Bangladesh women garment workers make 20 percent less than their male counterparts and are often physically and sexually harassed. Yet women comprise 80 percent of the country’s 4 million garment workers, and the garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export earnings, according to Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Lily Gomes, speaking on a panel yesterday at the 2016 Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) forum in Bahia, Brazil.
The panel, the first of several Solidarity Center-sponsored sessions at the September 8–11 AWID forum, focused on the struggle for gender equality by Bangladesh women garment workers and migrant workers.
When women workers form unions, they improve their working conditions. But it is also necessary for women to shift the gender dynamics, says Gomes. Women now make up more than 61 percent of union leadership in the factory-level unions that have formed in recent years, and women also are participating in Solidarity Center gender trainings, which focus on women’s economic empowerment. Following recent trainings, for example, many women garment workers opened their first bank accounts, and are increasingly becoming more active in their unions.
Bangladesh women also are among the many workers migrating to other countries for jobs, and panelist Lily Jahan, chairwoman of Bangladesh Obivashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA), discussed the group’s training and support of workers, many of them women, who travel to other countries for work.
BOMSA, a migrant worker rights organization, provides workers with pre-departure training about how to protect their rights at work in the countries where they will work, she says, and also provides child care and access to school for the workers’ children.
Bangladesh women workers also are seeking allies in their struggle across the global feminist movement, says Gomes, and panelists sought ideas and support from participants, who included a range of women’s rights activists.
Says Gomes: “We will be connected. We are women. We will make the world hear our voice.”
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,
In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, women are taking concrete steps through unions to achieve social and economic justice and decent work, achievements possible when women are substantively involved in decision-making in their unions, their community and civil society.
In Algeria, the Women’s Committee of the Syndicat National Autonome des Personnels de l’Administration Publique (SNAPAP) has reached out to 600 marginalized and vulnerable women across 11 provinces through educational outreach and study circles. SNAPAP leadership recognizes that despite women’s active social and economic participation, they still face blatant discrimination in their workplaces and communities, harassment, violence, and exploitation on the job.
The Women’s Committee runs study circles with the Regional Algerian Women’s Legal Empowerment Network and with support from the Solidarity Center. During study sessions, the women learn their legal rights under national laws and international conventions. They also are supported in overcoming fears that keep them from challenging repression and violations of their rights, even those often condoned by their societies.
Amid ongoing global economic insecurity, millions of workers are struggling to find jobs that pay a living wage—and the most vulnerable are women, who are more likely to toil in jobs without coverage under formal labor law or social protections, leaving them open to discrimination and exploitation.
The study circles provide a safe place where women can freely talk about their experiences. In recent months, they have described ongoing exploitation in the workplace and at home. All have detailed low wages, long working hours, abusive transfers and dismissals, discrimination, sexual harassment, physical violence and a lack of social protection.
A woman union activist from Adrar, in southwest Algeria, describes how women workers struggle economically in the region, despite the country’s oil and gas wealth. To survive in Adrar, some women work in stone quarries using their bare hands to fill trucks with rocks and gravel for private sellers. Three women recently died from dehydration.
“Surprisingly, all the basic rights that women should enjoy, such as health coverage and decent living wages, are not being enjoyed by women of the south. Some women tried to change their situation through training, but their certificate of completion was rejected by all the businesses and enterprises in the south, which led women to be marginalized,” said the activist. She added that the women, “work in an unsafe environment and are vulnerable to harassment.”
In Tunisia, where women are playing a key role in enshrining articles in the constitution that guarantee equality and parity, women in the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (General Union of Tunisian Workers, UGTT) are now working to advance women’s roles in their union. They are uniting under the theme, “Partners in social activism, partners in decision-making,” to highlight their essential role in the country’s 2010–2011 uprising and the subsequent democratic transition. UGTT women are campaigning for creation of a quota that would ensure women comprise a minimum percentage of elected officers and members of UGTT decision-making bodies.
Women union members also have been active in UGTT’s push to remove all of the country’s reservations to the United Nations on the Convention on the Elimination on all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These reservations had enabled Tunisia to opt out of certain provisions, including women’s rights within the family, even though the country had ratified the treaty.
The Confederation Democratique du Travail (Democratic Labor Confederation, CDT) in Morocco is laying the groundwork for a gender advocacy campaign to ensure the consistent application and enforcement of women’s rights. The CDT’s Women’s Committee is laying the groundwork to “give more visibility to the demands of women workers.” The CDT released a memorandum, “Work is a right, with guaranteed dignity and equality,” at a well-attended press conference last month and plans a coordinated workers’ advocacy campaign for women workers.