The phrase “what we fear as women” comes from a powerful report by the Al-Jazeera Investigative Unit on sexual abuse and violence against women in UK universities. The sexual harassment, abuse and violence described in the report and the exploitation of the institutionalized vulnerability of women exposes the fears that women workers experience in workplaces everyday.
One of the reasons women workers face violence and abuse at work is the the institutionalized and systemic vulnerability that pervades workplaces. Based on our work with women union leaders and members in hotels, restaurants, food processing and agriculture over the past four years, we identified different kinds of institutionalized vulnerability, both physical and economic.
Physical vulnerability was experienced in terms of isolation and travel. Isolation could mean situations in which there are only a few women among many men in a workplace, leaving them vulnerable. Or where women were working alone in fields or plantations, or as sales workers on the road visiting homes or offices. Travel referred to vulnerability during travel to and from work. This included crowded mixed public transport; crowded mixed transport provided by the employer; being compelled to hitch-hike to and from work; or walking long distances to work in fields or to collect water.
The economic vulnerability we discussed included low wages or poverty wages that make it impossible for women to remove themselves from violence. This applies both to violence in the workplace and home. Where women on poverty wages are already vulnerable and cannot get another job, they are unable to achieve the economic independence needed to escape domestic violence. Several of our women union leaders argued that a decent wage or a “living wage” negotiated through collective bargaining can contribute to reducing women workers’ economic vulnerability and help to eliminate the violence arising from that vulnerability.
Our members spoke of a range of different kinds of economic vulnerability, including: debt/bonded labour and the violence women face as “property”; widows denied access to land rights and government benefits; women workers denied the family benefits received by men, especially housing and wages in kind (e.g. essential food such as rice, grain) on plantations; recruitment practices; and precarious employment arrangements.
Sexual harassment and abuse in applying for and getting jobs, passing probation, passing performance appraisals, securing permanent jobs, or renewing temporary contracts is rampant. This is because tremendous power over the job security, livelihoods and promotion of women workers is concentrated in the hands of men in management and supervisory positions. This power is regularly abused and there are often no effective measures in place to prevent this.
Despite claims of ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination and harassment, most employers – including some of the biggest transnational food, beverage and agricultural companies in the world – do nothing to address the nexus of economic vulnerability and the abuse of power. Instead, most employers defend the use of precarious employment (insecure jobs based on casual, temporary, labour hire, or outsourcing) in economic terms. It’s all about flexibility and efficiency. Yet insecure jobs are a fundamental source of economic vulnerability for women workers, leaving them exposed to the harassment and abuse of the men who will decide whether or not their contracts are renewed. It is a fundamental source of the fear women workers face.
It is our role as trade unions to take action to ensure that women no longer face that fear. We must take action to stop violence against women. But we must also take action as unions to eliminate one of the most important sources of institutionalized fear at work: insecurity and fear arising from recruitment, precarious employment, and insecure jobs.
We must expose the power and vulnerability behind “what we fear as women” and we must fight it as a union.
Please join us on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 to call for greater action by unions. And every day going forward, let’s make it happen. Our union, our power must be used to protect and support women speaking out, women working without fear, with all workers standing together, to STOP violence against women.
Hidayat Greenfield, Regional Secretary