ITUC OnLine – March 7, 2011

International Women’s Day: New Report Shows Second Wave of Global Crisis Hurting Women

Brussels, 7 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine): Women are facing higher unemployment, underemployment  and reduced working hours as a second wave of the global economic crisis impacts female employment, reveals a new report issued by the ITUC today, International Women’s Day.  The report, “Living With Economic Insecurity: Women in Precarious Work” shows that while the initial impact of the crisis was equally detrimental to men and women,  increasing numbers of women are now either losing their jobs or being forced into more precarious, temporary, and informal forms of work. Globally the official unemployment rate for women of 7% masks a harsher reality, with a massive increase in the numbers of  “working poor”, those, mainly women, whose jobs do not provide enough to meet basic needs.  Overall, the ranks of working poor swelled by more than 100 million people due to the crisis, with around 1.51bn people, half the world’s workforce, now in vulnerable employment.

“This report, drawn from a broad set of global and national indicators, shows how the crisis is far from over, especially for women.  Much of this impact is hidden, due to deficiencies in employment statistics.  Much of it is also a direct result of women still being treated as second-class citizens at work. Too many women are denied the right to join unions and bargain collectively for better job security, wages and conditions, such as domestic workers or those working in export processing zones (EPZ). Cuts in public expenditure made with no consideration of their gender impact are having the biggest impact on women, both through higher unemployment and reduction in crucial services such as child care,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

Burrow will present the report at the inaugural meeting of the ITUC Arab-country women’s network in Tunis this week.

The report sets out four main areas of action needed to overcome the second-wave impact of the crisis on women in particular:

  • Shifting the policy focus to creating decent, quality jobs to get women out of precarious and informal work;
  • Implementing gender equality measures in government policy and especially in the labour market;
  • Introducing a social protection floor for workers in every country, with the proven beneficial effect on poverty reduction; and
  • Action by trade unions to reach out to women workers in unsecure forms of work 

“Our demands for government action are supported by trade union action to organise women workers, particularly younger women who face particular discrimination in the world of work,” said Burrow.

One such example is the “Decisions for Life” campaign, which has organised tens of thousands of young women workers in 14 countries to date.  A video promoting this campaign has also been released by the ITUC today.

Action by governments must also be accompanied by responsible employment practices in business, and multinational companies should be leading the way in this, instead of promoting or permitting violations of workers’ rights in their global operations.  In one case study in the new report, a woman employed by T-Mobile USA, a fully owned subsidiary of German giant Deutsche Telekom, describes how the company’s union-busting activities impact on her life at work and at home, a pattern repeated across T-Mobile USA’s workforce of nearly 40,000.

“Government have their responsibilities, and employers do too.  Big multinationals such as Deutsche Telekom, which respects union rights at home in Germany but not in its US subsidiary, should provide decent and secure jobs where the rights of all their employees are properly respected.  We expect better from them,” said Burrow.

For more information on the Decisions for Life Campaign click here.

For more information on Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA

Spotlight interview with Thulile Motsamai (SACCAWU)

Our Message to Women is: “Take Your Own Decisions”

Brussels, 7 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine): Thulile Motsamai, trade union representative at the Birchwood Executive hotel in Johannesburg, is one of the key players in the “Decisions for Life” (1) campaign in South Africa. She explains how this ITUC campaign is helping young South African women gain awareness of their rights and develop within the South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, SACCAWU (2).

What is the “Decisions for Life” campaign?

It is a campaign aimed at young women, it informs them not only about their rights in the workplace but also in their homes, at school, etc. It is not only aimed at working women, but young mothers, for example, some of whom leave school at a very early age. We take our campaign to supermarkets, cybercafes, to the streets, children’s homes, shelters for women who have suffered domestic violence, etc. We set up a table with leaflets in public places and approach passersby to talk to them about the campaign; in some cases we invite them to a campaign workshop or meeting. We make sure there is a bit of fun at these events, otherwise young people would soon lose interest if faced with nothing but long speeches. 

