Half the world’s workforce, 1.5 billion working women and men, are in vulnerable employment. The global economic crisis has swelled the ranks of those whose jobs do not provide enough to meet basic needs, the “working poor”, by more than 100 million people, mainly women.
A major report published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in 2011 shows that while the initial impact of the global economic crisis was equally detrimental to men and women, a second wave has led to increasing numbers of women losing their jobs or being forced into more precarious, temporary and informal forms of work. Women are facing higher unemployment, underemployment and imposed reduced working hours.
The threat to hard-won gains in equality and anti-discrimination policies is also having a major impact on women’s lives. Throughout the world, austerity measures, challenges to trade union rights and cutbacks are deeply threatening women’s rights and opportunities to work. Action against sex discrimination, unfair pay, sexual harassment and violence against women, as well as support for pregnant women, working mothers, carers and women’s health are increasingly challenged and given a lower priority. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has documented increases in complaints of workplace discrimination at the same time as cutbacks in bodies charged with inspection or with preventing the economic crisis from generating more inequalities. The ILO report also highlights both long-standing discrimination such as the gender pay gap and new forms, including multiple discrimination; it cites, for example, young, financially dependent, single or divorced women and migrant workers as most likely to face sexual harassment.
In 2009 the first ITUC Women’s Conference, which brought together 450 women delegates from 102 countries, called for sharply focused action. The conference underlined the resolution on gender equality made at the International Labour Conference (ILC) earlier that year: “Crises should not be used as excuses to create even greater inequalities nor undermine women’s acquired rights.” It also called for implementing the agreed Jobs Pact: “to retain persons in employment, to sustain enterprises and to accelerate employment creation and jobs recovery combined with social protection systems in particular for the most vulnerable integrating gender concerns on all measures.” Finally, the conference planned action for the following: organising women workers; collective bargaining, social dialogue and gender equality; economic and social justice; climate change and food security; core labour standards; and women’s representation in trade unions.
Since the conference, these action plans are being implemented, and in particular it is young women workers, domestic workers and Arab women that lead the way. Their achievements demonstrate clearly that women in trade unions have a central part to play, and that workers in some of the most vulnerable and exploited positions in the economy can inspire the positive change needed across the world—a fitting tribute to the memory of an extraordinary woman, Nancy Riche, former vice-president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and chair of its Women’s Committee (1993-2002), whose death in 2011 is mourned by the ITUC.
After a long campaign for justice led by domestic workers, particularly migrants, the ITUC has been part of the major alliance which created the ILO Convention and Recommendation on Domestic Workers at the 2011 ILC, central to its campaign for Decent Work, Decent Life for Women. Domestic work is undervalued, mainly carried out by women, central to our economy, with serious exploitation and abuse hidden in communities and homes, and with limited or no access to redress. The ILO convention is a major achievement, but the next steps are critical. The ITUC is now campaigning for at least 12 ratifications in 2012, turning words of support into action.
International Women’s Day 2011 saw women trade unionists from Arab countries come together to launch their network Changing for Equality, under the umbrella of the ITUC and with ILO support. At the heart of the network is mobilisation for democracy, social justice, decent work and gender equality. Their declaration confirms the urgency of promoting women in all sectors of society, and their action plan states: “women have to be actors of the transition to more democratic regimes and involved on equal footing with men in the decision-making process towards democracy… trade unions in the region must increase their commitment to gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights… quotas remain a necessity to ensure women’s access to decision-making bodies.”
The ITUC Decisions for Life project is reaching out to thousands of young women workers internationally, using multiple tools developed specifically to help them make well-informed career and family choices. The ITUC affirms: “The lifetime decisions adolescent women face determine not only their individual future, but also that of society: their choices are key to the demographic and workforce development of the nation.”
The Decisions for Life project focuses on 14 developing countries across the world, including Azerbaijan, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Zimbabwe. It targets 10-12 million young women in the service industries, which employ the majority of working women aged 15-29 and is achieving a groundbreaking level of tangible changes in workplaces, conditions and involvement. The motivation and creativity of young women coming forward in some of the most challenging situations is rebuilding the confidence of workers everywhere. As one of the young women said, “Don’t give up easily, strive and fight for your rights as workers. Know the Labour Relations Act, eat and sleep the act. Know your constitution and focus on your dreams and goals regardless of the environment you are living in.”
This latest global economic crisis and its aftermath need the leadership and strength of young women, of Arab women, of domestic workers, of all those across the world facing discrimination, exploitation and exclusion from power and decision-making. Trade unions internationally are demonstrating that they can be central to making this happen.
©OECD Yearbook 2012