Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Decent Work for Women: A Case for Living Wages

On the first day of the Commission on the Status of Women meeting, the Netherlands government hosted a side event on decent work for women with the aim to engage all relevant parties in support of paying living wages for women workers. This is of strategic importance as women’s economic rights have not yet been receiving the attention that they deserve.
Economic gender inequalities remain notoriously unresolved and persistent in high, middle and low income countries. Key issues are the gender wage gap and the hierarchical segregation between women’s and men’s work. Women form the majority of workers in more precarious, insecure, informal and unsafe jobs. The bulk of the burden of unpaid care is carried by women.
Inspired by its campaign to promote decent work for women in global production chains, such as the flower industry, the garment sector and coffee production, Hivos encouraged the Dutch government to host a dialogue in New York with the different parties involved, to make the case for living wages and decent work for women.
Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, in partnership with the government of Bangladesh, called for urgent attention for women’s economic empowerment, as this received insufficient attention in the global agenda of the Millennium Development Goals. Almost a year after the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh killed over 1,100 garment workers and injured over 2,000 more, the majority being women, both countries are committed to promote living wages in the garment sector. Governments have the responsibility to set the norms and ensure compliance with the labour laws, for which the ILO conventions provide the minimum standards. Implementation of standards requires collaboration between all parties involved.
In global production chains, governments, multinational companies, supplying industries, trade unions, civil society organisations, workers and consumers play a crucial role for accountability to the promises of decent work. Almost all parties were present in New York during the lively and well attended session facilitated by Hivos.

The standard of a living wage as a wage to pay for the basic needs of workers and their was families was already recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Implementation on the ground is still a challenge. Many workers do not earn a living wage and even where legal minimum wages exist, these do not cover the basic needs of workers and their families.
Trade union representative Jenny Holdcroft, from IndustriALL Global Union, was adamant about the problem of wages being most serious in sectors where women work, like textile and electronics. Women’s work is undervalued, supposedly not requiring any skills, whereas putting a garment together is a skill in itself. The need to increase wages and to pay at least a living wage, has to go hand in hand with the demand for collective bargaining and the right to organise. Workers need to be involved in determining the living wages in their contexts and in bargaining for annual wage reviews.
Ashim Roy from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance emphasized the challenges in international production and supply chains where global companies for decades have been using avoidance strategies of relocating to other countries, at the expense of workers who cannot move. He pleaded not to forget the many workers that got killed before the Rana Plaza disaster and the urgent need for to move the living wage and decent work agenda forward.
Pierre Borjesson from the brand H&M demonstrated that through collaboration with all actors in the supply chain, it is possible to pay the true costs of labour and improve purchasing plans to reduce supplier production peaks.
Hivos as the facilitator of the session received a lot of positive feedback for taking the case for living wages for women to the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York. The challenge for all parties involved is to turn good intentions at global and national levels into practices of decent work and living wages for women workers on the ground. For the CSW meeting in New York, the aspiration is to have consensus from the European Union and other like minded countries to include living wages in the outcome document.
Ireen Dubel, Hivos Senior Advisor Women’s Rights