Utilizing Legal Mechanisms to Fight Gender Discrimination and Support Women Workers Rights

• 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Ziona Tanzer opened the workshop by overviewing historical references to gender equality in international law.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.”

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