Olesia Briazgunova (right) noted that 42 percent of KVPU members in Ukraine are young workers. Credit: Tula Connell
• Olesia Briazgunova, National Youth Coordinator, Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU)
• Khamati Mugalla, Executive Secretary, East Africa Trade Union Confederation (EATUC)
• Aruna Jain, Working America, AFL-CIO, USA
• Molly McCoy, Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for the Americas
There are few young female workers in union leadership structures. She noted that as the panelists discuss the increasing participation of young people in the workforce and in unions, they will share their varied approaches in reaching out to young workers. She pointed out that the Solidarity Center and partner organizations also have used media and other methods to reach out to young men and women workers.Molly McCoy introduced the workshop by pointing out that young workers’ socio-economic situation around the world needs to be seen in the context of gender and as a part of the overall theme of this conference. Young people, particularly young women, often are employed in exploitative and low-paying jobs, mirroring in many ways women’s overall economic situation. Many young workers are not members of trade unions.
Olesia Briazgunova began with an overview of Ukraine’s demographics and socio economic conditions. Ukraine’s population of 45 million includes nearly 25 million women. Official statistics report 500,000 as unemployed, although it is widely believed that the official statistics sharply understate the true picture. Some 17 percent of young people are unemployed, with 40 percent of jobless workers under age 35. Of those who are unemployed, 56 percent are women. Briazgunova said that government policies unfortunately do not address the economic concerns young women face. Young women suffer disproportionately as a result of Ukraine’s economic crisis and also suffer from low quality education. Ukraine’s economic policies, which favor the interest of capital over the interest of workers, contribute to these problems.
Young people cannot find jobs in their professions—40 percent of recent graduates say they can’t find jobs in their degreed field of study and can only find low-paid jobs in fields requiring little, if any, education. Employers say the general quality of education is low and that workers need additional education and training to make them qualified. Unions are urging the state and the education system to improve the quality of education, and are pushing for internships that provide experience and count toward education and training requirements.Young women, and young workers in general, experience bad pay and working conditions, she said. Salaries are lowest in the public sector, where between 80 percent and 90 percent of young women work. Many young people are employed in the health sector, where pay is low, with new young doctors earning between $150 and $200 per month. Three sectors with high salaries—financial, aviation and coal mining—employ few, if any, women. Underground coal miners and pilots are highly paid, but there are no women coal miners and most pilots are men. Overall, women are paid 30 percent less than men.
Discrimination is also a problem. Although Ukraine has anti-discrimination legislation, enforcement mechanisms are weak. Young people in general, and young women in particular, are deeply affected by this. Young women in the labor market often don’t have much work experience and employers also worry they will have children and take leave. Only 4 percent of men in Ukraine take paternity leave. It is also difficult to prove in court that gender discrimination caused a woman to be fired from her job—and even if a woman is successful, the laws provide no monetary awards. If these problems continue, they will affect the size of the labor force and future economic growth, encourage increased labor migration and increase social tensions.
The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) includes unions in nine economic sectors. Forty percent of members are women and 42 percent young people. The KVPU has a Women’s Section and a Youth Committee, which was founded in 2004. A gender equality committee, formed in 1992, includes four men among its 95 members. The Youth Committee provides legal education for young people. Young people tend not to know their rights under the law and are not collectively organized to protect their interests. They need more education about their legal rights and labor laws, and to engage in collective action and organize more effectively to protect their rights.
The KVPU tries to involve more men in addressing gender equality. Both the Gender Equity Committee and the Youth Committee address legal issues, help draft legislation and engage in tripartite dialogue with the government. Workers’ primary concerns center on layoffs, job security and unpaid wages. Workers also are protesting against a proposed new labor code that will extend hours for working women. However, says Briazgunova, these protests aren’t working so well. Unions need to conduct more outreach and increase media involvement to build greater support.
See the presentation.
Aruna Jain described Working America, created by the AFL-CIO in 2003, as a member organization formed by the AFL-CIO to connect with U.S. workers not being reached by traditional unions and to expand the ranks of organized working people in the face of declining union membership and ongoing attacks by anti-union groups. Working America engages in extensive door-to-door outreach, with two out of three people contacted being signed up as an associate union member. In its first year, Working America signed up 1 million members and now has 3 million members nationwide.
Jain pointed to Working America’s use of social media and traditional media outreach to promote union issues and provide information about unions. Many in the United States aren’t familiar with the labor movement and unions, which creates obstacles for union organizing. Some 500,000 young workers have signed up as Working America members.
