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. The program 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.
It’s a little known fact that every year in March, global leaders, ambassadors, the elite intellectual ruling class along with 3rd World village women, converge on New York City to discuss the status of women around the world. This annual event is called the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and despite the fact that no one knows this is taking place, March 2016 was its 60th year.
Outside the high UN security gates, the sturdy metal fences, cameras, and guards brandishing weaponry, hundreds of women gather to tell our own story. Inside, where you need a special badge to gain access, diplomats and agency heads discuss their version of our truth at the United Nations proper.
The UN itself is housed in a gigantic skyscraper, towering above the streetcar food vendors 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.
And the UN is in session, at least for some of the days of the two-week period dedicated to the Commission on the Status of Women. 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 discuss the eyes-on-the-ground reality for women in the world. We gathered to discuss what is the reality for women workers, not only around the world, but here in the US, where despite the rhetoric, conditions for women are not as good as you have been taught to believe.
The AFLCIO exists in the US to represent the interests of working people, increase collective bargaining rights, and fight for policies that benefit working families. At the international level, the International Labor Organization brings together governments, employers and workers representatives from the 187 member states to set labor standards and decent work. The ILO emerged after the horrors of World War I based on the premise that lasting peace can only be achieved if it is based on economic justice. The following are considered fundamental labor conventions of the ILO:
· No Child Labor
· No Discrimination
· No Forced Labor
· Freedom of Association
· Collective Bargaining Rights
The United States has only ratified two of these ILO rights, the provisions against child labor and forced labor. The guarantee to collective bargaining rights, against discrimination, and to freedom of association has yet to be ratified by the US. While Congress has established laws like the National Labor Relations Act to provide for some of these other labor protections, the fact that the US has not ratified the other ILO Conventions means it has not promised the world that it would 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. It joins countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Argentina, and dozens of others that have ratified more labor rights than the US. In fact, the US compares more similarly to countries like Afghanistan in the labor rights it has ratified and guaranteed to its citizens.
Despite our proud chest thumping of “we’re number one” at political rallies, in the ILO circles, the US is famous for not having ratified what ought to be natural accepted rights of workers, things like hours of work, maternity protection, workers’ compensation for work related injuries, old age insurance, and dozens of other conventions. And if we narrow the focus to just women workers, the situation is even worse, both in the US and around the world.
But it does not have to remain this way. In conjunction with the UNCSW, the AFLCIO, working with the Solidarity Center and Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership, released a new report, “Transforming Women’s Work: Policies for an Inclusive Economic Agenda” that discusses the ways women workers continue to be exploited and policies that could be implemented to improve our lives.
Although the report acknowledges the great strides women have made over the past thirty years in gender equality and poverty reduction, it criticizes the neoliberal economic model that is exported around the globe for the harm that it does to women.
For instance, most trade policies, like the TPP and TIPP currently under consideration, focus on pro-business regulatory schemes that enhance foreign investment in low-wage countries, without imposing safety standards, job protections or decent wages and benefits. Consequently, the report found that “a recent analysis of apparel-exporting countries found wages for garment workers [almost universally women] fell in real terms between 2001 and 2011.”
The report also indicts supposedly gender neutral monetary policies like “austerity” for disproportionately hurting women since they demand cuts to public services, health care and education. Not only do women rely on such services for survival, they are also largely employed by these sectors. As they are cut, women lose a source of decent work. We have seen the same cuts in recent years in the US as federal, state and local budgets for human services are cut in the name of balanced budgets. The cycle grows worse as governments continue with false trickle down policies like tax cuts for corporations that end up getting funded by cutting education and other public sectors services.
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, getting a paycheck with taxes and other deductions at the end of the week. However, 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.
Cultural norms that prevail regardless if you’re in Europe, Asia, the Americas or Africa, dictate that mothers are primarily responsible for 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 in countries where more and more women, in addition to the unpaid work in the home, also work outside the home either out of necessity or choice.
“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 CNAs, 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 in the National Labor Relations Act and 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 contributions of women in terms 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.
First we need to recognize unpaid work as work, then we need to measure its value and establish policies to alleviate the burden it puts on women. For instance, in Norway, new parents are entitled to a total of nine months paid leave, “three than 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 cultural norms and perceptions about what we have historically considered “women’s work”, so that women have access to greater economic fulfillment.
We also need to expand women’s participation in organized labor. We in the labor movement already recognize that that the only place a woman is guaranteed equal pay for equal work is in her union. Women union members also earn 30.0% more than their non-union counterparts.
And though women’s participation in unions has increased significantly and trails behind the rate of men in unions by just over one percent, very few women have access to union jobs outside the public sector, and women remain woefully underrepresented in union leadership. 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.
Finally, with attacks against unions across the country causing declining rates of union membership, this outlet for women to achieve equality is diminishing in the US. 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.
There was so much more that we covered during the four days at the Women’s Global Leadership Program, including examinations of the global supply chain, detrimental trade policies, and discussions of the many ways that women and men are working together to improve conditions.
If this is something your union 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 the only year.