Economic Rights and Women’s Legal Standing in the Workplace

Nancy López Díaz
Universidad de la Habana, Cuba
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Translation by Holly Yasui

Any analysis of the current situation of women of the third world, as well as of industrialized countries, has to be understood within the general framework of development characterized by two interrelated global phenomena: the growing competitiveness among countries, the regionalization and the globalization of the economy and, on the other hand, the exacerbation of social problems due to the increase of inequalities in all spheres of social life.

A variety of studies make reference to the current characteristics of women’s employment, but  fewer works are published  that analyze the changes occurring in other aspects of work, such as labor legislation, the system of social security and the behavior of the system of the labor relations.

In the last 20 years we have seen neoliberal ideology become official policy in most of the underdeveloped countries and in the industrialized world.

Preceded by intense marketing propaganda and pressured by the IMF, neoliberal economic policies have been imposed on our countries through the processes of stabilization and structural adjustment.

Deregulation, that is to say, the tendency to let the market function in an uncontrollable manner, is manifested in monetary, financial, commercial and labor plans.

During these years woman’s participation has augmented economic activity in most of the world. In Latin America it was predicted that at the end of the 20th century there were 65 million women in the workforce, a notable increase from to 10 million registered in 1950. The particular significance of this forecast is that the rate of growth of female employment in 2005 is predicted to be a 3.2% annual increase while for men, it will be 2.2% – that is, not only more women working, but a change in the proportion of working men and women. In all this it is necessary to consider the undercounting of female labor activity due to their participation in activities not included in the statistics. Two seemingly contradictory processes arise before us, on one hand the feminization of employment, and on the other the feminization of poverty.

Certainly, women’s participation in the work force is closely related to the level of economic development. However, this is not the decisive explanation for the growing number of women who work and those who seek employment today. To understand this phenomenon we have to understand the effect of neoliberal policies, in particular the policy of flexible labor. For the neoliberal ideology, unemployment does not constitute an issue of concern, but rather a symptom of health of the economy, since it is a source used to achieve efficiency and competitiveness.  They say that the magic of the market will solve unemployment, since if it lowers wages tremendously, it will attract new investments by means of which employment and the economy of the country will grow.

In accordance with this reasoning, the right to the work won after the long years of struggle, collective bargaining, negotiations, and the intervention of unions, are nothing more than “rigidities”. That is, barriers that impede the flexibility that modern production demands.

Following this ideology, we have witnessed an intense period of changes in labor that have given rise to “atypical” hiring policies such as the elimination of minimum wages and the viability of firing workers. The “right to the work” is no longer discussed, but rather “the regulation of the labor market.”

These neoliberal policies mean increased unemployment, worsening of inequality of the distribution of income, reduction of real wages, denial of access to social services.

The rise in the cost of living and the reduction of family income has forced many women to look for work outside the home to supplement the family income, while still doing domestic work at home.

These policies pursue the objective of disbanding workers’ organization, especially unions; violate the agreements of the ILO; alter labor and wage laws to the detriment of the workers; and eliminate rights and protections that particularly affect working woman.

If we add to these labor policies the privatization of public companies, the budget-cutting of health services, the privatization of pension funds, etc. we have a more complete representation of the current situation.

At the same time, the use of women in the work force has become an important way to increase “flexibility” in the service of capitalism. Women’s lower level of education and the inequality to which she is subjected inside and outside of the home transform her into an ideal candidate to occupy low-paid jobs, frequently excluded from benefits required by labor laws, working under part-time restrictions, at home, offered jobs that are devalued by the mere fact that they are done by women; with scarce opportunity for professional training that would allow her to rise to more qualified positions and to management; for wages unequal to men’s, independent of the fact that the qualifications and work itself is the same.