Approaching people is not difficult: we are young people talking to young people; we don’t talk about Nelson Mandela or other people who live completely different lives from theirs, we speak about our own situation. We distribute postcards that refer to the campaign’s “My Wage” website where they can find all kinds of practical information on how to prepare for a job interview, places to look for a job, etc. We are trying to reach as many young people as possible, because if your CV shows that you have no work experience, employers see you as easy prey, as a person they can underpay and exploit to the hilt. When you are aware of your rights it is different. We receive some very interesting feedback by email and telephone, etc. 

Do you also take the campaign into schools?

Yes, the campaign is also aimed at students, as they have to take important decisions about their future as soon as they complete their studies. We try, for example, to raise their awareness about sexual harassment, to help them gain self confidence and teach them to say “no” by making them realise that this harassment can lead to many serious problems such as HIV, desolation and even suicide. They have to take care of themselves before they enter the labour market, so that when they do they are strong women who know their rights and know what can and cannot happen.

One of the specific aspects of “Decisions for Life” in South Africa is the campaign to promote female condoms, which are not available in sufficient numbers. We have observed that condoms for men are more common, and that women are not always in a position to negotiate protected sexual relations. And yet we are only able to find female condoms in a few clinics. Our campaign is calling for a female condom for every male one.

We have started campaigning for female condoms in schools and universities because students are people at risk. Some give up their studies due to early pregnancy, HIV or even sexual harassment in educational establishments; there’s a whole host of problems linked to sexual conduct.

We are also targeting unemployed women, as we know that some of them decide to sell their bodies. We cannot stop them from doing so, but they should at least do so safely. 

“Decisions for Life” is therefore addressed at a larger public than trade union members…

Yes, but we also take the opportunity to inform young women about the benefits of being unionised. The image people have of trade unionists is usually that seen on television: middle aged or older men and women, hardly any young people. We try to change this perception, to show them that they have a place in the trade union movement, that their points of view can be heard, that they are just as important as everyone else, that age is of no consequence.

Our message is really to say to women: “Take your own decisions”, be it about moving house, starting a family, having sexual relations, getting married or not, etc. When we are capable of deciding for ourselves, we are capable of doing it in all other areas, such as choosing a job.

What does your involvement in this campaign bring you, on a personal level?

Happiness! My involvement has awoken a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I have a diploma in management and marketing. It’s not easy working as a chambermaid, but I have to do it to feed my three children. Thanks to the “Decisions for Life” campaign, I am a new person and I do not even dislike my work as a chambermaid any more.

The experiences we exchange through the campaign have helped me understand that we should not be afraid of men or of anyone. We have to support each other. Before, I didn’t like speaking to other people, especially about things that really affect me, but a South African union activist, Thabisa Sigaba, who is now sadly deceased, has been a great inspiration to me. She was the youngest and the first woman full-time shop steward; she radiated a fantastic energy and even though she was younger than me, I learnt from her example that we could become anything we wanted to be.

Has the campaign had any impact on your union?

The campaign has helped us recruit new members, as young women come to realise the benefits of being unionised. Those who are still studying come to the same conclusion and when they enter the world of work, they will make sure they have a union behind them.

And in the same way as they take part in decision making within the “Decisions for Life” campaign, young women members also want to have their say when it comes to trade union decisions. Women account for 80% of my union’s members, and yet the leadership is dominated by men. But things are starting to change. 

Was it hard to convince the leaders of your union to change the way they do things?

It is hard to convince everyone. Even the women fail to support each other; we have a tendency to pull each other down. When elections are held, we vote for men. Prior to the launch of the campaign, women never put themselves forward for leadership positions as they thought they would never be elected, and they preferred not to try at all rather than taking the risk of failing. We always turn towards men, thinking they can make everything possible; we forget that we too can be leaders ourselves. We can be peace negotiators, mothers, wives, sisters, colleagues, but we don’t believe it ourselves. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t be given any credit, but our own work should come first.

