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Equality for women high on global labour conference’s agenda

“Woman’s work is never done,” runs the old saying -- to which could be added, “seldom is it adequately paid, pensioned or unionized.”

That will change if the delegates to this week’s International Trade Union Confederation congress in Vancouver have their way. The labour body has heard passionate testimony from activist women all week, and is on track to adopt even stronger policy statements on equality for women than the ones that have been in place since the ITUC was founded four years ago.

On Thursday, June 24, the plenary of the congress heard a brief, witty address from Agnes Jongerius, head of the largest trade union central in the Netherlands, the FNV (Netherlands Confederation of Labour, with 1.4 million workers). She pointed out that the current crisis hit workers in the informal sector first, and thus had a big impact on women. She called for aggressive action inside and out of trade unions to create more equal opportunities for women.

“Global justice has to mean equal opportunities for all,” she reminded the ITUC delegates. “If our brothers in the unions need a workshop to figure out how to vote for women leaders,” she laughed, “I volunteer to lead it.”

Jungerius is the first woman to lead her nation’s largest labour organization, and she remarked to the Tyee in a conversation after her speech that she was pleased the ITUC itself would be going into its next era with its first woman president, Sharon Burrow of the Australian ACTU. However, the tough talking Dutch union leader emphasized that much more needed to be done before women had their just share of power in the economy and in her movement.

“Only 12 per cent of international labour leadership is female, and female membership in my union is growing only very slowly, now up to one third,” she noted. “We can’t let union leadership be a Boy Scout club if we want to say we represent all workers. We have a solemn obligation to change things internally”

Nevertheless, she told the Tyee, sexism is not the main problem facing the workers’ movement. That would be unemployment, the need for decent work and the need to organize new workers, particularly in the informal sector.

Jyoti Macwan, the General Secretary of the Self Employed Women’s Association in Gujarat, India and a delegate at the ITUC event is someone who is hard at work every day organizing women in the informal sector, a challenging area for organizing that has been identified over and over by speakers at this week’s congress.

Macwan, a small, soft spoken woman who gives the impression she is made of spring steel and tough leather, told the Tyee that 90 per cent of Indian women workers are in the informal sector and thus outside the protection of existing laws. Her association, founded 40 years ago, has succeeded in organizing 1.3 million women so far.

“Tell your readers,” she said fiercely, “that the women in my association are the poorest of the poor, but with opportunity they can take leadership everywhere. Women are ready to be leaders.”

Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, the host for this week’s ITUC gathering, told the Tyee he and the CLC strongly supported the principle of gender equity and women’s leadership.

“We’ve taken important steps,” he said, “but there is still work to be done, especially in some affiliates. Women’s equality is a work in progress.”

Tom Sandborn covered the International Trade Union Confederation congress in Vancouver this week. His Hook items about the congress can be found here and two news features here and here. Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor focusing on labour and health policy issues. He welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

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