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Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the International Domestic Workers' Network show support for the groundbreaking International Labor Organization's Convention 189, signed in 2011. (Courtesy of WIEGO)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

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Women Unionists of the Arab Spring Battle Two Foes: Sexism and Neoliberalism

8:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

(Public Services International via Facebook)

This year’s World Social Forum, a transnational gathering of social activists, took place in Tunis, a city bubbling with unrest as it struggles to shake off a legacy of authoritarian rule while navigating tensions over women’s rights, labor and nationalism. At the gates of the gathering last week, these faultlines became starkly apparent when a caravan of trade unionists and rights advocates found themselves unexpectedly blockaded. Border police, under official orders, refused entry to a delegation of 96 Algerian activists that included members of the embattled union SNAPAP, known for its militancy and inclusion of women as leaders and front-line protesters.

That feminist-oriented trade unionists figured prominently in the incident is not surprising: In the wake of the Arab Spring, women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, pro-corporate neoliberal economic policy, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation. By operating within a traditionally male-dominated space, trade unions enable women to assert their agency as activists, simultaneously challenging their general marginalization from the political sphere and the typical Western media portrayal of women as silent victims of culturally ingrained oppression.

In advance of the World Social Forum, women labor activists came together in Tunis on March 23-24 for a leadership conference coordinated by the Public Services International union federation. The event brought women from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait and Palestine, along with fellow unionists from Belgium, Canada and Sweden, to discuss the possibilities and perils wrought by the Arab Spring.

The situation of women trade unionists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) isn’t altogether different from the historical gender-equality struggles within labor movements in Western industrialized nations, in which women were initially marginalized but have incrementally moved up in the union ranks. But women’s labor struggles in MENA are complicated by growing rifts between Islamist and liberal secular political forces that have engulfed the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In the political movements convulsing the region, gender-justice struggles have often been sidelined or even undermined. In Egypt and Tunisia, the initial wave of pro-democracy protest has yielded to a wave of Islamist-inspired reaction that troubles many leftists and feminists. Though the Arab Spring has scrambled many of MENA’s traditional political alliances, secular leftists and socialists have been increasingly marginalized amid the rise of hardline Islamist factions.

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Is Gender Justice Getting Shafted in Immigration Reform?

3:46 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Last Monday, in what became a heated exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Mee Moua, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, defended programs allowing families to immigrate together to the U.S. (Courtesy of the DOL)

The politics of immigration touch upon major faultlines in American society: not just the legal boundary between citizen and foreigner, but also lines of race, class, nationality, culture and, increasingly, gender. Women, who make up about half of the U.S. immigrant population and an estimated 40 percent of undocumented adults, face unique challenges as migrants. However, gender issues have gone almost entirely unremarked in official immigration-reform talks–that is, until a Senate hearing last Monday, when Mee Moua, head of the Asian American Justice Center, seized an opportunity to call out the invisibility of women in the debate.

The opening came when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) asked bluntly which immigrant would be a better candidate for legal status: an applicant for a family reunification visa or a skilled professional from overseas? Although family visas are the channel by which generations of migrants have brought family members to the U.S., Sessions’ rhetorical question suggested that skilled professionals make more desirable Americans.

Moua countered that Sessions’ hypothetical reflected deep gender imbalances in the immigration system. The “less desirable” migrant, she argued, would likely be “female, would not have been permitted to get an education and if we would create a system where there would be some kind of preference given to say education, or some other kind of metrics, I think that it would truly disadvantage specifically women and their opportunity to come into this country.”

The tense exchange marked one of the first moments in the current round of reform talks that Congress members have been asked to confront the gender biases inherent in our immigration policies. Such biases have a long history: Male-centered guestworker schemes date all the way back to the Chinese Exclusion Act era of the late 19th century, when blatantly xenophobic laws brought in masses of Chinese male laborers while shutting out their family members in an attempt to deter the workers from settling in the United States.

Today, despite the strides women have made in high-skill fields (most professional workers are now women), they are still heavily underrepresented in “guestworker” programs for professional immigrant workers, which skew heavily toward the vaunted, notoriously male-dominated science and tech (STEM) fields. For example, the controversial H1B visa program for professional temp workers, long touted as a spigot for STEM talent, brought in about 350,000 immigrant men but fewer than 140,000 women in 2011. Meanwhile, lawmakers are weighing proposals to sharply limit family-based visa programs–which make up about 65 percent of authorized permanent immigration–alongside plans for expanding the prized professional visas. As Pramila Jayapal points out at Colorlines.com, men tend to hold professional visas, intended to anchor household “breadwinners,” while women are overrepresented among family visas, which can chain their legal status to an authorized (male) worker.

These biases are no political accident, but a symptom of the privileging of corporate demands over community needs. Immigrant women’s labor, whether it’s in the household, off the books, or on payroll, is fueling the economy. But because it doesn’t seem to directly contribute as much to corporate bottom lines, it’s overlooked.