Many young workers are unemployed and sometimes don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they have not worked long enough, Jain said. The rise in student debt rates is a major new issue for young people, as these rates have doubled under new laws. Because of these issues, young workers sometimes delay getting married, having children and moving forward with their lives. Many live with their families and find it difficult to obtain the skills needed to get work. Many young workers have distant relationships with employers, are contract employees and have difficulty identifying as workers. This is true of both college graduates and those without degrees as well.
Working America has mobilized students and young workers on these issues by seeking out young people on campuses, bars, and other places where young people go. Many don’t identify themselves as workers and younger people often don’t know much about unions, which are seen as bastions of older white men. On the other hand, unions need to be convinced to focus on young workers’ issues and recruit them into unions, especially since young workers are one of the few growth areas for U.S. unions. Unions have sought to change their traditional approach by establishing youth committees and by including young workers and these committees as part of overall national level union work.
Khamati Mugalla said her country and union are experiencing problems similar to those described by the preceding speakers. Women and young people are twice as likely to be affected by economic issues, she said, citing as an example the lack of adequate pensions in Tanzanian employment sectors which employ many women. The export processing zone in Tanzania, the banking sector and other economic sectors with high numbers of women workers are especially affected by the ongoing economic crisis. Starting a business or becoming an entrepreneur is a good way to get out of these difficult economic circumstances, but most young people and recent graduates are unable to take advantage of this kind of opportunity.
Single mothers do not have access to child care and, partly as a result, can’t find jobs. Social insurance is a big concern for many young workers without secure jobs. Without job security, workers worry more about immediate concerns, rather than longer term issues, such as pushing lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. Yet they need both job security and higher wages. Domestic workers, who are often young school dropouts, are paid very badly. Many women and young workers are having difficulty finding jobs and may never get decent work and advance.
Mugalla, who has a degree in biochemistry, has been involved with trade unions since 2005, when she was 24. Her father was the general secretary of a union in Kenya, giving her early knowledge of the labor movement. However, most youth do not understand what unions do. Unions need to engage young people and enable them to better understand the trade union movement.
Yet unions’ gender and youth departments are often underfunded. Many staff and cooperating partners are men who don’t fully understand the need for gender programming and how it should be conducted. They don’t have the knowledge to implement gender programs or know how to find the capacity to implement these programs. But women leaders need to be proactive to accomplish more, Mugalla said. They need to have sufficient funds to conduct gender programs, which should be more mainstream. More women, men, older people and younger people need to be involved in gender activities.
“We have to be sure to include gender and youth issues in labor activities such as social dialogue, organizing, and productivity and to take a holistic approach to program training and implementation,” she said. “We need to look at the whole picture in Africa, and to take into account gender and issues of importance to young people.” Even though cultural complexities and prerequisites can make this much more difficult, it’s important not to ignore these types of issues.
Mugalla said her union has a relatively new youth section that was formed in 2007. Her union also has new constitutional provisions regarding youth and women. Youth and women are now included in more higher level union meetings, since most union secretary generals are older men. A youth conference is planned during the fall on the informal sector, social insurance coverage and youth employment. The union is also planning a mentorship program for young people and women to assist in bringing them more into active roles in unions and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
Read her full presentation.
Summing up the three presentations, Molly McCoy said they each offered similar observations about why young workers and women need unions. Panelists discussed the need for access to social protections and to child care; as well as the effect of the economic crisis on women and young workers and how good industrial jobs have disappeared. The high cost of obtaining a good education is a big problem.
After graduating, many young people are unable to get a job or find a job in their field. Panelists discussed why young workers and women need a voice that clearly represents their needs and interests and how unions responded by instituting formal structural and constitutional changes, which made a good start in addressing these issues and how workers can have a voice in making changes. Obtaining adequate funding for these activities is important, because they are sometimes made a lower priority by union leaders.
• Ziona Tanzer, Solidarity Center Law Program Counsel, Rule of Law
• Matt Hersey, Solidarity Center Rule of Law Program Officer
• Lais Abramo, Director, ILO Brazil
• Bothchakrya Sary, attorney, Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), Cambodia
• Neha Misra, Solidarity Center Senior Specialist, Migration and Human Trafficking
• David Welsh, Solidarity Center, Country Director for Cambodia
Ziona Tanzer opened the workshop by overviewing historical references to gender equality in international law. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles peace agreement, for example, which ended World War I, includes the principle that “men and women should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value.” The 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, which outlines the aims and purposes of the ILO, also includes language asserting that all people, regardless of race, creed, or gender, have the right to equal opportunity.
