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Women Workers: Still fighting for the right to organise

ICFTU OnLine...., 059/980306/DD, 6 March 1998

Brussels. March 6 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): "Women are a growing force within the workplace, and in trade unions. They now make up nearly 50% of the labour market, and 35% of union members," said Lois Stewart, head of the ICFTU Equality Department, commenting on a new ICFTU report launching a campaign marking 50 years of fighting for union rights.

Claiming their Rights charts women workers' battles with governments, employers, and sometimes with their male colleagues in their fight for union rights. Armed with Convention 87, passed in 1948, which gives workers the right to organise, women workers are become increasingly militant.

Although women form nearly half the world's workforce, their jobs are concentrated in low paid, casual work or in the informal sector. They work in areas such as textiles, where working conditions are characterised by bullying, unpaid overtime, and often the requirement that they must undergo a pregnancy test before being hired.

These women have faced severe restrictions when they have organised to defend themselves. For example Ingrid Bastardo and Carmen Nidia Rosario tried to set up a union in a factory in one of the Dominican Republic's export processing zones. Their initiative did not go unnoticed - one night they were attacked with clubs, leaving them seriously wounded. Ingrid Bastardo was pregnant.

Not only do many women work in the export processing zones; they are also the majority of migrant workers, particularly, domestic servants. In a difficult sector to organise women are often poorly paid, exploited and raped or abused by their employers. In 1990, Veronique Akobe, from the Cote d'Ivoire, a maid in France, received a 20 year sentence for killing her employer and wounding his son, both of whom she accused of rape. Following an international campaign, she was freed in July 1996.

Women form the bulk of public service workers. In Zimbabwe in 1996 nurses went on strike because of the government's refusal to respect an agreement to raise salaries. Almost 135,000 workers - mainly women - were dismissed, and recruitment advertisements appeared in the South African and British press. Following a call to President Mugabe, half the nurses were reinstated, but not the trade unionists. However, they refused to start work before the trade union leaders were also reinstated.

Women activists are the target of death squads trying to wipe out trade unionists in Colombia. Frieleht Varon, who led her hospital branch of the National Health Union (SINDESS) was found dead near her workplace, and Magaly Penaranda, a trade unionist in the public sector union in Ocana was murdered last June. Luisa Barrantes, leader of the Colombian public service trade union was declared a military target by paramilitary groups.

The struggle for women workers' rights is not new. The report describes a strike of 4000 machinists in Belgium's National Weapon's Factory in 1966 for equal rights with the male factory workers. "The strike helped enormously to speed up the struggle for women's emancipation", according to the strike leader, Charlotte Haughlustaine.

Women in the service sector have been penalised when they have tried to organise. Women workers - mainly Hispanic and Asian - working at the New Otani Hotel in Los Angeles were badly paid, and without job security, so in 1997, they began to organise a trade union. As a result, they were harassed by the management who recruited a consultant specialising in anti-trade union practices. They were spied on and their telephones tapped... In the UK, where privatisation of local authority services is widespread, the predominantly female workforce of cleaners at St George's Hospital in Tooting set up a union to improve their working conditions. One third of the workforce are now unionised, but the women who started the union have been harassed by their employers and were the victims of selective dismissal.

Women's struggles for trade union rights can also lead to state-sponsored injustices. In Indonesia, Roliati Harefa's employer physically attacked her to force her to give up her trade union membership, and she filed a complaint against him. However, because she had retaliated, her employer won a case for her attack, and she was imprisoned for her 'criminal act'.

Unions owe a lot to women workers, says the report. As traditional union membership declines, unions realise that they must reach out to large numbers of unorganised women workers, who work part-time, in temporary or casual work or at home, if they want to regain their former strength and represent the whole of the labour movement.

Women also need unions. As the largest organisation of working women, they are an important interest and lobbying group which can influence government policy on women and equality issues. They are the only organisation that can bring concrete improvements in equality at the workplace. Use them the ICFTU urges women.

Notes on the ICFTU Convention 87 campaign The terms of the convention are "ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise". It stipulates the right of workers to form and join independent trade unions of their choice.

The Campaign, which takes the slogan "UNIONS: still fighting for union rights, for human rights" will run throughout 1998. The ICFTU will be urging governments and employers to comply with the provisions in Convention 87. Governments are being asked to sign, ratify and include the text of the Convention in national legislation, and employers are being asked to respect its provisions even if they operate in countries where it has not been ratified.

Trade unions will be marking the year with four major events:

March 8 - International Women's Day

May 1 - Labour Day

July 9 - Anniversary of Convention 87

December 10 - International Human Rights Day.

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)
Boulevard Emile Jacqmain 155, B - 1210 Brussels, Belgium. For more information please contact:
Luc Demaret on:
00 322 224 0212 - press@icftu.org