Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality, and Labor Rights

Gender Conf.SBB.7.13

Solidarity Center Shawna Bader-Blau: “We must fight for workers at the bottom of the supply chain, starting with women.” Credit: Matt Hersey

Plenary
Opening Remarks and Welcome

Keynote
• Shawna Bader-Blau, Executive Director, Solidarity Center

Welcome 
• Rosana Sousa de Deus, Executive Committee, Central Única dos Trabalhadores, CUT
• Cássia Bufelli, Women’s Secretary, União Geral dos Trabalhadores, UGT
• Maria Auxiliadora dos Santos, Women’s Secretary, Força Sindical
• Lais Abramo, Director, ILO Brazil

Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau opened the July 29-30 conference, Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain, saying that gender equality is the “unfinished business of the labor movement.”

“The strategic exploitation of women workers for the economic gain of business is one of the key global dynamics driving down wages and working conditions, and keeping working people from their rights across the globe. If we want to stem the unrelenting race to the bottom, we must fight for workers at the bottom of the supply chain, starting with the women,” she said.

Bader-Blau overviewed women’s increasing role in the world economy and pointed out that wages and job quality have not kept pace with their entrance into the labor market. This is especially true for women working in agriculture and light industry, two of the conference’s three themes.

But when workers have a voice on the job through a union, they have a way to fight for better livelihoods and rights, she said. Unions help facilitate women’s equal access to resources and improve their social and political status in many ways: by pushing for minimum wage increases, by providing a voice at work that offers a mechanism for women to fight sexual harassment and by helping workers in the informal economy, who are disproportionately women.

Yet these steps are just a small portion of what unions can do, said Bader-Blau. The degree to which labor unions consciously take on women’s priorities is “the challenge for us and I think this gets back to the other theme of this conference, the need for transformational leadership.”

Read her full remarks.

Rosana Sousa de Deus welcomed the 90-plus participants from 20 countries on behalf of all Brazilians. She went on to discuss the country’s recent large mobilizations which she described as “completely different than other mobilizations over the last 30 years with participation of 5 million workers, women and men.” (Beginning in June 2013 with small protests against increases in public transportation fares, Brazilians by the millions waged weeks-long rallies in cities across the country, a movement that grew into a mass mobilization encompassing much of Brazilian society and broadening to include citizenship issues such as state inefficiency and corruption.)

She pointed out that the demonstrations were organized through the Internet with leadership from young people. “These actions have helped us to rethink structures of union movement.” As part of these mobilizations, the union confederations represented at the conference demanded improved housing and transportation, and women union leaders made it clear that transforming capitalist society must address gender and age discrimination. “Capitalism uses gender, age and race discrimination in all societies to maintain its power, making labor relations very precarious.”

The CUT has a long-standing commitment to address inequality in society and within the labor movement, she said, pointing out that CUT has contributed to recent advances in women taking a more active role at the workplace, changing conditions from semi-slavery to more equitable conditions in which women breadwinners now have access to better wages.

“We have to think about building politics with the actual presence of women in the union structure” to create union policies with a gender perspective. Access to better wages is not just about presence, it’s about participation. “Women have to participate in the union, federation, confederation. We have data that prove that less women participation in union results in fewer advances in gender policies. When we don’t negotiate collectively, women’s issues are not addressed in collective bargaining. So we need women present in union policy making. This is still a sexist movement.”

For instance, she pointed out that union meeting schedules can determine whether women can participate in unions because often these meetings have no child care space and are held during hours women have work or family duties.

Sousa de Deus said this is a very important moment in transformation of the lives of Brazilian women who are demanding quality of life. “Unions are pushing for quality housing facilities and universal public child care facilities, which will help women participate in the labor market.” Unions also are engaging in a debate over International Labor Organization (ILO)  Convention 156 (Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women Workers: Workers with Family Responsibilities), because family care prevents women from participating in the formal economy and unions. “Child care facilities must be universal, whether in the labor movement or not. We must discuss this.” If women are responsible for all caring tasks at home, they don’t have access to the labor movement. She wants Brazil to ratify and implement Convention 156 so women can get access to the labor movement.

Pointing out that women make up 51 percent of Brazil’s population, she said, “We are fighting against violence, for feminist education for women because women need to dialogue on issues and be at the center of the debate to build a just society with full participation of women and young people.”

Cássia Bufelli agreed with Sousa de Deus that women’s participation in unions is important, and noted the UGT has achieved several advances in this area. For instance, the union’s statutes include quotas for women. “We have an issue with quotas, we’d like not to depend on them, but they’ve been decisive in getting women in leadership roles,” she said. The union laid the groundwork for women’s increased participation first by establishing a female presence, “but then we needed training and debate on an equal level. I need to be empowered to discuss the national economic policy as a woman. What’s the point in having a debate if I as a woman, can’t take part?” she asked. The UGT holds training courses and “bringing in young men and women has made a huge difference—changing their opinions, developing new leaders. Education for women leaders has been vital, she noted. Women in union leadership “are educated, aware of nuances, prepared to sit at the table and participate on an equal basis. We have to ask, without a 35 percent salary gap between women and men—how different would the economy be?”

