8 March 2021 - To mark the occasion of the International Women’s Day, Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, shares her views on how to advance gender equality in the labour market.
Read the full interview and find out what piece of advice these 3 inspiring women would give to young women entering the labour market:
Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International
Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International
“Can you share some good examples of how social dialogue can further gender equality?
Let’s begin by understanding that we need to address multiple issues in the labour market from a gender equality and feminist perspective. Gender inequality cuts across our economy. And a feminist lens asks us to examine the different axes of inequality – gender, race, wealth, and more – and how these intersect.
The grotesque inequality in our global economy today at its heart is about a huge imbalance between labour and capital. Social dialogue is an important tool to fight inequalities and to rebalance and equalize power in the economy for women. As an NGO we see ourselves as allies to trade unions, playing a supporting role.
The areas we need to address across the economy for women are everywhere – starting with wages and workers’ rights being pushed down and the wage inequality women face. We have to talk about the issue of care – Oxfam showed for example how women are doing over 12.5 billion hours of care work each day, for free – to social protection gaps, such as women’s exclusion from health protection or retirement systems, and the disproportionate impact on women of regressive taxation and the privatization of essential public services.
What is so crucially relevant for women around the world is addressing the informal economy – that’s disproportionately made up by women. Let’s be clear: women are vastly over-represented in the poorest paid and least secure jobs. In Asia and Africa that’s 75% of women in insecure, informal employment, as the UN has shown us. In the informal economy workers also have fewer protections and it is harder to organize together. We need to recognize and address these barriers, learning from and building on the fantastic work done by the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the International Domestic Workers Federation and others.
It is a constant feature of our growth model that women are excluded from the proceeds of growth, and face the greatest risk. Even consider climate breakdown: while the emissions of the richest drive this crisis, squandering our carbon budget, it is the poorest people, women and marginalized racial and ethnic groups who are facing the brunt of the impact. And we need to also review the goals we set for the economy – including the need to go beyond an almost exclusive focus on GDP – and instead measure dignity, equality and what matters for people. Countries such as New Zealand are showing we can do differently by looking at well-being for example in the way that they design their budget.
Examples can help jolt us into action. One development bank in Asia shared an example that really vividly shows the sexism deep in our economy: they highlighted how many businesses choose to employ women because of their – and I quote – ‘nimble fingers’ and because they are ‘less likely to strike or disrupt production’.
In South-East Asia we heard from a woman called Budi, who works in a shrimp-processing plant as part of a global supply chain, who must peel up to 950 shrimps an hour to receive her minimum wage, standing for 9 hours at a time. It would take Budi 5,000 years to make the average annual salary of a top US supermarket CEO at the top end of the same global food chain. This is the kind of inequality within value chains that we must address. And it’s not just in poor countries. In the USA, Dolores works in a poultry industry which has seen booming profits for owners, while Dolores and her co-workers wear diapers to work because their bosses deny them toilet breaks.
This is why we work at Oxfam in the pursuit of profound structural change to our economic model: we have an economy today that is supporting extreme wealth for the few, built on the backs of dangerous and poorly paid and hidden work for the many in poverty – and especially women and racial and ethnic marginalized groups. So often we hear about ways to simply push women into the economy – actually we’re saying, no – instead let’s reshape our economies to be just, and be designed differently for women in the first place.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the discrimination against women and girls in our economy more than ever. Consider example how the informal economy, dominated by women, has been so profoundly hit by the pandemic. Consider, as Oxfam recently showed, that far more than a hundred million women wouldn’t be at risk of losing their jobs today, if men and women were equally represented in low-pay sectors hit hard by Covid-19. Consider the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence, with over 243 million women and girls subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by their intimate partners in the past 12 months.
Covid-19 has also exposed how women and girls have long been locked out of the decision-making rooms, and these will have consequences in how “gender equality” is considered, or even on the agenda. In health for example, women are 70 per cent of health sector workers but under a quarter of the world’s health ministers.
What is a top priority? Well let me propose a few priorities to pursue gender equality in the economy. It means increasing job opportunities for decent work for women, to protect the rights of women workers and to ensure they receive fair pay for the work they do. Such rights can’t simply be ‘man-shaped’ – and they must include protection against violence and harassment, not just in the workplace, but the pervasive presence of sexual violence for women before they get work, in the workplace, and in their journey to and from work – to name a few of the common ways in which women experience violence.
We need to go far further to tackle the root causes of women’s economic inequality, which includes issues from access to education and training, land ownership and access to productive resources. We also need to continue the effort to tackle discrimination in laws and we need better laws to ensure women can participate as equals in the labour market. The World Bank showed that there are at least 100 countries in which women cannot do the same jobs as men, and 18 in which husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. And laws and policies are one part of the picture: we hand-in-hand must tackle the social norms that are constraining and denying women opportunities. This is a crucial area of work Oxfam has focused on.
