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‘We Are a Greedy World’: Union Head on Making Economics Work for Women

The head of the International Trade Union Confederation speaks to News Deeply about recognizing unpaid care, representing the rights of domestic workers, and what automation means for women.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
'It's about ending the systemic bias' – Sharan Burrow says we need to change the way we think about women workers. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

DAVOS, Switzerland – Sharan Burrow is the first woman to lead the world’s largest trade union federation, but she doesn’t want to be.

“It shouldn’t be the case that, in 2018, I’m the first woman general secretary on the global stage, but it’s the case,” the head of the International Trade Union Confederation told News Deeply on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos last week.

Burrow was one of seven female co-chairs at Davos, another first for the former teacher, but that doesn’t mean she is happy with where the discussion currently lies regarding women’s rights at work, or outside of the workplace.

“I’ve been asked a whole load of questions this week that I never thought I’d be asked again in my life,” she says.

“They ask me things like, ‘But Sharan, men and women are different. Don’t they need to make different life choices?’”

“It’s like your eyes open and you think, ‘Did I seriously hear that question?’”

Burrow answers such questions – in this case the response is a swift “Our life choices are our own” – not just on behalf of herself, but on behalf of the 200 million workers she represents, the most vulnerable of whom are often women.

On the last day of the Davos meeting, News Deeply spoke to Burrow about the role of women in the global workforce, the importance of the care economy, and what the rise of automation means for women’s jobs.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Why is it important to have a union presence at the World Economic Forum? What were your goals going into the experience?

Sharan Burrow: We have a global workforce of around three billion people. They and their families make up the bulk of the population. We have, in a fractured world, a global workforce that’s in trouble.

When you have 60 percent of the world’s people in some form of formal employment, and more than half of those are on short-term, insecure, low-paid employment, often unsafe work as well, then that’s a problem. Then we have 40 percent of the working population that’s informal. There are no rights, no minimum wages, there’s no rule of law. They have predominantly a female face.

Then you have up to 40 million workers in modern slavery. Aspects of work that’s performed under modern slavery conditions and informal are now appearing in our supply chains. When you know that the world is getting richer, but that’s the model of work we’ve delivered in the global economies, something is very wrong.

To have the voice of working people right up front and center for those who are trying to shape the future of the global economy, it’s very important.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: A report that came out before the Davos meeting showed that women will be the worst affected by automation. What can unions and government do to prevent new technology from wiping out women’s jobs?

Burrow: We’ve called for a just transition so people actually look at the impact of technology – that where jobs are going to be inevitably lost, there is a plan to invest in additional jobs. I don’t think anybody yet can see a world where we don’t aspire to full employment, that the dignity of work doesn’t matter to the social fabric. It’s an imperative that governments, employers, trade unions and civil society work together to work out how we actually manage the technological future that provides good, solid jobs for people.

On the technology front, what we’ve said is that human control is very important. It’s to do with the question of jobs, but it’s also ethics. It’s the nature of the way we want to live our lives. We’ve said there are four principles. We want to see human deployment of technology. We want to see human control of technologies, and human mediation for ethics inside or outside the workplace. And of course, we want to see human rights and labor rights at the core of the future of work.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: How do you think we train women workers to be ready for those jobs, new forms of work?

Burrow: There’s a lot of talk about lifelong learning. It’s been an issue that’s been aspired to for 25 years. People just haven’t funded it. When you think about automation, you’re going to automate tasks, you’re not going to automate whole jobs, [but] you may lose jobs.

In order for women to be represented in existing jobs and new jobs, they need to have first and foremost what every worker, every citizen, should have, which is a sound general education. Then they have to look at what kind of skills we need. Some of them will be technical. Yes, we need more women in STEM [science, technology, maths and engineering] areas, but that’s not the entire issue. We actually need to make sure that women are able to show those soft skills that they already have, which are going to be so important to solving problems, to bringing people together.

I don’t know that it’s so much about some special education, although education is critical. I’m a teacher by trade, so I’ll always be passionate about that. I actually think it’s about ending the systemic bias that looks to men first in IT.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Forty-nine percent of women are employed worldwide. Seventy percent want to be in paid work. What are some strategies you’ve seen that help in closing the opportunity gap for women?

Burrow: The first part is jobs, jobs and jobs, if we want women to participate in the economy. The G20 nations have set a target of 25 percent increase by 2025. I don’t think it’s such a large target, but it’s good to have one.

Then we have to invest in care. One, along with infrastructure, it’s the biggest jobs multiplier you can have. You get good jobs in care. Women like to actually contribute to their communities, and these are professional jobs. There are some parts of the world yet where childcare is not a formal sector. Age care is not a formal sector. Health and education aren’t available for everybody. The expansion of care in those sectors can provide good jobs.

Then you free women from the burden of care, which is still predominantly on women sadly, so they can participate in the broader economy.

We say caring is what makes us human. It makes economic sense as well, so why won’t we fund it?

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What about paid domestic workers? What is the best way to represent their needs and make sure they’re not being exploited?

Burrow: This is unfinished business, of course, but we now have a global standard. The ILO Convention on Domestic Work is a huge leap forward. Nations have ratified it, and they’re increasingly putting it in their laws. We’re seeing countries recognize that if you create a minimum wage, you give social protection, people are registered as employers, then you formalize work.

We’ve organized over 100,000 domestic workers globally. People told us you couldn’t organize domestic workers, [because] they’re locked in house by house. Our women have gone house by house and created wonderful, strong unions.

In Qatar, we’ve just cut a deal after a five-year-long campaign against modern slavery. It will eliminate the kafala system. Also, in that agreement, which will be supported and monitored by the ILO, we will regulate domestic work for the first time in Qatar. Women will have job hours. They’ll have a day off. They’ll become part of the wage protection system. There will be a minimum wage established.

It’s tragic that we are at 2018, and domestic workers are still seen not to be equal. The good news is that has shifted.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What do we see when we apply a gender lens to the supply chain economics of large companies and manufacturers?

Burrow: We definitely need both the gender lens and a human rights lens. Ninety-four percent of our workers in the global supply chains are a hidden workforce.

CEOs know that it’s a model of low-paid, insecure, often unsafe, work. But they take no responsibility. When they talk about how many people they employ, they will not count their supply chain workers. Yet, we know, for example, that some companies earn $17,000 for every supply chain worker, direct and indirect. In Asia, in the poorest of the supply chain countries, it would take just a $50 a month increase [to provide a minimum wage].

That would mean that the women in Batam, for example, or the women in Philippines, or the women in other parts of Asia, would not be as fearful of paying for basic things like their baby formula. At the moment, in the Philippines, one day’s wages equals one week’s baby formula.

Women work at a sewing clothes under contract with local clothing manufacturers in Manila. (Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

We are a greedy world. It’s the global economic models failing working people. That’s absolutely relevant when you look at any justice lens, human rights lens, gender lens, through our supply chains. Women dominate, particularly in major supply chain production.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Do you think that working women in the developed world, working women in the developed big world, face very different issues? Or is there perhaps more overlap than we think?

Burrow: In terms of the question of impunity around violence against women, it’s universal. In terms of the question of our economic bias against women as equals in the workforce, the percentages may differ, but it’s universal. In terms of the constraints women find about life choices, it’s universal.

There is a solidarity, among women in the labor movement. We come together across all countries pretty much, all ethnicities, all religions, yet the value set is the same.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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