“Women workers issues ARE trade Union issues”!

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This was one of the conclusions of a three day meeting of members of the women’s network of the independent trade union federation the BKDP in Belarus. The women came together from 22-24 January 2010 for their annual policy conference, to discuss achievements and challenges of the network and to create new plans for the future.

The women’s network of the BKDP exists since the end of 2006. Since then, the female membership of the unions increased. Currently, more than 35% of the BKDP members are women. The challenge, however, still is to see this growing number of membership reflected in the increase of women at leadership positions and the integration of interests of female workers (e.g. related to pregnancy & health and safety, flexible working schedules, childcare, equal payment for equal work) in the trade union agenda and attention to these issues in collective negotiations and regular campaigns of the unions. The women expressed the need to have more space, to develop leadership qualities. As one of them expressed clearly: “It is not possible that almost half of the members of our unions are ‘just’ member without really participating”.
Irina Zihl, national coordinator and working at the Belkali (mines) in Soligorsk opened the conference with the following words: “We have to use the opportunity that we are here together. To make new steps with the network we have to look critically at what we have done. With real activities and results we can prove the importance of the women’s network to the leaders and firstly to ourselves. We will understand why our network is important and think of how to communicate this. We have to thank the leadership of BKDP, the members of the coordination committee who are really ready to go somewhere, and the women in the regions who are working for our tasks on their own. Thank you for your friendship and spirit!”
Friday 22 January focussed mainly on the formulation of a statement and a concrete action plan that was discussed with other members of the network and male leaders of the unions on Saturday and Sunday. The goal was to create a manifest with a coherent vision in which the women express who they are, what they want and why their network is a trade union matter. The challenge was to end the day with concrete proposals, commitment of people and a plan with clear steps.
Franny Parren (TIE-Netherlands) supported the process with facilitating a training in which the women worked towards this goal by means of different exercises.
The morning started with a presentation proving that discrimination between men and women is forbidden according to either international declarations like the “CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for action, and national laws like the Belarusian Constitution and the Labour Code.
The presentation showed that the position of men and women at the labour market is different and labour conditions impact men and women in different ways. There is inequality in access to resources, career opportunities, social security and social service. But there is also statistical data proving that in cases where more women participate in trade unions and are covered by collective agreements, they are better off.
Different ILO conventions emphasize the need to work on gender equality but also give direction to the trade union agendas. Examples are ILO Convention 100 on Equal Remuneration (ratified by Belarus in 1951), Convention 111 on the Elimination of discrimination in employment (ratified by Belarus in 1958), Convention 156 on Workers with family responsibility (not ratified by Belarus) and Convention 183 on Maternity protection (ratified by Belarus in 2000). This shows us that gender issues are part of the international trade union agenda and should be taken up by national unions as well.
The next assignment was to formulate a concrete and clear statement of what we are and what we do, in such a form that it can be explained to another person while waiting in an elevator to move from first till twentieth floor (the so called “elevator pitch”). The women came to the following slogan an statement (that was approved by the network on Saturday 23 January)
“We are those who inspire and are the motor of ideas of the trade union”!
We are female members of trade union who work for the improvement of the labour conditions for all, taking into account interests of working women. The existence of women’s network is the basis for the democratic development of the trade union. It increases membership of the trade union by attracting women and strengthens the union by given them the opportunities to realize their interests and “open” their potential
The women explain the ideas behind the slogan and the statement. According to Nina Borisov (vice-president of the women’s network and president of the network in Novopolotsk region) it is important to formulate it like this because: “We are not only those who inspire but we are more. We are those who are active and implementing the ideas of trade union. We work altogether; men and women. Many problems are common for all but we still take into account the specific interests of women; who have to take care of children, husbands and social activism. We have a ‘triple workload’. Why did we emphasize the trade union so clearly in our statement?”. We have been working to increase the female membership of the union. However, we have passed the stage to develop the network. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding from men. They are afraid of activism of women and afraid to lose their positions. The image of the women’s network was negative. Moreover, in the past there were some experiences in which active women forgot the union and left.[1] For us it is important to have the women’s network, not to separate the union but to work within the trade union towards the goal of improvement of working conditions. There are different directions within the union; for pensioners, young people and women. These special divisions are meant to develop the potential of the trade union and improve the functions of the union. The women’s network is preparing the trade union workers, involving new members and bringing up the issues of women workers to the trade union agenda. These are important arguments that can make the leaders understand why the network is important.”
Next to this presentation the women discussed the character of the activities they are organizing. One of the conclusions was that the issues that were defined as ‘most important trade union tasks’, like negotiation, needs assessment of members and health and safety are exactly the areas in which female participation is low. The women’s network maintains this inequality and its ‘excluded position’ by focusing mainly on ‘traditional’ female tasks like charity actions and the publication of bulletins for women. To have a real impact and to be a legitimate actor within the unions, the women concluded, “it is important that we integrate our work more in regular trade union activities”. “Not only the quantity of members should increase. We have to offer people the opportunity for self realization and to use their potential within the trade union.” So, trade unions should create spaces and opportunities for women to develop leadership qualities; to build their skills, knowledge and to commit themselves to become real leaders.
A striking point is that the participation of women in local training seminars is large. However, the percentage of women participating in educational programmes at regional and national level is low compared to that of male members. As local leaders seem not encouraged by quota and continue sending more male members a suggestion was made to create waiting lists of women eager to participate in trainings and propose these names to their local leaders.
Another plan that will be worked out on the basis of the conference is a social survey among male and female members to identify the three most important issues for female workers. The women’s network will conduct this survey among workers and trade union members in different companies. The results will be brought to different trade union councils and disseminated through publications in the women bulletins and regular trade union papers. The goal is to come up with a concrete statement on behalf of the women’s network, containing recommendations for issues to be taken up in negotiations, that will be presented to the annual BKDP congress in December 2010.
According to the women: “the challenge now is to start to act. We have created a plan for a social survey but we should commit ourselves to this task so that the next policy conference we can feel proud, show results and increase our motivation that we do not only enrich the union by ideas but also by putting these new ideas in practice in order to promote changes.” This will increase the visibility of the network and increase recognition for our work in the union.
For pictures of the conference see under ‘photos’
For the powerpoint presentation on genderequality and trade unions click below.
(author Franny Parren, TIE-Netherlands)

[1] They created a specific women’s union apart from the regular trade union (comment F.P.)
Genderequality and trade unions- powerpoint for website.ppt142 KB

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