Gender Equality and the Trade Union Movement



The question of equality of women is one of the most important issues before the working class movement today. Women in our country, as elsewhere in the world, have been discriminated against in every sphere – within the family, at the workplace, in society and in political participation. Among women it is working women, below the poverty line, who are the most discriminated. Thus the issue of gender equality in the trade union movement encompasses the twin contradictions of class and gender, both of which need to be addressed equally. This critical examination brings light to the fact that without the complete smashing of patriarchy (gender oppression) there can be no real advance in class struggle and vice-versa.


Inequalities have grown and not declined with the pace of economic development under globalisation. The impact of globalisation is felt by all sections of the working class. However, it is women who have to shoulder the maximum burden of this intensification of oppression. Women are increasingly being pushed into wage labour without adequate safeguards, while at the same time continuing with the responsibility of housework and reproduction of labour. Globalisation has also intensified the penetration of capital into all aspects of life and the community, while weakening structures for regulating and mediating with capital.


According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) report of the Beijing Conference, 2000, the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on 1 dollar a day or less are women. In addition, the gap between women and men caught in the cycle of poverty has continued to widen in the past decade, with women making up around 75% of the worlds poor (ILO Press Release 1996). Worldwide, women earn on average slightly more than 50 per cent of what men earn and tend to work much longer hours (UNDP Annual Report 2006, ILO Press Release 1996). This is primarily a result of the fact that the majority of women across the world are in informal employment.


Women and work


Traditional women’s work in the country has always been undervalued and under protected. Women have been viewed as supplementary wage earners, and therefore traditional categories of women’s employment have not received the due importance for legislative protection. This despite the fact that increasingly many families in the country are forced to survive on the single wage of a woman worker.


Globalisation has in the last two decades in India led to a rapid restructuring of the economy. While agriculture continues to employ the largest proportion of the workforce, its share of the GDP has been in decline. This has resulted in falling employment opportunities, real wages and living standards for workers in rural India, forcing many to migrate to urban centres. In industry, good jobs are fast being replaced by jobs with no regulation, tenurial security and benefits. Traditional employment is being replaced by new forms of employment, and most of this is in the informal sector. The share of the formal sector in employment in the country has never been more than around 8%. This share has declined, somewhat, in the post 1991 period.


The impact on women has been at just about every level of the wage economy:


First, declining bargaining power of the working class has meant a decline in real wages. Women have increasingly joined the workforce to supplement family income. The economic contribution of women to family income, particularly in urban employment, has increased manifold. However this has not resulted in any real improvement in the overall conditions of women in society, because of existing patriarchal structures as well as the fact that most of this work is in the informal sector with no real security or space for bargaining. Declining wages and employment opportunities; increasing expenditure on health care, education and transport where government spending is on the decline; break-up of family and community support systems under pressure from globalisation – have all contributed to increase the pressure on women to provide for the family. They have pushed women further and further into extremely exploitative work to sustain their livelihoods.


Second, the new economy has increased the vulnerability of women at work, and at home. With the new forms of employment opening up for women, restrictive legislations to protect women from sexual harassment, e.g. banning women from night shifts, is neither always feasible nor always desirable. Apart from placing the onus of gender oppression upon those who suffer it, there is also a severe reduction in the bargaining space available to women in the employment sector. The breakdown of public amenities and explosion in metropolitan population and spread means that it is a constant and daily battle for women – to provide for the basic necessities at home; to commute to the workplace and back; to nurture and sustain the family.


Globalisation has also brought in a whole new section of employment in the “new economy”, connected with providing services to the developed world, including the more affluent sections of consumers in India. This includes the range of information technology enabled services (ITES), and other forms of business process outsourcing, health care and hospitality sector etc. These sectors employ a large numbers of women. There is only a semblance of equality in employment for women with men in this sector. However it is common knowledge that higher-ups, managers etc. remain almost exclusively a male bastion, with well over 90 – 95% of these positions in the sectors mentioned held by men. This added to the fact that societal patriarchy force many women into oppressive familial situations that severely restrict women’s agency means that there is a drastic reduction in space and opportunity for real economic and social security as well as work advancement. Finally and just as importantly the sector is also characterised by very low levels of unionisation and a total lack of collective bargaining practices. Employment in the sector is also restricted largely to the more affluent, English speaking sections of urban India. Thus there is a critical class aspect in this sector that also needs to be addressed.