Adopted in 1951, the Equal Remuneration Convention contains the principle of “equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value.” This statement is stronger and more broadly applicable than the principle of equal work for equal pay, because work of an entirely different nature, but of an equal value, should be remunerated equally. This principle of equal remuneration applies to all workers. Legislation prohibiting wage discrimination is not sufficient. Rather, the state is obligated to promote the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value and to ensure its application.Tanzer explained that following World War II, the ILO adopted two key conventions related to gender discrimination: Convention 100: Equal Remuneration Convention and Convention 111: Discrimination (Employment and Occupation). Both were incorporated into the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
The ILO adopted the Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) in 1958. It promotes equality of both opportunity and treatment and defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.” Importantly, the discriminatory effect, regardless of the intent, is considered. The convention applies to discrimination in law and in practice and also considers multiple acts of discrimination.
Matt Hersey followed with a presentation highlighting technical tools for protecting confidential information, which can help human rights defenders expose the actions of human rights violators who “operate with impunity because their crimes are not exposed.”
Hersey described the Martus database software, an important tool for human rights defenders. This free software is designed to be easy to use and works on any computer. The database is encrypted and the system is engineered to include a variety of safeguards that ensure that data remains confidential. The software is fully customizable and includes support for multiple languages. Hersey mentioned that human rights defenders in countries around the world, including Burma, Colombia and Mexico, are successfully using the database to securely compile information. Hersey provided the software and instructions on USB drives to interested participants at the end of the workshop.
Read the full presentation.
Lais Abramo discussed using ILO conventions to protect not only worker rights, but also expand gender equality. She listed some of the many ILO conventions and recommendations that relate to gender issues, noting that conventions have the force of law.
Abramo overviewed the progression of the prevailing ILO approach toward gender issues, beginning with the ILO’s founding, when ILO conventions focused on protecting women in their reproductive role, to the present, with Convention 100 (Equal Remuneration Convention) and Convention 111 (Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) now among the ILO’s eight fundamental conventions. She described the Maternity Protection Convention, initially adopted in 1919 as Convention 3 and revised and strengthened twice, first in 1952 as Convention 103 and again in 2000 as Convention 183.
She concluded by highlighting Convention 189: Domestic Workers Convention, adopted in 2011, which applies to millions of workers, primarily women, who have long been overlooked by national labor laws. She praised the convention, describing it as broad with many important protections. She noted that it has so far been ratified by eight countries and that many national labor movements around the world make promoting its ratification a priority.
Bothchakrya Sary provided perspectives from Cambodia and pointed out that gender issues are important in developing countries. She noted that gender equality was discussed during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Phnom Penh in April 2012 and that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major speech on gender equality during her visit to Cambodia in July 2012.
Sary explained that the major export industries in Cambodia, including the ready-made garment industry, are dominated by women workers. However, abuses of fundamental labor rights are extensive in these industries. For example, employers routinely hire workers on fixed-duration contracts that circumvent maternity leave provisions in the law. Also, the minimum wage of $81 per month in the garment sector is not sufficient to meet the basic needs of a family.
Sary cited several recent instances of using legal mechanisms to win justice for workers, but noted that success was achieved only after struggle. For example, workers at the closed Kingsland garment factory won $200,000 in back pay in early 2013, but only after a two-month strike. Families of victims of the Wing Star shoe factory received compensation, but only as a result of extensive advocacy. Wing Star collapsed in May, killing two workers. Sary highlighted the importance of continued vigilance, stating that “the problem in Cambodia is not the law, it is the implementation of the law.”
• Nhlanhla Mabizela, Solidarity Center Program Officer, South Africa
• Tom Bacote, Solidarity Center Country Director for South Africa
Nhlanhla Mabizela: Unions must look at policies and determine if they include women. Credit: Tula Connell
Mabizela posed a series of questions for workshop participants to discuss in small groups: Nhlanhla Mabizela began by describing the experience that led to his becoming a gender activist. One day as he walked by a group of nearly naked children playing on the street with no parents, he asked himself, “What kind of mother would leave her children in the streets?” Further down the road, he saw a group of men sitting around a fire, ignoring the children, and his question changed to: “What’s wrong with men? Are we that emotionless?” Mabizela wanted to be different from this male model.
• What can be done to build men’s sense of responsibility?
• How do we begin to address gender inequality, especially from the perspective of men?
