By Devi Leiper
With Labor Day fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about women’s work. At the Global Fund for Women, I am proud to live for the women’s human rights movement, but also work for the movement.
In the past few weeks, the struggles of Asian women workers have made news headlines. In Cambodia, at least nine women garment workers were injured in a clash between striking workers and police in riot gear over the suspension of a key union official. This suspension is part of a long history where union officials have been unjustly arrested, harassed, and assassinated. Yet our grantee partners in Cambodia continue to organize and assemble to ‘build solidarity’ and ‘raise women’s voices,’ which have yielded over the years important gains in higher wages and better work conditions.
In Bangladesh, some 80 workers, including women, were injured by rubber bullets and teargas fired by police. These textile workers were disappointed by the new minimum wage law that raised salaries to $43 a month from $24 a month, the lowest industry salary in the world. The raise wasn’t sufficient; workers say they need at least $72 a month for a decent quality of life, especially since most are still reeling from last year’s global food crisis.
In addition to demanding better pay, Bangladeshi workers are demanding decent working conditions at factories owned by companies like Marks & Spencer, JC Penney, Wal-Mart and H&M. Like Cambodia, the work environment for labor groups is extremely hostile. Government officials and their security forces use excessive force to quell demonstrators. The government has targeted groups working on women workers’ labor rights in Bangladesh – accusing them of inciting violence, stripping their license to operate as a non-government organization, and forcing leaders into hiding.
While the global garment industry has rapidly increased the number of women in the workplace in countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh, women’s economic and labor rights are still to be recognized and realized. On Labor Day, let’s remember the plight of women workers struggling for these basic human rights all around the world.
Devi Leiper is part of the Program Team at the Global Fund for Women