Also, there is an intensification of women’s overtime work when she takes responsibility for supplementing the family income, as a result of the economic adjustments that increase unemployment and reduce the real value of the work and that exacerbate discrimination against women conditioned by machismo and patriarchal culture. Women suffer sexual harassment, along with insufficient legal protection of her rights that puts her in a vulnerable situation in the case of threats of sexual harassment by her employers; poverty in homes headed by women and violence and abuse toward them increases.

Let it suffice to cite some facts to exemplify this. In Latin America it is calculated that the services sector[, notably expanded with the terciarización of economies,] accounts for almost 70% of economically active women. According to the ILO the feminine work force is mainly in the informal sector; in Mexico , around 59% of the workforce in the maquiladora assembly plants is constituted by women. In Southeast Asia , women make up as much as 80% in the free industrial zones directed towards exportation. Recent research shows that in 2000 more than 40% of European women worked part-time and in some specific countries, such as the United Kingdom , nearly 80%.

The ILO recognizes that women continue to earn among 50%-80% of men’s wages, a difference not totally explainable by different types of work.

***In summary, we live in a period of growing involvement of women in the workforce as a consequence of the difficult conditions imposed by neoliberal reforms. The importance of women in the workplace has increased, as much in the formal as informal sector. However, women participate under unfavorable conditions, earning less, and thus this situation contributes to the decline in wages in general — not just those of women, but of all the workers.

Concern about woman’s legal subordination is not new. Since the last century the feminist movement has documented it and sought recognition not only for women’s civil rights, but also for equality of work conditions and wages. Women have been discriminated against juridically in several areas of the law, which considers her as an inferior and weak being that must be protected, thus subjecting her to men’s authority.

The struggles to gain equality of labor conditions have had less success than those to obtain civil rights. Although in most constitutions gender conditions are not specified, “protective” measures exist that hinder the freedom of the women’s work.

In labor law, there are regulations that address the physical protection of women more than the necessities of the labor market, and which underlie measures that prohibit certain work for women and favors the masculine work force; the notion of power appears again underlying those legislative norms that, under the pretext of protecting women’s physical and moral weakness, hinder her freedom to decide whether or not to work a job. These circumstances make one think that this tends to be a hidden labor-market rule more than a protection. The legal regulatory norms regarding maternity maintain, in most countries, the prevalent conception makes the woman bear the burden of responsibility. This is evidenced in laws that, even when they grant certain privileges to the working mother, do not conceive of these privileges as an obligation of society as a whole, but rather as a concession, which in fact allows the employer to free himself from what he considers the burden of maternity. In general, protective maternity laws are characterized by the establishment of a code that grants labor rights based on the fact of being mother, like the right to days of rest before and after the childbirth (whose number varies from country to country), the employer’s obligation to keep her work position open, the right to feed the baby during work hours and the right to nurseries for the care of the baby during work hours.

All legislation that implies improvement of the woman’s situation should respond to an organic conception of the problem in different areas of law to avoid legislative inconsistencies.

For the union movement, the task of defending the woman’s economic, political and social rights constitutes a moral obligation, which cannot be considered an easy task. In part, it is necessary to make women aware of the cause of their situation; because working now more than ever, they barely compensate for the decline of their husbands and sons’ incomes, or perhaps only live a little better.

For that reason, it will be necessary for the unions to attract many women who are entering the labor market for the first time, sometimes invisibly, without leaving their homes, or for few hours.

All this demands the creation if new ways to organize workers.

Suffice it to say that in this regard, in Latin America , for example, the rate of the woman’s unionization is less than 10% of the economically active feminine population’s total, and less than 20% of these women occupy leadership positions in the organization of the union.

On the other hand, it is impossible to advance in this battle for women’s economic and social rights by acting to the margin of the fight for the economic and social rights of all the workers, that is to say, of men and women. As long as the same neoliberal globalization threatens all, these matters have to be debated jointly because their effects extend to all.

What is needed is the elaboration of specific political agreements that defend the working woman’s economic, political and social rights; the political will to apply them in daily practice against those that carry out unequal and discriminatory actions; and that these policies are appropriately reflected in legislation in a way that assures their legal standing.