Third, the employment opportunities available to most women are at the bottom of the wage and regulation hierarchy. Employment in domestic work, garments, secretarial services, etc., which are increasingly the preserve of women workers in urban centres are characterised by long hours and lack of any form of regulation. In traditional industries like construction, women continue to be excluded from skilled employment, and almost always get paid around 60-70% of a man’s wages for doing the same if not more work simply because of gender. The vulnerability of women makes them prey to all forms of sexual harassment both in a physical sense and also in terms of their identity.


All this is in addition to the enormous amount of unpaid labour that women do, which contribute to massive chunks of national GDPs worldwide, represent many hours of weekly work that far exceed the work done by men, is of the highest, most critical social value, and remain almost completely unrecognised as legitimate labour. Not only should it be recognised but also has to be protected by wage/labour laws as well as given its rightful space for organising, bargaining and assertion.

Women and Trade Unions


The Indian working class is characterised by a low level of unionisation. India has among the lowest trade union densities in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2000, according to the ILO, only around 1.6% of the Indian working class were members of trade unions. What is worse, trade union intensity is declining in the country.


According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), in 1999-2000 out of total workforce of 397 million, only 28 million workers were employed in the formal sector. Much of the legislative protection, whether for regulation of employment or for social security, is available only for workers in this fast disappearing miniscule formal sector. Trade union density is even lower in the informal sector than in the formal sector.


Women comprise around 129 million out of the total workforce, and the employment of women in India is primarily in the informal sector. 96% of all women employed in the economy work in the informal sector. They are therefore largely outside the purview of any meaningful regulation of employment. Agriculture, forestry, construction and quarrying, domestic work in cities, home based industries, self employed in which the largest numbers of women are employed are not covered under any legislation, except perhaps the Minimum Wages Act.


However it is critical to note here that the numbers of the total workforce as given by the NSSO does not include the unpaid workforce or those who do unpaid labour, almost exclusively women. Thus, if those doing unpaid work were to rightfully be included as part of the workforce, then the representation of women in the total workforce would far exceed that of men. This is important to address because it proves beyond doubt that the social and economic value of women’s labour is definitely disproportionately higher than the percentage of their population and of course much higher than that of men.


The active participation of women in the trade union movement has historically been low, indeed far lower than their representation in the workforce, paid or unpaid. Sectors like textiles, engineering, fertilisers & chemicals, metalwork etc. that formed the vanguard of early trade unionism in the country had a predominantly male workforce. Women were consequently under-represented at all levels of union leadership and decision-making. This situation applies to the trade union movement even today. This is not in any way due to any lack of skill or ability, but rather a direct result of the short-term beneficiaries of patriarchy in society actively preventing women from claiming agency. This is unfortunately reflected in part or whole within the trade union movement as well since it’s borne out of the very same society that perpetrates this form of oppression.


Trade unionism continues to mirror the hierarchies in society – be they hierarchies of patriarchy, caste, or minority groups. Consequently, it was left to issue-based groups to focus attention on the specific oppression of their constituencies. The role of trade unions in uniting working class struggles and building solidarity across various forms of struggles also suffered.


However trade unions traditionally have tried, to some extent, to address the rights of women at work. Important legislations like the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, legislation for provision of crèche facilities under various labour legislations covering contract workers, plantation labour, mine labour, etc., have all been a result of trade union struggles. However, while women were excluded from central positions in leadership and decision making in trade union centres, and even in the daily debates and strategy making in rank and file union offices, their specific problems did not occupy centre stage.


In the present situation, a section of the trade union movement is engaged in a defensive battle against imperialist globalisation; onslaught of capital; and an ideological shift in the ruling political regime against traditional working class rights. Trade union membership continues to be on the decline. Employment growth, both in the formal sector and the informal sector, is in categories that have very low levels of unionisation. This is a situation that is not restricted to India, but across the world. Needless to say that this battle by the trade unions will only be weakened if patriarchy is allowed to exist and grow both within and without.


Issues of Employment of Women


There is a gradual awareness within progressive sections of the movement that it has to redefine its understanding of trade unionism and working class politics if it has to regain its relevance and dynamism. Trade unionism can no longer be restricted to an understanding of collective bargaining, and regulation of employment relations and conditions of work. The following are some issues for discussion that have been of concern to the New Trade Union Initiative and its various constituent trade unions.


We have seen the ill effects of the absence of organisations of the working class from a wider mediation of the working people with capital and political forces. The growth of forces of communalism and religious bigotry is but a natural consequence of the inability of the working class movement to engage with, and represent its constituency. We know that it is the poorest in society, and more particularly the women among them, that are worst affected by communal conflicts.


