Over 220 women from 80 countries gathered in New Delhi, India January 27-28 for a conference organized by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Representing the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) at the conference were IBU Secretary Treasurer Terri Mast, San Francisco Regional Director Marina Secchitano and IBU member Alison Seamans. Mast is also member of the ITF Woman’s Committee and represents the ILWU on the ITF Executive Board. The conference focused on the issues facing women workers around the world. Alison Seamans and Marina Secchitano filed the report below.
The ITF held a two-day Women Transport Workers’ Conference on January 27 and 28 in New Delhi, India. The conference focused on four themes: 1) Organizing women’s transport workers to build strong unions; 2) Building alliances with organizations at the forefront of combating violence against women to strengthen ITF affiliates’ campaigns at the global and regional level; 3) Campaigning for our public services; 4) Women in Leadership, “Leading change” to grow unions. Speakers from around the globe addressed the conference on these themes. Resolutions and conclusions from the conference will be submitted to the upcoming general assembly in August 2014, in Sophia, Bulgaria.
Our Indian brothers and sisters were wonderful hosts, welcoming us all in traditional ways. At dinner the first night we were treated to beautiful and moving performances of traditional Indian dance and music. The opportunity to make personal contact with union sisters from all over the world is invaluable. Solidarity amongst only the people in our immediate area isn’t enough.
Economic concerns are global. Labor must stand together globally if we are to have any strength at all. The threats of outsourcing, privatization, insecure temporary and contracted jobs, employer retaliation for organizing, and the short sighted attempt to “fix” failing economies by decimating the living standards of workers through austerity exist worldwide.
I was both proud and disappointed that the three of us from the IBU were the only US delegates present; it’s important that those of us from more privileged (at least so far) countries come together and stand beside those who are still struggling for any sort of place in the work force.
A strong labor force depends on women’s participation at all levels. Voiceless and disempowered women cannot contribute fully to the strength of a union. We need strong, involved women to maximize our strength. This was highlighted poignantly by a sister from India Airlines who apologized that her union had not been able to focus more on the conference. Her union is in the fight of its life against the employer and government. The women members are “standing shoulder to shoulder with the men fighting for everyone’s survival.”
This is how it needs to be and women need voice, power, and a place in leadership to make that happen. Even in the developed countries, women are underrepresented in union leadership and they speak out less than the men. In other parts of the world, the situation is much worse. An injury to one is an injury to all, and in a global marketplace, powerlessness for some is powerlessness for all.
The opportunity to hear firsthand the stories of women fighting for their rights, for a voice and for an equal place in the workforce and the union was unforgettable, inspiring, shocking, heartrending and brilliant. We heard many stories from courageous women around the world.
The moderator, Diane Holland, Chair of the ITF Women Transport Workers’ Committee, began by explaining that 20 years ago the women of the ITF first won 5 seats on the executive committee in a hard fought battle. Since women are involved in the workplace they must have a voice and thus began the long journey of setting up a network for millions of women around the world.
- One of the first speakers was Indira Jaising, the first woman appointed to the position of Additional Solicitor General of India and a lifetime activist for labor, women’s rights and the homeless and marginalized. She made the following points:
- In 1975, Indian women achieved equal pay for equal work for women, and the constitution was amended to include a guarantee of the fundamental right to form a union.
- In 1992, a woman was raped by 5 men for speaking out against child marriage, and in 1997, the Supreme Court issued the “Vishaka Judgment” identifying that sexual harassment violated a fundamental right to work.
- In December 2012, a brutal gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a bus resulted in her death 15 days later. The entire country rose up in protest demanding action from the government. Four months later, in April 2013, a new law was passed guaranteeing rights for women, and prohibiting sexual harassment, with strong enforcement.
- The violence against women must end. We must build women’s economic power, remove barriers and create safety for women. Consequently unions are adding language to their labor agreements prohibiting sexual harassment on the job. It is of great importance to provide equal education and economic opportunities.
Satich Kumar Singh, Deputy Director, Center for Health and Social Justice, New Delhi stated that studies show that nearly one in every three women will be beaten, harassed or raped in her lifetime.
“Although not all men are perpetrators, most do not speak out against this violence. All men have to speak out and oppose Violence Against Women. It is one of the biggest crimes and human rights violation on earth and the responsibility of ending violence against women cannot be put on women’s shoulders alone.” His motto was that “men of quality do not fear equality.”
