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100 years fighting for decent working conditions and labour equality

Women from the Rights Café in Bangladesh demanding labour rights

International Women's Day 2019

International Women’s Day grew out of the working women’s movement of the early 1900s. Feminist activists of the past recognised as we do now that decent working conditions in the labour market are central to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The first Women’s Day was held in February 1909 when the Socialist Party of America held a rally in honour of 15,000 women working in New York’s garment factories, who a year earlier had marched through the city demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

A year later at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, it was unanimously agreed to establish an International Women’s Day as a platform to celebrate the global fight for gender equality and build support for universal women’s suffrage. 

One hundred years on, women around the world have won the right to vote, but the fight for equal pay, decent working conditions, safety from violence and harassment, access to social protection, and to education, health, and other public services continues.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we stand in solidarity with women workers around the world who are still struggling to survive on poverty wages and face shocking levels of discrimination, violence and harassment.

This year has seen a chilling clampdown on garment workers for exercising their right to protest and unionise to demand living wages and decent conditions, with thousands fired in Bangladesh and Cambodia over the past couple of months.

An estimated 80% of garment workers worldwide are women. Women are disproportionately represented across all informal sectors; whether in the textile industry, agriculture or as domestic workers, their work is characterised by low wages, precarious and risky conditions. The conditions they face are inseparable from global value chains and the race to provide cheap, fast fashion and discounted food.

It has to be up to governments and big brands to be accountable for the conditions faced by workers in global value chains and beyond. That’s why ActionAid is supporting the campaign, led by Global Unions, to get governments and employers to adopt an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention to prevent violence and harassment in the world of work.

Some 35% of women – 818 million globally – have experienced sexual or physical violence at home, in the communities or in the workplace. Yet there is still no international law to eradicate gender-based violence at work. Fifty-nine countries have no national laws against sexual harassment in the workplace.

There are also 18 countries, including Bolivia, Jordan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women can be legally prevented from working unless they have their husband’s permission.

When they can join the labour force, despite laws on equal pay, women still make up a higher share of low paid jobs – reflected in a gender pay gap of 23% globally. Estimates on how long it will take to achieve equal pay vary from 68 to 200 years. 

Meanwhile, there is no country in the world where men and women provide an equal share of unpaid care and domestic work, such as looking after children and older relatives, cooking and cleaning. Women provide three-quarters (76%) of all unpaid care and domestic work globally, which works out to an average of four hours and 25 minutes a day.

Unpaid care and domestic work, often dismissed as ‘women’s work’, contributes a huge amount to the global economy. Last year, a study by the ILO of 64 countries, which represent 67% of the world’s working age population, valued unpaid and domestic care work at more than $11trillion or 9% of global GDP.  

We know the key to freeing women from the burden of unpaid care is scaled up public investment in public services, funded by progressive taxes. Children’s centres in Rwanda, supported by an ActionAid project, are giving thousands of women an extra five hours a day. The women are being supported to lobby their government to fund more centres to benefit more women, redistribute their disproportionate burden of unpaid work, and empower them to realise their rights.  

Alongside local action, it is vital that international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, recognise the devastating impact of their austerity programmes on investment in public services and infrastructure, and the knock-on effect undermining women’s rights and gender equality.    

Over the next three years, ActionAid will be highlighting these glaring inequalities in the sexual division of labour, and in the labour force and working with feminists, labour movements, and social movements to break down the barriers preventing women achieving their potential in the world of work.

Everjoice Win

Everjoice Win is ActionAid's Programmes and Global Engagement Director