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11 October 2007 Edition

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Sinn Féin at world gathering of women trade unionists

Pauline Humphreys, Sinn Féin delegate at the conference

Pauline Humphreys, Sinn Féin delegate at the conference

WATERFORD’S Pauline Humphreys represented Sinn Féin’s Trade Union Department at the World Federation of Trade Unions Conference on Working Women in Brussels on 13 and 14 September. Here she reports on this major gathering of women trade unionists from around the globe.

WHEN I first became active in the trade union movement, 33 years ago, the idea of a conference of 95 women trade unionists from 62 countries, meeting to address the problems faced by women in the workplace, would have been met with puzzlement or derision.
The notion that women trade unionists would have problems specific to women would have been understood only by a few. This was in the days before equal pay legislation, parental leave, workplace crèches, flexible working hours and career breaks. Those of us who championed women’s organisation within unions were accused of being divisive and the battles were often bitter and long.
Nowadays, we know better. We understand that recognising difference isn’t divisive but is a unifying force, and that unions are there to represent all workers and their particular needs. We also know that, as workers, there is much more that unites us than divides us, and that recognising difference is a strength, not a weakness.
We congratulate ourselves that we have come a long way. Post-feminist Ireland is a land of equal opportunity we are told. But as I listened to the problems being faced by working women in places as diverse as Sudan, Venezuela, Serbia, Germany and India, two things became very clear. Firstly, we haven’t come far enough; secondly, that the problems are essentially the same the world over – it is only a matter of degree.
Globally, the scale of the problems seem overwhelming. Eighty-two million women are unemployed. While there has been an increase in women workers, there has also been an increase in poverty. Seventy-five per cent of people living in poverty in the world are women. Women constitute 50 per cent of economic migrants and there is only 50 per cent literacy amongst the world’s women.

Almost every delegate spoke about the gender pay gap. In India, we heard that 180 million women work. The delegate from the Indian Construction Workers’ Union told us that 70 per cent of construction workers are women, mostly labourers. These women earn 70 per cent of male wages as a matter of course. Equal pay legislation is largely unenforced. Similar situations were reported from around the world.
I related how in Ireland the pay gap was widening and that women’s wages are now 17 per cent less than men’s. A Serbian delegate said that 75 per cent of farm workers were women and that rural wages are now 40 per cent lower than the national average. Rural suicides are reaching epidemic proportions there. In many countries, women have no or lower pension rights, guaranteeing a poverty-ridden old age.
There were some bright spots though. Venezuelan and Brazilian delegates told us of positive changes in the last few years through political commitment. Women there now have pension rights and rights to equal pay. The trade union movement is now seriously addressing the problems of working women, and the new Venezuelan constitution has enshrined many workers’ rights.

Unemployment rates amongst women were another major universal concern.
Delegates from the Russian Federation, Georgia and Germany told how rights and wage rates had been clawed back after the fall of communism and that women have been the major losers. In Germany, 30 per cent of women have lost their jobs since reunification, with resultant increases in child poverty. The withdrawal or reduction of social welfare provision in these countries has also made a major impact on women’s lives. In Spain, women’s unemployment stands at 11 per cent, compared with male unemployment at 6 per cent.
The delegate from the World Federation of Democratic Youth spoke very movingly about the effects of poverty and unemployment on young women, driving them into prostitution as their only means of feeding their children. There is a demonstrable, direct relationship between rising women’s unemployment and increases in prostitution.
Other issues raised were child labour, racism against migrant workers, and violence against women.
The delegate from the Association of Arabic Working Women spoke of the culture of violence towards women manifesting in the workplace as well as in the home. A woman from Sudan talked about security of food supply and access to family planning. “Changing women’s lives needs cultural change,” she said, “but change doesn’t happen through charity.”
Maria Pimental, from Brazil, spoke about the direct relationship between increased wealth of the transnational companies and increased oppression and exploitation of women workers. “Women still have the basic struggle of the right to a job and to retain their identity as women.”
But the conference wasn’t just about reporting and listening to each other’s problems and experiences. It was about trying to identify what the international trade union movement can do to improve the lot of working women. As one South African delegate said:
“We share many of the same issues across the globe, so we should share how those issues have been tackled in different countries and learn from each other.
“We must learn how to turn women’s quantitative involvement in trade unions into qualitative involvement.”
The final declaration agreed by the conference is several pages long and very detailed but the key components are:

•    That globalisation has had a detrimental effect on all workers but especially women;
•    That the growing gap between rich and poor has had a disproportionately detrimental effect on women;
•    That the workplace is a strategic space in which to create proper respect for gender equality.

A whole raft of policies and practices were adopted to address the problems of working women within the context of class-based trade unions, a key element being the establishment of a working group of the WFTU to pursue these.
One of my abiding memories will be of an impromptu seminar in the ladies’ toilet between delegates from Sudan, India and Iran, comparing and contrasting their different ways of using a single length of cloth to produce their respective mode of dress. Women – especially strong, assertive, class-conscious activist women – it seems, will still be women, and long may it be so.

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