Women in the workplace. What image comes to mind, or perhaps, what image comes to Google? Is it a picture of women in a suit, portrayed against a clean white background? Perhaps this woman may be holding a clipboard, be seated in front of a computer or perhaps be wearing a doctor or nurse’s uniform.
Women have changed the face and the operations of the world of paid work immeasurably. During the last century women have become leaders of industry and finance, decision and policy makers and the deciders of the laws and regulations that govern the workplace. Women have achieved rights that even as recently as the 1970’s would not have been thought possible. Moreover, in the context of violence against women, workplaces have become much safer for women. Violence and harassment have been identified as evils and social and legal mechanisms now exist and to which women have recourse in case their rights are violated.
However, what happens when we leave behind our stock image of a woman in an office? To understand why violence against women in the workplace is still an issue today, we must look at the reality of what constitutes a woman’s workplace, the reality of their working conditions and the violence inherent in these places.
In reality a huge number of women in paid employment today work under conditions that nurture violence; sexual, psychological, economic, physical. Furthermore, the advances that have been made in global level agreements, in labour rights and representation, regarding minimum wages and poverty thresholds, have not had a global impact and for many women a safe work environment is at best an aspiration and at worst wishful thinking.
“[Loveness] Banda has no shelter to work under. She squats in an open area to break stones. Her face and legs are covered by the dusty debris that surrounds her as she sits on the bare ground”, said Dando Mweetwa of women crushing stones by the side of the road in Lusaka, Zambia. Like Loveness Banda millions of women seek out a living in occupations not befitting to human beings such as stone quarrying, open pit mining and in garbage or sewage works, in conditions that exploit their desperation and to which violence is inherent.
Employers, customers and even public service providers, such as the police and the medical establishment, subject working women to violence. Millions of women worldwide are sex workers, who, because they are vilified by society and persecuted by the law, are subject to violence in their workplaces. Additionally, many women work in the informal sector; in markets, as roadside vendors and in home-based businesses. They delicately tread the fine line between illegality and legality labouring through long hours and for inadequate, even criminal, pay.
The violence that is perpetrated in these workplaces may be a consequence of systematic vulnerability. For instance, due to caste or ethnicity. On an individual level vulnerability may be caused by inadequate support from their families and the general public and exploitative and cruel employers especially in the case of younger women.
However, underscoring women’s vulnerability to violence is the refusal of governments, policy makers and society in general to acknowledge vulnerability, to classify certain acts as violence or to place the economic rewards of exploitation above the welfare of women.
Where governments refuse to act or to intervene, private industries are at liberty to treat their employees as they wish. Moreover, governments may facilitate violence against and exploitation of women for instance as in Rajasthan, India, where the state government has attempted to limit worker unionisation and relax employers’ obligations to the welfare of their staff. According to Pushpa Achanta though “male supervisors abuse women workers, verbally, sexually and physically” in Bangalore’s garment factories, women who demand better conditions of service in the garment industry are subject to arbitrary arrest and harassment making evident the collusion of the state and private industry to continue to exploit women for economic gain.
An enormous gulf exists between the reality of women’s working conditions and the global principles and agreements (for instance, goal eight of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on full and productive employment and decent work) that have been agreed to by governments. Nonetheless, organisations across the world are working to improve women’s working conditions, sometimes taking on unpopular concepts such as the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa or tackling the economic interests of governments and multinationals such as the Garment Labour Union (GLU) in Bangalore India.
SWEAT campaign for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa means that sex work would be recognised as a legitimate form of employment and sex workers would be entitled to the same legal protections in other occupations. According to SWEAT, 90% of sex workers in South Africa are women and violence, intimidation, harassment, ostracism and even murder are prevalent in their work. If sex work work was decriminalised, women would be able to seek help when victimised and demand protection from the state. However, this is an enormous undertaking. It requires a change in perceptions of what constitutes work and a workplace, and because of societal perceptions of “prostitution” as a moral and religious issue, groups such as SWEAT have an enormous challenge.
The GLU also works with marginalised women. Garment workers are often from poor backgrounds, lack other viable skills and are overwhelmingly female. To achieve better outcomes for female garment workers, such organisations have to challenge not only economic interests but also the social hierarchies which relegate these women to the lowest rungs. Poor, rural women are calculated as cheap, disposable labour enabling the industry to deliver low cost goods and thus are subjected to sub-human working conditions.
An integral aspect of decent work, of the stock image of clean, new, safe office cubicle, is ending violence. Many actors such as non-governmental organisations, governments, the UN are working in this area. Ending violence against women in the workplace is about reaffirming the humanity of working women and placing women firmly and determinedly above economic gain.