THE WFTU Asia Pacific regional conference of women workers was held in Hanoi, Vietnam on December 6-8, 2017 as a prelude to the World Working Women’s Congress scheduled to be held in Panama from March 8-10, 2018. The conference was hosted by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). 14 women trade unionists from seven countries – Bangladesh, India, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Sri Lanka, representing 10 affiliated unions, participated in the conference. From India, A R Sindhu from CITU and K Mallika from AITUC attended the conference.
The conference which was held at the Trade Union Hotel in Hanoi was inaugurated by Bui Van Cuong, vice president, WFTU and president VGCL. He called for more initiatives for trade unions to play a stronger role in consulting, proposing and supervising the implementation of women worker related policies as well as to have more effective activities for women workers in the region. He also explained the achievements of Vietnam and the VGCL in defending women workers legal and social rights. Vietnam is 18th in the world in terms of representation of women in the national assembly. He expressed hope that the conference will enrich the Vietnamese trade unions to face the challenges of still existing discrimination in wages, working conditions, opportunity in training and promotion etc in the country.
In her speech, Anda Anastasaki, general coordinator, WFTU headquarters, explained the general conditions of women workers the world over, under the capitalist production system with discriminatory working conditions, lack of healthcare and social security, vulnerability and violence including sexual exploitation and racial discrimination faced due to migration, double burden of domestic work, domestic violence and violence against women, lack of maternity benefits etc. She put forward the WFTU perspective of the leading role of women in trade unions and called for a unified fight on the demands of working women and expressed hope to develop a common strategy at the Working Women’s Congress to be held on March 8 at Panama.
The CITU representative pointed out that the Asia Pacific region has been the hub of surplus extraction by exploitation of the working class as well as through primitive accumulation. In the background of the intensifying systemic world capitalist crisis and the efforts by the imperialist countries to pass the burden of the crisis onto the developing countries, it is going to be aggravated. Women workers being the biggest victims of this exploitation in Asia Pacific, it is of utmost priority to unionise them for the class oriented trade union movement. It is equally important for us to expose and demystify the unpaid labour done by women in various forms and to reiterate their role as a part of the working class, in the struggle to end exploitation.
Narrating the impact of neoliberal imperialist policies of the ruling dispensation in India, she said that according to McKinsey Global Institute report, improving gender parity at the workplace can help India add a whopping 2.9 trillion dollars to its GDP in 2025!
She also explained the advance made by the CITU and the All India Coordination Committee of Working Women (CITU) in organising working women under the banner of CITU, increasing the percentage of women in CITU from 7.7 per cent in the total membership in 1985 to 32.36 per cent in 2015. Now the CITU has 26.2 per cent women as national level office bearers.
She suggested that WFTU affiliates must take up in-depth studies on newer forms of economic and social oppression, on global chains, their inter-linkage, on utilising feudal patriarchal values for exploitation in various parts of the world. They must disseminate the information, strengthening their networking to popularise the issues and demands among the working class in general and working women in particular, unionise them and take up higher forms of militant struggles
The representatives from other countries, Shahana Ferdousy Lucky of Jatiyo Sramaik Federation and Kormi Barua from BTUC, both from Bangladesh, Anah Dianah from KASBI, Indonesia, Evelyin Chan Siew Yen and Nur Fatihah Suhaila Binti Mohd Noor from NUBE, Malaysia, Rosalinda Gobrin from Workers For People’s Liberation and Dorina Clare Juco Naraval from National Congress of Workers both from Philippines, Visakah Shamalie Suriyabandara Kannangara from All Ceylon Trade Union Federation from Sri Lanka and Soheila Jelodar Zadeh from Workers’ house in Iran all had similar experiences to share. The impact of neoliberal policies, increasing casualisation and underemployment, withdrawal of social security, health education and nutrition and all other public utility services, changes in labour laws to withdraw various rights of the workers including maternity benefits, the story is almost the same in all the countries. The competition to attract investment in Asia Pacific region in various sectors of production like manufacturing, textiles and garments with the cheapest labour is making women workers more prone to exploitation and this process is aggravated by the systemic crisis of capitalism. Increasing violence against women is the order of the day. Distress migration and the resulting vulnerability are adding to it. Very poor representation of women in elected bodies and decision making positions are also common to these countries.
The representatives also shared their experiences of increasing resistance by the workers and the trade union movement in these countries. There were a few achievements and advancements in establishing women workers rights. The first woman member of parliament from Iran, Soheila narrated her initiatives to bring some new legislation for more maternity benefits for women workers. She has taken the initiative to bring a social security package for women workers.
The different story was of course from Vietnam. The delegation from VGCL consisted of representatives from various departments of women workers organisation, international, administrative, information and education, legal affairs etc, apart from different sectoral unions of textile, information and communication, agriculture, transport, industry and trade, building, health, railway and education. Trinh Thanh Hang, director, Women Worker’s department, VGCL made a presentation in two parts: the role of women workers in socio economic development and the role of trade unions in promoting women’s role. 48.23 per cent of the workforce in Vietnam is women. Vietnam ranks 65 out of 144 countries in Gender Gap Index in the ranking of World Economic Forum in 2016. (India ranks 108 in 2016). It has the highest proportion of seats held by women in parliaments in East Asia and ranks 18th in the world. It has more than 25 per cent women representation in all levels of people’s councils and the national assembly which is on an increase. Women play a significant role in the production and service sectors.
VGCL has more than 50 per cent women membership. It now has 46.4 per cent women in workplace level executive committees, 37.6 per cent at immediate upper level, 27.33 per cent in the VGCL executive committee and 25 per cent presidium members. VGCL is making conscious efforts to promote women’s leadership role and in taking active part in formation of laws and decrees on women workers’ rights and also in supervising policy implementation. The union is taking up the challenges of disparities at IZs and EPZs and the gender imbalance situation in some sectors which employ mostly women. In response to a question, the VGCL representative said that women’s unpaid labour, including housework, is not counted in the GDP of the country. A representative from a workplace union narrated her first hand experience of collective bargaining in an EPZ which achieved maternity benefit and increase in wages.
The participants suggested to take up an intensified campaign and struggles on the demands of equal wages, equality in opportunity, maternity benefits and healthcare, prevention of sexual harassment and violence, more representation in decision making, migrants worker’s rights etc. The conference decided to have more coordination and solidarity actions and information sharing and networking for higher struggles. There was a demand for evaluation of women’s unpaid labour in every country’s GDP. The conference ended with the concluding remarks by Nguyen Thi Thu Hong, vice president VGCL and with a vote of thanks by Anda.
The visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum was an inspiration to the participants. The VGCL had also arranged a tour to Nih Binh province for the participants.