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Sex Workers Have Labor Rights Just Like Any Other Employee, Confirms NZ Court

2:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (via Facebook)

Last month, the New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal made a landmark ruling on the violation of a woman’s human rights in a Wellington brothel known as The Kensington Inn, run by one Aaron Montgomery. But the case didn’t involve the typical media tropes of a worker being “sold into slavery” or abused by a sadistic client. Rather, the employee filed a complaint against both Montgomery and Kensington’s owner, M &T Enterprises, after Montgomery allegedly harassed her.

In February, the Tribunal published a decision siding with the worker—thereby confirming that brothel employees have the legal right not to be harassed by their managers, just like they do in any other profession.

When it comes to debates about sex work, feminists often raise the concept that it’s a “job like any other,” as journalist and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant has explained. Yet the exchange of sex for pay remains a curiously radical notion for many around the world. While it’s certainly true that sex work is a real career born of both necessity and ambition for many, it also comes laden with social anxiety and culture-war taboo.

In New Zealand, however, the occupation’s decriminalization over the last decade has helped push back the country’s Victorian-era morality laws to foreground human rights in the sex sector. And last month’s Tribunal ruling further affirms sex work’s legitimacy as a profession and the workers’ agency as laborers.

In her complaint, the worker claimed Montgomery regularly made intrusive inquiries during the period of harassment in 2010, such as asking “several times whether she would have anal sex with clients and whether she ‘swallowed’ when performing oral sex” and “whether she was ‘shaved’”—i.e., had gotten a Brazilian bikini wax.

The worker had, as a matter of company protocol, supplied information about waxing and which services she would provide to be kept on file, making Montgomery’s alleged questions completely unnecessary. Moreover, the information was intended for negotiations with clients in order to facilitate her business, not to sate her boss’ curiosity.

According to the worker, Montgomery also made offensive comments about her appearance—such as “you should give up your burgers”—that damaged her self-esteem and made her job experience miserable. In other words, Montgomery was reportedly acting as if expected boundaries of civil discourse and privacy in a labor-management relationship somehow did not apply in a brothel. Read the rest of this entry →

Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job

11:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Back in the days before modern feminism, a young woman looking for work might typically be advised, politely, to “learn a trade,” with the implication that she wasn’t bound for college or an elite career, but a humbler job as, say, a secretary or seamstress. Such a phrase might sound condescending today. Yet working in a trade might still be sound career goal for a woman, if she gets the right kind of job—in a union.

According to a new paper on women and unionization by progressive think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), “Even after controlling for factors such as age, race, industry, educational attainment and state of residence, the data show a substantial boost in pay and benefits for female workers in unions relative to their non-union counterparts. The effect is particularly strong for women with lower levels of formal education.”

In other words, all other things being equal, unions are good for working women, yielding higher wages and better job benefits. Specifically, “unionized women workers on average make 12.9 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 36.8 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 53.4 percent more likely to have participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.”

Of course, unions are good for men, too. Across the unionized workforce—which includes higher-paying, male-dominated sectors like construction—men actually see a bigger wage boost from union membership than women do. But for women, who still face a gendered pay gap, the gains that unions provide can be critical. CEPR notes, “All else equal, being in a union raises a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does.”

The study concludes, “Considering the great boost to pay and benefits that unions bring, it’s important that anyone who cares about the well-being of women workers also care about unions.”

Even though it materially enhances many aspects of their working lives, the value of union membership for women tends to get overlooked. Media narratives and neoliberal feminist advice tracts like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In tend to stress higher education, networking and climbing the corporate ladder as ways for women to get ahead. But the report’s findings suggest that “good union work”—an idea that’s culturally more associated with rough-hewn longshoremen than single moms—may be an overlooked path to social advancement for women. Read the rest of this entry →

National Paid Family Leave May Finally Be on the Horizon

6:12 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the bill to support paid leave insurance for families. (Flickr / personaldemocracy / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Any working parent will tell you that raising a family might as well be another full-time job—one that comes with no vacation days or health benefits. But millions of Americans don’t get days off from their regular job, either, even for the sake of their health or their family’s.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), just 12 percent of American workers can take paid leave time to tend to an illness in their household, and only about 40 percent can get time off for themselves through employer-sponsored disability coverage. This gap affects about two-fifths of the private sector workforce, or 40 million people—a vast deficit compared to many other industrialized countries, where paid leave is routine.

