Organising the ‘un-organisable’

If during the Age of the Family, a man had the right to tame his wife occasionally with a whip, capitalism is now taming her with scorpionsClara Zetkin

International Working Womens day marks the brave struggles of women workers,who more than a century ago fought for the right to vote under the socialist banner. It marked the rise of a political struggle that demanded equal rights for all, irrespective of race and class in contrast to suffragettes who restricted themselves to voting rights for white propertied women. Women recognised and articulated the need for the socialist movement to understand the unique nature of issues facing women workers while at the same time reiterating their commitment to fight shoulder to shoulder alongside their male comrades for a working class revolution.

Decades on, March 8th is a day for celebration, but also for reflection. This is especially necessary given that while progress has been made on many fronts, a large number of working women continue to be outside the union fold. Even if women are a part of the union, they often do not make it to top leadership and equally important, women from the shop floor rarely lead factory based unions even in cases where the workplace has a significant numbers of women workers. Instead their issues are often relegated to a separate “womens wing” within the trade union structure.

Many union leaders privately express how difficult it is to organise women in factories. They say – women only work temporarily, they dont view this as a permanent job. They only come here till they get married or have children, then they will quit. Others say women are too afraid. The ones who stay in factories for many years, who are permanent employees and are actually at a lesser risk of termination, are too desperate to keep their jobs and do not want to be victimised. These challenges are rooted in the reality of patriarchal society. Womens work outside the home is seen as secondary, supplementing a mans income and likely to be temporary or fleeting in nature. But unions cannot afford to shy away from tackling these issues head on.

Building a ‘workeridentity

One of the primary tasks to organise women would be to expand a womens identity as a worker. Women commonly define themselves in relation to others within the context of a family – as mothers, wives or daughters – but rarely as workers. If you ask a woman who is a domestic worker, a construction worker or even an NREGA worker, what she does, answers would most commonly be a flippant “Naa chumma thaan irruken” (I am not doing anything) or simply “coolie velai-ku poren”. This is very telling as women dont recognise their own labour, especially in the unorganised sector.

These notions are reinforced by state. If one looks at occupations where women are found in large numbers, minimum wages are much lower. Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, a Chennai based union for women in the unorganised sector, found through a very basic analysis of plotting the minimum wage figures for male dominated and female dominated trades on a graph, that the minimum wages for male occupations are generally higher. The state therefore reinforces the notion that the value of womens work is lesser than that of a man. It was only in 2007 that domestic work was recognised by the Tamil Nadu government as ‘workwhen it was finally included in the schedule under the Minimum Wages Act. It was also included under the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Work) Act 1984 and a separate tripartite board was formed to dispense various social security benefits. This came almost a decade after the Construction Workers Board. However, despite unions of domestic workers gaining strength over the past decade, in most states, no minimum wage has been fixed and regulation of work is a distant dream.

For womens participation in the union, there must be a constant effort to build their class consciousness and to educate them about their role in production of goods and services; to clearly spell out that the labour is not only exploited, but in many cases is also unrecognised. Countering the narrative of the state, especially in case of states like Tamil Nadu where the poor are beneficiaries of doles and freebies, building class consciousness in the most rooted and grounded way becomes a very important task.

Empowerment through employment, but suppression on the shop floor

For first generation women workers, the shop floor can be intimidating and difficult, but enduring it is a small sacrifice as the employment itself could be liberating in a larger sense. When the Nokia factory first started operations in 2006, women who could not have dreamt of staying outside their homes were, for the first time living in hostels and shared accommodations, going to work and interacting with others their own age. The employment opened up new experiences and new freedoms. It took several years for this young workforce to understand the extent of their exploitation and unionise. And even then, the union leadership was largely dominated by male workers though they were only thirty percent of the workforce. For older workers too, employment provides a much needed break from the drudgery of house work and problems within the family. No woman worker would deny that the wages she earns gives her some degree of autonomy and power within the family. In many garment factories, women supplement their earnings by engaging in small businesses like selling snacks, eatables, clothing, etc as they have a large captive customer base of friends and co-workers within the factory.

Nevertheless workers on the shop floor face an onslaught of issues. Meeting production targets are the primary goal in most manufacturing companies. These targets are usually set in a unilateral manner and are constantly increased. In modern factories, managements ensure that the shop floor is structured to prevent dialog and collectivisation. This is done by creating competition between one line and the other, surveillance, restrictions on movement, etc.

