Labour

The Life of Labour: International Working Women’s Day Edition

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New Delhi: Activists take part at International Women's Day rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

New Delhi: Activists take part at International Women’s Day rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Subhav Shukla

International Working Women’s Day Edition

The History

“The story begins with the celebration of National Woman’s Day on February 23rd 1909 in New York. Many, including the UN on their website, claim that this was ‘in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York” but that seems to be an apocryphal story containing little truth” writes Thozhilalar Koodam.

The truth, then, seems to be this. Women’s Day was marked first in the US on 28th February by “socialist working women”, but International Women’s Day was first proposed at an International Conference of Socialist Women by Luise Zietz. It was backed by over a hundred women from seventeen countries, including the legendary Clara Zetkin. The resolution read:

“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day (Frauentag), which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception.”

Jacobin Magazine explains that “for the delegates, supporting the “socialist conception” meant promoting not just female suffrage, but labor legislation for working women, social assistance for mothers and children, equal treatment of single mothers, provision of nurseries and kindergartens, distribution of free meals and free educational facilities in schools, and international solidarity. Simply put, International Women’s Day was, from the very beginning, a Working Women’s Day.”

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March; in the next few years, various countries decided to mark 8th March as the day. Interestingly, it so happened that in 1917, “March 8 would acquire a new significance when the February Revolution convulsed Russia (February 23 in the Julian calendar is March 8 in the Gregorian calendar). Russian working women played a leading role in the upheaval. Despite the opposition of every party, including the Bolsheviks, they turned the International Women’s Day demonstration into a mass strike that carried away the whole working class of Petrograd and gave birth to the Russian Revolution.”

But even after a hundred years, women all over the world still fight for fundamental economic and political rights.

Organising the ‘Unorganisable’

After being promised a doubling of salaries in August last year, Bangalore’s Pourakarmikas, sanitation workers, say the promise hasn’t been kept. “We have got photocopies of our passbooks to show the BBMP that we are not lying or trying to defame them. You can see for yourself. We are still getting paid only Rs 7,030 and they have not been paying us the promised amount,” said one 36-year-old pourakarmika.

Their protest on Women’s Day was met with an absurd remark from the Mayor that is telling about which women matter on Women’s Day. “We have a Women’s Day celebration here and the inauguration ceremony will begin in a few minutes. This protest will disturb the celebration, please go back to work,” Mayor Padmavati reportedly said.

Exploring the theme further is an essay on pop-feminism and its failure to stand in solidarity with working women, told through the story of a housekeeping union trying to ‘lean in’ to demand living wage and shorter hours from their employers – much to the inconvenience of Harvard and the business school feminists affiliated to it. Though “nothing has a longer lineage in feminism than chronicles of cleaning—how much it hurts, how little it is respected”, corporate leaders, celebrated for being ‘strong women’, have always stopped just short of extending a hand across class and race boundaries.

On the other side are women from marginalised communities who are organising themselves and others to win their own social and political freedoms. Take this example from Pakistan of the victory of home-based workers who’ve just received legal recognition. Or this example from an essay written by Shiela Bapat about a movement in the US:

“The National Domestic Workers Alliance is comprised of approximately 53 workers center affiliates throughout the country…Critically, many of these organisations were founded and are led by women of colour. Many of these leaders have been domestic workers themselves or are the children of domestic workers. Priscilla Gonzalez led the New York–based Domestic Workers United for many years before becoming leader of police reform organisation Communities United for Police Reform. Her activism contributed to local and state policy victories for domestic workers in New York. Gonzalez’s personal story influences her activism. Her Ecuadorian mother worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York and experienced poor treatment by her employers. Despite working long hours, Gonzalez’s mother was not paid overtime. She was expected to pay out of pocket for the children’s snacks and toys, and she’d have to fight to be reimbursed for these expenses.”

