Around the world, women are disproportionately affected by explicit gender-based violence (GBV) at work or on their way to work, for example, threats or acts of verbal, physical or sexual harassment or abuse; and psychological abuse or intimidation.
At the same time, inappropriate or inadequate sanitary facilities, involuntary excessive or long work hours for low pay, devaluation or non-recognition of women’s work and vertical (glass ceilings) and horizontal segregation (concentration of women in low paying sectors) in the workplace are equally critical to understand as implicit GBV at work.
In SuPWR, we are working with women’s struggles in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to identify strategies and mechanisms that women’s struggles use to defend their rights and secure their gains against backlash. Several of these women’s movements are fighting to defend women’s rights in the workplace, and below we outline their aims, the backlash they face and the gains they’ve made in their respective workspaces that they are fighting to retain.
Jagriti Mahila Mahasangh
Jagriti Mahila Mahasangh (JMMS) is the federation of sex workers in Nepal formed in 2010. Initially, the federation focussed on HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health issues faced by sex workers. More recently, JMMS has expanded to other realms of rights, particularly demands of decriminalisation and recognition of their work.
Decriminalisation is one of JMMS’s major advocacy agendas owing to frequent intimidation and arrest of sex workers by the police. JMMS advocates for recognition of sex work as work, by reducing stigma against sex work and inclusion of sex work in the ILO’s definition of labour. However, like many rights movements, JMMS members are wary of the caveats that might follow along with the engagement with the state. For instance, for decriminalisation and recognition of work to happen, sex work will most likely be under legal regulation in terms of the scope and conditions of the work. What will these legal regulations look like? What will it mean for sex workers who have been working discreetly without disclosing their identities? What choices and negotiating power will they have, not just with the state but also with community and family, if the regulations were to take place? These are some of the difficult questions that members have been grappling with and hence, have been cautious in approaching the state.
JMMS’s current priority has been to build coalitions and a support base and gaining clarity on their advocacy demands uniformly across the struggle. They have also been working out and being reflective on the intersectional voices and demands of the struggle members so that their upcoming advocacy measures provide them with empowering choices and do not further disempower them.
Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Solidarity
Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Solidarity (BGWS) is a labour rights organisation that fights for the labour rights of RMG workers including livelihood, safety of workers, a safe work environment, injury compensation, punishment of labour rights violators, and trade union rights. BGWS prefers to be recognised as a labour rights organisation instead of a trade union, as it does not have a Trade Union registration. Due to the high politicisation of trade unions, BGWS was unable to get registered, although they tried several times, as they “… are not in the good books of the government… We are still trying”.
The organisation’s primary focus is to increase the minimum wage of RMG workers to an amount which will ensure better living standards. The RMG workers, of which 60% are female, currently receive 8,000 BDT (65 GBP) as their minimum wage, which is insufficient to maintain a basic standard of living, including living in a proper house, fulfilling the calorie intake essential for nutrition and for work, and bearing the education cost of their children.
Raising this demand takes time and requires different strategies. Currently, BGWS are creating awareness among workers about the demand for wage increase and building solidarity with trade unions. BGWS focuses on achieving their cause through negotiations rather than street protests, but they support workers when street protests take place organically.
BGWS also aims to build leadership, especially among female workers. Extensive working hours along with domestic responsibilities hardly gives female workers the chance to join labour unions or to think about their rights. Moreover, trade unions remain very male-dominated and female leadership is not encouraged. Even when women join as leaders, often decision-making power remains with men. As a result, female workers’ rights – such as maternity leave and safety from sexual harassment – were not given priority for many years.
BGWS believes that workers need to voice their demands by themselves. They have created a women’s wing called “Women’s solidarity” where gender discrimination and gender inequality issues are discussed. Additionally, BGWS has created an alternative school for learning and playing for the worker’s children. Through this, BGWS members share the care work of female workers, giving female workers the opportunity to take a break from household and care work, and enabling them to focus on organisational work if they wish.
Home-based Women Workers
Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) is one of the leading organisational faces of the home-based workers struggle in Pakistan. The federation consists of two unions – garment workers union, and bangle workers union. Registration of women workers’ unions has been a key source of mobilisation for the struggle’s efforts and for the first time a union of informal women workers consolidated into an organised platform. Collective bargaining has been a key outcome of these unions. The struggle of HBWWs is centred around class politics.
A key objective for HBWWF is to implement the 2018 Sindh Home-Based Workers Act, which recognises home-based work as a distinct category of work. One of the main demands of the struggle is to achieve the rights of a worker, including establishment of a contract, enforcement of minimum wages, social security, healthcare and other employment benefits (such as pensions, old age benefits, and compensation in case of death).
