In recent years, women have been taking to the streets again and again to protest against violence and oppression, restrictions on their reproductive rights, prevailing inequalities and discrimination. Italy, Argentina, Poland, South Korea and the US have seen numerous protests, demonstrations, direct actions and strikes, culminating in Spain, where several million people participated in a general strike. Last year in Germany a Women’s Strike Alliance (Frauen*Streik Bündnis) was formed, mobilizing individuals, various organizations and networks to build the strike movement around 8th of March. Even though feminist movements and their achievements are facing increasing resistance due to the political shift to the right, more and more people are joining the protests.
A Womans’ Work Is Never Done
Women are oppressed throughout the world. Institutional racism, structural disadvantage, sexual violence, border regimes, cuts in social benefits, etc. make women’s lives all the more difficult – at home, at work and in public spaces.
The gender order – the patriarchy – assigns a traditional role to women, in which they are supposed to be responsible for the care, household and educational work. These are activities that are done at home such as cooking, washing, cleaning, childcare, elderly care, as well as emotional and sex work. Women thereby face a double burden: unpaid care work in addition to wage labor. Two-thirds of the total working hours in the world today are unpaid care work activities performed almost exclusively by women. In industrialized countries, full-time employed women spend an average of 23 hours a week on unpaid household work, and 6-12 hours on unpaid child care work – the latter being 2-4 times more than men. According to information published in 2017, the Gender Care Gap in Germany is 52,4%.
At the same time, tasks such as elderly care, household work, childcare and sex work are also made available for purchase on the capitalist market, where this labor is also divided along the gender lines. Patriarchal structures are intertwined with the capitalist system and cause women and their labor to be considered less valuable. An example of this is the situation of care workers. Although there is a so-called “care crisis” in Germany, the problem of rising demand for care workers remains unresolved. Why? The “unattractiveness” of care work is due to both the low wages and to the low status of the care work as a profession, which is regarded as “women’’s work” and thus socially devalued.
In the end, care work is delegated to migrant women, who are employed not only in public institutions, but also in private households, especially to care for elderly people. It is estimated that there are between 150,000 and 500,000 care migrants in Germany who care for the elderly. They are mostly women from Eastern Europe, who often work irregularly and under precarious conditions. Transnational care work is not a new phenomenon in Germany, and female migrant care workers are often referred to as “new maids”.
In the labor market work assigned to the female gender, so-called women’s work, is underpaid, temporary, illegal, stigmatized, and remains largely without social security. Female colleagues are bullied in the supermarket by their boss; trainees are treated as cheap labor; care workers are physically, psychologically and emotionally exploited in retirement homes; women are sexually harassed in the workplace; female colleagues are forced to work unpaid overtime; elderly women are often employed under precarious conditions without social security; female colleagues are sacked because they are pregnant; migrant women are not even invited to the job interview because of their name; the long-term unemployed are stigmatized as parasites and threatened with sanctions; women are bullied at the workplace because they are transgender; single mothers are considered permanently unemployable… These are a few examples from our union praxis: low wages, precarious working conditions and (sexual) harassment are among many forms of discrimination that women experience on a daily basis in all walks of life.
Feminization of Poverty
According to the Federal Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt), women in Germany still earn significantly less than men. In 2017, the difference in earnings between women and men (the so-called Gender Pay Gap) was around 21%. The average hourly wage for women was 16.59 euros gross, well below that of men (21.00 euros). Structural differences that are reflected in the employment biographies and career choices have a major impact on this. But even in the female-dominated Health and Social Care sector, the Gender Pay Gap was 20%. Women didn’t earn more than men in a single industry. In addition, women are mostly employed part-time and without social security. In 2017, this was the case for almost every other working woman aged 20-64 (47%). In the same age group of men, the share was 9%. In contrast, while women reported primarily care for children or those in need of care (31%) or other family or personal commitments (18%) as the main reason for working part-time, for men the main reason was working while pursuing education or vocational training (25%).
As a result of socio-economic constraints, women are more exposed to precarious working conditions and more often threatened with long-term unemployment and (old-age) poverty. In 2015, women received a 53% lower pension than men (so-called Gender Pension Gap). In this context we speak of “feminization of poverty”.
Between Exploitation and Emancipation
More and more care work is being passed on to women, who are paid little or nothing for it. This generates profits that benefit only the privileged few. The fact that we live in a society with increasing class differences is often kept hidden. The dismantling of the welfare state leaves us with the situation where only the “rich” can buy private services in the care sector, while the “poor” have to get by on their own.