Now, though, some lawmakers are recognizing that taking a few weeks off to deal with a health challenge shouldn’t hurt your paycheck. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have sponsored legislation to establish a nationwide paid family leave insurance program that would partially protect the wages of workers who take time off for the medical needs of themselves or their families.

Financed by small contributions from payroll checks and employers, the program would allow workers to “take time for their own serious health condition, including pregnancy and childbirth recovery; the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner; the birth or adoption of a child; and/or for particular military caregiving and leave purposes,” according to a briefing by NPWF, who is one of the groups campaigning for the bill, known as the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) Act.

The proposed monthly benefits would generally range from $580 to $4,000, depending on income. Like Social Security taxes, the insurance would require a small payroll deduction from the employee and would enable workers to earn as much as two-thirds of their regular weekly earnings for 12 weeks. After the first year, the payment rate would increase based on the average national wage. Overall, advocates say, the federal program would help provide stability for many low-income and precariously employed people by covering workers in any size workplace at any income level, including part-timers.

With the state of current legislation, activists point out, even workers with some insurance coverage may experience extreme hardship when a child’s illness destabilizes a family. In a testimony gathered by the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, a mother named Devorah from Rosendale, N.Y. recalled the hardships she faced when her daughter was born premature with a severe medical condition and continued to suffer from long-term medical problems in later years. Though her family had some insurance protection, Devorah said, “By the time we walked out of the hospital with our baby, we had spent an additional $30,000 out of pocket.” In her daughter’s first years, she went on:

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Sex Workers in France Resist Attacks on Their Liberty

8:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

La fédération STRASS de Lyon 1er Mai. (via Facebook)

Originally published at In These Times

These days, French political culture appears to be retreating from its stereotypical liberalism on one of its best-known “vice” industries: the sex trade. Controversial new legislation in the country would criminalize paid sex—and sex workers see the proposed law as an assault on their dignity and safety.

The legislation—which just passed a vote in the Assemblée Nationale and is slated for a Senate vote soon—does not explicitly outlaw the act of selling sex, but it penalizes its purchase: A prostitution client may be fined up to 1,500 Euros. This penalty would build on a number of existing French constraints on sex work-related activities, such as pimping or running a brothel, that stop just short of outlawing prostitution altogether.

The aim of the legislation, which mirrors a widely praised model policy originating from Sweden, is to “reduce demand” by criminalizing the procurement of sexual services. But the ostensible moral purpose of the law—to protect women, especially underage girls, from exploitation and violence—obscures broader questions of economic agency, sexual prudence and social stigma. And that’s why many of its opponents are the very same people the law purports to “save.”

“What’s proposed with this law is actually not to protect these people. It’s just to increase the criminalization,” says Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of STRASS, a Paris-based national network of sex workers and their allies. STRASS, along with other critics of the legislation, including health experts and human rights groups, has argued that though the legislation does not exactly criminalize the act itself, criminalizing the purchase of prostitution services will still alienate sex workers from law enforcement, the healthcare system and other social supports. Read the rest of this entry →

What India’s Sex Workers Want: Power, Not Rescue

5:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Street art in West Bengal advocates labor rights, rather than criminalization or ‘rescue,’ for sex workers. The Durbar Committee is a self-described ‘collectivization of 65,000 sex workers’ based in India. (Wolfgang Sterneck / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Anu Mokal wasn’t breaking the law when she was out walking with her friend last year, yet to the police, her very existence was criminal. As a sex worker in the Indian state of Maharashtra, she lives under various laws aimed at criminalizing the sex trade, supposedly to protect women from exploitation. But it was the law that became her assailant that day when a police officer viciously attacked her, hurling insults and beating her severely.

Mokal pleaded that she was pregnant, but—according to Meena Seshu, founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, a sex workers’ rights and anti-HIV/AIDS organization—the officer accused her of lying and said sex workers had “no right to be mothers.” A few weeks after the assault, she miscarried.

