Women’s Global Leadership Program – Part 1
In March, I had the privilege to participate in the first-ever AFLCIO Women’s Global Leadership Program alongside nearly fifty other women from a broad spectrum of trade unions across the US. It was an eye opening and inspiring experience that few know takes place each year. The program I participated in ran parallel to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and participants in both events were able to join together in side panel discussions about issues relating to women’s empowerment, economic status, exploitation, access to potable water and medical care, and human trafficking. The following article examines the Economic Status of Women.
Every year in March, global leaders and their ambassadors along with 3rd World village women converge on New York City to participate in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. And despite the fact that few know this takes place, March 2016 was its 60th year.
Many of the official meetings take place on the UN Campus, which is dominated by a gigantic skyscraper, towering above the food trucks and polluted East River, inching toward the clouds and skirted by the ubiquitous array of the flags of the world that only fly when the UN is in session. Inside, where you need a special badge to gain access, diplomats and agency heads discuss their version of our truth.
But on those days when the flag poles stand bare, women from non-governmental agencies continue to meet across the street at the UN Church Building and other less-stunning locations to provide another side of the story of the status of women. And this year, for the first time, the AFLCIO hosted a Women’s Global Leadership Program to run parallel with the UNCSW, bringing together fifty women from unions in the US to participate in side panels and discussions about the conditions for women workers. Outside the steel UN security gates, watched by cameras and guards brandishing military grade weaponry, we women gathered to tell our own story. And it is far more intricate than any spreadsheet could convey.
Often, US workers will tout a sort-of Monroe Doctrine in economics with “Buy American” themes as an answer to our economic woes. Trump is succeeding quite well among US workers hit hard by the economy by vilifying China and Mexico for “taking our jobs away.” However, by ignoring the mechanics of the global supply chain and by lacking global worker solidarity, we remain disempowered to improve working conditions around the globe as well as fail to stop the deteriorating conditions for US workers.
The Global Leadership Program focused on how to understand the intersectionality of worker rights along the global supply chain, how our organizations work with international labor groups to counteract the detrimental impacts of globalization.
While AFLCIO unions exist in the US to represent the interests of US workers, and the International Trade Union Confederation similarly represents trade unionists globally, the International Labor Organization brings together governments, employers and workers to set global labor standards. The ILO emerged after the horrors of World War I based on the premise that a lasting peace can only be achieved if it is based on economic justice. The ILO has established the following as its fundamental labor rights:
– No Child Labor
– No Discrimination
– No Forced Labor
– Freedom of Association
– Collective Bargaining Rights
Unfortunately, the US has only ratified two of these ILO rights, the provisions against child labor and forced labor. While the US Congress has established laws like the National Labor Relations Act to provide for labor protections, the fact that the US has not ratified the other ILO Conventions means it has not promised the world that it wouldn’t take these away – with the exception of slavery and child labor.
In addition to the fundamental rights, the ILO has also established four Governance Conventions, of which the US has only ratified one; 177 Technical Conventions, of which the US has only ratified 11. In comparison, the nation of Uganda has ratified all of the fundamental conventions, and three out of the four governance conventions. Uganda joins countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Argentina, and dozens of others that have ratified more labor rights than the US. In comparison, the US is more similar to Afghanistan in the labor rights it has ratified and pledged to guarantee to its citizens.
Transforming Women’s Work
In conjunction with the UNCSW, the AFLCIO, working with the Solidarity Center and Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership, also released a report in March, “Transforming Women’s Work.” Although the report acknowledges the strides women have made over the past thirty years in gender equality, it exposes how the neoliberal consensus for economic development causes harm to women.
Neoliberal Trade policies, like NAFTA, GATT, CAFTA, the Permanent National Trade Policy with China, KORUS, and now the TPP and TIPP currently under consideration, are built on gender inequality and further tilt power away from workers in their focus on increasing profits and productivity (GDP) above all other concerns.
The agreements make it easier for foreign-based corporations and hedge funds to invest in low-wage countries while doing little to nothing to establish safety standards, job protections, decent wages and benefits, or address environmental protections. While “women are good for economic growth,” said a representative from Action Aid, “economic growth is not always good for women.”
Women in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam who had previously lived in extreme poverty with few wage earning opportunities are moving into paid work in factories making clothing for Western consumption. But because of the absence of a labor movement or other wage guarantees or safe working protections, the AFLCIO report found that “a recent analysis of apparel-exporting countries found wages for garment workers fell in real terms between 2001 and 2011.”
One of the most well-known examples of how trade policies harm women specifically is the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, when a nine-story garment factory making clothing for Benetton, Walmart, JC Penny, The Children’s Place, and other western retailers collapsed killing 1,134 and injuring thousands more. Many of the dead bodies remain missing, unable to be unearthed from the debris. The dead were from the ranks of the 4 million who work in Bangladeshi apparel industry, 80% of whom are women.
After the disaster, due to international pressure, the minimum wage was raised from $38 per month to $68. Additionally, minimal safety measures and building inspections and remediation were implemented by three international watchdog groups, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, and one National Tripartite Plan for Fire a Structural Integrity. But two of the agreements to allow inspection will expire in 2018, while thousands of factories have yet to be inspected.
As the Rana Plaza disaster recedes deeper into the past the world will lose focus on industry practices there, and in the absence of a robust labor movement or trade policies that protect workers all along the supply chain, it will only be a matter of time before another tragedy occurs.
Despite the international outrage and mourning, the deaths of thousands of women in Rana Plaza did little to damage the garment industry in Bangladesh. Clothing exports jumped 16 percent, to $23.9 billion, in the year following Rana Plaza, and are now at $30 billion and expected to grow.
The worker organizers at UNCSW reminded western women that though we may be inclined to simply boycott clothing made in their countries, the women in Bangladesh and Vietnam want and need the work, just as western women do, as paid work can help ease their poverty. Rather, they point out, we need to change the terms by which women in the 3rd World are brought into the economy and actively participate with campaigns that work with governments, trade unions, buyers, brands, and stores in our home countries, especially those affiliated with the International Labor Organization.
Next: Part 2 – No Such Thing As Gender Neutral