the informal economy—they have begun the essential process of strengthening society by promoting worker rights.
Street vendors, home-based workers, domestic workers and day-laborers usually work “off the grid” and outside a country’s regulations and labor laws. They join subcontracted, temporary and part-time workers who subsist on the fringes of the formal economy. These jobs typically pay low wages, perpetuate worker and human rights violations, provide limited or no social benefits, and offer little access to union representation. For most of these workers, survival trumps active engagement in society’s daily undertakings.
An estimated 1.5 billion, or approximately 60 percent of the world’s workers, toil in the informal economy, according to the ILO. In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up to 90 percent of available work, and most workers take these unstable jobs out of necessity, not by choice.
Women, migrant workers and the young are disproportionately represented in the informal economy, and often the most exploited. Their situation is exacerbated because they may be barred from joining unions, which could offer support through collective bargaining on wages and working conditions, or because unions have not been able to reach them due to the isolated and changeable nature of their job.
Informalization of work fuels global income inequality, poverty and abuse. For example, at age 22, N. Naga Durga Bhavani left her small village in India for Bahrain, where she hoped a job as a domestic worker would help pay for her young daughter’s heart surgery. But when she arrived, after paying labor recruiters the equivalent of nearly two months’ wages, she says her passport and papers were confiscated, and she was forced to work long hours, trapped in an abusive environment where she was beaten, her fingers broken. After she escaped, the Indian Embassy could not help her leave the country because she had no identification.
And the drag on society does not end with the desperate plight of workers like Bhavani. Businesses employing workers in standard employer-employee relationships find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they compete against those chasing short-term profits by not hiring full-time workers, paying taxes and benefits, or complying with regulations and labor law. Companies that provide financial and business services miss huge swaths of potential clients whose income leaves them too poor to enter the shop door and unable to access credit.
The effects on government are even more profound. The loss of tax revenue on huge percentages of GDP in many countries is only one edge of the sword. Because workers in the informal economy usually hang from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they are more likely to need social safety nets—the very nets their jobs do not support through tax revenue.
Friday’s vote is significant because governments, worker representatives and employer representatives, who usually operate with very different agendas, publicly acknowledged the imperative of providing all workers with rights at work, social benefits and the ability to join a union. Their acknowledgement that the current system does not work—not for working people, not for governments and not for the businesses that serve them—is an important step toward bringing millions of workers into decent jobs that comply with labor codes and allow workers to be stronger members of their society. All of us should applaud the 193 nations for not choosing failure.