From domestic workers in New York City to garment workers in Bangladesh, women coming together to organize, demand fair treatment and address gender discrimination is critical to realizing women’s rights and economic justice. A new report from the AFL-CIO, the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, Transforming Women’s Work: Policies for an Inclusive Economic Agenda, discusses the critical need to create an enabling environment for worker and community organizing, including inclusive macroeconomic and trade policies that promote decent work in the market and realign gender inequities in unpaid work in the home.
Economic policy is a critical tool that can promote or hinder gender equality and broadly shared growth. Traditional macroeconomic and trade policies have ignored or reinforced the structural barriers that impact women’s ability to compete fairly in the labor market, including the gender wage gap, occupational segregation and the disproportionate burden of unpaid work. While gender inequality is linked to reduced, less sustainable growth in the long term, the myopic focus on short-term growth—and the assumption that human rights will naturally follow—carries an inherent gender bias, as certain forms of gender inequality, particularly wage gaps between men and women driven by stereotypes of women workers as a cheap, expendable labor force, can temporarily create higher growth.
Nominally gender-neutral austerity policies have disproportionately impacted women, particularly women of color, by cutting public employment in areas like health care and education, where women are often a majority of workers, and reduce social services and infrastructure like child care and health care that women rely on. Globally, women and girls do more unpaid work than men, which creates a tremendous amount of value for the economy, but is not documented or accounted for in macroeconomic statistics or policy. The informal economy, also predominantly women, is also discounted. Trade policy focused on pro-business regulatory schemes and low-wage, low-skill export-driven growth has been a global cause of precarious, unsafe employment for women, rather than jobs with fair pay or good working conditions.
Greater access to discriminatory labor markets is not sufficient to ensure economic security, autonomy or equality. Women must have access to decent work, where they have rights on the job, including safe working conditions, fair pay and freedom from discrimination. This requires both top-down government strategies to address precarious work and protect fundamental labor rights and bottom-up worker and community organizing to identify abuse and define solutions.
Labor and community organizing can shift power relationships, change working conditions and address barriers to full and equal participation in the labor market. Domestic workers, often excluded from labor laws because of discrimination based on gender, race, and migration status, have organized to demand formal recognition and rights on the job. Textile workers in Honduras have negotiated collective agreements that not only raise wages, but also include child care and maternity leave policies. Global unions IUF and IndustriAll recently negotiated an agreement with the multinational Unilever to ensure there are clear, established procedures to address sexual harassment in global supply chains. Unionized women in the United States have reduced the gender pay gap compared to nonunion women by using collective bargaining to set up a transparent process for comparing wages.
The report advocates a comprehensive and coordinated approach to building an enabling environment for worker and women’s rights, including economic policies that value women’s unpaid work, reduce structural barriers and address discrimination, low wages and occupational segregation; and empowering labor unions and gender activists to organize and work collectively toward the full realization of women’s rights.
Read the full report.