There are some leaders who, still now, show very little interest in “Decisions for Life”, even within my union. But the fact that we as women have been able to unite in support of this project has forced men to accept the situation, as they have no other alternative. In the past, the women would leave one of their colleagues who had a good idea to manage on her own with the men, but now we support one another more.

Has the campaign changed things at the hotel where you work?

Tremendously! When we want something, we have to do it ourselves. We cannot really expect men to negotiate for our rights. The campaign has helped build our self confidence and to demand our place as stakeholders in collective bargaining negotiations. Ever since we started taking part in the negotiations ourselves, we have been able to raise the points that interest us the most and have our demands adopted. We have succeeded in negotiating a policy on parental rights, the signing of a policy on sexual harassment, a policy on health and safety, another on HIV, and have secured a commitment from the company to reimburse 50% of medical costs (which we are trying to push up to 75%). Similar results have been achieved in several other companies thanks to the campaign, as the women are more involved.

Could you tell us more about the policies negotiated within your company?

The policy against sexual harassment involves a strengthening of the complaint mechanism. That on parental rights covers maternity leave, the leave that can be taken if a child is ill, preventative measures to stop pregnant women from being overburdened, etc. Some of these points were already provided for in the national legislation, but the management only respects these rights if they are laid down in the collective agreement it signs. The same is the case with HIV: the legislation stipulates that people affected by the virus should not be discriminated against at work, but we have negotiated the assurance that this will never happen in our hotel. We have also secured an agreement whereby a person infected with HIV can take up to eight months sick leave, with half of her salary paid by the company and the other half by social security, and that she can return to her job and to the same position in the hierarchy, when she is better. This is an added gain relative to the legislation.

Has your perception of the union changed?

Before, I lived with the apprehension that as a woman, and even more so as a young woman, what I had to say would not have any impact, even if it made absolute sense, simply because I am a woman. 

But I now know that we do not have mothers within unions but mentors, people who want to share their knowledge with us. It was these older women trade unionists who presented us with “Decisions for Life”, teaching us to head the campaign ourselves, whereas before we simply did what we were told to do. They helped us to understand that the project’s success depended on us. It is also the more experienced women unionists that taught us how to identify sexual harassment. The campaign is now ours and we can, in turn, act as mentors for other young women.

How do you see your future in the trade union movement?

I don’t want to be anyone very high up, but I want to change something in the lives of young people, something to ensure that their views are heard and acted on. I would like to reach out to as many young people as possible. There are so many young women suffering, who are tired of their lives, young mothers faced with huge problems when the fathers take off. I would like to bring a ray of hope into their lives, show them that there is a life in spite of all these problems, but it depends on them, they can choose to continue down the same path or to lift their heads up high again and do something with their lives. It is the only way to build a better world.

Interview by Maria Tsirantonaki and Samuel Grumiau

(1) Decisions for Life Campaign supports and empowers young women, individually and collectively, to make well-informed decisions about work, career and family, have access to secure jobs, earnings and social benefits, demand equal opportunities at work, and improve their leadership and negotiation skills.

(2)  South Africa Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, affiliated to COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions)

Spotlight interview with Kamal Abou Aita (RETA – Egypt)

“This revolution, it’s my lifelong dream coming true”

Brussels, 7 March 2011 (ITUC OnLine):  President of RETA (*), the first independent union established under the Mubarak regime, in 2009, Kamal Abou Aita has lived through many years of fierce repression against free trade unionism. Having been arrested 21 times under Sadat and Mubarak, he tells us about his action with the workers at the heart of the revolution. As new trade unions emerge across the country in all sectors, he outlines the needs and challenges facing this newly emerging independent trade union movement, the driving force for a new Egypt focused on social justice.

After battling so hard for so many years, how did you feel during the initial days of the revolution?

I had a feeling of indescribable joy at seeing my lifelong dream coming true. We have been taking to the streets, holding small demonstrations for years, but to see Egyptians taking to the streets en masse, it was a moment of incredible joy.

How do you explain such a massive mobilisation in favour of the revolution within such a short space of time?

