ICFTU OnLine – March 7, 2006(1)

Spotlight interview with Kamalam (ICFTU Equality Department)

Brussels, 7 March 2006 (ICFTU Online): As the ICFTU launches the second stage of the women’s organising campaign – “Women for unions, unions for women” – the new Director of the ICFTU’s Equality and Youth Department, Kamalam, explains the aims of this campaign.

From Kuala Lumpur to Brussels, Kamalam embodies a long trade union struggle against various forms of discrimination. She sets out her priorities for action to promote equality.

What are your priorities as Director of the Equality Department?

This department deals with all equity issues. It is not just women:  gender is a part of our work but we also deal with young and elderly workers, ethnic minorities and indigenous workers, gay and lesbian workers, migrant workers, workers with disabilities etc. We deal with the quest for equality for every group that is discriminated against.

Our priorities depend on the group of workers in question but in essence the struggle is to bring about justice and equality. When it comes to gender, which is one of the biggest tasks of this department, everybody knows that women still have a long way to go to be equal because of the gender power relations in society. This same power imbalance is evident in the working sphere and within unions.

But there are more and more women on the labour market, aren’t there ?

It’s positive that more and more women are in the active workforce now but, at the same time, one has to consider what type of work they perform. Where is the decent work for women active in the informal economy, for migrant women workers, for those working in Export Processing Zones ? Women are generally engaged in labour-intensive and badly paid occupations, in both the formal and the informal economies.

We take now these challenges as priorities. We have to organise those sectors and this is what our 8th March campaign is all about: organizing and empowering women, helping them to join trade unions so they can make collective demands.

The ICFTU has already run a three-year campaign to promote the involvement of women in trade unions. How successful was it?

It was very successful. Not every union took up the challenge, but where there were active women who wanted to do something, such as in Mauritania, Algeria, India, Slovakia and Peru the campaign has worked.

In Mauritania for example, the number of women members has increased by more than 150%. Women in twenty four unions have already started work to participate in the new campaign that we are launching this 8th March 2006 and the number is growing. We hope to be successful but at the same time we know that we face many challenges, one of which is that some people may feel threatened: when there is an influx of women into an organisation, the votes may change hands during trade union internal elections. Many unions don’t review their structures and when they do expand to get more representation, the structure remains very narrow, so you often have to displace somebody if you want to come in. Unions should examine their own structures to see what prevents women from getting into higher positions.

The ICFTU policy is to have a gender balance in top union posts, but isn’t it common to find that men are Presidents and women Vice-Presidents?

Due to the work of our programs and also the international focus on gender, I think it has become more common to have women on union committees. But it’s true that this alone doesn’t solve the problem of women’s participation. It is necessary to have more women in unions and to have powerful women leaders, which means they must be elected from the grass-roots membership. In any case, having a woman in a leading position helps because it shows others that it is possible. That’s why we say it is important to have a quota for women on committees because if women are able to attend meetings they get involved, are better informed and information can empower them.

We have made some progress. Due to our efforts, for instance, we have been able to increase the number of women who come to international meetings, such as the meetings of the ICFTU and the ILO. But even at the ILO, we still have less women in the trade union delegation (16%), compared to government and employer delegations. This is a big challenge for us. Trade unions are still a very male structure, in some ways things haven’t changed very much.

What are your expectations for the new campaign Unions for Women, Women for Unions?

This Unions for Women, Women for Unions campaign builds on the success of the earlier campaign. It aims to make a real difference in women’s membership rates as well as in decision making bodies and improve women workers’ rights. A survey carried out in 2003 pointed to around 40% female membership in the ICFTU. We aim to increase it by 5% during this two year campaign. The campaign targets the organizing of women workers in the Export Processing Zones and in the informal economy, migrant women workers and young women workers. We want to target these areas as more and more women work in them, but their place is at the bottom of the hierarchy with low pay and poor working conditions.

What should the unions do in order to organize more women ?

Trade unions need to refocus on organizing and provide resources not only to recruit new members but also to maintain membership. With the changing nature of work, trade unions must reflect the diversity in the workforce if they are to remain effective. The issues that are important to women like pay equity, maternity rights, child care, sexual harassment and HIV/AIDS must become mainstream bargaining issues for trade unions. There must also be discernible change in the “male” culture and image of trade unions, with meetings being organized during convenient times, child care facilities being available, etc.

