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Issue 36, March 1999

International Women's Day, 1999

    Brazil - fighting for an identity
    Japanese pay and status
    The USA's striking sunrise
    A long way to go for Sri Lankan women

To celebrate International Women's Day, March 8, SOCIALISM TODAY is carrying the following reports from correspondents in Brazil, Japan, Sri Lanka and the USA on the continuing worldwide struggle of working-class women for solidarity, equality and socialism.

top     Brazil - fighting for an identity

FOR US, INTERNATIONAL Women's Day is not just a celebration but a day of struggle, of fighting spirit. The struggle to end the oppression of women is a fight against the capitalist system, a system which means exploitation for us and profits for the bosses. In Brazil, the workers as a whole have been hit by government attacks as they fatten the bank accounts of international speculators.

Women are the hardest hit. In its pension reforms the government wants to eliminate women's earlier retirement, claiming that this 'privilege' costs too much. The government refuses to acknowledge that toiling women often do two jobs, work overtime at housework, and are much more exploited than men.

In the rural areas, this is even worse: 57% of women start working before they are ten years old and 90% before they are 15. These women have no access to contraception. They become pregnant very young - 61% before they are 21 - and have large families - 50% have five or more children.

Women's health is ignored. In the cities, 10% of women suffer a miscarriage and, in the rural areas, 42%, due to the lack of adequate prenatal and other health services. Even during pregnancy there is no let-up in the hard physical labour. Half the women surveyed didn't have even one rest day in a week. Over 67% of rural workers say that they have never been informed of the risks from agricultural fertilisers, with many using old fertiliser drums to store food and water.

One of the demands raised by the Movement of Rural Working Women is the right to free registration for identity documents. Without identity documents, access to pensions is very difficult and it is estimated that about 500,000 women could not claim retirement benefit last year, mainly for this reason. Only 1% of rural properties are in the name of women. Rural women tend to do jobs in the more informal sector - making cheese, conserves, manual crafts, selling vegetables, eggs, etc - so they are not covered by social legislation or retirement rights.

Despite so much inequality and oppression, rural workers are in the front line, struggling against exploitation. Women with kids in their arms or hanging onto their skirts have played leading roles in land occupations and in clashes with the big landowners' thugs. They are courageous women, exemplary and determined fighters, and their struggle should be commemorated this 8 March!

- Eliani

  top     Japanese pay and status

COMPANY UNIONS AND harmonious labour-management relations? Japanese culture is different and Japanese women are obedient? That is not at all what Japan is about. There are working women with some guts! Twelve women from the gigantic Sumitomo group of companies took their employers to court for sexual discrimination against women in wages and promotion. YATANI-SAN is one of them:

"I have been working for Sumitomo Chemical Industries for 29 years. All my male counterparts have been promoted to become managers, and are getting paid accordingly, while I have been kept on clerical work at about half their wages. I have asked my superior about my prospects for getting promotion, but was only told 'you have not shown any results'. So I asked him to put me in a job where I could prove my ability, but nothing changed. I just felt like I belonged to a different class.

"I appealed to the company union to take up the issue of sex discrimination, but I was just told that 'because I am a woman, I did not have sufficient skills, or I was just not talented enough, therefore I should not expect my superior to recommend me!' I also applied for mediation through the Ministry of Labour's Women and Young Workers' Office. They took up my case, but the company simply turned it down.

"We have been trying every avenue we can use to publicise our case and raise awareness of discrimination against women at work. We took our report to the ILO and the UN Human Rights Centre. Last year, we participated in the Japan-EU Symposium even though we weren't invited.

"We had a very positive response on all these visits. Also, in Japan, the Human Rights Defence Committee of Japan's Lawyers' Association issued a recommendation to the trade unions of the Sumitomo group to provide information to their members fighting in court to end discrimination against women as requested. This is very significant as it is not common that they issue a recommendation in relation to a specific case in process, and also it is the first recommendation issued to trade unions!

"We are determined to see it through. This is not about just our promotion and wages, but for everybody. Our victory will open ways for all other women to win equal treatment. Please give your support so we can end discrimination against women in Japan".

  top     The USA's striking sunrise

AN INDICATION OF coming struggles manifested itself recently in a strike at two nursing homes in Massachusetts. Significantly, wages were increased more than ever before. But even more important was the fact that low-paid women from a variety of nationalities came together to courageously fight for better conditions and wages.

When the bosses of Sunrise Corporation, which owns around 600 nursing homes world-wide, decided to only offer a 30 cent wage rise, workers set up picket lines for a total of ten weeks. The bosses paid millions of dollars to a thuggish private security firm, as well as the local police, to protect the scab labour who were entering the homes in rented vans.

The average wage of the workers - mostly nursing assistants - was $7-8 per hour. If registered nurses' wages were included, that went up to $9 an hour. Conditions, safety and respect had deteriorated over the past few years. Women workers struggled with two or three jobs and families to look after.

At Oakwood Care Centre (re-named 'Sunrise' during the strike) 74% of the staff were Haitian. The rest of the nationalities divided between Pakistani, Jamaican, Barbadan, Irish and African. From day one, children were present on the picket line. They relentlessly taunted the frustrated thugs who several times reported the women to the state child protection agency to try to keep the children away. The union brothers and sisters at these agencies delayed the paperwork!