• How do we, as men, begin to create those spaces for women?
• What is the benefit to men? That is, Mabizela said, “if I ask myself as a man, what is it that I’m going to be benefiting from by bringing in women? There are benefits, but we don’t want to think about them? We can’t even think about our privileges?”
He noted the major question is the implication for men for giving up spaces of privilege.
Participants broke out into four groups to discuss and then reported their conclusions.
Group 1: Women should not waste a lot of time being behind men when men are not supporting women. Women need to be proactive—if men don’t take responsibility, women shouldn’t wait for them. Women create a challenge for men when they take action, are constructive, don’t argue and show men that women are capable of achieving results.
Group 2: Women trade unionists should seek allies among men, seek out an individual who seems sympathetic, speak to him outside the union, then speak to two or three more men, and then these men will go back to the group and begin to sow the seeds for change.
Group 3: Hold union candidates to their campaign promises regarding gender equality. Hold gender awareness trainings. Develop gender policies and codes of conduct. For example, during meetings, men need to start listening more and talking less.
Group 4: Include men in trainings on gender and gender violence. Hold mixed and single sex trainings so men can be more open in all-male groups. Set rules so that any union leader involved in sexual harassment is removed from positions of power. When creating committees, ensure they are equally composed of men and women.
Mabizela then highlighted the point about making allies with men. Patriarchy “oppresses women, but oppresses men as well.” Mabizela also discussed the need to educate children, offering the example of HIV training at a union that also involved the children of union members. He discussed a series of three-day gender awareness workshops he held and noted how it was necessary for male participants to make a conscious effort to break out of well-worn patterns. For instance, he said, men at the bargaining table couldn’t understand why they needed paternity leave. Because short-term workshops are not sufficient, he also holds longer “awareness camps.” Gender inequality is “not something we can (instantly) correct,” he said. “It’s a process we need to take people through.”
Society needs to be changed as well, Mabizela said, pointing to the example of a man walking into a health care clinic and seeing only women and children and so sees no role for himself. Further, he said, “if we are just looking at the issue of quotas, we’re doing ourselves a disadvantage.” Unions must look at their policies, determine if they involve women.
In conclusion, Mabizela said it is important for men to be conscious and aware of “what I do, whom I talk to and the words I use.” As a facilitator of gender workshops, Mabizela said he doesn’t come with a solution. “I come to listen so to be able to work with (men).”
See his full presentation.
• Mara Luiza Feltes, Woman Secretariat, CONTRACS, Brazil
• Monica Veloso, Secretary of Work, City of Osasco & National Confederation of Metalworkers, Brazil
• Monica Valente, Subregional Secretary, Public Services International, Brazil
• Jana Silverman, Solidarity Center Country Program Officer for Brazil
Mara Luiza Feltes began the workshop, a continuation of the morning’s discussion, by noting that the labor movement is an important part of Brazil’s recent economic advances—and women have been a key part of this success. Feltes focused on Brazil’s service industry, where she described an example of the gender wage gap: In retail shops, women are hired to sell cheap goods while men sell higher quality products like DVDs, and so therefore men make better wages.
She said the average age in the services and sales sectors is 31 for women and 33 for men. Women earn 80 percent of what men make in this sector, even though women have higher levels of education.
Feltes pointed to CONTRACS’s efforts at achieving decent work, which include support for ILO Convention 156, which covers workers with family responsibilities; Convention 158, which sets guidelines on the termination of workers; and Convention 189 on domestic workers. Further, the union is working on a national constitutional amendment to establish equal pay for equal work and is fighting for public child care, which she described as a “big issue” because “workers need full-time child care.” Unions won a reduced work day, which was 48 hours per week and now is 45 hours per week.
However Feltes said, despite the reduction in work hours, the speed of work has not slowed and many health-related issues result. She also discussed why domestic violence is a union issue: If women are suffering at home, they cannot work.
Women union leaders are best placed to understand women’s concerns, such as equipping a workplace bathroom with sanitary napkins and providing child care so women workers can participate in union activities. Women’s insights into these issues highlight the need for quotas.
CONTRACS requires that all union trainings include 30 percent women and that collective bargaining agreements address gender issues such as child care assistance, maternity leave and sexual harassment.
See her full presentation (Portuguese).
Monica Valente opened her discussion on PSI’s gender equality strategy in Brazil by saying said she liked the term, “struggle in the struggle” used earlier to describe women’s efforts in the labor movement struggle. She went on to note that PSI has a long tradition of fighting for gender equality in the public sector, which is comprised largely of women.
