caring labor

ON April 11, the Arts Council auditorium in Karachi resounded with festivity. The first National Convention on Home Based Workers (HBW) was being held there. The disturbance caused by crying babies and chattering women did not detract from the gravity of the serious stuff that was under discussion.

For long, women have been an invisible force in Pakistan as they have sustained the family quietly while keeping a low profile.

But the reality is now emerging that as workers in the informal sector their role is no less significant even though they continue to remain in the background. Ume-Laila Azhar, executive director of Homenet Pakistan, one of the organisers of the convention, informed participants in a media briefing that in 2007 a fifth of Pakistan’s GDP came from the informal sector comprising 20 million workers of which 12 million were women.

With globalisation and liberalisation of international trade, this sector has been growing over the years as has been the number of women who enter it. Their desperation, and with it, their exploitation has also been increasing. All this figures nowhere in official records because the home-based worker is not counted as a member of the labour force by the government.

Without any social security or support but in need of resources to provide for their family, women turn to home-based work
as it is easier to access. It doesn’t demand stringent qualifications and education. They embroider and stitch garments, make bangles, roll incense sticks, make paper bags, process food and even make some items for the electrical goods industries.

Their versatility is beyond belief.

But also beyond belief is the hard labour they put in for a pittance. Zahida from Karachi and Zarina from Hyderabad left the audience flabbergasted when they spoke of their remunerations. A dress that sells for Rs1,000-plus fetches them barely Rs5 but requires hours of work. It is no better in other manufacturing sectors or in other Third World countries. Remember the sweatshops of Bangladesh?

Obviously, this situation has been created by women’s economic needs, the inhumanity and avarice of
manufacturers/middlemen out to earn hefty profits by exploiting helpless workers and the unwillingness or inability of weak governments to exercise social controls and regulate conditions for labour.

The home-based workers’ case is an enigmatic one. ILO’s C-177 convention defines them as persons who carry out
remunerative work in their home or any other premises but not at the workplace of the employer. The nature of their relationship with the manufacturer is tenuous; they never meet and the middlemen ensure this lack of contact, making regulation difficult.

That is why the primary demand of civil society organisations such as HomeNet Pakistan, Aurat Foundation, Sungi, etc has been that the government should formulate a national policy for home-based women workers as stipulated by C-177. This is said to be at the drafting stage.

If the government and society had a conscience they would have paid some attention to these workers who have not been able to lobby for their cause for obvious reasons. They are the poorest of the poor, burdened with family cares, in dismal health, lack education and training, have no awareness and are disempowered. Trapped in their state of isolation they have no contacts with other workers. Hence they lack collective bargaining capacity and social security. With long working hours — as many as 14 hours a day — and very low pay they are open to brutal exploitation.

So a strategy is needed to bring about change. In an interview with the American magazine The Nation, Egyptian feminist Nihal el Saadawi observed correctly, “You need collective power, and that is why we always organise and network. Organising is power.” This message has reached the women in Pakistan.

That is what home-based women workers are now trying to do with the help of civil society organisations. At the convention
on April 11, the main demands were for the government to ratify C-177, recognise the rights of home-based workers to organise and bargain collectively, fix minimum wages, guarantee occupational safety, avoid health hazards and provide social security and maternal protection. They demanded the ratification of C-177 that the government has signed. The government has yet to stir but the convention was a clear demonstration of the will of women workers to organise themselves and fight for their rights.

They have set up their organisations all over the country which now work under an umbrella organisation, the Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) which has 4,000 members in Sindh alone. It has affiliations with the national trade unions. The Labour Education Foundation has arranged adult literacy classes for workers as the importance of education is now widely recognised.

These are positive signals. The slogans that were raised at the convention were assertive and reflected the workers’ aggressive mood. But they also made a political statement. A slogan popular with the audience was: ‘Jub tak aurat tung rahay gee/ Jang rahay gee jang rahay gee’ (‘As long as women are oppressed, they will be at war’).

