IS rapid globalisation pushing women into a labour market where they are subject to various forms of harassment and hazards? Are working women across the globe unhappy and unhealthy in their jobs? At the recent fourth international conference on 'Women, Work and Health'(WWH), held in New Delhi, women from different countries shared how they coped with occupational hazards.
A wealth of ideas was shared by over 600 delegates, which included academicians, grassroots activists, healthcare workers, trade unions, policy-makers and representatives of governments, from 61 countries. The delegates deliberated on new research findings, trends and policy strategies relating to occupational safety and health of women.
Having A Job -- Is it Health Enhancing for Women? -- was the theme of a symposium presented by Hanna Westberg from Sweden. From India, Lakshmi Kannan discussed 'Gender Inequality at Work and at Home'; while Karen Messig from Canada, expanded on 'Ergonomic Studies of Interruptions and Continuities: A Characteristic of Women's Work'.
Various aspects of work-related stress, which is typically kept invisible and unanalysed, were brought into reflective awareness by these presentations. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 1.6 to 2.3 million workers die annually from work-related accidents and diseases, and globally this figure is on the increase. Some 60 per cent of these deaths occur in Asia. Although sex-disaggregated figures on this are not available, we know that large numbers of women work in dangerous and unhealthy jobs, worldwide.
Congress spokesperson Dr Aarati Saxena said the aim of the conference was to "mainstream and promote gender sensitivity in the workplace, and create a dialogue between academics and social movements".
The conference was organised by the Indian Society for Working Life, in partnership with the Swedish National Institute of Working Life, Manana, Stree Shakti, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the Centre for Social Research and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. The group recognised the need for integration of gender as a central perspective in the world of work and health. Previous WWH conferences have been held in Barcelona (1996), Rio de Janeiro (1999) and Stockholm (2002). To draw attention to local and regional issues, a number of regional workshops were held during several months prior to the conference - in Dehra Dun, Kolkata, Chennai, Jaipur and Mumbai.
Occupational health has assumed a major role in today's working scenario. The impact of globalisation is apparent, with profound shifts manifested in new forms of work organisation, environment and health. Contemporary work life has new problems and risks associated with it, involving physical and psychological well-being. For women, there is special vulnerability to sexual and social exploitation, as well as severe lack of social support caused by migration, displacement and loss of community structures.
Several papers on vulnerable groups studied the specific dynamics pushing women into a particular labour market, where they were disadvantaged and subject to various forms of harassment and hazards.
Lucio Yamamoto's paper on Brazillan Translators in Japan'; Mariama Awumbila's 'Gendered Poverty and Female Porters in Accra'; Arocklaswamy Anthumary's 'Plantation Women Workers in the Nilgiris'; and Farhana Chowdhury's 'Bangladeshi Women in Labour Market' - all described how workers live on the edge and learn to adopt a number of survival strategies to overcome poverty.
For instance, female porters in Accra, Ghana, have developed a collection of survival strategies which include collective credit schemes, forming semi-permanent conjugal unions and sexual partnerships for both protection and financial support, and carving out survival spaces. Awumbila noted that some of these strategies themselves increase risk and vulnerability to STIs and rape.
Strategies for coping with the stress of paid work (whether organised or organised), without compromising personal and family well-being, also came up during discussion. For instance, parents choose to make adjustments in work and at home including a redistribution of housework between the sexes.
However, in all societies of the world, women and men have dramatically different situations when balancing work and family life - even if their outside-work situations are sometimes similar. To a large extent, care is still women's work. Their primary responsibility for care thus structures their paid-work situation, to a much greater extent than for men.
Some speakers took into account the significance of grassroots mobilisation respecting the agency and capacities of the marginalised women workers. At the same time, they brought up the importance of raising awareness and advocacy at different levels, and linking women's struggles to global commitments like the achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
From Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Austria, France, UK, Nepal, Pakistan, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, Cambodia, Mexico, Fiji Islands, Malaysia, Venezuela, Turkey, Bhutan, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia... women spoke of sexual violence, and the impact of gender-based division of labour on musculo-skeletal health and high risk of HIV/AIDS.
Overall it seems clear that despite feminist movements raising serious issues intelligently and persistently, patriarchal structures have not quite given over. The public-private dichotomy is still prevalent across the world. Whereas spaces have opened up for women in various work sectors, these are typically marginal, underpaid and high-risk jobs, by and large concentrated in the unorganised sector. But even in high-level organised sector jobs, gender inequity remains the norm, with few women at the top rungs; the glass ceiling is firmly in place.
However, women are nothing if not resourceful: as Kaisa Kappinen of Finland points out in her paper 'Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling' (based on an empirical study in 27 industrialised countries), many women are turning away from the frustrations of daily discriminatory practices in their places of employment -- and launching their own businesses. In such varied countries as Australia, Canada, Finland, Ireland and Thailand, over 30 per cent of all businesses are today owned or operated by women.