In a world where the hard-won gains of the labour movement are being gradually eroded, International Workers' Day isn’t a time for celebration. It’s a time to reflect, re-strategise, and reorganise.
Organised workers are antithetical to neoliberalism. In neoliberal thought, ‘the organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers’, writes George Monbiot in the Guardian this month. International Workers Day gives us an opportunity to think about how to fight new challenges brought about by globalisation – the denigration of labour rights, privatisation and austerity that neoliberalism has heralded.
In the global north, unions are in decline both in membership and in influence, where they are losing control over traditional levers of power. While the crushing of organised labour in the global north remains a dominant narrative, the global south tells a different story. As industries have relocated to capitalise on low cost labour markets, worker organising has slowly followed. Research shows that the number, influence and density of labour unions in the global south have steadily risen.
Women workers in the global south face multiple challenges to benefiting from the organised labour movement. Firstly, women workers are underrepresented, and women’s rights to work free from sexual harassment and rights to maternity leave are marginalised. Where women do hold positions of power, they have often paid a high price for sticking their heads above the parapet. Secondly, some of the industries in which women play a strong role, such as the garment industry, are those that have been removed to ‘export processing zones’. These are proliferating in industrialising countries. Some 90% of the 27 million strong workforce in such zones are female, and some countries have outlawed worker organising in these areas. How can we support the position of women within organised labour in the global south, and in the context of repressive rights environments? How can we support organising among women workers, many of whom are migrants placed within sectors that are not recognised as ‘labour’?
The last few years have seen many trade unions proactively engaging with migrant workers and domestic workers. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is an India-based trade union of self-employed women workers. But unionising is not the only form of organising. Women’s movements across the world provide us with many examples of innovative, subversive and resilient organising among women. One of the earliest and on-going struggles of women’s movements has been to make women’s unpaid and paid work visible and to advocate for parity in remuneration.
Facilitation of organising among women has been a key aspect of GAATW’s work. As an alliance that seeks to stand in solidarity with marginalised and migrant women workers, we have worked closely with self-organised groups of sex workers, domestic workers and survivors of trafficking. Indeed, the alliance includes a small number of self-organised member organisations.
While recognising the human rights violations that women experience in the process of migration for labour, we have also emphasised their autonomy and agency and tried to shift the discourse from a focus on women’s vulnerability to their strength and power. Through projects like ‘Documenting our Lives’ (2001-2004) we have encouraged self-organised groups of sex workers and survivors of trafficking from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand to learn to use video cameras and document, in their own ways and with their own voices, their lives and their everyday realities. The results went beyond the films themselves, to building a sense of community, sisterhood and belonging.
During 2005-2009, we held annual capacity enhancement workshops with the self-organised groups in our membership. In 2007, based on interviews with our self-organised member organisations, we brought out a report called Respect and Relevance: supporting self-organising as a strategy for empowerment and social change. The report highlighted the importance of empowering internal relationships within the organisation and respectful partnerships with external stakeholders, organising processes that accommodated women’s individual circumstances and needs, and the need to have opportunities where women could learn from shared experiences with other women. In 2012-2013 we worked with our partner organisations to document the experiences of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon and Qatar. The women shared stories of isolation and bad working conditions, but also of the help and support that they provide to each other. We made a short video to highlight the importance of mutual support among the women.
This month we are starting a new research project, to see whether and how organising among sex workers helps to prevent and address abuses and exploitation in the sex industry. A recent series of articles published on openDemocracy authored by sex workers organisations across the world showcases how sex workers organise to collectively demand their rights and to oppose violence, abuse and exploitation both by managers and third parties, as well as by the police, state authorities and even well-intentioned activists. We hope that our research will help governments and civil society recognise sex workers rights groups as important and indispensable anti-trafficking stakeholders.
Organising is a complex and on-going process; it has the potential to question, even dismantle capitalist and patriarchal power structures. But every organisation is also, by necessity, a structure of power. Hence, all organisations, big and small, need to have a system of checks and balances in place. Feminist leadership and democratic structures require constant self-reflection but they are ideals that one must strive for.
At a time when most jobs are temporary and organising may result in the worker losing her job, solidarity across social justice movements of workers, women and migrants is needed more urgently than ever.
On this International Worker’s Day the GAATW International Secretariat expresses her deep solidarity with all workers, including those in informal and marginalised sectors and wishes them more power and strength.