The feminisation of poverty
by New Worker correspondent
LOW PAY, discrimination, long hours, domestic responsibilities, harassment, violence and lack of opportunities are the major problems facing working women all around the globe. Ninety-five women delegates from trade unions and progressive political parties in 62 countries reported a very similar picture of the situation in their own countries to a two-day conference in Brussels last week organised by the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).
It’s an old, old story but the common themes in the contributions stood out; most countries have equal opportunities legislation and protection for women from violence – but these laws are rarely implemented.
The spread of liberal economic policies, described as global imperialism by WFTU, is having a devastating effect on working class standards of living, wages and working conditions around the globe and women workers are feeling the brunt of this.
These same economic policies have increased the commodification of women, leading to an alarming increase in the trafficking of women and enforced prostitution.
Women living in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who once enjoyed high standards of equality and protection now face some of the worst conditions.
But women living in China, Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela are enjoying rising standards, though delegates from these countries explained there are still improvements to be made. Maria Fabregas from the Cuba Construction Trade Union reported that the situation for women in Cuba is improving; barriers to equality have come down and government funds have been earmarked to improve the situation for women further.
Wang Xuemei from the All China Federation of Trade Unions, which has 170 million members, of whom 61 million (36.4 per cent) are women, reported that China’s legal system protects women’s employment rights. The shift from rural to urban work in China has led to a greater diversification of women’s employment. But in some sectors the trade union membership of women is low and women who are not in trade unions are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.
Amarjeet Kaur from the All India TUC reported very serious problems that are exacerbated by imperialist globalisation, leaving many woman working in slave conditions. She spoke of remnants of feudalism, though there are emerging traces of socialism in a few areas.
She said: “The shenanigans of the neo-liberal economic globalisation, mass privatisation and deregulation have bulldozed the domestic markets, destroying the employment potential of the industries.
“Unemployment, under-employment, casualisation of jobs, sale of state-owned enterprises, mergers and acquisitions of industrial enterprises, exploitation of cheap labour, shifting of jobs in the ‘race to the bottom’, denial of hard-won legislative entitlements including social security, heath care benefits and so on are the worst onslaughts against the workers.
“While the phenomenon of globalisation is pernicious to the whole of humanity, the capitalist system with its inherent characteristic of creating subjugation and slavery is intrinsically anti-women, resulting in the ‘feminisation of poverty’.”
Amarjeet Kaur went on to speak of a rising rate of farmer suicide in India – and among women farmers. But no statistics are kept on women – so they do not get any benefits or relief.
Many are forced into prostitution from as young as 14 and become commodities of men.
She also spoke of deteriorating working conditions in call centres where many Indian women are employed by foreign banks – now making big job cuts in the current global banking crisis.
One delegate from West Bengal spoke of fighting in the streets happening as the conference was taking place, centred on a trade dispute by women in the textile industry. Men trade unionists had come out in force in solidarity with the women in struggle and this was leading to the fighting as police tried to break up marches and support rallies.
Nemat Hassan from the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions told the conference that Arab working women still have very few constitutional rights; their role is considered to be housewives and they lack civil and personal rights. She said that Arab societies are generally dominated by men and that many women lack political awareness. Those fighting for women’s rights find themselves in conflict with religious ideas.
Anastancia Ndhlovua from the World Federation of Democratic Youth spoke of the diverse backgrounds and problems of delegates – but with common themes.
She also spoke on the effects of imperialist globalisation – of unemployment, the casualisation of work and young girls forced into prostitution. “Prostitution isn’t a job,” she said, “it’s slavery”.
Noluthando Sibiya of the South African Confederation of Trade Unions told the conference that in South Africa a woman’s average life expectancy has dropped from 57 years to 47, largely because of the HIV-Aids pandemic.
She said that the overthrow of apartheid had been a great step forward but now the overthrow of capitalism was needed. Neo-liberal economic policies have increased all kinds of social ills.
She also said that in the trade union movement in South Africa there were many women at rank and file level but too few at leadership level.
Natalia Lisitsyna from Russia Zaschita Truda spoke of the shocking collapse of conditions for working women in Russia now. She said that mass poverty has become a stable phenomenon that has altered the mentality of people.