India has not outlawed sex work itself, but sex workers face various restrictions on related activities such as soliciting in public or pimping. The law had left her defenseless, however, against the violence of the state. Fortunately, another advocate stepped in on her behalf: SANGRAM and its affiliated sex worker activist collective, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). The activists demanded that Maharashtra politicians investigate the beating and institute reforms, including a grievance commission to address abuses of sex workers’ human rights.

Mokal’s brutalization might seem like just a product of local police corruption or culturally embedded prejudice. But the attack echoed a deeper culture of oppression that sex workers face around the world at all levels of society, not just in the streets but in the social institutions that are supposed to protect them. Beyond the officer’s blows, this insidious political assault against sex workers even permeates the work of international humanitarian programs—funded in large part by the foreign aid that pours into the Global South from Washington’s coffers.

An obscure directive embedded in PEPFAR, the White House’s keystone global HIV/AIDS program, has for years explicitly barred U.S. support for any organization that aids sex workers. As it was originally written, the legislation dictated that in order to qualify for PEPFAR funds, both U.S.-based and overseas NGOs must actively pledge that they do not support prostitution. Though the actual implementation of the pledge has been stalled by years of litigation and a recent Supreme Court decision, it has nonetheless pressured both U.S. and international organizations to restrain their programs for sex workers for fear of the financial consequences. Advocates argue that the pledge effectively penalizes groups working with extremely vulnerable communities, leaving countless sex workers deprived of critical services and social supports.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently dealt a potentially lethal blow to the so-called “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” by ruling that the mandatory pledge violates the free speech rights of U.S. organizations. But there’s a catch: The court’s ruling applies only to U.S.-based groups. The law still looms large over the Global South, where international aid dollars continue to mold the political discourse on sexuality. Grassroots groups based in the Global South thus continue to face a financial penalty simply for rejecting Washington’s policy of condemning and shunning sex workers.

SANGRAM, which has established itself as a leading regional HIV/AIDS service group as well as a grassroots organizing network for thousands of sex workers, has proudly defied PEPFAR, though the U.S. remains a major funder of HIV/AIDS programming in India. The group turned down an annual grant of $20,000 allocated by a U.S. funder, Avert Society, out of concern that the State Department might interfere with Sangram’s pro-sex worker rights campaigning and peer-education efforts. (The group continues to receive funds from other international donors like the American Jewish World Service.) But with or without U.S. aid, it faces a political climate suffused with the pernicious pressures of America’s “soft power.”

Humanitarian oppression

When aid comes with political strings attached, poor governments are pressured to mirror Washington’s culture wars. “This loyalty oath has had a tremendous impact globally,” says Seshu. “Not only in terms of an aid conditionality vis a vis funding, but an aid conditionality that meant that there was something hugely wrong with working with sex workers or working with issues of sex workers.”

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All Work and No Pay: Recognizing Women’s Unpaid Labor in the Global South

7:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A Pokot woman with her child, tending to an aloe vera crop. Women around the world spend a great deal of time on unpaid care work every day, but such work often remains invisible. (Des Willie/ActionAid)

Originally posted at In These Times

Imagine being asked to work seven days a week, for free, without breaks or even a thank you. Those conditions might seem outrageous in any workplace, yet they are typical in our homes, where women are regularly expected to serve as faithful unpaid caregivers. Our recognition of the first scenario as a serious violation of labor rights, while the second can be brushed off as “tradition,” is a measure of the sexism still embedded in our thinking about economic equity in the U.S. and around the world.

While many of these debates have taken place in a Western context—the post-Feminine Mystique universe of fights over glass ceilings and parental leave policies—a different conversation is beginning in the Global South about how respect for women’s household labor factors into a wider movement for economic justice.

A new analysis by the advocacy group ActionAid looks at case studies of women’s uncompensated work in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as mothers, wives, managers of households and caregivers. The report concludes that women’s unpaid daily tasks amount to a massive amount of time, energy and ingenuity that has been historically exploited and undervalued.

The report defines unpaid care work as home-based tasks like “cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, and caring for the ill, elderly and children,” which are typically woven into interdependent relationships within communities and family structures. Not only is such work essential to maintaining the household; it is deeply interwoven with social development. Stability at home provides a base of security that enables other forms of economic advancement. Care work is of course crucial for children’s development (as well as their future education), but it also enables male family members to engage in wage labor in the mainstream economy. Read the rest of this entry →

Obama’s Universal Preschool Plan: As Good as It Sounds?

6:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

President Obama promises to strengthen early childhood education, but will he follow through with funding? (Children's Bureau Centennial / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Of all the mildly liberal, media-genic proposals that peppered President Barack Obama’s state of the Union Address, one seemed especially designed to withstand curmudgeonly criticism from the Right: universal preschool. The image of millions of young tots learning their ABCs and fingerpainting is hard to demonize as evil Big Government.

Nonetheless, Obama’s sweeping plan for the nationwide expansion of early childhood learning programs may not be as straightforward as it seems, especially for the workers who will be expected to carry out the program. The White House’s broad talking points leave open the question of whether the dramatic expansion of preschool programs will be coupled with adequate federal funding.

Plenty of empirical research shows that strong early childhood education can boost future educational development, particularly among kids facing socioeconomic barriers like poverty. But getting early education right means cultivating skilled and motivated teachers. Early childhood programs have long lacked the sustained funding to ensure that educators are equipped with pedagogical training and resources to help “level the playing field” for poor kids. Exacerbating the problem, severe state budget cuts have led to deep funding deficits nationwide.

Generally, the White House’s plan—which aims to achieve “common and consistent standards for quality across all programs”—does appear to promote fairer compensation and support for practitioners, including pay that is comparable to regular K-12 teachers.

But ensuring every kid in the country has a shot at a a high quality preschool program means starting earlier, with teacher training, in order to close massive gaps in the early learning workforce, which advocates say lacks the resources to maintain a well-trained, decently paid corps of educators. And that’s at current enrollment levels; unmet needs will likely soar under a universal preschool system, since currently, many eligible children are unserved because their families lack access to under-resourced public programs like Head Start. The White House’s overhaul proposal so far says little about whether Washington will reverse decades of underfunding.

If we want highly qualified staff that really understands child development and can really deliver high quality preschool, then the implementation of the proposal is definitely going to have to include some support for that workforce to be able to get those credentials and better compensation,” says Christine Johnson-Staub, an analyst with the social policy think tank CLASP.

How to nurture great early-childhood educators

From a labor perspective, the current system fails to provide real job sustainability. Early childhood educators are among the worst-paid education professionals. Unionization rates are typically low, and turnover is extremely high—especially when educators might earn far more money teaching kindergarten instead of pre-kindergarten next door. Many preschool educators are denied basic benefits that K-12 school teachers typically enjoy, such as class planning time and decent health benefits.

Advocates say that programs for early childhood development are often viewed simplistically as caregiving work, rather than as a critical part of a child’s education. That contributes to the low salaries and leads to a patchwork credentialing system and widely varying budgets. According to a 2009 analysis of the early childcare and education (ECE) workforce by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley:

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Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: STITCH via Labor Is Not a Commodity (laborrightsblog.typepad.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.

The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).

Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction. Read the rest of this entry →

Two Years After Haiti’s Earthquake, Women Are Still Shattered by Sexual Exploitation

10:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Every morning Marie Josée prays with her colleagues before starting their work at around 6.30am. Photo: Sophia Paris/UNDP via flickr

Cross-posted from The Nation

It’s been two years since hell paid Haiti a visit, but for countless women, terror still stalks the ruins. The scars of the January 2010 earthquake are etched on their bodies, in an ever-widening pattern of sexual exploitation.

A crisis of gender-based violence and exploitation is festering–and foreign aid efforts are still failing to protect survivor communities from harm, or to make the criminal justice system more accountable.

Sexual violence and women’s oppression in Haiti predated the disaster. Prior to the quake, surveys showed that gender-based and sexual violence was widespread, and women and children had long bore the brunt of poverty stoked by neoliberal economic policies and political instability. But post-quake conditions have posed unique threats to survivor communities: the lack of safety patrols in camps, the breakdown of an already tattered government structure, and the erosion of social networks that leave women at greater risk. In a recent study of conditions surrounding four internally displaced people’s camps, researchers with the Global Justice Center and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) estimate that “14 percent of households reported that at least one member of the household had been a victim of sexual violence since the earthquake.” Victims were typically young, female, and deprived of access to food, water and sanitation. Read the rest of this entry →