Women’s Global Leadership Program – Part 2 – Click here to read 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. This article examines the Economic Status of Women.
No Such Thing as “Gender Neutral”
The UNCSW side panels also examined supposedly gender neutral monetary policies imposed by the IMF and WTO for disproportionately hurting women. In exchange for credit or bailouts the World Bank and other lenders exact “austerity” programs that cut vital programs like health care, welfare benefits, child care credits, and education – programs that women rely on for survival. While deregulation and lowered taxes starve government of funds for public services like public transportation and education that harm the entire population, many women are employed by these sectors. As they are cut, women also lose a source of decent work.
This scenario is not only being imposed on developing nations; it has also become the mainstay of public policy in the US, touted by both Democrat and Republican parties. We have seen draconian education cuts in Chicago shuttering schools in mainly black communities. College grants are simply unavailable or are so precarious that universities no longer offer them for incoming students. Nutrition programs are also being cut for younger children which lessens their ability to do well even in the K-12 system. Many cities have privatized their public transportation and established private charter schools, further diminishing good job opportunities for women workers and services as profits are exacted by the contractor middlemen which have replaced the unionized workforce. You can’t read your morning paper without one or another story on budget cuts.
Just this morning, my local paper reported that the county would cut jobs resulting in the end of six programs, including one that monitors lead levels in children’s blood and another program that provides breast and cervical cancer screening for poor women. This despite the widespread knowledge that early screening not only is better for overall health outcomes it is also a way for the state to avoid expensive delayed treatments.
Unfortunately, these kinds of arguments do little to dissuade the proponents of the neoliberal consensus and austerity in the US. Neoliberal models are based on the myth that there simply is not enough resources in the world, therefore some must do with less. In reality, they have created a level of global inequality that no previous king, czar, emperor, or industrialist has ever accomplished. Voltaire, who had said, “The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor,” would be amazed at how universally accepted the once ironic dictum has become.
The Informal Economy
Another significant barrier to the advancement of women, however, is women’s unpaid work. When we think about work, typically it is work outside the home, with the traditional boss-employee relationship that involves clocking in and out of each shift, and then getting a paycheck with taxes and other deductions taken out at the end of the week. Unpaid work, “labor that is done without direct form of compensation – includes child and elder are and household tasks, anything from cleaning and cooking to gathering basic resources like firewood and water” is dominated by women around the globe, and is not recognized as work in a neoliberal system.
Cultural norms prevail, regardless if you’re in Europe, Asia, the Americas or Africa, that dictate that mothers are primarily responsible for unpaid work like child care. Women do the cooking and cleaning, the running of errands, and care for the elders. There are exceptions of course, but because this has been seen as normal for so long, we ignore the implications of such a system. These gender norms still prevail even as more women, out of necessity or by choice, work outside the home in addition to the unpaid work in the home. The AFLCIO report points out the effects this has on women’s economic opportunities:
“The heavy and disproportionate burden of unpaid work inhibits women’s literal and figurative mobility, forecloses opportunities and reflects a deeply entrenched structural advantage enjoyed by men that transcends cultures. When women spend more hours on unpaid work, they necessarily have less time and flexibility available for market work education or leisure activities.”
Because this work is not acknowledged in the home, when it gets done by women outside the home and for others outside the family, it is devalued and remains among the lowest paid professions. Careers like nursing assistants, domestic workers like housekeepers and nannies, and home health care workers remain low-wage with very little benefits or protections. In fact, most domestic work was excluded when the National Labor Relations Act was passed and it has very little of the job protections most of us take for granted like minimum wage and overtime pay.
Despite what we all know and see to be true about the importance of unpaid work, countries do not measure or account for this in things like GDP. So for instance, even though women and girls collect water needed for nearly ¾ of households in sub-Saharan Africa, this essential task is ignored by economists as having any economic impact. It’s ridiculous when you think of it.
To undo thousands of years of cultural assumptions is no easy task. But it is possible if we first recognize unpaid work as work, then begin to measure its value in economic models and establish policies to alleviate the burden it puts on women. One way this cultural is changing is in Norway where new parents are entitled to a total of nine months paid leave, “three that can be taken by both parents together, three for each parent that are nontransferable, thus incentivizing greater parental responsibility for early child care.” Such policies have the ability to transform perceptions about what we have historically considered “women’s work”, so that women have access to greater economic fulfillment while men also get to break cultural norms and actually partake more fully in the work – and joys – of nurturing children.
Women as Labor Leaders
Another topic of discussion was the need to expand women’s participation in organized labor. Already the labor movement recognizes that the only place a woman is guaranteed equal pay for equal work is in her union. Women who are not union members earn 30% less than their union counterparts. But as unions lose power in the US, largely caused by Republican attacks against unions across the country, this outlet for women to achieve equality is diminishing in the US.
Women now comprise 44% of the US workforce, however very few women have access to union jobs outside the public sector since the service sector has proven difficult to organize under US labor law. Expanding access to collective bargaining to domestic workers, service sector workers, and other professions dominated by women is crucial to turning around this trend and increasing women’s economic and political power.
Still, even where there are unions, women remain woefully underrepresented in union leadership, occupying just 20% of top leadership positions. This not only limits the input women can have in bargaining, it also excludes issues important to women from union’s legislative priorities. Women’s leadership in unions is critical to promoting issues like raising the minimum wage, increasing access to affordable child care, and expanding access to paid medical leave.