The young people used Facebook and new communication technologies very efficiently and managed to mobilise huge numbers of people in favour of the revolution. At the same time, since 2006, workers had started strike movements across the country, which prepared the ground for the revolution. It is through these strikes that they learnt to confront their fears, to dare to demonstrate in the streets and to organise themselves. The people’s committees were set up to ensure security in the various neighbourhoods, but also to protect the tools of production in companies.

What were the main stages in the battle for social justice and trade union rights leading to the formation of RETA, the Real Estate Tax Authority Union?

We had already started to battle and demonstrate for a revolution of this kind back in 1972, within a students’ committee. But its time had not yet come. In 1977, from 17 to 19 January, the massive popular uprising against the price of bread and other basic staples was a key moment in this long fight, over the course of which I was arrested twenty one times, under Sadat and then the Mubarak regime.

As of 1977, only the government-controlled union federation ETUF (**) was authorised, and creating a new union was impossible. The state put particularly strong pressure on the public sector. In 2007, we took a first step, by organising a group of workers and calling a strike. The response was very positive, with over 50,000 workers taking part. We set up 29 strike committees in each governorate and a coordinating committee here in Cairo. We were the first public sector employees in history to hold a strike outside the workplace, and we marched to the parliament building. The Finance Ministry finally gave in to our demands and we secured pay rises and better promotion opportunities. Following the success of the strike, we held discussions with the general and local strike committees, and they all agreed to become trade unions, in all the regions.  The ETUF, which had called on the Finance Minister to ignore our demands, went on, in 2009, to file a complaint against our union, accusing it of being illegal. Our office was closed down and I was arrested by the internal security services. I put up my own defence, for hours, evoking the right guaranteed by the Constitution to freely establish a union, in compliance with the ILO Convention on freedom of association ratified by Egypt. The judge consequently dropped the case against me. During my trial, members of the union were demonstrating in front of the building where I was being held. If it hadn’t been for that I would have been kept there for much longer. The ETUF leaders, which are part of the NDP (Mubarak’s party) political committee, along with members of parliament, did everything in their power to force the workers to leave RETA. Some were transferred, demoted or had their wages cut as a reprisal. The ETUF also set up a competing union in our sector, where it did not have one, in complete breach of the law. In spite of all these difficulties, RETA has 41,000 members across the country out of the total workforce of 48,000 employees in the sector. It is a very high level of representation.

The ETUF also, however, continued to force RETA members to pay the union dues automatically deducted from their wages to it. Following a series of protests, 6,000 were able to escape from this obligation, but most of the others are still forced to pay it today.

How critical have you been of the ETUF’s attitude since the revolution broke out?

The first thing the ETUF did was to set up committees to stop any group of workers wanting to go on strike and join the demonstrators. The money the ETUF has accumulated through compulsory union dues and government funding was used to pay the thugs that descended on the streets to terrorise the population.

When the ETUF set up a union in our sector to compete with RETA, it did not manage to place anyone from the financial sector at its head and parachuted someone in from the banking sector, who was then replaced by another leader from the military production sector. This same person was part of the counter-revolutionary forces involved in the “camel attack” on Tahrir Square. I was on Tahrir Square with RETA members from Mahalla and other towns. He even went on to say in front of the cameras that they were going to punish the protestors and break the revolution, hurling the worst insults at us, before being stopped by the revolutionary demonstrators. And yet this fellow is still at the head of the ETUF’s bogus union in our sector!

Many workers from all sectors have built up a great deal of anger against the ETUF. This is why when the university employees went on strike they abducted the vice president of the ETUF, who had come to put an end to it. The same thing happened at a steel plant.

Now, we are receiving daily messages from the ETUF, which is suddenly saying that it recognises the right to freedom of association and is proposing that we work together. 

But the only strike that the ETUF supported was that at a linen textile mill in the Tanta industrial zone last year. It intervened to push the workers to accept an early retirement plan. But after being on strike for six months the workers were left to their fate and are all still out of work. The aim was to close down the factory, not to defend the workers who are now all jobless.

Does the new government set up following Mubarak’s departure meet your expectations?

