The obstacle course of women in the world of work

By Lola Liceras Ruiz, Amnesty International Women’s Rights Task Force,

This was the workers’ demand in the Chicago strike of 1886 that opened the way for labor rights. Were there women there? History did not leave us their names, but they and their children worked in textile factories up to 14 hours a day in the same terrible conditions as their colleagues. On May 1 we remember this fact throughout the world and demand decent work.

We women, even after great achievements, still face offers of precarious jobs “designed” for us, segregation in occupations and professional categories, the wage gap, sexual harassment at work, unemployment.


Chicago strike of 1886 that paved the way for labor rights

COVID-19 has made things more difficult. Millions of jobs have been lost around the world and, with them, wages and livelihoods. The impact of the labor crisis has been greater among women and they have been the ones who have been left out of the labor market in greater proportion. The health crisis has shown the social value of the care work that is carried out mostly by women in health, in education, in care for the elderly, in supermarkets, in agriculture… but that social value is not has been rewarded with more jobs, better wages and working conditions.

In Spain, women have recovered the jobs lost since the pandemic began, also in the service sector, where they are the majority. But still they represent more than half of total unemployment, 53.5%, and their unemployment rate (15.4%) continues to be 3.4 percentage points higher than that of men.Immigrant women have it worse because their unemployment rate (24.06%) is almost 10 percentage points higher than that of Spanish women (2022 EPA data).

The wage gap suffered by women has as its main cause that they are overrepresented in the most precarious jobs. Occupational, horizontal and vertical segregation, their greater presence in part-time employment, the greater time dedicated to maternity and care and, due to this, labor discontinuities throughout their professional lives, are causes that are in the base of the wage inequality. Their average gross salary is only 80.5% of men’s salary (2019 INE data). For this reason, measures such as the increase in the professional minimum wage have a greater positive impact on women.

Women continue to face precarious employment

A worker prepares to load papaya fruit onto a truck at a one-stop market in India, AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.

Around the world, the pandemic aggravated existing gender inequalities, especially affecting women with fewer economic resources, migrant workers, domestic workers and those who work in the informal economy. For example in Belgium, more than 400 irregular migrants carried out, between May and July 2021, a hunger strike to demand better treatment and the regularization of their situation. In Nepal, the worsening of the economic situation particularly hit the Dalit population, discriminated against and located in the lowest economic levels. In Brazil emergency aid was cut and the percentage of the population working in the informal economy without income security or social protection reached 39.6%.

In countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanonthe human rights of foreign domestic workers, who of course do not have the right to unionize, are systematically violated.

the system kafalah, a semi-slavery regime, allows employers to prevent these women from changing jobs or leaving the country without their permission, in addition to exploiting them for labor. The International Organization for Migration has reported that last year around 400,000 migrants and domestic workers, most of them Asian and African, were trapped in Lebanon without work or the means to return home. In Qatar (yes, Qatar sounds familiar to us because it is the country chosen to hold the World Cup in 2022, and not because it violates human rights), the government, at the proposal of the employers, has approved “joint committees” that remind us in Spain to the Francoist vertical union, and that in no case respects the fundamental right to form unions nor can they put an end to the labor exploitation of domestic workers subjected to the system of kafalah.

In Bangladeshi the loss of jobs has hit those who work in the “informal economy”, especially in the textile sector where 80% are women. Hundreds of them have died or been injured in terrible accidents at work (by the way, in those unsafe and toxic factories the fashionable clothes that we buy cheap here are produced). Measures such as the one established in Norway by its Parliament in 2021 to require larger companies to exercise due diligence regarding compliance with human rights and ensure decent working conditions throughout their supply chain and in business relationships in their value chain, would limit the perverse effects of productive decentralization and subcontracting of activities in third countries where labor rights are not guaranteed.

1651280152 991 The obstacle course of women in the world of work

A Bangladeshi woman works at the Snowtex clothing factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. © AP Photo/AM Ahad

Because with the excuse of the economic crisis derived from the pandemic, governments are taking labor rights ahead. According to the Annual Report of Amnesty International 2021-2022, in Egypt, the authorities suppressed the right of the working population to strike and form independent unions, and companies unfairly fired workers who participated in peaceful strikes. In August 2021, the president of the government ratified a new law that allowed the automatic dismissal of people employed in the public sector who appear on the “terrorist list”. In Morocco On several occasions, the authorities repressed peaceful protests demanding better working conditions and used the health emergency decree law to repress labor demands.

The non-payment of wages in the public sector and to workers in essential sectors such as health or education, was a common practice in African countries such as Nigeria either Somalia. In the Democratic Republic of Congo medical and nursing staff throughout the country went on strike for several months to demand better working conditions, better wages and recognition of their professional status.

A woman works in the construction sector

Women make up only 4% of skilled construction workers in the United States and often face discrimination on jobsites. © AP Photo/Kevin Hagen

But this May 1 we do not forget the women of AfghanistanWe make them very present and ask governments and international institutions to put pressure on the Taliban to restore their rights. In the first days of the seizure of power, in August 2021, a Taliban spokesman communicated, through the press, that women should refrain from going to their jobs until “adequate systems” were put in place to “guarantee their security”, including women employed in the various ministries.

Currently, only women workers in the health sector have been able to incorporate themselves into their jobs, although they have lost their professional autonomy and even mobility because they must travel, in the exercise of their profession, accompanied by a male tutor. Lawyers, judges and prosecutors are also unable to practice their profession and, in many cases, are hidden due to the risk of reprisals from men who had been tried and sent to prison for having committed crimes, including gender-based violence, and who have been released by the Taliban.

As Azam Ahamdi, who has been working as a lawyer in Afghanistan since 2015 and helping victims of gender-based violence, has said, “I feel like I’m in a jail. Even prisoners have more rights than women. Due to the death threats, in addition to changing my phone number and home, I had to close my office.”

Afghan girls, from the age of 12, cannot go to school. The boys of his age returned to school on February 28 and the Taliban announced that the girls could do so on March 23. But that day, when many of them were already in the classrooms, they were forced to leave because the schools would continue to be closed. The reason given by the Taliban is that they have to design school uniforms for them in accordance with Afghan customs, culture and Sharia law. A bad omen because it is not difficult to see that with this excuse the right to education for all women is eliminated. If girls cannot attend secondary school, universities are useless and it materializes in this way that they, half of the population, cannot be someone by themselves, or have a profession, or work, or be citizens who participate in rebuilding his country.

Care work is mostly done by women
A health worker in a nursing home shakes hands with two elderly people. © AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

This May 1st, we claim again rights that unite us to the women of the world: the right to paid work, to exercise a profession, to equal employment, to the same salary because our work has the same value as that of our colleagues, to places job security and free from sexual harassment. We claim, in short, the right to our dignity. Dignity means that, because we are women, we are not worth less than anyone else.

Long live May 1st! Long live the struggle of women for their rights!

Update of the post published on May 1, 2021

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The obstacle course of women in the world of work