In Tamil Nadu factories that manufacture electronics, auto spare parts, apparel and pharmaceuticals, assembly lines are dominated by women while the immediate supervisors are almost always men. Male supervisors are directly responsible for extracting production from the workers on behalf of the management. Re-creating this patriarchal power structure on the shop floor is in the interest of the employer as women as seen as compliant. The authority given to male supervisors, most often unchecked, makes women particularly vulnerable to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of harassment and abuse. For women, the most natural tendency is to relate to male supervisors in the same way one would relate to an authoritative male figure – with fear and caution and at best resorting to negotiating on an individual basis. If push comes to shove, women usually fight with the supervisor and resign. Very few women, despite years of experience in the same factory, make it as supervisors and those who do feel pressured to exhibit similar behaviour to their male counterparts as it becomes the only way to be accepted in that role.

A unions task is therefore to build practical skills which enable women to become assertive. Since women generally lack information about their rights at the workplace, this can be the first step and a powerful tool in ‘assertive communication.’ Be it asking for leave, negotiating production targets, or demanding wage hikes, information is key. For many women, even the simple act of writing a complaint letter or learning how to deal with forced resignations can be empowering. But it is these small victories that help to build womens confidence in themselves and in the process, collective action.

Sexual harassment is not just a ‘womens issue’

Given the oppressive structure of the shop floor, and the fact that most supervisors are male, sexual harassment is prevalent but under-reported. According to India Spend almost 70% of women do not report it and compliance in IT companies and offices is very poor. The total number of complaints filed under the law increased from 249 in 2014 to 336 in 2015.

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment in Workplace Act 2013 is poorly enforced, much like most other labour laws. Unions ought to be much more pro-active in making this a part of their main demand rather than as a separate demand for women workers, as well as take on the task of educating the workers about the law, the protection it provides along with its various loopholes. Thozhilalar Koodam recently met a group of women workers at Venture Lighting, a factory inside the MEPZ-SEZ. The workers were subjected to persistent sexual harassment including inappropriate touching, sexual advances and verbal abuse for several years at the hands of a supervisor. In fact it was an incident of sexual harassment against their colleagues which was the starting point of a spontaneous strike by the workers and the demand for action against the culprit. A similar issue led to a flash strike by almost 2000 workers in Colour Plus, an apparel manufacturing factory in Ambattur.

In case of Venture Lighting, CITU to which the union is affiliated has demanded that a Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee be set up under the leadership of a retired woman judge. This is a golden opportunity for the union to train women workers on the sexual harassment law and use the opportunity to educate both men and women in the rank and file about sexual harassment at the workplace and within the union as well.

Putting women workers’ and their demands front and centre

With industrial zones under constant surveillance and becoming off limits for union meetings, there are several hurdles for workers to participate in union meetings or even informal discussions. This makes it even more difficult for women workers to organise due to additional constraints on their time. Women simply do not have the same freedom of mobility or access to spaces like tea shops, parks, etc and are therefore completely blocked out from accessing certain networks of information. Her work-life is the least of her priorities given the multiple demands on her time. However, if unions get creative with their organising strategies and are sensitive to these constraints, these are challenges that can be overcome. Ensuring meetings take place at convenient times, integrating training and education as a vital part of organising and ensuring that issues facing women workers are central to the unions demands at all levels are a great way to start.

Recognising that wages may not necessarily be the only concern of women workers is therefore important. Issues like health and safety, maternity, leave and sexual harassment are all equally, if not more important. In many instances these maybe the starting point for spontaneous collective action within the factory and unions must strategically embrace these sentiments – needs not just as ‘womens issuesbut as ‘workersissues. We must learn from the massive protests of the women garment workers in Bangalore in April last year against proposed changes in the provident fund rules. While union leaders may not have realised the importance of this issue, it was the women workers who relied on the PF the most, given the low wages, which won an important victory for all workers. We risk making a similar mistake if women are not made an integral part of the campaigning against precarious work, as in many factories it is women workers who are trainees or employed on contract.

Women workers of Venture Lighting said that it was only after they organised and joined the union, that they felt at peace as they were able to talk about experiences of harassment with one another openly. Experience tells us that once organised, women do not underestimate the power of the union as a space for dialog, learning and action; unions cannot afford to underestimate the power of women workers any longer.

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