We heard about the abuses at Qatar Airways and the complete powerlessness of their workers. Bette Matuga told us the inspiring story of her innovative and successful campaign to fight privatization of the Port of Mombasa, preserving the good jobs that fuel the local economy.
Rebecca Crocker shared the triumphs and continuing challenges of fighting for decent treatment of London Underground cleaners. We heard stories of the India Railways and the fight for safety and decency for the women employees there who face physical attack, lack of basic sanitary facilities, and a high rate of miscarriage due to the physical impacts of the trains, amongst other problems.
We heard from women whose safety is at risk merely for belonging to a labor organization, which must be carefully hidden. We listened to the ongoing struggle for basic worker rights at DHL Turkey, and the drive to organize fisheries in Papua New Guinea. Both were successful in organizing a union with the support of the ITF and we celebrated in their victory.
These and many more stories formed the backdrop for the work of setting goals and direction to recommend to the ITF. For every story we heard there were a dozen more waiting to be told. We came
away with an informed, global perspective on the state of our unions and labor in today’s world.
The business of the convention was to set a direction and recommendations where women in labor are concerned for the ITF, and to identify opportunities for action over the next four years. The conference tackled two major issues facing women. The first is the global economic crisis, and anti-labor responses to it, including the necessity of organizing women transport workers in a market where all workers are increasingly kept in insecure temporary and contracted jobs.
Often, women are especially vulnerable to the effects of austerity measures. They are the lowest paid members of the workforce, disproportionately affected by cost saving measures, and the first affected by lay-offs.
The second issue is that of violence against women. Women face the dual challenge of being targeted for violence (both in and out of the workplace) because of their gender, and being more vulnerable to non-gender based violence in the transportation industry. In many countries, such as India, rape, murder, violence and harassment are used as a tactic to enforce the power of men over women, limit the opportunities available to women, and keep them out of the workplace.
The conference passed resolutions calling on the ITF to recognize, recruit, promote, and continue mapping women in transport jobs and union, participate in educating male colleagues about issues facing women in the workplace, provide opportunities for women via training and information, encourage solidarity from male union members, campaign against gender based violence, and support effective networks of women in transportation.
The ITF seeks to build ongoing alliances with organizations working to combat violence against women, encourage participation in the International Day to Say No to Violence Against Women on November 25, and explore ways to strengthen affiliates’ campaigns.
Austerity cuts to public services affect all women, who are the majority users of public transportation, child care and health care. Unions need to build and support strong campaigns to maintain quality public services. The conference endorsed recommendations to the ITF Congress to continue seeking input from the sectional and regional conferences and to set up a working group to produce recommendations for priority issues and targets for the next four years.
The conference finished with a rally through downtown New Delhi protesting violence against women. We marched through the busy train station and finished up with greetings and ceremonies by our sisters and brothers at the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen and the All India Railwaymen’s Federation.
We were privileged to an intense and moving performance of street theater in protest of a culture of violence against women. Several dozen young men and women performed passionately, sometimes interactively, with an audience drawn close to the performance. So what does this mean for the IBU?
We have opportunities to address these from within our own union. Codifying domestic violence leave into our bargaining agreements was raised, and is something we should look at for both women and men.
Working in an industry where physical demands are high can make pregnancy and child birth more challenging; we can make materials available to give workers more awareness of their rights and options. Social media and our website can be used to promote awareness of the issues facing women in transportation worldwide and how to support gender equality, by posting and following up on the challenges and situations we’ve been informed about at this conference, and reporting on actions we take within our own union. The IBU should recognize International Women’s Day on March 8 in a way that draws involvement from our women members. We should create awareness of women in our non-passenger industries especially. We need to evaluate what issues they face, or would face, and what would be needed to recruit more and insure they have an equal place and equal voice with men in the workplace.
We need to identify areas in our union where women workers are not well represented in leadership or are facing issues in the workplace that we should be helping with. We should support the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) campaign for a standard on gender based violence at work and campaign for US
support of a convention on gender based violence at work. Visit http://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/stop_violence_en.pdf for more information on this. Above all we need to foster an awareness that all workers globally are in the same struggle for a decent life. We are stronger if we fight together. This was an incredible opportunity to see the solidarity of our unions and the power of our women leaders in being a part of building an International movement.