A writer at Thozhilalar Koodam who has had experience in organising women workers writes:

“One of the primary tasks to organise women would be to expand a woman’s identity as a worker. Women commonly define themselves in relation to others within the context of a family – as mothers, wives or daughters – but rarely as workers. If you ask a woman who is a domestic worker, a construction worker or even an NREGA worker, what she does, answers would most commonly be a flippant “Naa chumma thaan irruken” (I am not doing anything) or simply “coolie velai-ku poren”. This is very telling as women don’t recognise their own labour, especially in the unorganised sector.“

Within the union as well, there are distinctions made between workers’ issues and ‘women’s issues’.

“Recognising that wages may not necessarily be the only concern of women workers is therefore important. Issues like health and safety, maternity, leave and sexual harassment are all equally, if not more important. In many instances these maybe the starting point for spontaneous collective action within the factory and unions must strategically embrace these sentiments – needs not just as ‘women’s issues’ but as ‘workers’ issues’.”

Enhanced Maternity Benefits Announced for Women in Formal Employment

In a welcome development, Lok Sabha passed a bill enhancing maternity benefits for women working in shops and establishments with 10 or more workers. It has increased the paid leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. The Government in a related development, has made Aadhar mandatory for women to avail state funded benefits for maternity adding one more layer of paper work. It has been observed earlier in 2014, when such requirements were placed on a trial basis, beneficiary numbers fell over 80%. This has raised serious concerns of exclusion of the women in informal sector that dominated employment sector with over 96% share in jobs. Ladies Finger has raised the red herring in this regard.

Indian Women Climbing Fast Through Corporate Hierarchy Yet Equality at Work a Long Distance Away

Two studies by job portals LinkedIn and Monster.com have revealed wide gender gap that continues to define white collar work. While Linkedin’s report on recruitment suggests that there has been a marked increase of 25% in the number of women being recruited to leadership positions in India. Yet the gender gap in leadership remains the highest in comparison to 9 other countries including OECD countries like Canada and France. The Monster Salary Index for 2016 also paints a dismal picture with Indian women workers receiving 25% less wage for an average working hour than men. While it is a disturbing indicator, there is little information on the vast Indian informal sector, where conditions might be even worse, with little regulation. India can draw lessons to decrease disparity by adopting measures such as the one Iceland has recently mandated which requires the companies to prove that there is no disparity of wage between men and women. This measure, mandated from this International women’s day, is intended to bring parity of wage by 2022. Women workers in Iceland had staged a unique protest last October, leaving office at 2:48pm, to press the point about wage differentials between men and women. This had prompted the government to act to resolve this issue.

Women Scientists Navigate a Deeply Masculine Fishing Sector

Ladies Finger documents the deep gender divisions within the fishing sector, where women tackle every task except venturing out to sea and catching fish. From the vantage point of women marine biologists and social scientists, we are exposed to the many practical and patriarchal barriers that have kept women away from the boats and the sea, even as they undertake all other tasks, from processing the catch to selling it in the markets. It also documents the many ways in which the women scientists are extending the boundaries for all women through their interactions with the men on the boats.

Other News

  • The much awaited verdict in the 2012 Maruti Suzuki riots case was delivered on 10th March. Of the 148 accused, 117 were acquitted of all charges, while 13 workers, including Jiya lal and former office bearers of Maruti Suzuki Workers Union were convicted of murder. Another 18 workers have been convicted for causing grievous injury and unlawful assembly. The quantum of punishment will be decided on 17th March. PUCL, while welcoming the acquittal has raised questions about the convictions of union leaders. Senior lawyers like Vrinda Grover have expressed doubts about the rationale behind the verdict. Most workers have already served over three years of imprisonment pending trial. Gate meetings in support of the incarcerated Maruti workers were organised in factories across Gurgaon and neighbouring industrial areas and were widely attended by workers. The workers had also boycotted meals at company canteens on 9th March in a show of solidarity. They have vowed to continue the struggle for the acquittal of all workers.
  • OECD’s economic survey for India shows a fall in formal employment since 2010 and blames formal regulations for the dismal performance on employment generation.
  • SHRC demands report on under paid sweepers in schools in Bandipora, Jammu and Kashmir.