Women’s Day: Time for atonement, not celebration

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Women often pay a high price for the cheap goods we enjoy in Europe. [marissaorton/Flickr]

It is too easy to fall in the trap of self-congratulation on 8 March, International Women’s Day. We’ve come a long way when it comes to women’s rights, writes Jerome Chaplier, but we mustn’t forget how far we still have to go.

Jerome Chaplier is the coordinator of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ).

Today we have female heads of state and female astronauts, Nobel Prize winners and acclaimed artists.

But we also have women working in slave-like conditions, producing goods for EU companies, within and outside the Union. And as the tragic assassination of Berta Caceras reminded us last week, women campaigning against human and environmental exploitation are still losing their lives because they dare to demand justice.

Deplorable working conditions

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: when Charles Dickens wrote this he could have been referring the life of a modern female factory worker in the developing world, making goods for EU companies.

In some parts of Asia, employment in textile or electronic factories and the financial freedom that brings is the best way out of forced marriage, for both teenage and adult women. But this does not come without strings, and the level of independence gained by these women is minimal.

In Dhaka or Bangalore, emancipation comes together with long hours, low pay and living conditions which could justifiably be described as Dickensian. For these women there is little hope for a better life. Yes, working for European corporations gives them a choice, but when the options are an arranged marriage or arduous labour, can we rally call this a choice?

Oxfam estimates 27 million people are employed globally in around 2,000 Export Processing Zones, with women representing at least 50%, and in some places up to 90%, of employees. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), labour conditions in these factories are often substandard, employees being denied their rights to association and collective bargaining.

While the companies operating Export Processing Zones in Central America, locally known as ‘maquilas’, are foreign, the majority of ‘maquiladores’ are local women. For most of them, gender-based discrimination is a daily struggle at work. The Maquila Solidarity Network explains they “face discrimination in hiring, promotions, and dismissals; sexual harassment and other forms of violence in the workplace; and lack of respect for their rights to health care, maternity and child care benefits”.

In Romania and Bulgaria, women produce goods for luxury EU brands for wages far below the line of decency, in terrible working conditions. A recent investigation by Balkan Insight, revealed some earn as little as €340 for half a year’s work, are forced to do unpaid overtime, are not allowed to take any breaks and often faint during long shifts in intolerable heat.

In all of these places, any and all initiatives to associate and demand better working conditions, decent pay and the basic respect of employees’ human rights is met with swift (and at times violent) reprisals by management. Most live in constant fear: of not being able to provide for their families; of losing their jobs; of not getting paid what they are owed or of working conditions deteriorating even further. While those who speak up fear physical aggression and other forms of harassment.

Female human rights & environmental activists

This corporate-sponsored state of fear also applies to the daily lives of female human rights and environmental activists. Last week, the news of Berta Caceres’s assassination saddened and shocked us all. Standing up for the rights to land and water of indigenous peoples has become much more than courageous, it is bordering on martyrdom. The murders of female human rights defenders around the world are pandemic. Out of the 58 women featured in the Association for Women’s Rights in Development annual tribute to activists who died in 2015, 31 had been murdered.

Yes, we have come a long way. But when it comes to women’s lives in a globalised world we are only as strong as our weakest link: and our weakest links are not doing that well.

Business and human rights are fields where much more needs to change to make 8 March a day of celebration and not one of atonement.

As consumers, we need to make better choices and remember that someone always pays the price for cheap goods and services. If it’s not us, it’s women and girls somewhere else in the world.

Corporations should first right their wrongs before the women’s day parade begins. Paying poverty wages, closing their eyes to what happens in their supply chains and ignoring the rights of indigenous communities is neither responsible nor sustainable.

Decision-makers of all genders and political colours must implement legislation that ends the abuse, within and outside the EU, and that offers protection and access to justice to affected communities and rights activists around the world.

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