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A May Day Reflection on the Rights of Women Workers

By Priyanthi Fernando, Executive Director, IWRAW AP

How many of us are aware that May Day, International Workers’ Day or Labour Day, however we call it, and whenever we commemorate it, had its origins in workers’ demands for an eight hour working day? Yet, even though the commemorations have been going on for over a hundred years, today we are witness to the fact that women, half of the world’s population, routinely continue to work more than eight hours a day. The International Labour Organisation points out that women continue to work longer hours per day than men in both paid and unpaid work, spending at least two and a half times more time on unpaid household and care work than men. It also goes on to say that in developing economies, women in employment spend 9 hours and 20 minutes in paid and unpaid work, and that over 25% of employed women in the world have a 48 hour working week. So a century and a quarter later from when the May Day demand was first made, women have yet to experience the luxury of “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest”.

This week, as we celebrate May Day, we need to reflect on how much society undervalues women’s work, and how much of it continues to be invisible. The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh that killed over 1000 women garment workers brought the world’s attention to the unsafe conditions under which women garment workers, at the end of the global value chain, are forced to work. A recent study of women in an electronic factory in Vietnam showed that women workers had no contracts, were made to stand throughout their 8 to 12 hour shifts, were subject to high noise levels beyond the country’s regulatory limits and are also likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals. The Vietnamese women workers all reported extreme fatigue, dizziness and fainting at work, bone, joint and leg pains. Miscarriages were common. In the Cambodian garment factories pregnancy of sickness is not an excuse for taking a break or working slowly. Pregnancy can get you fired.

Exploitation is not just confined to women workers in factories: it’s also about women workers in agriculture and in mining; it’s about women workers in the tourist industry; and it’s about women domestic workers who, working behind closed doors in homes are subject to a range of abuses such as unpaid wages, working from early morning to late night with few or no breaks, physical confinement in the workplace, and in some cases, physical or sexual abuse.

There are many calls to ‘increase women’s participation in the economy’ and not leave them behind. However, such calls fail to take into account the exploited and precarious position in which women are found in the global economy today and the structural factors that rob women workers of their dignity and rights as human beings.

The most fundamental factor contributing to women’s exploitation in the work place is the inequality between women and men. In a globalised economic system controlled largely by transnational corporations, these powerful actors have taken advantage of prevailing gender inequality and historic discrimination against women to ensure that women become a source of cheap labour to feed into their supply chains. We have been duped into believing that the shirts we wear, the smart phones we use, or the food we eat, or the beverages we drink, are cheap when they are nothing but. The holy grail of export-led, FDI attracting economic growth has encouraged governments to lower labour protection, drive down wages and undermine worker organising, in several contexts going as far as to use violence and intimidation to protect investor investments rather than workers’ lives or rights. The current economic system buys affordability for the consumer at the expense of workers’ undervalued labour and lives, and many of these workers are women.

The current economic system is also one that is less able and less willing to provide caring labour, even though such labour is essential for human wellbeing. This is why Professor Ipek Ilkkaracan, a feminist economist from Turkey, has raised the call for a Purple Economy, or a world economic order organized around sustainability of caring labour. The fact that care work has always been the invisible responsibility of women, has been compounded by an economic system that is unwilling to consider the care of children, the disabled, the elderly and the sick as ‘work’. For women in rural economies, care work entails unpaid work that is dependent on natural resources such as land and water; resources that are increasingly affected by environmental degradation and forced acquisition by transnational companies. In urban and advanced economies, the provision of care depends on deepening intersectional inequalities of class, race, ethnicity and nationality. International migration of domestic workers is one of the more perverse manifestations of this inequality.

According to the ILO, domestic work is one of the most common forms of employment for women, with one in every 13 women workers being employed as domestic workers. Many countries in the world, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, receive millions of dollars in remittances from domestic workers abroad. But despite the economic and social importance of this work, the working conditions and legal protections for domestic workers remain precarious. Many of them are without the basic protections of a minimum wage, overtime pay, rest days or social security. Only 10% of domestic workers worldwide are employed in countries that extend them equal protection under national labour laws and about 30% of them work in countries that exclude domestic workers from labour laws completely. However, it is encouraging to know that domestic workers in countries where they have the freedom to organise, have been able to win better protection, become more visible, have been able to sensitise governments to recognise their rights.

So, even as we celebrate the labour day holiday, or take to the streets with our banners in solidarity with workers’ movements, we need to be mindful of women workers whose work continues to remain invisible, whose rights as workers are unprotected, and for whom “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest” is still a distant dream.

Contenido publicado en IWRAW

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