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Working Women Empowered: Building Strength Through Unions

Photo courtesy of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center.

Women make up more than 40.5% of the workforce worldwide, according to the most recent data by the International Labor Organization. But their labor has not resulted in a similar level in financial well-being.  

Far from it.

Although women contribute 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, they earn 10% of global income and own 1% of property, a 2011 United National Development Program report finds. Women account for 70% of the world’s population living in poverty, according to 2010 U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization data. But as more and more join together in unions and allied networks, women are increasingly empowering themselves and each other in the struggle for economic fairness.

Starting today and throughout the week leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center will highlight examples of women workers around the world who are taking action to improve their lives on the job and in their communities. In redressing the economic and political imbalance in resources that so often goes against them, they also are seeking to ensure a better future for their families and their communities.

Women have long represented the majority of teachers, health care workers and public-sector employees—services fundamental to people's well-being. Less recognized is the essential nature of their labor in the informal economy—where they may toil as domestic workers, whose typically grueling “housework” often is not considered worthy of legal protections—or as migrant workers, who sacrifice their own family lives to support their children and themselves. Concentrated in insecure informal-sector jobs, women are paid low incomes and have few rights, even as their labor makes up a significant portion of national economies.
Women also suffer disproportionately from other negative global trends: human trafficking and its resulting forced labor and debt bondage; contract labor, which undermines women’s long-term job prospects, income stability and benefits; and the wholesale slashing of public-sector jobs, a career avenue that traditionally has provided women a way into the middle class.

But as the Solidarity Center series will show, whether in formal or informal employment, in the home or at the workplace, women are on the forefront of transformation. Tunisian women, many working through their unions, were a crucial part of the uprising that led to what is known as the Arab Spring—and continue to be a major force in fighting for the rights of women in the nation’s ongoing political crises. Honduran maquila workers and banana packers, most of whom are women, are self-organizing for greater workplace strength.  In South Africa, working women are transforming their own practice in traditionally male-led unions—and, in the process, are crafting a model for others around the world. 

Labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble, who partnered with the Solidarity Center to author a report, Gender Equality and Labour Movements: Toward a Global Perspective, writes, “Since the 1970s, unions have become a primary global vehicle for advancing gender equality in both the North and the South.” With more than 70 million women in unions today, women are a strong force and are making their voices heard.

Working Women Empowered: Building Strength Through Unions originally appeared on the Solidarity Center's website
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