September 17, 2010
On September 12-15, 25 representatives from women worker organizations from around the world gathered in Seoul, South Korea to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Korean Women's Trade Union (KWTU) and to exchange and assess innovative organizing strategies.
The conference was co-hosted by the KWTU and its sister organization the Working Women Academy (WWA). Participants came from Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, South Africa, Mexico, Nicaragua and Korea.
In its ten years, the KWTU's membership has grown from 400 to 6,000 workers, the vast majority of whom are women. The union is internationally recognized for developing innovative strategies to organize and represent women workers employed in temporary, low wage and/or informal jobs, sectors usually ignored by traditional trade unions.
Although Korea has a strong and militant labour movement in some male-dominated sectors, it has a very low overall unionization rate. About half of its labour force - and an even greater percentage of women - are temporary workers.
Sandra Ramos, founder and director of Nicaragua's Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemployed Women (MEC), a long-term MSN partner, and Ana Enriquez from MSN both attended the meeting, and then participated in a three-day exchange program to gain a more in-depth understanding of the work of the KWTU and the WWA.
Sandra presented one of five organizational case studies discussed at the conference, sharing the highlights and strategic thinking that has informed MEC's 15-year history of organizing and advocating on behalf of women workers in the maquila and other sectors in Nicaragua. MEC currently has over 70,000 members.
The Tokyo Young Contingent Workers' Union, which has been successful at organizing young part-time workers employed mostly in the service sector, exemplified innovative efforts of young workers to organize.
Like other countries represented at the conference, Japan has seen its temporary workforce greatly increase over the last decades, particularly since neoliberal reforms were implemented after the country's decade-long recession in the 1990s.
These workers found themselves excluded and alienated from the traditional labour unions and chose to create their own organization. Rather than organize by workplace, the union organizes individual temporary workers across a range of companies including fast food restaurants and corner stores. Union representatives represent their members by confronting employers and negotiating on the workers' behalf. These negotiations often take place on street corners.
"I was very surprised by the experience of the youth in Japan and the increased precariousness they are facing," said Sandra. "In my mind Japan is a rich, developed country, so I was shocked to hear that youth sometimes don't even have enough to eat, and that all of that industrial capacity doesn't translate into benefits for its citizens."
Conference participants also learned about the work being done in South Africa's agricultural sector. Sikhula Sonke, which means "we grow together," was set up to improve the living and working conditions of women migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, many of whom labour in the vineyards of South Africa's booming wine export industry.
Sikhula Sonke has been successful in negotiating with farm owners and government to gain benefits for its members and has also been active in organizing campaigns against evictions of farm workers and gender-based violence.
At one of the last exchange meetings before returning to Managua, Sandra had the opportunity to learn more about the work of the Korean Women's Academy. This was of particular interest to Sandra because she has been working to set up a similar academy in Nicaragua. The vision for the Korean academy came from Maria Rhie, another long-time leader in the working women's movement.
Sandra's final thoughts on the exchange: "We are continents apart, but we are obviously on the same wave length. These exchanges reinforce for me that there is much to learn from our different contexts and struggles, and much we can learn from each other."
"I've learned so much from the rich history of women workers in Korea, about their role in the struggles of garment workers over the last 30 years, and their fight to win a place in the union movement.
"These exchanges are critical. In an era of globalization and particularly in this moment of economic crisis, there is an increasing need for women to share organizing strategies and disseminate best practices.
"Women continue to bear the brunt of economic downturns facing increasingly precarious conditions in part-time, temporary, or out-sourced jobs, while always under the threat of loosing their jobs to factory relocations if they make any attempts to organize.
"Globalization challenges us to come up with common strategies to tackle these universal problems we are all facing. It creates the need to find new and innovative ways of organizing, particularly informal and part-time workers"
Sandra Ramos, Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemployed Women