Here we flag certain issues of employment of women that typify the gender-specificity of women’s work.


  • Employment in Unregulated sectors: women are employed mostly in the unregulated sectors. While the bulk of women are employed in the informal agricultural sector (~75%), the rest are either in the informal non-agricultural sector (~22%) out of which informal enterprise (~18%) forms the largest chunk, or in what is classified as “residual” (ILO report on Women and Men in the Informal Sector, 2002). In urban India, the two largest employers of women are in domestic work and self-employed trade. The figure for domestic employment in Chennai was estimated by a group of organisations working in the sector as above five lakhs. This sector is probably the single largest employer of women in the city. None of the legislations of regulation or social security are applicable to employment in the sector. There is no reliable estimate of women in self-employed trade – be it vegetable vending, job-work in the garment sector, or other small business like beedi rolling, agarbathi making, pappad making, etc.


The legal framework for providing legislative protection and minimum safeguards to women workers is practically non-existent. The reluctance to bring women workers within a regulatory framework is also evident from the fact that from 1966, the year in which the First National Commission of Labour recommended enactment of laws for agricultural and construction labour, till date the government is in the process of bringing in a legislation for the largest section of working women.


In post independent India, despite planned development, women were seen mainly as recipients of welfare. In the 1960’s when the focus shifted to women’s education, the stress was on reduction of family size and it was seen in tandem with the family planning program. This again weakened women’s agency by trampling on reproductive rights. The thrust to improve maternal and child health and nutrition services has been seen primarily from the point of view of improving statistics related to infant and maternal mortality; where women are looked on by the bureaucracy as objects of the programs rather than participants. Women have rarely been recognised by governments and its bureaucracy as participants in the process of development.

In the 1980’s the Sathin program in Rajasthan and some other states came closest to a model of empowerment of women sponsored by the government. Women’s participation in the care services, such as ICDS programs and noon meal schemes could definitely be used as a measure to bring economic and social mobility of poor rural women and at the same time give recognition to women’s care work. On the contrary, wages and working conditions of anganwadi employees are kept at a minimum with governments refusing to even accept them as their employees.

In recent years, at the instance of the World Bank, governments have introduced the ‘self help’ model of development, where poor working women are seen as entrepreneurs responsible for their own economic empowerment and social security. In most parts women have worked in heavy manual work in agriculture, construction and quarrying, assisting male family members in service and productive occupation, and hence do not possess the required skills. Tradition prevents them from acquiring skills on the job, and those training programs run by government and subsidiary organisations largely train women in non-waged skills, such as maintaining kitchen gardens, producing detergents, etc. Thus, even the training and skill development programmes introduced in recent years through self help groups have no link to the present phase of hi-tech development, virtually keeping women in the low waged sector. The private sector does provide high quality skills to train workers for the IT sector and for employment in the garment industry, but this again is accessible to the marginally better off in society.


  • Employment in Unpaid sectors: this includes domestic labour, natural production for family needs and also unpaid production of goods for sale. There is a tendency towards underestimation or just complete disregard of unpaid women’s labour. According to the estimation of UNDP (United Nation Development Program, 1995) unpaid labour comprises more than 70% of the total world output, and women make up the majority of unpaid labour. Taken in terms of a percentage of a country’s GDP, the value of unpaid work ranges anywhere between 35-75%. In some countries it is even estimated to be higher than the entire GDP. This of course only places a cold monetary value without even beginning to give a social value to it. Services such as preparing meals, maintaining the home, raising and educating children, and caring for the sick, disabled, and elderly are a substantial amount of labour time far exceeding 8 hours per day. Much of this labour is unpaid and even when paid for example, domestic service workers; it is performed mostly by women who are underpaid.


  • Lower on the wage hierarchy: This is a carry-forward from traditional employment practices in the sectors. We see this in the agricultural sector, where wages for ploughing the land is at least 30 percent more than for planting, weeding and other forms of agricultural employment, which are traditionally performed by women. Even when women perform the same work as men, they are paid less simply because of their gender and nothing else. Thus it is very evident that even when women find a way to come through the enormous barriers and oppressive structures in front of them with respect to acquiring skills and coming up the wage ladder, they are slammed head-on with the plain, unabashed brutality of patriarchy. A similar situation exists in the construction industry. Women are traditionally barred from acquiring skills of masonry, carpentry, etc. Hence their participation is restricted to unskilled labour. Also in the modern industrial sectors, most women’s work is deemed to be less skilled and hence underpaid. The women garment workers in the fast growing export sector are paid lower wages, work longer hours than their male counterparts in the traditional textile and garments sector.


