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
What we fear as women-English PDF
Women working without fear-English PDF
Below is the statement we issued for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, 2017. While there is greater awareness today than four years ago, violence against women has increased. Unions have taken action, but not enough. More action is needed. Join us on November 25 to speak out, take action and stop violence against women.
Unions Must Take Action – Stop Violence Against Women!
Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, women working in hotels, restaurants, catering and tourism services; in food processing, fisheries, beverage manufacturing, brewery, dairy and meat processing factories; on farms and plantations; and working as domestic workers and home-based workers; face various forms of violence on a daily basis.
This violence includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, physical, psychological and verbal abuse and intimidation, trafficking and forced labour and domestic violence.
This violence occurs in the workplace, during recruitment, training or promotion, when travelling to and from work, and at home.
This violence occurs especially women workers face economic or physical vulnerability at work, including insecure jobs, poverty wages, physical isolation, unsafe work, lack of sanitation facilities and changing rooms, and unsafe public transport or inadequate transport to and from work.
This violence occurs especially when women workers face systematic discrimination in employment, wages and benefits, facilities, training and promotion opportunities.
This violence happens because of men abusing their power and authority at work and in recruitment or promotion, men as co-workers, men as guests or customers, men as spouses or relatives, and all the men who do nothing about it.
This violence happens because governments and employers fail to take action to protect women workers from all forms of violence at work and in the community.
This violence happens because trade unions fail to take action to protect women workers from all forms of violence at work and in the in the community.
This violence violates women workers’ human rights and undermines the human dignity and rights of all workers… all of us.
This violence must stop.
November 25 is designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to bring attention to the widespread, daily violations of women’s human rights as a result of gender-based violence.
On this day there are actions taking place around the world calling for concerted action to stop violence against women in society, in the community, at home and at work.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women must also be our day as trade unions. We must add our voice to the calls to end violence against women, and as trade unions we must take comprehensive and far-reaching action to compel governments, employers and our own members to stop all forms of violence against women.
Join us on November 25 to speak out, take action and stop violence against women.
PDF Placard Stop Violence Againts Women!
The IUF-affiliated Sindh Nari Porhyat Council [SNPC], a union of women agricultural workers, made tremendous progress last year in promoting COVID-19 awareness and safety protocols. The distribution of masks and posters in Sindhi on the proper use of masks helped to improve occupational health and safety on farms and public health in rural communities.
This year SNPC continued its COVID-19 awareness campaign by focusing on vaccine awareness. Through education sessions in fields and communities SNPC leaders tackled misinformation, mistrust and unequal access. SNPC has been successful in mobilizing women farm workers in July 2021 to assert their right to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination is necessary to protect our families and community. It is our right. We have been campaigning for health rights including the right to safe drinking water for so long. This is just part of the same struggle,” said Abida Khaskheli, a member of the SNPC Youth Committee from Sultanabad.
In the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, women’s self-organized Water, Sanitation & Health Committees on tea plantations in West Bengal and Assam included COVID-19 awareness in their ongoing fight for health and safety rights.
From April 2020 they ensured physical distancing and wearing masks, assisted home-based workers to make three-layered masks and distributed them to workers in the plantation. They also formed teams to inspect company-run hospitals for pandemic preparedness and met with the plantation management to secure quarantine and isolation facilities in the plantations.
The women’s Water, Sanitation & Health Committees are now playing a vital role in encouraging workers and their families to be vaccinated. They met with the management in plantations in Assam and West Bengal to ensure equitable and safe access to vaccines within the plantations.
The women’s committees are also working closely with government women health workers (ASHA workers) to ensure that when vaccines are available, plantation workers are ready and willing to be vaccinated.
The women’s committees will also maintain a list of names and dates to ensure workers and their families return for their second dose.
A Water, Sanitation & Health Committee member in the Nowera Nuddy tea plantation in West Bengal commented: “Despite the shortage of vaccines, we are getting some. So we must make sure that as many as people as possible in the plantation are vaccinated. No vaccine allotted for the plantation should be returned unused.”
So far 146 workers and family members in the Nowera Nuddy tea plantation are fully vaccinated.
The recent surge in COVID-19 in India has had a terrible impact on rural areas. Agricultural workers, small and marginal farmers and their communities are faced with a neglected, under-funded and under-staffed rural health care infrastructure, and as a result suffer higher rates of illness and fatalities. Due to the role of union leaders and organizers as community leaders taking charge in this crisis and trying to ensure access to both health care and food security, they need to be physically present to represent, petition and demand on behalf of their members and their families. As is so common in villages and rural areas, access to livelihood programs, food rights and social protection must be negotiated with the authorities and the role of union leaders and organizers is vital. At the same time, this puts them on frontline in this pandemic, taking much greater risk.
As leaders they also play a vital role in promoting wearing masks, washing hands and distancing to slow the spread, and to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
In response, the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Organization is supporting women leaders and organizers in villages in several states in India. Through the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Solidarity Fund and the special contribution of the United Workers Union (UWU) in Australia, we are able to support thousands of women leaders and organizers in rural areas as frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19.
The IUF-affiliated Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) through their VimoSEWA co-operative provides COVID-19 health insurance for SEWA women organizers and leaders who are involved in COVID-19 safety awareness, livelihood protection and vaccine awareness. Under this scheme anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 receives immediate cash assistance. This helps to meet basic needs during quarantine, including food and medicine, and is crucial for them being able to support their members.
There is an urgent need to get members and their communities vaccinated as soon as vaccines are available. SEWA Madhya Pradesh is organizing COVID-19 safety and vaccine awareness programs to reach out to rural communities in 62 villages in three districts through mobile vans to give information on COVID-19 testing and vaccines that will benefit around 10,000 people. Since SEWA Madhya Pradesh is trusted in these villages, this campaign is proving effective against the fake news that was causing vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaccine sentiment. There is dramatic increase in the number of people in these villages signing up for vaccination.
Women in villages are often unable to reach vaccination centers due to the lack of safe public transport or dependence on male relatives for transport (where vaccine hesitancy among men effectively denies women access to vaccination). In response SEWA is also organizing free & safe transportation to vaccination centres. Initially this transportation will be provided for 1,600 women. By providing free & safe transportation, an important obstacle is removed and allows union leaders and organizers to finally break through vaccine hesitancy in rural areas.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis has had a much greater impact on women than men. The double burden of family responsibility increased with the closure of schools and Working From Home arrangements. Many women were already in precarious forms of employment when the pandemic started. This quickly turned into excessive working hours or no work at all. Meanwhile the gender pay gap widened, revealing how little real progress was made over the past decade.
Many of the policies of employers and governments to adddress gender discrimination and promote gender equality simply collapsed in the first few months of the pandemic. The systemic vulnerability faced by women due to gender discrimination and patriarchy quicly resurfaced. Despite the call to fight COVID-19 togther, women saw their wages decline relative to men’s wages as the pay gap widened and their work was attributed less value.
At the same time women’s vulnerability to sexual harassment – especially in recruitment and renewal of employment contrracts – increased, as did domestic violence during lockdown.
More than ever women need unions to build their power to fight gender discrimination and inequality and to defend their rights. But to do that unions need to be safe for women and to fight for a safe workplace.
In the week leading up to International Women’s Day (March 8, 2021) our members in 14 affiliated unions in 20 cities in 8 countries held seminars, webinars, real and virtual meetings and public rallies (with masks and distancing) to bring attention to our call for Empowering Women through Unions in the COVID-19 era. They also called for unions to take action to stop sexual harassment and violence against women, and to Make Unions and Workplaces Safe for Women!