Dangers of Co-Option
Each year, the UNCSW establishes Sustainable Development Goals on broad issues like ending violence against women or more efforts to fight human trafficking. These goals are indeed important, but they are just one part of the larger struggle for women’s equality, especially the need to support global labor unions in their efforts to organize women workers so they have a strong bargaining position against the global corporations.
Governments are known to thump their chest and exaggerate their achievements on Sustainable Development Goals, so it is the task of the women coming to the UNCSW to hold those governments accountable in holding up those commitments, even if they sometimes have to shame them to do so. UN ambassadors won’t speak about how women in their countries who have migrated from villages to work in the city factories have to sleep in shifts as they share their bed with other workers. During UN General Assembly, you won’t hear the plight of many of the women without access to shelter due to costs or unavailability who have to sleep in the streets and are more at risk of being raped. But at the side panels, the women who have traveled across the globe at great expense do talk about how women must bear their children with no fathers and who then wander the streets unattended as their mothers must continue to work in the factories.
Ambassadors are also unlikely to share the testimony of a person like Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi garment worker and union organizer who was only twelve years old when she went to work in the factory after her father had died. Working in grueling conditions, Kalpoona reported she earned as little as $6 a month for working as much as 450 hours. By the time she was a young adult she had enough. When the company refused the workers their overtime pay started to organize with her fellow workers and they went on strike. The company responded by locking up some of the strikers in a room at the factory. Not even the government, but the company owners kept them prisoner. Finally, they fired her.
Yet Kalpona won’t be diminished. She says the company made a mistake. She went from being an organizer in a plant with 1000 workers to being organizer of millions of workers across her country by founding the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Since 80% of members of Bangladesh’s Parliament, are themselves profiting from the garment industry, it is unlikely they will be leaders to labor reforms, which is why it is so important that voices like Kalpona’s get the recognition and amplification at the UN Side Panels.
The grassroots networks at the UN Side Panels also issue “Shadow” reports that delve deeper than the government reports. Many of these shadow reports become the basis for the discussions at the side panels. The buildings where they take place are much less well-kept than the UN itself, with old drafty windows, crowded slow elevators, and sad potted plants. There is not coffee or snack for attendees. In fact, there are not even enough chairs in the rooms for the many people who come from all over the world to participate. The overflow crowd sits on the floor along the sides and back of the rooms. The most popular panels have people snaking out the doorway stretching their heads around the corner and above the crowd to try to see the speakers deliver their reports.
Some of the women who come here must fundraise throughout the year to afford the trip. Despite the many obstacles, women still come because this is the largest single event in the world where their concerns are the primary focus. And some of the women have expressed that they are worried that this, the largest meeting of women in the world, where they come and interact and build power and raise awareness, is under threat of being co-opted by neoliberal consensus that is overtaking the UN itself. This year’s UNCSW marked the inaugural meeting of the first-ever “High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment” co-chaired by the CEO IKEA Switzerland and Costa Rican President Luis Solis. It is composed of leaders from the IMF, World Bank, UN Women, other government and NGO leaders, and one token representative from the International Labor Organization.
The worry is that such a panel will further diminish the role of organized labor as a means for empowering women, instead focusing on neoliberal investment models.
While any additional concern for women’s empowerment is good, the fear is that the panel will place more efforts on business-centered efforts to create more women entrepreneurs, ignoring the direct immediate impact that strengthening women’s union organizing effect would have on working class women. “Imagine the potential economic impact it would have if the millions of potential female entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders, who are right now being airbrushed out of the picture, had the opportunity to choose their own path?” gushed Justine Greening, British MP and Conservative Party member who was appointed to the panel. No doubt we celebrate women owned businesses, however, if they operate under traditional neoliberal economic models, how will this have benefited the majority of women impoverished by such systems?
While we talk about inequality, inequality gets worse
Recent history has made it abundantly clear that economic growth at any costs is devastating to women as well as the environment. The neoliberal consensus for development as being the solution to all the world’s woes is an abject failure. If we are ever to truly empower women, to start, we need to stop governments and corporations from interfering in our rights as workers, our rights as trade unionists, and our rights to collectively bargain. Instead, we continue to witness increasing impediments to organizing, all over the world.
Women don’t need another microloan. They need full rights as workers. Both in the US an abroad. None of us can properly engage in bargaining unless we understand how the supply chain works. If we do not have a new analysis of the intersectionality of gender, race and corporate power dynamics, then we cannot build effective strategies.
If the Women’s Global Leadership Program is something your union or organization would like to participate in next year, please contact the AFLCIO to learn more, and please contact your own union’s international leadership to encourage that the first year of this program isn’t its only year.
The report makes the following recommendations for achieving sustainable economic empowerment for women workers further detailed here: http://www.solidaritycenter.org/report-transforming-womens-work/
– Fully implement international frameworks regarding gender and economic and social rights
– Design macroeconomic policy to mobilize the maximum possible level of resources to realize women’s economic rights and to reduce gender inequality
– Invest in physical and social infrastructure, particularly women’s human capital
– Reform trade and development policy to emphasize long-term growth and accountable business practices
– Address structural barriers to decent work and equal participation in the labor market
– Protect worker and community organizing