  • Socially inferior work: another issue, particularly with urban employment, is that women find employment largely in work that is considered socially inferior. This includes municipal cleaning work that was traditionally done by the lower castes. This includes domestic employment where most workers are from the lower and backward castes and minority communities. As a result, there is a much higher proportion of participation from lower castes among women than among male employees. A survey in Karnataka of contract labour found in the sample 64% of women from scheduled castes and 36% from non-scheduled castes; the corresponding figures were 32% and 68% for men. The effect is that women in employment are generally from lower social categories and lower educational and economic background than men. This has a bearing on the bargaining power of women with Governments and employers; and within the working class.


  • Sexual labour: the most glaring evidence of women’s economic marginalisation and social inequality in almost all Asian and east European countries is the rampant commodification of women in prostitution, sex trafficking, sex tourism and mail order bride industries. This is almost invariably linked to growing migrant working population, poverty and militarisation. However, much of this labour is also unpaid and coercive in nature. This coerciveness and forcible sexual exploitation of women directly prevents any space for organising and resisting the exploitation.


How do we engage in organising women workers?


NTUI views the issue of gender inequality in a trade union framework. Within the trade union movement there are a number of issues that need to be addressed to allow for a better participation of women both as members as well as leaders. NTUI calls for expanding the base of the trade union movement, to go all out in organising the unorganised and to organise them militantly.


Organising the women workers under the banner of a trade union would only be possible if one attempts this centring on the demands of:

  1. Recognition of work
  2. Regulation of work
  3. Skill training
  4. Collectivising unpaid domestic work, like community crèches, laundry, kitchen etc.
  5. Creating a conducive environment for women to take up work, trade union leadership and lead a successful struggle for creating a gender equal society.


The wider recognition of women’s work, both paid and unpaid, and the increasing participation of these workers in the labour process require that the Trade unions’ agenda, policies, strategies and struggle be shaped by a gender perspective. In our society, the gender inequality is so pervasive that every labour issue has a dimension of such inequality. As a result, women are pushed into a sphere of work, which has structural differences in term of wages and vulnerability in comparison to men. But adequate attention to this concern is lacking. And we need to address this with urgency and focus, not only for reasons of fairness and equity, but also for the purpose of expanding and deepening the trade union movement in the society. The new initiative will increase the participation of women in unions, ensure work towards greater representation for women in decision-making structures and allow unions to become instruments for shaping the lives of men and women at work, in the family and in society.


We at NTUI believe that organising women in the trade union movement has to directly address two critical issues: collective bargaining with employer, government and contestation for space with traditional trade unionism.


NTUI recognises that the working class movement mirrors society. Hence patriarchy also finds its place within unions. Thereby it is essential to engage and ally with those in the women’s movement to understand and address this challenge. Just as important, deep introspection on a regular basis within NTUI is an absolute must for the movement to ultimately advance and eliminate patriarchy.


Any trade union, which should be the militant fighting vanguard of the working class, is primarily engaged in the broader struggle for a classless society. Thus it is of the utmost importance that this revolutionary program will never succeed without the smashing of patriarchy. The contradiction of gender and fighting against all forms of gender oppression and exploitation has to be a central part of any revolutionary program and struggle for a classless society. Furthermore it is useless and indeed does more harm to the larger struggle if the contradiction of gender is addressed simply in words and mere platitudes without serious and deliberate actions. These actions are internal, i.e. to introspect on the existing patriarchy and eliminate it within affiliates and the larger federation, as well as external, i.e. challenge and fight gender oppression at every instance again with the ultimate goal of smashing patriarchy in all its forms.


We would highlight here some significant experiences in organising among, and as women’s organisations, attempted by some NTUI affiliates. These include the formation of an all women general workers’ union in Chennai and neighbouring districts in Tamil Nadu; formation of a women’s association as a precursor to unionising among garment workers in Bangalore; organising anganwadi workers in Maharashtra and Karnataka. These experiences have shaped the general learning and formation of NTUI over the past years.


The NTUI expects to take this process forward across sectors throughout the country as an active and continuous process of organising with the objective that learning and assimilation is internalised both strategically and at policy levels and is becomes an integral part of working class consciousness.


8 September 2006

New Delhi