Valente said many women work in the services sector because women naturally take care of people, for example, as mothers and housekeepers, and this work is transferred from the private to the public spheres.
When women make up a majority of workers in a sector, wages go down, Valente said, in part because of discrimination against women and also because it’s difficult for employers to identify productivity in the areas where women typically work. Women workers often have a double workload—at work and at home, and suffer from the lack of child care.
She described how women are at a disadvantage in traditionally male employment sectors. The job descriptions for Brazilian postal workers, for example, are written in the Portuguese masculine form, and when women say they are covered by the same language, employers may refuse to apply it to women with the excuse that the male form doesn’t apply to women.
Another male-dominated field, offshore oil work, pays well but women rarely can work the scheduled hours—12 days in a row followed by 22 days off. Valente pointed out that this schedule also is not good for men, and that all jobs must humanized for all workers. Yet until gender discrimination is eliminated, these issues will never change.
PSI’s strategies for achieving gender equality and ensuring women have their needs met at the bargaining table and in the household include developing strategies for pay equity policies and helping unions understand the gender aspect to all policy struggles, such as job outsourcing. Unions must identify obstacles women face, such as sexual harassment on the job, and PSI plans to have a deeper debate within unions.
At the next CUT Congress, women and men will each have 50 percent of the leadership positions. There still is a long way to go, but there have been real advances. When Brazil elected a woman president in 2010, that helped advance the cause.
At the national level, the Ministry of Women created by former President Lula has made an impact. For instance, state companies are required to have gender programs and unions must have seat at the table. However, not all have followed the law. Brazil also has strengthened laws addressing violence against women. The new laws followed a public outcry over a woman who was beaten to the point she was permanently in a wheelchair.
Valente also cited a few local successes, such as the small town that improved policies for women, enabling men to take their children to the doctor during work hours.
She also pointed to studies on “time poverty,” noting that the lack of free time is a powerful form of oppression for women, and discussed union’s efforts around passage of ILO Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities, noting that the fight for its passage should be a union issue, not a women’s issue.
Valente closed by saying women have made progress in the past decade but the advances still are insufficient because gender inequality has not been addressed.
See her full presentation. (Portuguese).
Monica Veloso began by saying CNTM is part of many organizations fighting for women workers. Women are still not valued in the labor market, she said, citing UN studies showing that women made up 70 percent of those living below the poverty line in 2011. Poverty prevents women from making gains, but “through work we can overcome poverty and gain equity.” She noted that Brazil has made tremendous gains in reducing poverty, and the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in many years and now quality of work needs to become a focus.
She noted that Brazil has not ratified ILO Convention 156, and unions must make it a priority.
Noting that metal workers unions must integrate the issues of female metal workers into overall discussions, Veloso said the CMNT and the International Metalworkers Federation held a first-ever conference of women steelworkers three years ago. Four months of maternity leave is compulsory in the metal sector, but more leave can be bargained with the employer. CMNT is looking for space in unions to address women’s issues—for instance, women must participate in the collective bargaining process.
She pointed out that Latin American countries have a low density of women in union leadership and so it is necessary that unions have quotas. Women make up 22 percent of metal workers, 40 percent of chemical sector workers and 80 percent of textile workers, she said. Notably, the textile sector includes many precarious jobs with high turnover. Typically, unions with a majority of female union are headed up by male leaders. She noted that there are 16 women leaders in the global federation, IndustriALL, which is not satisfactory.
Women workers are certainly not the weaker sex, Veloso concluded. In fact, women are often held to a higher standard. For instance, when a women makes a mistake at work, she is perceived as incompetent, while men’s mistakes are forgotten.
See her full presentation. (Portuguese).
Labor Historian Dorothy Sue Cobble discussed women’s long history of union activism. Credit: Matt Hersey
Labor Historian Dorothy Sue Cobble discussed women’s long history of union activism. Photo: Matt Hersey
• Dorothy Sue Cobble, Distinguished Professor, Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and the Department of History, Rutgers University, U.S.
• Sally Choi, Project Coordinator, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU)
• Gertrude Mtsweni, Gender Coordinator, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)
• Chidi King, Equality Department, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
Chidi King opened the panel by saying the conference is timely because “this is a time when the trade union movement needs transformation.”
