8 March 2018: A Woman’s place is in the Union – Let us make this a Reality

It is over four decades that the Equal Remuneration Act was passed in 1976 but women, in our country, still earn about 33% less than men on an average according to the Global Wage Report 2017 of the ILO. This means women have to work 4 months more than men every year to earn as much as men, or put differently, every year women work 4 months for free. In addition, women constitute 60% of the lowest paid wage labour while only constituting 15% of the highest wage earners. The average pay gap widens if we takeout the employment provided under the statute guaranteed employment programme, MGNREGA or white collar government employment.

Gendered division of labour has in fact allowed this condition to persist through its segregation of certain employments as being female dominated and others being male dominated. Unsurprisingly sectors predominantly employing men have higher wages than those employing women. The rationale often provided for this gap is the skill gap. This legitimises the inequality but it fails to provide a reasonable argument for the very existence of this skill gap. The invisible ceiling that exists for women on the skill ladder is not considered. If at all a woman succeeds in breaking this ceiling, the hostility of isolation and opposition that she needs to deal with is also not considered. Fear of this hostility is often reason enough for a woman to not be audacious enough to seek to climb the skill ladder. Sadly reality is that in many cases unionised male workers have and continue to play a role in establishing and maintaining the structures through which this gender segregation is sustained. As a result unions too end up negotiating wages that maintain the pay gap and often widen it through shared social perceptions of both trade unions and employers, both predominantly male, of what constitutes ‘skill’.
Underemployment, and insecure, poor quality, low paid work characterise women’s work along with the disproportionate burden of unpaid household and care work. Reorganisation of work over the last few decades has also pushed a large number of jobs into the domain of self-employment and home based work, taking these out of the scope of regulation. This reorganisation of work also translates into a new form of control over the workers. The control is no longer direct but is manifest through a highly exploitative production process that pushes workers towards self-exploitation. While employers are able to control production through multiple layers of subcontracting, the workers find themselves lost in these layers and unable to seek protection under law.

Government, despite it avowed commitment for equality of women both through legislation and public policy, simply fails to address the sheer enormity of the challenge. Failure of public policy and its implementation contributes enormously to inequality. Girls drop out of schools because there are no toilets. Even in many government offices and public sector bank branches there are no separate toilets for women employees. At one level the problem is as simple as this but, it from this level of inequality of access between women and men which defines the inequality of outcome.
The challenges before women today are not restricted to their work life. Addressing women’s economic inequality will not only lead to a more equal society, it will also shift the balance of power in society, in the polity and at home. In a world with rising misogyny, discrimination based on caste and religion, xenophobia, women become more vulnerable to gender based violence.

This reflects our history and the reality today. This reflects the ingrained apathy that women face from their own co-workers and unions to this pervasive inequality. This reflects the culture of silence that perpetuates both violence and inequality with impunity.

This year women across countries, across sectors, of all ages stood up against sexual violence at work through a powerful campaign. The voices of women broke the silence on the issue as well as giving women the power to speak out against those in positions of power through a collective action rooted in solidarity between women. This has posed a threat to existing structures of power that legitimises violence against women through silence, be it where the relation of power is clear and where it is not.

We in trade unions have not responded adequately to this strong expression of discontent and protest of women with existing relations of power, structures and systems. It is time we feel the violence and inequality that women face, stand up with them in changing the institutions that perpetuate it, and create structures within our own organisations to fight it every day within the organisation and beyond.

This is the time to say that we will no longer tolerate violence against women. This is a time for change. This is a time for us to change.

Gautam Mody
General Secretary