Director General Report -"The Women at Work Initiative: the push for equality"

Statement by Catelene Passchier, Chairperson of the Workers’ Group

Statement | Geneva | 31 May 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, we are discussing the DG’s report on Women at work, which is very appropriately called ‘the push for equality’. Progress is at a snail’s pace, and in many places we even see backlashes. So, we certainly need to do more and better if we do not want to have a similar discussion at the end of the second centenary.

Therefore we thank the DG for his important input to the discussion, and hope that he takes our comments on board when further developing the Future of Work agenda for the ILO’s centenary.

There have been many advances for women in the world of work over the past centenary. The most visible change has been the feminisation of the workforce in remunerated employment. Women's participation in the labour market has increased exponentially since the Second World War, and now stands at around 50%. Globally, many countries have implemented measures aimed at reducing or eliminating sex discrimination in the workplace.

The ILO has a long track record in addressing the importance of equality and non-discrimination and the rights and needs of women workers, from maternity protection in the early days to – in more recent times - the recognition of the needs of workers with family responsibilities,  part time and home workers, and domestic workers, while also addressing more general issues with enormous impact for women such as social protection floors.

However, women continue to lag behind in the world of work. This is not due to overall poorer qualifications or competences, as women are increasingly performing even better than men! However, in many ways women’s participation in the labour market is still seen as “supplementary”. Supplementary that is, to their roles as spouses, mothers and carers.

Somehow, these roles, even for those women who do not perform them in practice, determine our chances for a steady job and income, for a career and for a position of leadership, and finally for a proper pension. This translates into occupational segregation and gender wage gaps that continue to persist in all regions, but also in violence against women and girls, both at home and in the workplace.

In recent times, things have become worse, not better, especially in regions most affected by the economic crisis. Labour market participation rates for women are now stagnating or declining. And policies introduced in recent years, particularly in Europe, following the collapse of the world's financial markets, have challenged the robustness of gender equality policies.

Since 2009, we have seen an alarming rise in income inequalities. Women continue to pre-dominate in informal work. And involuntary part-time work and other forms of precarious, low-skilled and low-paid jobs with poor labour- and social protection are on the rise again. Poverty continues to wear a feminine face - and young women and migrant women are particularly affected.

We have seen an acceleration in the withdrawal of the State from providing vital public services - including the care services on which women so heavily depend in order to access decent work. We have seen the shrinking of the State as an employer, leading to the loss of women’s jobs. The promotion of equal sharing of family responsibilities, of adequate maternity protection, of pay equity, appear to have taken a back seat in both public policies and macro-economic policies.

Attacks on fundamental trade union rights have been part and parcel of the backward trend. In recent times, trade unions have managed to secure gender equality provisions in collective agreements.

Through organising in unions and taking collective action, vulnerable groups of workers have tried to improve their situation. In many trade unions around the world, this has translated into increased membership rates of women! However, the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, including the right to strike, which more and more are also claimed and utilized by women workers and in female dominated sectors, such as the garment sector and tourism, are increasingly under pressure. Violence and harassment against women in the world of work remains a pressing challenge and significant barrier to the realisation of women's rights.

On this occasion, looking forward to the centenary birthday of the ILO, and asked for advice, we strongly support the message in the DG’s report that it is high time to go beyond business as usual.

Indeed, we may have reached the limits of what we can do from a mere equality perspective.

Until now this has too often resulted in declaring women equal to men and expecting them to compete in the world of work on ‘male terms’, without addressing the contradictions arising from this approach.

We must look into a more transformative approach, allowing both women and men to develop all their talents and capacities and to take on multiple roles in life, being both workers, parents and carers, and demanding from companies, public institutions and workplaces to be more responsive to change and diversity.

It is not women that need to be ‘fixed’, but the social and economic systems and institutions that shape our lives and the world of work.
This is not to say, as the report rightfully stresses, that the experience and tools of the past should be jettisoned. However, they need to be complemented by new and innovative approaches. For this, the DG suggests five building blocks, and let me briefly touch on each of them.
But before doing that, let me emphasize, that all these building blocks are inter-related, and that only addressing them all at the same time in a proactive and integrated manner will bring the necessary progress.

a) A high road to a new care economy

At the heart of much of the inequality faced by women lie constraints revolving around care responsibilities and women’s reproductive roles. Assumptions about women’s roles and place in society profoundly affect how women participate in the workforce, including the type of work they do, the positions they hold, the quality of their jobs, their career opportunities, and their wages.

The need to juggle care responsibilities with income generating activities, combined with the lack of appropriate frameworks or facilities to support and reconcile work and care, often leads women into low quality part-time work, or casual or informal work arrangements.
Without tackling this dominant care paradigm, or – as the report puts it – “the time-money-agency conundrum”, we will not make the necessary progress towards a more equal and gender-just world of work.

The Workers’ Group agrees with the conclusion that a new care economy, grounded in decent work, can contribute significantly in the push for equality. Whilst much of the attention of the future of work is placed on the impact of rapidly evolving technologies, the care economy will be one of the fastest growing sectors of the future.

Adequate investment in the care economy can boost women’s labour force participation rates, and help closing gender gaps, by improving pay and conditions in the care sector and enabling working women and men to better reconcile work and family responsibilities. The challenge is, to ensure that the jobs created are decent.