At Glenwood, the other nursing home involved in the action, the staff had been as divided as night and day before the strike. The earlier shift workers were American women while the evening shift were African. Tensions had often been noted in the everyday running of the workplace. Suddenly, when the strike began, tensions melted away when everyone realised that, in order to win, they would need to stand together as one.

If this strike is an indication of events to come, then the bosses have tough adversaries to face. Internationally, women workers will stand tall and fight back. And their children will benefit from the sense of justice they learned early on in life.

- Martha Root (Service Employees International Union, Local 285)

  top     A long way to go for Sri Lankan women

WOMEN PLAY A crucial role in the affairs of the country. Both the president and the prime minister are women and the world's first woman prime minister was Sri Lankan. But this has not enhanced the situation of Sri Lanka's working-class and poor women.

The country's economy rests to a very large part on the shoulders of women. Remittances from Sri Lankans employed in the Middle East are now the primary net foreign exchange earner and women constitute more than 80% of this work force. But to earn this money, women have to undergo a great deal of hardship.

Firstly, they are exploited by so-called employment agencies, who charge Rs30,000-40,000 (3-4,000) to send a woman abroad for a housemaid's job. But the real trauma starts once they start the job. They have no fixed hours of work or proper healthcare. They are at the mercy of their employers.

Recently, a Sri Lankan worker in a Saudi Arabian garment factory was suspended from work. The other workers, mostly women, walked out in solidarity though they were not organised in a union. They were all instantly dismissed. The Sri Lankan authorities took no action to protect these workers on the pretext that striking was illegal in Saudi Arabia. The actual reason was that the Sri Lankan authorities did not want to offend the feudal rulers and big business in the Saudi kingdom.

There have been numerous other instances of victimisation, beatings, and sexual abuse. Most women are afraid to divulge such incidents due to the stigma attached to them. Even when they are reported, little or nothing is done by the Sri Lankan government.

The tea plantations in Sri Lanka employ a very large number of women - almost all in unskilled or semi-skilled work such as plucking tea-leaves, sweeping and collecting tea dust, etc. Although wage discrimination against women was formally ended in the mid-1980s, they still work in semi-slave conditions, suffer from malnutrition, improper sanitation and illiteracy. Almost all plantation workers are organised in trade unions but the number of women holding positions in them is negligible and they have not taken up specific issues affecting women workers.

There are several Free Trade Zones (or Export Promotion Zones) where foreign investment has concentrated - in the garment, diamond cutting, footwear and rubber-based industries. The FTZs, which allow investors huge tax benefits and other concessions, employ large numbers of women. In the FTZs, working women's rights are zero - not only trade union rights but basic human rights. One example is that women workers wanting to go to the toilet have to wait to get a 'piss card' to mark the time on it. Many women get health problems because of this system and there is continuous agitation against these inhuman practices.

  The stereotypical woman still promoted by some in Sri Lanka, is the housewife and mother who cares for the husband and children by cooking, washing and housekeeping. But the changed situation, after the economy was opened up to 'free' market forces in the late 1970s, has compelled every woman to seek employment just to bear household expenses. The majority have become economically less dependent and that has raised their position in society vis--vis men.

But women are being exploited extensively as their jobs are at lower grades and mostly of an unskilled or semi-skilled nature. The teaching and nursing professions are also more than 70% female as these jobs are traditionally considered appropriate for women. Again, a comparatively low percentage of women occupy higher positions.

The 1978 Sri Lankan constitution formally guarantees equal legal rights for women. Nevertheless, some traditional laws, such as the sawalamai (Northern Hindus) and Muslim law, discriminate against women as do immigration laws. If a Sri Lankan woman decides to marry a foreigner, she will not be able to get him citizenship rights whereas a Sri Lankan man will get citizenship rights for a foreign wife automatically.

The darkest side of women's lives is the alarming increase in violence against them - rape, other forms of sexual abuse, and even murder. Young working girls in the FTZs are prey for the perpetrators of sexual crimes, including by soldiers. Although there is a new awareness and emphasis on women's rights, violence against women has not abated. Domestic violence is traditionally accepted as a part of married life.

Though women's role in the economy and society has become more and more important, her position is still vulnerable. The previous United National Party government published a women's charter embodying various women's rights recognised internationally. The present People's Alliance government pledged during the elections in 1994 to legalise that charter. However, no action has been taken, despite there being a Women's Affairs Ministry, led by a woman.

Unfortunately, the traditional left movement and trade unions also have not taken up women's issues effectively. They have had the concept that women's rights and problems form only part of the general social issues, with many saying that the social transformation of society will automatically resolve them. However, women's issues have surfaced prominently now and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have become the main bodies active in this arena. They have played a useful role but they have not been able to address the real issues of the exploitation perpetrated by capitalism and they never put the class issues forward.

There is an urgent need for the left movement to take up women's issues as a priority matter and fight for equality, for an end to discrimination, exploitation and the oppression of women.

- Dhamika de Silva and Srinath Perera


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