In the meantime, the lives of privileged women are presented as a “feminist” ideal worth striving for. However, neoliberal “equality policy” is only about exploiting women in the inherently unequal capitalist system as bosses, workers and consumers – rather than actually tackling inequalities. Has our situation changed since more women are represented in the parliaments? Are our wages higher when female managers oversee our work? What is the cause of low wages for women, cuts in social security, the criminalization of abortion – the lack of women in power or the economic system that works only by maintaining social inequalities? Although precarized women do essential work in society, they themselves are limited in the ways they can shape their own lives.
More and more women workers organize in grassroots unions, where no functionaries can dictate to them when to strike, for what and with what means. For a good year now, some women workers organized in the Free Workers’ Union (FAU) have defended themselves against exploitative and sexist working conditions in the flower shop Blumen Wolf in Hanover’s central station. They demanded higher wages that would at least cover basic costs of living, adequate working hours and breaks, and more holidays. The wages in floristry, like in other kinds of typical “women’s work”, are only slightly above the minimum wage. In order to make a living, workers had to work a lot more overtime than legally allowed. The legally guaranteed break time, daily maximum working hours and rest periods between the shifts were ignored. Moreover, the women workers of Blumen Wolf – as the ones responsible for most of the unpaid household work in the family – are affected by double exploitation. Low wages contribute to women being dependent on better-earning men. That’s why it is a feminist work struggle. The workers organized in FAU and were able to achieve numerous improvements at Blumen Wolf. After a 50 percent wage increase, their salary is now above the standard wage in the florist industry. There will be no more 16-hours shifts – working hours must now comply with the legal limits. The comrades have rewritten the shift schedules and shortened the opening hours in order to comply with the legally regulated working hours. They have opposed the boss’ bullying. The public was made aware of the miserable working conditions with rallies, flyers and press work. In the global flower market, working conditions are usually even more precarious than at Blumen Wolf, and mainly women work in this industry. The comrades of Blumen Wolf declare their solidarity with the women workers in the flower industry globally and demand fair and humane working conditions not only in their own workplace, but also where the flowers are sown, cut and packaged.
Together We Strike, Together We Move Forward!
Around the world, women are fighting against the oppression by patriarchy and capitalism. As their main weapon of resistance, they have chosen the strike. The fight against the exploitation of women at home and in the labor market as a consequence of the gender-based division of labor, is also the fight against the neoliberal form of patriarchy, which subordinates women worldwide in different ways, but everywhere with the same brutality. The women’s strike must therefore also include the household, the school, the hospital and other care facilities, and all forms of work performed by women – also unpaid care work and emotional labor. The women’s strike shows that women have common interests, which are bound to the common interest of all workers worldwide – they want to free themselves from economic exploitation and social oppression.
Challenging the neoliberal order that demands complete control over the body, life and time of women, women are demanding power, they want to make decisions for themselves, and they are aware that they will not get it without a fight. The fem*fau, a federal level working group of the FAU, calls for participation in the strike movement on March 8, 2019: “We strive to overcome capitalism and patriarchy. These struggles must also be directed against racism and transnational exploitation, since all these power structures are interwoven. Our goal is the liberation from all exploitation, oppression and domination. Strike, the refusal of (paid and unpaid) work, is our most effective means. Only through collective action can we achieve social emancipation and self-determination.” Women from all walks of life strike in order to improve the working and living conditions of the entire working class: better working conditions and decent wages, social security, freedom (of movement) and self-determination.
The FAU’s Participation in the Women’s Strike on March 8, 2019
As part of the Women’s Strike Alliance many FAU Syndicates are actively mobilizing for the 8th of March through organizing events, lectures and film screenings, and producing and distributing their own leaflets and info-material. The FAU feminist working group, fem*fau, has published a special feminist edition of our union newspaper Direct Action (Direkte Aktion). It addresses the struggle of women for their self-determination in everyday life, e.g. at the workplace, at the employment office, in the union, and in the family. The newspaper concentrates on topics such as unpaid reproductive work, recent work struggles in so-called women’s industries, sexism in the workplace, precarious working conditions of migrant care workers, hierarchical gender relations, etc. The union newspaper will be distributed for free during the strike and events connected to the feminist struggle in order to reach more people. Additionally, a brochure has been published with legal advice on how to participate in the strike. With some practical tips and examples we want to reach the employed and unemployed, the students and the retired etc. and encourage them to join the strike. We call for solidarity with all women in order to support their daily struggles, whether at home or at the workplace. Let’s get organized in the fight for better life and working conditions for everybody!
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