Recruitment of women workers could also be enhanced through campaigns carried out by women’s committees and through engaging women organizers.

Trade union constitutions and structures should also be examined and adapted to provide for the organization of the ununionised men and women workers, be they in the informal economy, non-regular or atypical employment or in the migrant workforce. National trade centres should strive for the ratification of ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and changes to labour legislation to allow for organization of all workers.

There are a lot of things happening out there in the broader society or at home which constrain women from taking a more active role in their work, and hence in a trade union. The power relation at home is important : we have cases where women tell us they can not come to meetings because if they have to travel, their husband or father or brother has to come along, especially if they have to stay outside the city.

Do unions have the power to change societal attitudes regarding gender issues?

Women members of trade unions are usually more willing to work with the rest of civil society, such as NGOs. It’s positive because the women, in order to strengthen themselves, need to move out of the trade union field and form linkages with likeminded NGOs who are also examining issues related to women. That’s how we are involved for instance at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, where we are collaborating with civil society organizations. Networking with other civil society organizations is important because we face a common challenge: when women suffer from sexual harassment or domestic violence, it also affects their working life. These things are not necessarily brought up in the workplace as issues, but it influences the way they work and how they can perform.

Is there a country where gender equality has been achieved?

No. Even in the Nordic countries, they talk about the glass ceiling, women can reach a certain level in the employment hierarchy and then they can’t go any further. That’s why it is important to have women committees in trade unions. The advantage of women committees is that it gives them a space to discuss and strategize among themselves. In gender committees, some women will be more reluctant to say what they want. In many countries, gender committees are lead by men. I find it very strange that they call it gender main-streaming and then set up equality committees where they put a man at the top.

ICFTU has initiated a SAP (Special Action Programme) on migrant workers. What is the content of this programme?

We are in the first phase of this SAP, which has a three-pronged strategy. One is to develop partnerships between the unions of sending and receiving countries. We have identified the unions, our regional organizations have been consulted, but now we have to put the partnerships in place, and it is the responsibility of the regional organizations of the ICFTU to initiate this process. The idea of the partnerships is to open a discussion about the issues migrant workers face and to see in what way an exchange of information can be helpful.

For instance, we would like to see partnerships between receiving and sending countries, such as Bahrain and India and Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It would be a direct partnership between the unions, with minimal ICFTU involvement. The second strategy is to pilot a series of service centers in different regions (we are looking for the moment at Malaysia, South-Africa, Lithuania and Costa Rica). Their goal would be to provide assistance to migrant workers and later on to organize them. The third part of the strategy is to help the unions to develop materials in the language of migrant workers regarding the laws and rights afforded to them in the countries in which they work.

How did you get involved in trade unions?

I became a union member as soon as I started work, at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia. I worked there as a research assistant.

In those days, there was discrimination in the working and housing conditions between men and women workers. Women were the minority, so we had to change the situation by ourselves. I started on the union committee and slowly climbed the union ranks of the Rubber Research Institute staff union to become its president in 1976. It allowed me to be a General Council member of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, I was then elected in the Executive Committee of the MTUC until I left Malaysia in 1984 for family reasons. I then went on to do a Masters in women’s and development studies in 1984. My interest was to examine the theoretical base of women’s exploitation that I had always been witness to. I joined the ICFTU in 1988, in a project aimed at developing materials and methods for evaluating projects. After that, I did evaluations for the ICFTU before taking on the coordination of the Asia-Pacific region in 1998.

Why were you particularly interested now in becoming Director of the Equality Department?

There is still a lot of discrimination in society and employment. There is a need to address that, and you feel that you can play a small part in that, for instance by sharing the information that you have, by training union people to have more skills and taking the ongoing work a step further. I often ask my male colleagues in trade unions why they would demand equal and dignified treatment from employers when they are not willing to do that with their counterparts: the women who work with them. It is natural that when you ask to be treated as an equal, you should also treat other people that way.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau, Christine Loomans and Geraldine Delorme

Establishing a direct link with day-to-day life in export processing zones and the informal economy, the ICFTU has published a series of interviews of women trade unionists from Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua and Burkina Faso.


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