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6. Where Do We Go From Here?

While most of the Philippine labor centers have pledged to improve the conditions of women workers, women issues remain to be problematic within the trade unions themselves. Such declarations look good on paper, but translating them into concrete action in another thing. Neither the establishment of women committee nor a well-drawn women’s program in the unions guarantee that women’s rights and other gender concerns will become priority agenda of the trade union movement and will ensure equality.

The status of Women Committees, most especially at the local level, reflects the reality that we are still very far on our way to women empowerment. Women remain to be politically marginalized. Decision-making bodies still is dominated by male leaders. As such, trade union prioritizes common issues rather than specific women’s issues. This is manifested in minimal to none inclusion of programs for women in the regular planning of the union. Majority of the unions’ Constitution and By-laws do not ensure women participation. No budget is allocated to provide for support services and programs for women members and leaders. Women concerns are also not clearly stated in union objectives.

Women Committees are sometimes not recognized. In some cases they just complete the boxes in the organizational structure. Part of this problem is the ranks of women themselves. Unconsolidated ranks lead to lack of direction in Women Committee efforts. Lack of active committee leaders and members contribute to non-continuity of efforts because second-liners aren’t there when committee leaders have to leave. The lack of full-time staff who will take responsibility in the day to day operations of the committee also contributes to its performance and minimal implementation of targets/ objectives set.

But on the other hand, small steps but significant ones, have been undertaken to address the need of consolidating the ranks of women, to establish women committees which will start the ball rolling toward women’s active participation in all facets of union life, advocacy and networking efforts to overcome the barriers to gender equality. We were witness to the rise of women organizers for women concerns, innovative approaches in education and organizing strategies that gave impressive results. The advancement of women leaders who are asserting their place in the union leadership is flourishing.

But we should not stop here. Further development and molding of women agenda is wanting. As we are striving to change the trade union culture, more and more women are needed to share the responsibility in realizing our goals.

The following are some perspectives for us to ponder as we move on to bring the collective experience into new heights for gender equality.

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Breaking the Cultural Barriers

The struggle for equality is still a struggle against culture. The patriarchal society and consumerism continue to relegate women as displays and second rate citizens. Education work for both men and women should be continuously placed under evaluation and monitoring. The efficacy of methodologies will ensure success in changing culture. Gender sensitivity conducted jointly at leadership level for both sexes seems to create more impact. A frank and unblinking discussion facilitates better understanding.

Research is also an important component of the education work. Clear-cut data can easily concretize and visualize the magnitude of the prob-

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lems and responsive proposals can be formulated. Publication can complement awareness building as it covers a wider audience. Specific courses on time management, parenting, and marriage are also needed to respond to the "domestic" dimension of trade union leadership.

The need to intensify awareness and training for our sisters cannot be emphasized. Reaching out to the broadest possible audience is the only guarantee that the critical mass of women will come into being. This is were the organizing work takes the critical role.

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Beyond Being Mere Organizational Boxes

The Women Committee or the gender program as a whole has a fundamental role in the over-all struggle of the laboring people. They are not compromise structure but necessary units and initiatives that contribute in giving flesh to the broad concept of social justice, equality and workers’ empowerment. Institutional support should then be scaled-up. Expansion of budget and integration in unions programs are notable steps. But maintaining purely labor center or federation level committees can lead to "bureaucratization" of the endeavor. This was evident in the histories of many trade unions.

Since collective bargaining is the heart of trade unionism, women leaders should now formulate gender-sensitive CBAs which they can use in their advocacy work within unions and in their workplaces.

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Women Committees at All Levels

The presence of women committees in the various structures of the labor movement is a guarantee that women concerns will be addressed. Likewise, discrimination and inequity in workplaces can only be solved if women activists are present at the shop floor. Since the committees facilitate integration into the organizational life of the union, they in fact, are schools for leadership and democracy. Thus organizing must transcend labor center or federation structures. Local level organizing is a cornerstone effort to harness women power in the unions.

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Deepening the Percentage Game

As we struggle against the "greater" issues – capitalist hegemony and exploitation – we must also simultaneously push for an end to unchallenged male dominance within our own unions. Women, as a bloc, must consciously seek to balance the male-crowded union leadership. A balance in number can be the first step towards a balance in power. Gains were made at various levels but we have to confront this reality: membership of women in the trade unions is only at 36.7%. This means more women are yet to be integrated into unions. This is below the corresponding percentage of women in the labor force – that is at 40%.