Women now face a choice – to be employed or to give birth, they can no longer be expected to be able to do both. Working women now have no rest days and no breaks at all during their shifts for meals or to use the toilet. They are expected to spend full eight-hour shifts standing at their lathes. Natalia also told the conference that the population of Russia has decreased by around 30 million since the early 1990s.
Nanuli Kvavadze painted a similar picture of life now in Georgia. She said the privatisation process had been a shock therapy with the International Monetary Fund destroying all economic sectors.
“Society is being destroyed; the education system is so expensive now; it is so different from the Soviet system.”
Daphne Liddle, from the Central Committee of the New Communist Party of Britain, spoke on the devastating effects of high levels of personal debt on long hours, health and child neglect and how such debt undermines trade unions.
Other common factors from the delegates were high levels of political awareness and a deep understanding of the class struggle. All were well aware that the disadvantages of working women arise from a class-divided society and not from any inherent quality of either men or women.
And the evidence showed that where men and women trade unionists stood firmly together in solidarity, conditions improved for both. There was not a trace of bourgeois feminism.
Ncumisa Kondlo from the South African Communist Party called for a different kind of debate in future conferences. She said it was not enough to define the problems of women in struggle everywhere – the problems are the same. What we need is to exchange experiences in combating these problems so that delegates can go away from the conference with constructive strategies and tactics to implement in their own conditions.
Ncumisa is an SACP Member of Parliament in South Africa. She told the New Worker she had first become politicised as a teenager by the Soweto school strike against apartheid in the 1970s.
The conference also included delegates from Afghanistan, Basque, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Congo, Cuba, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Gabon, Galicia, Greece, Guinea, Hungary, Germany, Iran, Ireland , Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal Serbia, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Tunisia, Venezuela and Vietnam.
There were apologies and messages of good will from many other organisations. WFTU paid all accommodation costs but the price of air fares was prohibitive to many struggling organisations.
The general secretary of WFTU, George Mavrikos, left political campaigning in the Greek general election for a few hours to come and address the conference. He told of the recent revival of WFTU following its 15th congress.
In May 2006 WFTU organised a trade union conference on the “Social phenomenon of economic migration in the 21st century” also held in Brussels and involving dozens of trade union organisations and academics from around the world.
It also organised a European trade union conference of “The truth about Darfur” with representatives from 24 European countries.
There was a solidarity conference with the people of Lebanon held in September 2006 in Athens, which condemned the imperialist policy of Israel and the United States.
In the International Labour Organisation WFTU mounted a defence of Cuba and Venezuela against slanderous attacks. And WFTU took part – along with the AFCTU, OATUU and ICATU – in organising the International Trade Union Forum of Beijing.
WFTU also participates in the United Nations in New York, in Unesco in Paris and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN in Rome.
George Mavrikos told the conference last week: “For us in the WFTU, in the class oriented trade union movement, the role of the working woman is crucial. The role of working women in the production process, in the trade unions, in the political struggle can provide additional strength to the popular struggles now and in the future.
“The class oriented trade union movement has always had a firm position and fought for equal rights for working women, for equality at work and in every aspect of life.
“It struggles to stop the enslavement and trading of women, for the right of women to vote, for their right to participate in unions, in political parties, in government and state positions, for the participation of women in social and cultural activities.
“Many of these rights were realised in socialist countries, where the working woman achieved the status she was entitled to.
“Unfortunately, following the counter-revolutionary developments in the period 1990-91, the international correlation of forces changed to the detriment of the progressive forces. The US and its allies enforced a new imperialist world order and in this way many of the rights and gains of women were taken away.”
He told the conference that the conclusions of the conference will be discussed in all trade unions that are members of WFTU and secretariats for working women will be formed in all trade unions to plan and coordinate struggles.
The conclusions will be sent to international organisations and governments and conferences of working women will be held in every continent next year. The proceedings of the conference will be produced in book form and Comrade Mavrikos called on every trade union to see that it is translated into the language of its country.
The conference produced a final statement that was subject to amendment (mainly additions) during the debate, that described the position of working women and listed essential measures to improve things.