Also different contexts may need different approaches, for example women farmers may need access to land, living wages, social protection, mobility, access to markets and decision making. Small women entrepreneurs’ need access to finance. Gender responsive progressive taxation can help level the field.
According to your experience, what is the top priority to advance gender equality in the labour market?”
Social dialogue can prioritize these issues mentioned above, and more broadly help enable a wider paradigm shift, by raising the voices of those people who are most affected, and strengthening the mechanisms to do so. It’s why we value the Global Deal – you help to institutionalize social dialogue so women such as Budi and Dolores can be heard.
We also need to value and pursue social dialogue as a tool in the pushback against shareholder domination. Today’s dominant shareholder-first business model holds us back from ensuring dignity for workers and especially for women workers. Think about when heavily financialized corporations engage in a race to the bottom on the bottom line – this squeeze doesn’t affect everyone equally. It follows the path of least resistance: so those with the least power, the poorest and most marginalized, especially women, suffer most.
That’s why for workers to have stronger voice we must find ways to ensure that more than just shareholders make decisions. Right across the value chain we need businesses in which workers power is locked in by design. Where workers frankly aren’t ignored. We need to grant voice and weight to all parties in the conversation. These are the ingredients for a transformational dialogue. Social dialogue has a critical role here.
At Oxfam we deeply value engaging in initiatives when workers and communities have a seat at the table. In fact we prioritized participating in the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) because trade unions were represented on the board as well as NGOs and companies.
Even better is when arrangements lead to grievance mechanisms that have real teeth. We all painfully recall the Rana Plaza factory tragedy in 2013. Set up after this was the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety – a legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh – and it’s a powerful example of progress. There is a stick behind the door, grievances get heard by a third party, are investigated, suggestions for improvement made, and if suggestions are not followed through after a certain time, companies get delisted from the Accord.
And finally it’s why Oxfam works to push for business that is democratically owned and governed - where workers and local communities really do have an equal say in decision making. The multilateral Mondragon turns over €12bn under the ownership and decision-making of its tens of thousands of employees. The highest-paid earns no more than 8 times the lowest.
What really excites me is the alternative business ecosystems which sit apart from the cut throat, profit first, model of business. Look at the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) - the 400+ social enterprise members are part of an alternative trading system. All the members are structured to give power and voice to workers, producers and communities – profit maximization at the expense of human rights and environmental care isn't in their DNA. What’s more: their Fair Trade Enterprises have more women than men making decisions, supervising people, leading enterprises, designing products and taking leadership.
I mentioned earlier the importance of taking a feminist approach – and this also means we shouldn’t separate economics and the labour market from the way our societies work, and culture. If we have gender, race and inequality gaps in the education system, if we have early marriage of girls violating their rights, their development and education, if we continue experiencing gender based violence in private and public spaces, if we restrict bodily autonomy and mobility of women, then we cannot somehow then expect gender equality in the labor market will then materialize.
To end, you asked for one policy and it is difficult to say one! But let me suggest care work is such a priority. Women and girls spend 12.5 billions of hours each day cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly. For free. This “hidden engine” of care work keeps our economies, businesses and societies moving, and it is driven by women who often have little time to get an education, earn a decent living or have a say in how our societies are run, and who are therefore trapped at the bottom of the economy.
We want to see governments pass laws to tackle the huge amount of care work done by women and girls, and ensure that people who do some of the most important jobs in our society —caring for our parents, our children and the most vulnerable— are paid a living wage. We want to see the private sector get behind this.
And governments can also better fund vital public services and infrastructure that could help reduce women and girls’ workload. For example, investments in water and sanitation, electricity, childcare, healthcare could free up women’s time and improve their quality of life. For example, providing access to an improved water source could save women in parts of Zimbabwe up to four hours of work a day, or two months a year. We want to see governments ensure corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of tax – so we can invest in truly building a 21st century economy with equality and justice at its core.
“What piece of advice would you give to young women entering the labour market?”
I would say to her, as I would say to myself 30 years ago, when I entered the labour market that it is not the responsibility of that young woman to adapt to a sexist, and indeed profoundly unequal labour environment.
I would urge her to join a trade union. To find allies: other women and men who are fighting sexism, but also racism and all inequalities. I would say that often one goes faster walking alone, but goes further joining others. Always work with other people, with other women and men who are reinventing organizations, spaces, rules, and lifting the world in the process. Understand the power that comes solidarity and from uniting people.
And I would remind her that she is not alone! Beyond her village, town or city, that there are women like her – around the world and through history – who share her experience, and who show we can win to pursue a better world.