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Facing the "It’s-No-Longer-an-Issue-It’s-Up-to-You-Now" Challenge

It is true that it eventually becomes personal. There is really a felt need to "produce" women who possess organizational skills and assertion skills to negotiate for women-related concerns. Women leaders should be developed at all levels of the organization. Assertiveness is the call of the day not solicitation of organizational space.

Since the key work of trade unions is collective bargaining, women should also be at the forefront of this task. Experience showed that women issues become sacrificial proposals in bargaining. Thus, women are disadvantaged and discriminated in their workplaces. Besides, being a negotiator is a clear manifestation of knowledge, assertiveness and leadership. Women programs should also cater to this particular training need.

Multiple burden contributes heavily to the dearth of women leaders. The implementation of the daycare laws is essential in easing the difficulties. But in the end, gender sensitivity for men has to be intensified for building a family is a shared responsibility.

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Towards New Organizational Forms and Strategies

As more women continue to join the active workforce, it becomes necessary to "genderize" the trade union movement. The Philippine trade union movement’s main organizing strategies remain responsive only to workers with clear employee-employer relations. It has failed to address the issues of other workers. It therefore needs to redirect its framework to be responsive to the subjective and objective conditions. It needs a kind of unionism that reaches out to the broadest base of the non-owning, marginalized working class. Here, the use of innovative organizing strategies which will focus on issues of different workers is needed. MAKALAYA is one model that transcends traditional trade union structure and redefines the working people concept. Thus they are able to integrate a broad range of women workers – from formal sector and informal sector – into one organizational expression.

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Expanding Our Themes and Concerns

Women concern contains diverse elements that reflect life in totality. Gender equality goes beyond participation. It also covers concern for economic opportunities, health, and politics. Cooperativism is an integral part of the labor movement, thus, women should assume roles in this economically empowering endeavor. Health is a fundamental issue that should be integrated in women programs. Occupational health and safety programs are instruments of protection in work while reproductive rights and protection ensures a better quality of family life.

One challenge for women trade unionists is how to extend the struggle to cover the million of women working outside the country. The reconfiguration of the foreign labor market (specially due to the end of construction boom in the Middle East) saw the revival of women exodus. Unfortunately, they are employed in discriminating circumstances. Sometimes they come back in coffins. Where do we place them in the over-all agenda of labor protection? Is it organizationally impossible to respond to their needs? There are more questions but I believe it is high time to reconstruct our perspectives on the migrant women workers.

Another arena in which women workers’ struggle will extend to is in politics. Though advocacy is targeted at political structures, participation in decision making and in governance are important venues for women empowerment. The democratization process in the country has given women opportunities and venues to directly involve in politics. The party-list system for implementation in 1998 offers possibility for women to participate in the elections for the House of Representatives as a sector or for women workers as part of labor movement. The possible implementation of the Local Government Code provisions on sectoral representation in 1998 will result in the elections of women into city, town and provincial legislative councils as women sectoral representatives or as workers representatives.

As women in politics become more pervasive, women workers will definitely be integrated in this arena. And we should be ready, for in the end, women struggle encompass the social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of the society.

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Reconceptualizing Women Empowerment

Broadening the perspectives and frameworks are also fundamental in adapting to the changing times. Going beyond the "male-is-guilty fixation" is a critical challenge. We owe it to ourselves to occupy our rightful place in the society. Empowerment means the capability to realize our goals and exercise our rights by our own actions and achievements to complement the perfunctory allocations and quota system.

The agenda for change must not be confined to issues on participatory democracy, it should also rectify the capitalist division of paid work and home work. Women’s bondage begins and ends not in the workplaces, it extends to traditional "tasks" at home and in the community.

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Hence, unions must also link the women’s productive and reproductive roles.

The abundant strands of feminist perspectives give us a lot of choices in galvanizing the totality of our analysis, framework, strategies and vision. The ideological component of the struggle must be further introduced and articulated. Simplistic ideas are flimsy handles of commitment and feminist idealism. The patriarchal culture and the particular circumstances it spawns in the daily lives of women can make our struggle either a fad, a valiant but vain effort, or mere funding flavor of the decade. Thus, "feminist cadres" must be developed to ensure the sustainability and continuity of the struggle.

The Philippine struggle for gender equality in the workplace and inside the trade unions is still full of obstacles. But to see women recovering their faith in themselves is already a victory for the future. The road ahead will continue to give us the signs and the guides that will help us lay down the foundations of an egalitarian and gender fair labor organization, community and society. Each sister should then read, interpret and act on it. In the end, only a collective effort can make us succeed in this journey.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2001

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