If we take this priority serious, then we must promote investment in care services and in the working conditions of care workers, create the necessary fiscal and budgetary space for it, and indeed make quality care services an integral component of comprehensive national social security systems.

b) Strengthening women’s control over their time

The very first standards of the ILO were about working time. Reducing working time was not only seen as a key factor to promote the health and safety of workers, but also to ensure that they could live a decent life outside work.

In the early days of working time regulation there was little recognition of the household and care obligations especially female workers also had to manage.

In more recent times, the increased labour market participation of women has led to a number of challenges which until now have only been addressed in a piecemeal manner. In many countries new so called ‘flexible’ working time patterns emerged, some in well protected forms in collective agreements, but many more outside any protective framework, which are said to provide greater flexibility and autonomy to workers. Especially where this flexibility is combined with precarious and non-standard employment relationships, without the worker having any influence on the scheduling of hours, this leads to irregularity and unpredictability of working hours that are detrimental for the worker’s physical and mental health and for work-life balance. The emerging evidence is that the same is true for work in the platform or gig economy work, with new technologies allowing to make every hour of the day and night into a potential working hour, while the workers are falling outside any protective framework.

The reflections we are called on to make in this year’s ILC through the General Survey Ensuring decent working time for the future can provide important pieces of the jigsaw, and guidelines for the ILO to act upon. It is clear that workers need working hours that can be adapted to their needs: predictability of schedules, guaranteed minimum hours of work, limitations on excessive working hours, in the framework of a proper employment relationship; and a real say, through social dialogue and collective bargaining, in choosing how working time is arranged. These are all necessary to a push for equality that would give working women autonomy and control over their time, work and life.

As a first step, the ILO and its constituents should recognize that there are already quite a number of useful instruments available, that could be promoted and more fully utilized, such as the Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention and the Part Time Work Convention.

c) Valuing women’s work fairly

The Workers’ Group welcomes the important work of the International Conference of Labour statisticians which adopted in 2013 a ground breaking resolution, defining unpaid care work as work and making women’s contribution to the economy in all its dimensions more visible. This is an important step towards addressing the persistent undervaluing of women’s work.

The Workers’ Group is also encouraged by the formation of the Equal Pay International Coalition, led by the ILO, the OECD and UN Women, with the aim to accelerate progress to close the gender pay gap by 2030, in fulfilment of target 8.5 and goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda.

The DGs report provides for 2 responses: one is, to further develop the statisticians’ methods to value women’s contribution to the economy and the society, secondly to focus on more transparency with regard to pay differences between women and men and consider methods to require companies to take action to bring about concrete improvements.

Although useful steps, and taking into account that much has been attempted already on this important topic, the Workers’ Group would like to see more comprehensive and effective actions, making a stronger connection with the other building blocks, such as ensuring better pay for care work and addressing the overrepresentation of women in precarious and non-standard forms of employment which have a detrimental effect on their income.

d) Raising the voice and representation of women

The DGs report rightfully draws attention to the importance of ‘agency’: the possibility for women to raise their voice and be heard. So, we cannot stress enough the importance of the two most fundamental labour rights, the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and the need to ensure that these enabling rights are fully accessible and respected for women.

As trade unions, we are fully aware of the need to modernise and adapt our policies and structures, to represent more equally both women and men in the world of work, to stand up for women’s rights and interests and to put pressure on the above agenda for structural change. Let me tell you that we increasingly succeed to do so.

When recently in South East Asia, I was struck by the amount of young, strong and inspired women trade unionists leading their sisters and their unions in improving the living and working conditions in their workplaces and countries.

So, we fully support the call by the DG for to reinforce the ILO’s efforts to have women’s views, perspectives and interests taken up across the whole range of its activities including in technical cooperation. This should indeed be coupled with a call on the ILO constituents to step up their efforts to include women in their delegations and in the work of the ILO. But in addition, we would like to see more action and activity on all sides to enhance women in positions of leadership.

e) Ending violence and harassment

In the future of work that we want, there is no space for violence and harassment against women, or indeed anybody else, nor for unfair treatment or unequal opportunities because of gender. This Conference will hopefully take an important step forward, by adopting a Convention and a Recommendation to banish violence and harassment from the world of work. We cannot claim to support women’s rights, equality, decent work and dignity at work without tackling this most basic violation of human rights.

To conclude

The Women at Work initiative is one of the seven ILO centenary initiatives at the forefront of which is the Future of Work Initiative. Whilst all the initiatives are equally relevant and important, we must recognise that there is no future of work without women at work. And the future of work must be a future where women and men are different but equal.

Work unleashes human potential, human creativity and human spirit. It is an important source of well-being, particularly so for women.
Since its creation, the ILO has had a mandate to advance the cause of social justice as a means to achieve peace and prosperity.
This can never be truly realised whilst half of the world’s population continues to be subjected to unjustifiable discrimination and disadvantage. As we prepare to celebrate 100 years of the International Labour Organization, and the ILO’s laudable record of being at the vanguard of the push for gender equality, we must ensure that it will not take us another 100 years to achieve this reality.

With regard to the other report of the DG on the agenda, on the dire situation of Palestinian workers, men and women, of the occupied territories and the important role the ILO has to play in addressing this, I have already spoken in my opening statement to this Conference last Monday.

I thank you for your attention.