Women Workers fighting precarious employment
At the Asia/Pacific regional food & beverage conference held in Kuala Lumpur on 5-6 August, 2010,a joint presentation on "Women workers and precarious work" was given by Ok -Soon, Cheong, IUF Korea Liasion officer, Premjai Jaikla (Yong), IUF Thai officer, and Saima Querishi, IUF Pakistan Women/TNC organizer. They gave interesting examples on women workers' struggles and victories.
Saima reported on organizing women workers at Unilever and Coca Cola in Pakistan:
At Unilever Rahim Yar Khan, dismissed temporary workers organized struggles by fighting against their illegal dismissal and forming an Action Committee (see article of December 18, 2010). As a result, 120 workers, including 7 women, were eventually able to get permanent positions for the first time in the production department. The National Federation of Food Beverages and Tobacco Workers’ Unions and the IUF supported their struggle. Earlier, they had faced lots of issues at the workplace but didn’t have any idea what to do or how to handle different challenges, such as how to raise workers’ problems to management in order to solve their issues. They have faced some problems such as company houses, working hours and commuting, which is very dangerous for women because of darkness in the winter. Their working conditions are tough due to heavy and hard work. They have to lift heavy rolls of product of between 10 to 20kg, not once a day but many times a day and have to wash huge tanks. Earlier they had no maternity leave, but it is very much appreciated that now they have obtained it by themselves with the support of the Action Committee and consultation with the IUF.
At Coca-Cola Karachi, there were 3 permanent women workers (in October 2010, 1 more casual woman worker obtained permanent status) and 6 casual workers, who have been working for 5 to 6 years with the contractor at 7000PKR per month, which is minimum wage in Pakistan. Earlier, women workers did not participate in union activities and they did not have any interest to attend union meetings. But now we have a woman official in the union, who can consult with women workers because women are uncomfortable with talking with male union leaders in the workplace. I met them to inform them about the trade union and their rights at work. Sisters with permanent status are satisfied with their jobs, do not experience any discrimination from the management and get legal rights/benefits so that was why they thought there was no need to be active in union activities. Furthermore, they didn’t have any idea about why a union is important at theworkplace. Later when they came to know about their rights at work, they became active in union activities. The casual women workers are interested in being active in union activities. Some issues they raised and shared with me included low wages, transportation, working hours and getting a permanent position.
The result of the consultation with women led to their active participation in the Coca-Cola global campaign for Multan in July 2010; they participated in the solidarity protest at Coca-Cola Karachi plant.
Young's reported on the situation of poultry workers inThailand
Poultry is one of the most significant food industries of Thailand. To imagine how big it is, Thailand ranks the fourth exporter in the world market after the US, Brazil and the EU. Thailand's Department of Export Promotion estimates that there are 600,000 farmers and workers in poultry farming and processing plants combined.
But in this very important industry, there are only 2 unionised plants. One union struggled very hard on its own to improve working conditions though at the end experiencing a harsh backlash. However, its struggle is worth noting and can be read about in the book 'Food for Thought'.
The outreach and organising work in the poultry sector in Thailand started in late 2008. Since the majority of the workforce are women, our organisers are also women. The work has been done with assistance and support from IUF A/P secretariat.
Starting with doing research on general working conditions, making contacts, building trust, organising workshops and study groups, the network of poultry workers has been set up and we are working to expand its membership.
Challenges in our organising lie in the very poor working conditions that women face in workplace as follows:
average production line speed at 130 - 160 birds/minute,
average temperature 9 – 12°C,
12 hours working per day, meaning forced overtime,
6 days a week, but sometimes being forced to work on weekend and holidays,
very short rest breaks with name and shame of anyone taking longer than the allowed limit,
personal protective equipment (PPE) is not fully provided nor laundered, and
cost of some (or all) PPE are deducted from wages.
Due to low wages, workers are trapped in a vicious cycle of working harder to make ends meet, hampered by fast line speeds and limited rest, which then lead to occupational disease like repetitive strain injury (RSI) or illnesses related to blood circulation and bladder infections. Also, injuries at work like cuts, especially of those working with a knife, and falls, due to slippery floors, are prevalent.
Therefore, occupational health and safety is our organsing issue with its link to food safety for consumers. If workers’ safety is at risk, food safety for the public will be in question. The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is very important tool to help protecting workers and the public.
Ok-soon informed about the struggle at Hotel Renaissance Seoul and about legal framework in Korea:
Now I’d like to share a Korean case, which is based on the legal framework. Of course we don’t much rely on the legal framework but we can use it to organize workers in precarious work, especially women workers.
Recently we had a meaningful ruling from the Supreme Court declaring that in-house subcontracted workers are regarded as directly-employed workers by the primary company from the day after working for consecutive two years. It recognizes the primary company as the real employer and not as a subcontractor of the workers. This ruling will affect the manufacturing sector so that we can expect our affiliates to utilize it and expand their membership more as well as improving precarious workers’ working conditions.
Apart from that, I think this ruling will affect our members in Korea such as Renaissance Labor Union. I believe you know the Renaissance Labor Union’s case in Korea. Its membership is mainly women and they used to work in the hotel as housekeepers. Back in the late 2001, the housekeepers were outsourced as part of restructuring. Which meant the hotel’s restructuring attempt discriminated in the first place against women. After their jobs were outsourced, they received much lower wages under the subcontractor. In 2004, the Ministry of Labor ruled the hotel violated the law of protection for dispatched workers and so the hotel should re-hire those housekeepers as directly employed. But the hotel refused to accept and fired them as a retaliatory measure at the end of 2005.
From the beginning of 2006, they had been fighting for reinstatement for almost 5 years in front of the hotel, which resulted in their reinstatement as housekeepers. But they are still fighting against the hotel’s unfair treatment and for improving their working conditions and bridging the wage gap by using the legal framework. Their legal case is pending in the Supreme Court and the previous ruling for manufacturing workers will affect positively on the Renaissance Labor Union’s case. The reason why I mentioned this case might impact on whole sector as long as precarious workers exist.
Many women workers are suffering from their precarious status. I believe this ruling can give us access to women workers in precarious employment so we can organizing them effectively.