You are browsing the archive for women.

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:

Read the rest of this entry →

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:

Read the rest of this entry →

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

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 →

A Bill to Make Employers Less Mean to Pregnant Women

7:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pregnant women are often victimized by employers. (spaceodissey / Flickr)

Originally posted at In These Times

Whatever our political conflicts, we can generally agree that we should treat pregnant women nicely. We don’t hesitate to help them carry their groceries or give them a seat on the bus. Yet when pregnancy comes up as a political issue, lawmakers are far more fixated on what an expecting mom’s womb is doing, rather than her hands–as she slips the check under your plate and hopes for a decent tip–or her mind–as she loses sleep wondering whether she’ll lose her job as her due date nears.

Under current law, it’s easy for bosses to mistreat pregnant women or force them off the jobYet the men who run Congress are too busy sponsoring anti-abortion bills and slashing social programs, it seems, to protect pregnant women in the workplace. One of the many labor bills left off the congressional radar is the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (PWFA) which would help prevent pregnant women from being arbitrarily fired and make employers better accommodate them.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the PWFA builds on existing anti-discrimination laws by extending specific protections to pregnant employees. The legislation directs employers to “make reasonable accommodations” for an employee or job applicant’s  limitations stemming from “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions,” unless this would pose “undue hardship” on the business. In addition, as theNew York Times’ Motherlode explains, the law would bar employers from “using a worker’s pregnancy to deny her opportunities on the job [or] force her to take an accommodation that she does not want or need.” The bill also directs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set regulations for implementing these laws, including “a list of exemplary reasonable accommodations.”

It was introduced earlier this year in the House and this month in the Senate–and not surprisingly, faces pretty bleak odds for being enacted. Read the rest of this entry →

Pakistan Fires Echo 1911 Triangle Factory Fire—But Will They Spur Similar Change?

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

“Won’t it ever be safe for us to earn our bread?” That was the anguished question of the mother of one of the victims of Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, quoted in Miriam Finn Scott’s famous narrative “The Factory Girl’s Danger.”

The family had hoped for a better life for their daughter, but poverty pushed her to follow her mother onto the factory floor. Then, one spring day in 1911, the girl went to work and did not return. The garment factory went up in flames while horrified crowds watched bodies fly from the upper floors, hitting the pavement as nameless masses of charred flesh and fabric; more than 140 dead altogether, mostly women, many of them teenagers and immigrants.

The question the mother asked, which became the resounding theme of Scott’s story, will be asked again today by other mothers, in a different language. About a century after the shock of the Triangle fire spurred major safety reforms in New York and helped catalyze the U.S. labor movement, two catastrophes in Pakistan on Tuesday revealed that similarly dangerous factories still flourish outside of the United States, in the Global South. A massive fire at a textile factory in Karachi (reportedly with ties to the European market) killed more than 250 workers, and a shoe factory in Lahore was also engulfed in flames, killing 25.

In Karachi, workers reportedly also lept from windows; onlookers below could only watch as rescue workers extracted bodies from the concrete inferno. In both incidents, workers were trapped amid the flames, with escape routes blockedJust as the Triangle workers were sealed inside, VOA reported, authorities admitted the factory “was illegally constructed and there was only one exit, with no safety measures or equipment in place to extinguish the fire before it engulfed the entire facility.”  Read the rest of this entry →

Missed Opportunity: Immigrants and Women at the DNC

5:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

A member of the NLIRH's Texas Latina Advocacy Network, which has mobilized around issues such as access to transportation to reproductive healthcare in rural communities. (National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health / Flickr)

Last week, two issues highlighted at the Democratic National Convention represented a notable departure from the talk of jobs and economic growth. There was a classic striving immigrant narrative, embodied in the poetic if oversimplified family story of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. And there was a passionate defense of reproductive rights delivered by Sandra Fluke, who famously incurred ultra-conservative wrath for speaking out on contraceptive access. Both speeches showed the double-edged power of political storytelling: to inspire while masking the deeper issues that the mainstream political realm deftly obscures every four years.

Pivoting to Latino and women voters, the Democrats were capitalizing on ideological divisions in Washington on reproductive choice and immigration. But while the party repackaged those issues into slickly marketed talking points, the messaging spoke to messier unrest at the grassroots. Responding to years of grassroots pressure (from the sit-ins staged by so-called Dream Activists to the bold protest-on-wheels of the Undocubus, which rolled defiantly outside the convention), Obama has offered temporary reprieve to undocumented youth and promised to ease mass deportations for many immigrants with clean records. Meanwhile, the White House has cautiously pushed back against right-wing assaults on women’s health in the Affordable Care Act. But the response to the war of attrition on women’s rights comes amid rising frustration among pro-choice advocates who’ve witnessed Democrats’ repeated capitulations to anti-choice forces that have monopolized the abortion debate. Read the rest of this entry →

Workplace Toxics Reveal the Beauty Industry’s Ugly Side

6:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: healthjusticenetwork.wordpress.com

Cross-posted from In These Times

You shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic palette of chemicals.

Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.

While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm. Read the rest of this entry →