We have serious concerns about the Labour Minister. I had a sleepless night after learning from the television that the new government’s labour minister was a member of the ETUF leadership. There was no way we could accept it. The deputy prime minister then asked to meet Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS (***) who supports independent unions and offered him the post of labour minister. But we recommended Ahmed Hassan El Bouray, who has been an ILO expert. The latter’s nomination had already been announced by some media but, to our great surprise, it was the treasurer of the ETUF, who clearly has a hand in all the corruption mechanisms, who was appointed. He contacted us, as well as Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS and other independent trade unionists, but we refused to see him. With the resignation of the prime minister on 3 March, we hope that he will also be replaced. The candidacy of Ahmed Hassan El Bouray, which we support, is still valid.

On 2 March, the first conference was held of the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in the offices of the journalists’ union, next to Tahrir Square. How can it be made into a powerful instrument to defend the rights of all Egyptian workers?

A few days before the revolution on 25 January, myself and the other leaders of the four independent trade unions had already decided to establish a new federation, but some of us preferred to wait until May Day. When the revolution started, we quickly decided to announce the creation of the new federation on Tahrir Square where we were all gathered, on 30 January. We immediately launched a call for a general strike.

Before the revolution, we were all very afraid, we wondered who and how we would be punished. But with the revolution, we felt safer.

This first conference on 2 March gave us the opportunity to publically present our main demands for a minimum wage, social protection and respect for freedom of association.

Hundreds of workers are contacting us every day, asking to form unions, in all sectors, public and private alike. We try to advise them and tell them what the procedure is. It’s a huge task.

How do you envisage the future development of this brand new federation, where everything still has to be built?

An idea to develop would be the construction of a federation that is really capable of quickly bringing together all Egyptian workers. Putting together the workers’ unions and the syndicates that currently represent doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers. But we should also open it to the rural workers, the “fellahs”, who have never seen any kind of organising and yet they represent the heart of Egypt, which is traditionally a country of farmers.

How are you going to go about this?

The idea is to establish general trade union centres in all the governorates. For example, if a group of agriculture workers ask to join, they elect a trade union representative, which will allow them to then affiliate with the federation. Afterwards, they could also launch sectoral federations.

What is the position of women in the new independent trade union movement?

Thirteen out of the 46 members of the RETA Executive Committee are women, and our vice president is a woman. They are also well represented at grassroots level. Women played a key role during the strikes, handling a lot of the practical organisation of a strike involving as many as 50,000 workers. Twenty five percent of the leaders of the independent health technicians union are women.

What are the main difficulties you now face, in concrete terms?

Thanks to the revolution, the threats against our members and the attacks by security forces and employers have stopped. Our main challenge now is managing to handle the huge amount of requests we are receiving for the formation of first-level unions so that they can be established quickly and in line with the principles of trade union rights and freedoms. Having lived for decades under the single union system, a great deal of work is needed to change people’s mindsets, as individuals, as well as to change the trade union language and habits. Most workers have never been able to exercise trade union rights. It is going to require a huge educational effort.

What kind of support are you expecting from the international trade union movement?

The ITUC’s support, from our very beginnings, has been really important. The ITUC has always remained faithful to the principle of free trade unionism, refusing to work with the ETUF, which has helped a great deal.

Our affiliation to Public Services International (PSI) has also helped us a lot. The PSI has already given us the opportunity to benefit from training, and the letters of solidarity sent to President Mubarak and the ETUF by PSI affiliates throughout the work were a great support to us.

So education and training are the main demands you are presenting to the international trade union movement?

We do not want money. A range of experiences has shown that the influx of money from abroad does not produce good results and leads all too easily to a downward spiral of corruption. Education and training are our priorities. We would also like to strengthen our ties with the trade unions in other North African countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco. These have more experience in the area of training, for women and young people, for example. We have solid experience in the area of strike action. We could exchange experiences and learn from one another.

Interview by Natacha David
(*) Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA)

(**) Egyptian Trade Union Federation – ETUF, part of the Mubarak regime

(***) Center for Trade Union & Workers Services (CTUWS)
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