Dorothy Sue Cobble began by overviewing the women’s labor movement, which she described as having “a rich and vital history,” one that is inspiring because it is a long story of transformational leadership. Labor union foremothers forged a distinctive vision of social change, and a working women’s political movement. Labor feminism differs from more elite feminism because it:
• Pursued full development of each individual—women workers are truly free only when all around them are free.
• Saw individual and collective progress as intertwined—one cannot be accomplished without the other.
• Sought to go beyond gender equality. Labor feminism believed women workers faced discrimination and other injustices and wanted to dismantle multiple sectors of economic inequality.
• Offered a global vision.
Sally Choi: “As feminists, we believe the pesonal is political.” Credit: Matt Hersey
Sally Choi: “As feminists, we believe the pesonal is political.” Credit: Matt Hersey
Cobble then overviewed her findings from a 2012 Solidary Center-commissioned report, “Gender Equality and Labor Movements: Toward a Global Perspective.” She noted that there is a “startling lack of global data” on women’s membership and leadership in trade unions and even less data on women’s membership and leadership in new worker movements around the world. She also noted significant problems with data, including unrealistic, inflated, different definitions of union/union membership; and underestimation of women’s collective organization outside “official trade unions.” Some of her findings include:
• Women are the new majority of union members in one-third of countries surveyed.
• Women make up more than 40 percent of the population in two-thirds of countries.
• Women are under-represented in only one-third of countries surveyed.
Women have made progress in unions but “we are progressing at two speeds. “There’s a fast lane and a slow lane, with one wing of the labor movement having made a lot of progress and another wing where there is actually very little change,” Cobble said. Unions making most progress or the “best practice” cases rely on top-down pressure— “reserve seats” for women and other measures—as well as bottom-up pressure, “self-organization” among women and active women’s committees, conferences and other woman-only spaces.
• Read her full remarks.
• Read Cobble’s report, Gender Equality and Labor Movements: Toward a Global Perspective
Sally Choi noted that “as feminists, we believe the personal is political,” and provided two narratives to illustrate her evolution as a labor feminist. In the first, she described her own early sense of the need to fight for gender equality and how her vision was shaped by Yim Yuet Lin, who founded the Hong Kong Women Workers Association in 1989, the first organization in Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China for rights of women workers.
In her second narrative, Choi discussed the formation of the HKCTU women’s committee and its efforts to achieve legal reforms addressing sexual harassment for workers who provide services goods and facilities providers. She also noted the need to focus more outreach efforts among the increasing numbers of women workers in the informal economy and the benefit of empowering strong and vocal women leaders as well as committed activists who may be less vocal but are key power builders in the movement.
Choi emphasized the important role of feminist activists outside and inside the labor movement in pushing unions over the years to integrate women’s concerns more deliberately and effectively.
See her full PowerPoint presentation.
Gertrude Mtsweni pointed out that “transformation is still a challenge.” In South Africa, both the female-dominated agriculture sector and the male-dominated manufacturing sector need transformation.
Mtsweni described herself as a gender activist with a trade union background. She started participating in union actions in the 1980s during apartheid, a time when women—especially because of gender, race and class—but also men, were highly exploited. Women working as domestic workers and migrant workers sometimes were not paid wages, but given shelter and food. She struggled against stereotypes in a male-dominated environment and within sexist structures that saw women as objects.
“The working-class will never receive their rights on a silver platter, but must fight bitter struggles to secure, to defend and to advance their rights,” she said. She praised the Solidarity Center for “coming on board to move away from theory to action.”
Showing a photograph of a woman beaten for going on strike in 1995, Mtsweni said the struggle for gender equality is part of the broader story—therefore all working class women and men must make up the struggle equally. She said that in South Africa, capital is doing everything to reverse workers’ gains—even legal gains. Another key challenge is elimination of traditionalist attitudes and resistance to change by women and men. The union movement also must dismantle broader organizational structural inequalities.
“Gender relations transformation is not about attitudes, but about broader organizational structural inequity,” she said. “Therefore the main focus of the organization must be to dismantle the structure of gender inequality.” Mtsweni listed COSATU’s numerous efforts to institutionalize gender equality and its campaigns for policies to support working women.
Mtsweni concluded that a sexist struggle cannot produce a society free from sexism. “Addressing gender issues sometimes means you have to tackle unpopular decisions because we understand the class issues.” Gender issues are linked to other development issues, she said, and multinational companies should not use gender as a tool to weaken workers’ movement internationally. She also pointed to the need for unions for increase their focus on assisting workers in the informal economy, and the need for international and cross-border solidarity. In sum: “Gender equality is a ‘struggle within a struggle’.”