HBWWs in Pakistan work under difficult conditions. Lack of infrastructural facilities such as irregular water supply and electricity outages often cause disruptions to women’s work in their homes. HBWWs face a triple burden of work – undertaking piece-rate work, caring responsibilities in the household, and navigating everyday risks, such as power outages and water insecurities.
Low piece-rates for garment and bangle making work have meant that women workers needed to negotiate higher wages with their contractors. In the past, subcontractors have felt threatened by the collective bargaining of home-based workers for higher piece-rates. These middlemen have often asserted their power with the threat of curtailing women’s civic rights such as water and energy.
At a global scale, international nongovernmental organisations have increasingly pushed for new models of entrepreneurship. These efforts are viewed as a strategy to de-skill the workforce, with the intent that labour remains a cheap resource. However, HBWWF is working towards emancipating HBWWs from exploitation in the form of lower wages and lack of employment benefits. Struggle members are also demanding access to public healthcare for home-based workers from government authorities. Women’s health is tied to the kind of work they undertake and conditions in which they work. The struggle is currently lobbying government authorities to get workers registered so that they have access to healthcare benefits, and other employment schemes.
CSCD: Domestic work and GBV
Community for Social Change and Development (CSCD) is a public charitable trust in Gurgaon, Haryana, India that works with women workers holistically by including GBV along with other intersectional issues such as class, caste, religion, and migrant status in their mandate to promote women’s dignity of labour. CSCD currently work in mobilising women ready-made garment workers and domestic workers in Delhi and Gurgaon.
Domestic work, an occupation dominated by women, is one of the sectors most vulnerable to GBV. Domestic work in private households makes domestic workers invisible to the world and vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In India, domestic workers are usually poor migrant women with negligible skills and education and mostly working as either ‘live-in’ or ‘live-out’ (part-time or full time) workers in urban areas. Lack of legal and social protection makes them further vulnerable to physical, emotional (isolation, threats, harassment, etc.) and economic abuse (withholding pay, low wages, etc.).
Domestic workers work under dismal conditions – long hours, low wages, no or minimum leave, no extra pay for extra work or overtime, insecurity of work, and discriminatory practices (such as use of separate utensils, use of toilets). False accusation of theft is one of the most common forms of physical and emotional abuse and many employers dismiss workers on this charge at the beginning of the month thereby resulting in loss of income.
In India, domestic workers are included in the ambit of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. However, most domestic workers are unaware of this legislation as they often work in isolation, making it difficult to mobilise. Further, domestic work is considered as ‘undignified’ and ‘lowly’ work, which, when compounded by the prevalent culture of silence about physical and sexual violence, makes it impossible for women to seek help. Even women domestic workers who are part of organised worker groups would, at most, raise their voices only in severe cases of physical or sexual violence and economic abuse.
Women domestic workers also face violence while commuting to work, in public spaces (often an extension of their place of work) and in their families and communities. Women domestic workers have shared that they have faced intimate partner violence (IPV) in connection to work, as their work inside people’s homes is often perceived by their partners/family as being engaged in some form of sex work. The violence suffered in their own homes also impacts their ability to go to work, which can result in loss of earnings or cost them their jobs.
CSCD works closely with women domestic workers and garment workers to provide them with training and information about the law against sexual harassment at the workplace and access to redressal mechanisms. The organisation has also organised self-defence classes. CSCD aims for violence-free workplace for women workers, which includes better functioning of Local Committees (community-level complaints committee for sexual harassment incidences as mandated under the law), ratification of ILO Conventions 189 (decent work for domestic work) and 190 (eliminating violence in the workplace), better social security for domestic work, and notification of minimum wages for domestic work.
Across all the four struggles above, a distinct commonality is their demand for better working conditions – that obviates the possibility of violence in the workplace. In Nepal, JMMS’s demand is for recognising sex work as work – which will provide them safety against police and customer violence. This echoes CSCD’s demand in India that domestic workers work in a workplace that is free of violence. The demand that BGWS is making in Bangladesh for raising wages and for being registered as a trade union echo that of HPWWF for better working conditions of home workers in Pakistan. Both these raise issues around implicit GBV that takes place in the workplace – this is not only insidious and hard to identify as GBV, but also needs new strategies for addressing this type of GBV.
The small wins – whether it is of building an active community (for JMMS and CSCD) that advocates for specific rights or creating spaces within larger policy arenas in order to advance these rights (the women’s wing of BGWS and the registration of HBWWF) – are important gains that have been made by the struggles in the long fight for women’s labour rights. SuPWR is accompanying these struggles to understand the strategies that they have used in order to address both explicit and implicit GBV in the workplace.