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Women can make unions grow stronger

3 August 2006

Textile workers performing a play about HIV*
Former textile workers perform a play about ways of avoiding HIV/Aids at the afternoon session of the women's conference*

Today’s women’s conference made history as the first ever such conference to play a full constitutional part in the ITF Congress. It opened with a series of motivating speeches calling on women to step up the fight for equality in the workplace, in their unions, and in civil society at large.

Presenting delegates with a series of achievements by women in the ITF, Women’s Officer Sarah Finke told them: “You are a resource for us to develop in forwarding and building union strength.”

Since the launch of the women’s programme in 1994, Finke reminded the conference, that women trade unionists in the ITF had secured a women’s committee and a women’s officer and department at the ITF and have won a guaranteed five places on the executive board on the ITF.

The women’s conference itself was also now an integral part of the Congress proceedings. Previously, the conferences had been held before Congress and did not enjoy the same constitutional status as sectional conferences.

A growing number of regional education programmes and women-centred activities in the industrial sections had taken place, Finke added, while the women’s network now had 444 active members.

Real benefits    
Landmarks like these meant nothing of course, unless there were clear signs that women transport workers were seeing benefits in trade union involvement. One positive signal, Finke reported, was that women transport workers’ trade union membership had risen to 17 per cent, compared to just seven per cent in 1994. Transport trade union membership in the period had declined overall – making the rise in women’s membership particularly notable.

Several delegates rose to report to conference that women’s structures had developed and women had gained positions of leadership in their union as a direct result of ITF training and support, as well as direct gains in working conditions.

Susan Ayoyi reported major advances for women’s rights in the Dockworkers’ Union of Kenya, which she said had arisen directly from ITF sponsorship and leadership skills training. There were now 20 (a rise of 16) shop stewards and eight executive committee members. ITF support had helped bring about the formation of a new education department and the securing of outside funding for further training, Ayoyi said.

Saki Rezwana, from the Bangladesh Biman Sramik Union, reported that her union had secured increased maternity leave for civil aviation workers to 132 days. This, she said, was as a result of women’s representatives learning through the ITF network about the provisions made for their peers in India.

Huge challenges
Sarah Finke also noted a slightly higher representation of women at the Durban Congress than in Vancouver, though this had fallen short of the committee’s target of 20 per cent.

Less positively, Finke reported only 50 per cent of ITF affiliates had any equality policies in place, and less than a third had any kind of women’s structure. At the same time many participants testified to ongoing discrimination in their workplaces, with employees in many countries still finding themselves sexually harassed, unfairly paid, and victimised as pregnant employees and working mothers.

Seema Rawat from the Air Cabin Crew Association of India said: “Our managers are changing our working conditions without consulting with the union. Our benefits are worsening. I am a young mother, I am entitled to fair leave to spend time with my children. But the message from my employers is: “either work with these conditions or get out.”

There were strident calls for women’s campaigners to face up to and articulate the problem that gender inequalities are exacerbating the HIV/Aids epidemic. As Jane Barrett of Satawu put it:

“We cannot afford to pussyfoot around this issue. We have to empower women, ultimately in the bedroom, to say no to unsafe sex.”

Conference was united in many expressions of solidarity with women suffering not only acute discrimination, but ongoing violent conflict in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.




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Copyright © 2020 ITF
ITF House, 49-60 Borough Road, London SE1 1DR  |  +44 20 7403 2733   |  mail@itf.org.uk