On March 8th 1857, hundreds of women garment and textile workers went on strike in New York City protesting against low wages, long working hours, and inhumane working conditions. The strike, which ended in violent clashes with the police, is now commemorated as International Women's Day.
Textile and garment workers across the world, the vast majority of them women, are still subjected to 'sweatshop' conditions.
Locally textile workers are being tossed on the dole as multinationals cross the globe in search of even cheaper labour markets.
Today, as in 1857, the struggle of working class women, the struggle of 'third world' workers and the struggle of 'first world' workers is one and the same struggle. All have one and the same enemy - capitalism. Today's protest (Thursday 8th March) at GAP, in solidarity with women workers around the world, has been called by 'Globalise Resistance' (a.k.a. the SWP) and its demands for a living wage and the right for workers to organise is supported by the Syndicalist Solidarity Network.
Multinationals such as Gap are exploiting women in poor countries and exploiting, mostly women, textile, garment and retail workers here in Northern Ireland.
In 1999 Gap made profits of $1.1 billion. Gap CEO Millard Drexler received $172.8 million in salary and bonuses. Yet women in its Russian factories are paid just 11 cents an hour and work in sweatshop conditions.
Striking Gap workers in Cambodia have been shot at. Gap workers in Indonesia have been sacked for unionising.
A multi-million pound lawsuit was filed against Gap and many other multinational sweatshops challenging their use of indentured slavery and human rights violations in sweatshops in the US territory of Saipan in the Western Pacific. Gap are among those companies which are refusing to settle - meanwhile the abuses continue.
Women's work in the garment industry gives a graphic example of the interconnection of exploitation across borders. The industry has historically relied on extreme exploitation of women and children and served as a key source of profit, foreign exchange and industrialisation in many countries. It has transformed from a domestic to a highly globalised industry.
This globalisation has seen as a direct consequence the decimation of the textile and garment industry in Northern Ireland. Those remaining domestic sweatshops broker 'survival' packages with unions (where workers are unionised), productivity is increased, workers laid off, and pay effectively cut. All the time there is the threat, if your boss is a multi-national, of closing up and going somewhere cheaper, or in the case of smaller local concerns, of going under. The end result is the same - more workers cast onto the dole.
The subcontracting structure and global nature of the industry makes it prone to sweatshop abuses of workers'. At the top of the pile sit the giant manufacturers who reap the lion's share of the profits yet deny responsibility for the workers who produce these profits for them. Below them is a layer of contractors who fiercely compete to win contracts by cutting costs and wages. At the bottom are the workers, women and girls paid a fraction of the garment's price and who compete with workers across the world.
Women and girl garment workers are organising themselves, unmasking the industry's power structure, and asking for solidarity with sister workers up and down what is becoming known as the 'global assemblyline'. They are organising through unions, workers centres, committees and campaigns. They are challenging the industry structure, by pressuring not only contractors, but the big manufacturers and retailers at the top of the pile. They are taking their case directly to consumers and communities to heap more pressure on the corporations which are made wealthy by their labour.
The struggle of third world women workers, the struggle of first world women workers and of their male fellow workers, is the same struggle. What is required, and what must be encouraged and supported is solid shopfloor self organisation of workers throughout the industry, from Russia to Saipan, from factory floor to retail outlet. Only unity, direct action and global solidarity can effect any real gains for workers in this or any industry - at home and abroad. It must be recognised that where direct action begins with strikes and protests workers must gain control of their workplaces not simply gain a pay rise. Only by securing control of our industries can workers gain any lasting victory over the bosses and the equal share of the wealth that we, together, produce for society by our labour.
Great gains have been claimed by the feminist movement over the years, so much so that many would have you believe we are living in a post feminist society. Gains undoubtedly have been made but the truth of the matter is that these have only had a significant impact on the lives of a minority of women. Working class women are still oppressed, they are oppressed as workers by the capitalist economic system and as women in our undeniably patriarchal society.
To give an example, the North and West Health Care Trust have a child care facility for its 'workers' in the RVH. Provision of child care for working women has been a central demand of the feminist movement and here we see one of the gains of feminist campaigning in action. Well, for some women anyway. Childcare for North and West employees would cost workers £100.00 per week - for the vast majority of women who work in the trust this is simply beyond their means.
Employer subsidised childcare is only aimed at a very small percentage of the workforce. It does not make economical sense for employers to see highly and expensively qualified women leaving the workforce due to lack of childcare facilities. It does make sense to employ the majority of the workforce on low pay and with little to no job security. It is not simply sexism which holds women in worse paid jobs but the economic reality of the capitalist system. Employing the cheapest labour makes good economic sense. In today's society crèches and childcare are a luxury that the profit motive and increased 'efficiency' can rarely afford. To women who accept this system inadequate, expensive childcare is a victory, while the plight of ordinary women workers doesn't get a look in.