The Lula administration’s creation of a Women’s Ministry was also vital. UGT brought the government to the debate through creation of a tripartite group. The union pushed for legislation to remove all forms of discrimination, and promoted the government’s first national conference on decent work with key women participants. The Women’s Department and these actions have helped frame the debate to include women’s issues and broad equality. Women made a difference at that tripartite event.  “We can rewrite the history of our country.”

Maria Auxiliadora dos Santos reported that Força Sindical recently held a week-long congress with 2,700 delegates from across Brazil. Women make up 51.5 percent of Brazil’s population, or 100 million, and have higher formal education levels than men, she said. Yet women are under-represented in politics and unions and “our workdays are longer, our wages lower.” Of the 500 largest companies in Brazil, women comprise 13.7 percent of executives, 22.1 percent of management, 26.8 percent of supervisors and 33.1 percent of employees. “This exposes a stark reality of Brazil,” she said.

“We have fought very hard, we Brazilian women, to take up the spaces of power.” The labor movement is trying to address this vast inequity, dos Santos said, but “we must look at unions themselves—confederations, federations, local unions. Where are the women in the labor movement? They are at the lower rungs of leadership.” “The leadership of our organizations speak in our names,” she continued, “but they don’t mean it, it’s not true. Men do not have the power to speak in our name. In practice, they don’t put their money where their mouths are.”

Creating a National Women’s Policy Department in Força Sindical was “a major achievement,” she said. Women worked to shape the labor movement’s demands in national mobilizations on July 11, 2013 and May 1, 2013, to include gender equality, only to have it removed by male leaders. “From the union demands in these marches, you would guess that there are no working women in our country. This is absurd. Any demonstration we have, any struggle we conduct, equality has to be on the agenda. Finally, our brothers admitted that this was a point.”

Força Sindical also has worked on the issue of domestic workers in Brazil by promoting ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers. “We worked hard and created the National Department of Domestic Employees in our confederation,” she said, Further, it is important to train men and women on gender, “or else we will never have equality in our movement.” Dos Santos said women in Força Sindical are thinking about gender more carefully, to have more victories within our structures, but “our brothers don’t get it yet. The argument we keep hearing is ‘What about the rest of us?’ Hopefully in the future, equality will go beyond speeches to action.”

Lais Abramo thanked conference organizers for “creating this debate space with participation from activists from around the world.” She went on to describe how gender equality and the issue of women’s rights has been a theme since the ILO’s founding nearly 100 years ago. The 1919 ILO founding conference after World War I highlighted conventions on the work week, child labor, employment protection and protections for maternity rights (not including domestic or agricultural workers). All of these conventions are still relevant.

“You cannot have socially sustainable development if the capacities of women aren’t made the most of because of discrimination,” she said. Gender equality is an integral issue that cuts across all themes: human rights, poverty reduction, social justice and access to decent work. It is also an economic development issue, because discrimination affects the productive capacity of women and a decent work agenda.

Stating that “there have been many advances over the past 10 years in Brazil,” she noted that the 1991-2013 human development atlas of the United Nations Development Program demonstrates a major leap forward for Brazil. “This is not a coincidence,” she said, “but due to policies undertaken by the government of Brazil. Lula stated in his first press conference, ‘If at the end of my first term, if I achieve that every Brazilian can have three meals a day, I will be satisfied.’ This required a huge transformation, because at that time, 40 million people were living in poverty. Abramo said government programs, such as direct income transfers to women who head up households, have helped women.

The success of the Brazilian experience has to do with the eradication of poverty—a combination of social protection and labor market policies. The policies generated jobs for women in the formal economy, which represents a great advance, because women were overrepresented in the informal sector. “We still have a high proportion of informal sector workers, but we had an improvement of the minimum wage so Brazil’s income gap has been lessened between genders and races,” she said. The improved minimum wage is the result of social dialogue with labor movement, and has simultaneously addressed the issue of gender equality with racial equality.

She closed by saying that Brazil still has two challenges, one of which is addressing the labor rights of female domestic workers. Abramo congratulated the unions that helped push for Brazil’s passage of Convention 189 in March 2013. “The new law is vital, a great accomplishment,” she said. The second challenge involves young workers. Despite Brazil’s many advances, nearly “20 percent of young people today neither study nor work. There is a very strong gender component to that. Why? Either they are mothers needing to look after kids, or they are looking after siblings. We need to reconcile family and work life.”

Lisa McGowan, Solidarity Center Senior Specialist for Gender Equality closed the opening plenary by saying the gains made in Brazil over the last 10 years “were not by chance. It was a super intentional process. It took a huge effort. Part of what we want to talk about at this meeting is the huge efforts that people in this room have intentionally brought about in order to decrease inequality. What women have done to bargain and fight for themselves. To help women talk for themselves. To help men understand their role as partners, allies, comrades in this struggle.  And to understand what is the problem, its nature and why does it exist? Why are we in this situation and how are we going to address it?”