By Judy Gearhart, International Labor Rights Forum
Many versions abound about how International Women’s Day came to be, but all stories lead back to 1908 when 15,000 women marched through New York City protesting violence against garment workers and demanding better pay, better working conditions and voting rights. Their slogan was Bread and Roses – signifying the need for better wages and a better quality of life. In 1909 women workers marched again in Chicago, officially kick-starting a National Women’s Day. The next year, European women proposed building on the US idea and agreed to make March 8th International Women’s Day. This is one of the great manifestations of international solidarity among workers and women in particular.
Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated all over the world, but its popularization has left many unclear about its origins and significance. We need to reclaim the meaning of this day to help change the fact that: women in the US earn 77 cents to the dollar compared to men; women in Bangladesh make up 85% of the workforce for an apparel industry, which is quite literally killing them; and malnourished and underpaid garment workers in Cambodia who faint from exhaustion on the job are accused of “women’s hysteria”. Women need equal pay for equal work and the ability to bargain for better wages. Too many women have to endure violence or risk their lives just to make a living.
More than 100 years later, garment workers continue to suffer attack when they raise their voices at work and far too many have died in this past year simply trying to make a living. Today we remember our sisters in Pakistan and Bangladesh who were lost, or survived with debilitating injuries, the horrendous fires that ripped through apparel factories in 2012 and the gut-wrenching collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013. We remember our friend Reba who survived the Rana Plaza factory collapse and traveled throughout the US, despite her injuries, to help educate US students, activists and policymakers. Reba told us that her co-worker was slapped when she objected to the manager telling them they had to go into the factory that day, despite the visible crack in the building. These deaths are unacceptable and this abject disregard for women’s voices – for any worker’s voice – is appalling.
We need to reclaim International Women’s Day for its original purpose: to advance women’s wages and working conditions and to give us all a voice in society.
Today, more than ever before, women around the world are critical to economic growth and development. The World Bank recognizes this, as do many development experts, yet their drive for improving women’s economic participation is weak when it comes to improving women’s ability to organize, bargain collectively and have a stronger voice in society. Women have entered the formal sector workforce in droves over the past fifty years and their economic earnings have increased – marginally. Meanwhile, despite their pay checks, women’s right to participation has not gained as much ground. Industries with a majority of women in the workforce continue to have lower wages and fewer organized workplaces. Meanwhile few societies have changed the balance of household responsibilities, leaving most women facing the double workday.
Today we want to give a shout out to all the women around the world who are rising up to secure better wages and working conditions and to end the violence against women that keeps their voices down. This coming April 29th, we are proud to be honoring women leaders from Honduras – Evangelina Argueta and Vilma Gomez from the Central General de Trabajadores – who are leading a cutting-edge initiative to improve workers’ rights in apparel factories there.
Women are taking action in the streets in many places around the world today, including:
- Women workers in Dhaka from multiple unions marched and formed human chains demanding safe conditions.
- In Phnom Penh, garment workers are raising their voices for a living wage and taking action even though police block their International Women's Day forum. This powerful, new video gives insight to the workers' struggle.
Please help us support these women workers’ demonstrations and to build momentum behind them. Please join ILRF in celebrating and supporting women workers' struggles today and throughout the months of March and April. Here are some ways to get involved:
- March 25: 103rd Triangle Factory Fire Commemoration
From Triangle Shirtwaist to Bangladesh: The Garment Industry, Tragedy, and Workplace Safety Reform
- April 24: Pay Up! Global Day of Action, calling for justice for Rana Plaza survivors
- April 29: "Women's Rights in the Apparel Industry: Ending Violence, Empowering Voices" Conference
2014 International Labor Rights Defenders Awards Ceremony