For middle class women childcare is not a big problem, they can afford to hire other women to stay at home so they are free to go out and pursue their careers. So when women managers seek to overcome sexism provision of free 24 hour childcare is not a priority. Women may still be far from equal to men in today's society, but undoubtedly some women are more equal than others. Middle class women may still experience sexism, but they still have an interest in seeing the system continue largely unaltered. They may lobby on 'safe' issues such as rape and domestic violence, but when it comes to issues that question the way society is run, and their own privileges, sisterhood quickly breaks down.
Patriarchy may be hard to overcome at all levels in society but if working class women and men do not make common cause against it and capitalism the working class will make no real progress towards real economic and individual liberty and freedom. Issues of childcare, contraception, women's control over their own bodies, violence and rape are not just 'women's issues', like any issues of exploitation and oppression they are issues for the majority of society as a whole - for both working men and women. The recognition of unpaid domestic labour is central to any forward looking movement based on seeking emancipation of all workers from capitalist and sexist, racist and other forms of hierarchical oppression.
Many early women activists , particularly Anarcho-Syndicalist and Anarchist women, such as the Mujeres Libres of Spain and Emma Goldman, were quite hostile to being described as 'feminists'. To them feminism meant the struggle of middle class women to be equal with middle class men, while to them women's liberation entailed the struggle of women and men for a freer society for all.
The gaining of universal suffrage has changed little to nothing - working class women are still oppressed and exploited. As are working class men.
If we are indeed living in a post feminist society then perhaps we must acknowledge that, as these women believed, feminism was only really concerned about middle class women. What is needed is a movement while links the struggle against patriarchy with the struggle against capital and which fights for a better world for all.
Out in the Pacific Ocean, on a chain of islands known as the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a multi billion dollar garment industry has been booming since the 1980's. Thousands of garment workers live and toil in deplorable conditions, working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and earning $3.05 an hour or less, with no overtime rates.
Indentured Slavery. Over 90% of garment industry jobs in the Marianas are held by foreign 'guest workers,' predominantly young women from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand. With promises of high pay and quality work in the US, workers agree to repay recruitment fees from £2,000 to $7,000, trapping them in a state of indentured slavery. They must often sign 'shadow contracts' waiving basic human rights, giving up the right to join unions, to quit or marry.
Poor Working and Living Conditions. Crowded, unsanitary factories and shanty town housing compounds have earned contractors in Saipan over 1,000 citations for violating US Occupational Safety and Health standards. Many capable of causing death or serious injury. Many live in cramped barrack like condition in what amount to prison camps. They are strictly supervised by guards and subject to lockdowns or curfews. Complaints about conditions are met with threats of termination, violence and summary deportation.
Anti-Union & Anti-Worker. The local Marianas' government and garment factory employers have been staunchly anti-union and anti-worker. In 1996 the time period to file claims for unpaid wages was reduced from two years to six months. Despite this the number of grievances has been increasing. In 1996, 60 unfair labour charges were filed covering up to 2,000 workers. More recently nine grievances were filed against the Sako Corporation, one charge was due to threats to close down if workers unionised and the non payment of overtime rates to union supporters.
Women make up half the workforce in Northern Ireland but women continue to get a worse deal than male workers. There are still substantial differences in rates of pay. Women are more likely to be employed in casual, part-time work with low pay and poor conditions. Equal opportunities for women is far from being a reality in the absence of free, adequate childcare. Many more women are employed in the black-market economy, i.e. doing the double, with no contract, no job security, and the constant fear of being caught 'breaking the law'.
It is a fact that unionised women workers earn more than their non-organised counterparts, have better terms and conditions and greater job security. The situation even in workplaces which are unionised in reformist trade unions is far from ideal but it is still of practical benefit to many women.
Hierarchical structures, union boss fear of anti-union legislation and a social partnership approach does a great deal of harm to the potential strength of an organised workforce. Trades unions organise by trade or in general unions, promoting sectionalism and a weakening of industrial strength.
While union membership and organisation is a necessity we must ask ourselves whether the existing unions provide us with an adequate form of organisation in the long-term.
The Syndicalist Solidarity Network believe they do not. While we recommend membership of these unions for the minimal protection they can offer the most important form of organisation comes with a workforce which is solid on the shopfloor. Solidarity must be built across the existing union structures, across industries, throughout industries and globally. We need a morality of solidarity which extends deep into the heart of our communities which cherishes all workers as equal. We believe that 'an injury to one is the concern of all'.
Such a movement should be built from the bottom up, it should be controlled directly by its members - without building up a layer of bureaucrats to rely on who would ultimately strangle the movement and its vitality. The methods of such a movement must be based on direct action at the point of production and in our communities. We need to build our own strength, not give it away to those politicians who would have us believe they can 'represent' us.
Ultimately we believe in the establishment of a new labour movement, one which aims at workers control of society and the abolition of all top down institutions and oppression. One that would replace capitalism with a society ran directly by workers on the basis of need not profit.
Such a labour movement exists in other parts of the globe. Its most famous accomplishments were carried forward by the workers of the CNT union in Spain during the Spanish civil war and revolution. This type of labour movement has a name - Revolutionary or Anarcho-Syndicalism.