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Shame of the Nation: House VAWA Bill Ratchets Up Attacks on Domestic Violence Survivors

12:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Women have been under economic assault in Washington for months. Deficit hawks have taken aim at social programs and civil rights protections that help keep women safe, healthy and able to participate in work and community life. To some lawmakers, none of that is more important than “saving” taxpayer dollars—which is often shorthand for robbing working women of both their earnings and their safety net.

The hostility toward women crested this week as conservative lawmakers pushed legislation that would gut the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). House Bill 4970 isn’t just oppressive to survivors; it attacks the civil and social rights of all women. By raising barriers to economic assistance and legal recourse, the legislation sends the message to countless women living in violent households that their place is still in the home.

Even with protective laws on the books, a woman struggling to support a family and avoid foreclosure faces a devastating choice when the alternative to an abusive home is homelessness. The decision to break away is even harder when local service programs and battered women’s shelters are themselves struggling for survival amid budget cuts.

Adding insult to injury, many states have failed to protect survivors’ access to unemployment insurance, which aggravates the economic instability that often keeps vulnerable women tied to abusive partners.

The House version of VAWA would deal a blow to immigrants trapped in abusive relationships, making it harder to petition for legal status as abuse victims, and easier for abusers to terrorize partners who fear immigration authorities. Lisalyn Jacobs of the advocacy group Legal Momentum told In These Times that “immigrant women are particularly economically vulnerable and may either be relying on their abusive partner’s income, or in a marginal position themselves that prevents them from being economically stable enough to leave their violent partners.” The bill also erodes mandates for public housing authorities to develop policies to help abused residents relocate to safer places. Read the rest of this entry →

Making Sex Workers Visible in the Village Voice Media Ad Controversy

3:07 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York take to the streets. (Photos courtesy swop-nyc.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

In a perfectly “free” labor market, everyone theoretically has the right to exchange work for commensurate compensation. But a free market is not necessarily a just one. And when the commodity is sex, how free is too free?

Sex work, and its attendant culture wars, have moved over time from traditional brothels of urban lore to online marketplaces, raising new questions about private and public freedom. In the digital world, how should trust and power be negotiated between provider and client, both encircled by systemic gender and economic inequities?

On this slippery battlefield, anti-trafficking advocates are campaigning against Village Voice Media’s Backpage, an ad portal featuring “adult” ads notorious for facilitating sexual services involving minors.

Village Voice Media’s editorial side has mounted a counterattack with reporting aimed at debunking popular myths (those familiar salacious tales of powerful men exploiting innocent youngsters). Reporter Kristen Hinman cites research on underaged prostitutes that undercuts the stereotype of the classic prostitution ring, writing that “the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp,” and that “Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.”

That doesn’t mean the sex business is squeaky clean. Critics are unconvinced that Backpage can police itself (or “cover its collective arse,” as neofeminist blogger Maggie McNeill put it). Clergy and women’s rights groups dismiss the company’s free speech defense as window dressing.

“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage,” Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights told the Daily Beast, “the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment… It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”

Sex workers agree that it’s a human rights issue. But they see the war on Backpage (and before that Craigslist) as the wrong answer to a wrong-headed question. Read the rest of this entry →

Under New Guidelines, Cheap Birth Control Pays Off for Working Women

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

"Pill"

"Pill" by Beppie K on flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Washington’s Old Boys’ club still has its knickers in a wad over the deficit “compromise,” but women across the country can breathe a slight sigh of relief this week. The White House just issued health reform guidelines that will mandate insurance plans to provide birth control to women at no extra cost. The measure is long overdue, part of an array of preventive services recommended by the Institute of Medicine for improving women’s health. But the promise of broader contraceptive access coincides fittingly with the debate over the nation’s budget woes, because birth control is an economic issue.

Consider how essential birth control is for working women. When women can control whether and how many children they bear, they can delay pregnancy until they feel they’re ready, and in the meantime focus on career goals, finishing school, paying off that mortgage or signing divorce papers. The “choice” in reproductive choice refers not only to her ovaries—despite the right-wing scaremongering about unfettered female sexuality—it’s about every choice in life affected by pregnancy and sex.

At the height of the economic crisis, the costs of family planning grew more severe, as did the consequences of having to forgo it. According to a 2009 study by the Guttmacher Institute:

Overall, 29% of surveyed women agree with the statement, “With the economy the way it is, I am more careful than I used to be about using contraception every time I have sex.” Those who are financially worse off are more likely than others to agree with this statement (39% vs. 19%).

The same economic dilemma ironically creates barriers to contraceptive care. Eight percent reported sometimes skipping birth control “in order to save money,” and this was “more common among those who are financially worse off.” Read the rest of this entry →