Women workers of the world unite!

Mike Clulow | May 22, 2017
Indian labourers during a rally Ahmadabad
Indian labourers during a rally Ahmadabad, India, May 1st 2012. Placards in Gujarati  read, "Strictly enforce all state labour
laws” and "Pay 500 Rupees 500 as monthly allowance to non-organised workers." (Ajit Solanki)

As trade unionists around the world celebrated International Workers Day on May 1st, many of them will have recalled the slogan “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!” That might seem a bit outdated but the appalling loss of life when the Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 and the scandalous treatment of staff by Sports Direct in the UK make very clear that the need to defend workers’ rights is as strong as ever.

Working conditions for women

Globally, women tend to be clustered in more precarious work than men and earn less for equal work. This is because gender stereotypes that cast women as carers and men as breadwinners are replicated in the labour market.

80% of the workers at Rana Plaza were young women aged 20 or below. Worldwide, 75% of garment workers are women, most earning very low wages and exposed to high rates of sexual harassment.

• In most countries, women earn an average of 60 -75% of men’s wages (World Bank Gender Data Portal, 2015). Last year, British women still earned 18% less than men.

• 100 countries legally restrict the types of jobs that women can do; in 18 husbands can prevent their wives from accepting jobs (World Bank, 2015).

Unions and women workers’ associations play a crucial role in overcoming these problems. In the UK, for example, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reports that women union members earn 30% more than non-unionised women do.

Women in the union movement

We can do itThe slogan, “Workers of the world unite!” was originally coined by a woman, the Franco-Peruvian socialist and feminist Flora Tristan in her manifesto ‘The Workers Union’, five years before Marx and Engels used a similar phrase in the Communist Manifesto. Many early male trade unionists actively opposed women’s presence in the workforce, as they feared women would compete with men for waged work, and such patriarchal attitudes are still common. Nevertheless, women have actively fought for workers’ rights for a very long time and have played an important role in the development of trade unions.

Striking women

In the USA and the UK, women’s involvement in unionism can be traced back to the early 19th century. For example, in 1828, about 400 women working at a cotton factory in New Hampshire in the USA went on strike over harsh new rules that lowered wages, imposed a fine for lateness, prohibited unions, and banned talking during work hours. In the UK, women in Grays Inn, London went on strike for equal pay in 1832 as did textile workers in Yorkshire the same year and in Glasgow in 1833.

Young match makersWomen workers at the Bryant and May factory in the East End of London led a strike in 1888 that played a key role in the development of the union movement. Management attempts to force workers to deny revelations of their appalling working conditions led to a successful strike by more than 1,000 women. The “Match Girls” actions and militancy sparked off the rise of unions in unskilled industries.

© TUC Library Collections,
London Metropolitan University

As industrialisation spread to other countries, so too did trade unionism. In the early 20th century, South African women quickly became an important part of the industrial workforce but were faced by systematic discrimination including unequal pay and sexual abuse. By the early 1930s, women made up the majority of members of the Garment Workers Union and they led successful strike action in 1931. Another early influential union in South Africa, the Food and Canning Workers’ Union, was founded by a woman – Latvian immigrant Ray Alexander Simons. The FCWU had majority female membership and was open to both black and white people. As well as raising the wages and improving the working conditions of the food and canning workers, it is credited with politicising thousands of black women.

More recently, women have become some of the most prominent figures in Indonesia's labour movement but have often paid a high personal price. Marsinah, a young factory worker from East Java, was raped, tortured and killed for organising a strike in 1993 while, in 2001, Ngadinah, was imprisoned for organising a strike of 8,000 workers at an Adidas-Solomon footwear factory. Dita Sari, who was imprisoned on a charge of sedition for her human rights work during the Suharto regime, became the Chairperson of the National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI), one of the most vocal trade unions. These women have become icons of Indonesia's independent labour movement.

Where traditional unions have been unable or unwilling to provide leadership on women’s rights, women have pioneered new forms of women-only labour organisations. In Nicaragua, the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemployed Women succeeded in organising and representing women workers in the de-regulated export-processing sector. In India, associations such as Working Women’s Forum and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), have led the way internationally in the organisation of informal sector workers.

Solidarity in the informal sector

More women than men work in informal employment where incomes are often very low and conditions precarious. Over 80% of South Asian women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment, 74% in sub-Saharan Africa, and 54% in Latin America and the Caribbean (UN Women, 2015). The isolation of women in such jobs, including domestic work, exposes them to high levels of abuse and makes traditional organising difficult. Consequently, the work of organisations such as SEWA is particularly important.

As Womankind strengthens our work on women’s economic rights, we are exploring ways to work with a new partner in Zimbabwe that defends the rights of informal workers. The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) is a national organisation representing informal traders associations with 60% women members. Since its establishment in 2002, it has supported its members, winning court cases, lobbying authorities, and facilitating access by thousands of women and men to spaces in markets.

Some of the specific issues faced by women in the informal economy, highlighted by ZCIEA president Lorraine Sibanda, include sexual assault and harassment. The chamber seeks to influence social norms and values through working with men to raise awareness of the role of women at community level and creating an equal platform and space for women to engage.

Womankind will be looking to support ZCIEA in various areas including building international solidarity, connecting with the UK trade union movement, collaboration on campaigns, advocacy and communications on women’s economic rights.

With ZCIEA and other organisations, and with the women’s movement around the world, Womankind is defending the economic rights of all women. We stand in solidarity with women workers, in formal and informal economies, as they continue their struggle for decent work and conditions.

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