Infant school occupation, Caen

Since the very end of March, there have been increasing amounts of schools occupations throughout France. Provoked by the suppression of nearly 16,000 teaching posts, the closure of classes, the threatened closure of some of these schools and the consequent increases in class sizes, these occupations have been particularly concentrated on infant schools and primary schools, but have also included “Middle Schools” (“Collèges” for 11 to 14 or 15-year-olds) and those lycées with “Collèges” attached to them. Though it’s hard to gauge how many occupations there have been, it must be at least 250.

Starting off with just a 3 hour occupation at the end of March in an infant school in a village called Kernéval, south of Brest in the North West, this has spread throughout the country, with all night occupations lasting several days, often with parties, barbecues and the parents sleeping in tents in the playgrounds. In and around the Montpellier area in the South West there have been at least 15 (probably a lot more) occupations of infant and primary schools. And a bit further north in Lunel there have been several blockades of schools (as elsewhere) and also a blockade of the offices of the education section of the Prefecture.

The cuts to (mis)education, involving particularly the suppression of classes for those with learning difficulties, has been met with innumerable occupations especially of the schools in the poorer areas (though certainly not exclusively), which for obvious reasons are more effected by such cuts. The initiative for these occupations seems to have come mainly from parents, teachers explicitly saying that they have been heavily pressured to suffer – though not quite in silence, but rather into a practical acquiescence under protest.

News of these occupations have been largely restricted to local news, though just a couple of days ago, TF1, one of the main TV channels, known as Sharko’s favourite channel because its often quite unsubtle propaganda (his ex-wife’s brother is one of the heads of it), broadcast this (in French). In a sense, the fact that such a crap channel can put out a fairly neutral, if not favourable, take on these occupations is indicative of both their strength – they’ve become too extensive to ignore – and their weakness – they only confront the austerity programme but not the more profound question of the form, content and goals of miseducation (at least, not explicitly).

In many parts of France the Easter holidays have begun, but in those parts where they only begin tomorrow night, the occupations continue and many of the occupiers have vowed to continue the struggle after the Easter break. Unlike the lycée struggles, which tend to die out after Easter, these schools aren’t yet hampered by the pressure of looming exams in the summer term. So their promises to continue are very likely to be kept. Watch this space.

The government has set up a women cell at the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) to resolve the problems faced by women workers who have gone abroad to work mostly as house maids or caretakers.

Reports quoted Purna Chandra Dhungel, secretary at the Ministry of Labour and Transport Management, as saying that since many women who have gone abroad for foreign employment purpose have become victims of physical and mental abuse as well as economic hardship, the separate cell was established to look into the problems faced by women migrant workers and take appropriate actions to resolve them. The cell will also entertain individual cases.

He further said that there are also many cases of women being duped by nefarious man-power agents in many ways since they are not found taking the workers permit from the government before going abroad.

The government has made it mandatory for Nepali women to seek the government’s permission before going abroad, especially the Gulf countries, to work. This measure was taken as many women were found physically, mentally and even sexually abused by their employers in countries like UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, forcing some to even commit suicide.

However, Nepali man power agents have been found flouting the rule by taking Nepali women workers to Gulf countries via India.

An Ethiopian maid struck back at her allegedly abusive employer in Dubai, slicing off the Emirati man’s penis in response to harassment, the 7DAYS daily on Wednesday quoted the emirate’s police as saying.

Police responded to a call from the man and “found him bleeding badly. His housemaid had chopped off his private parts using a knife”, 7DAYS quoted a Dubai police official as saying of the attack on Monday.

“She claimed the man used to abuse and harass her. On the day of the incident, she claims he asked her to give him a massage. She got angry, went to the kitchen to get a knife and attacked him,” the official said.

The maid has been charged with assault, the paper said, while the Emirati man is recovering in hospital. It was not clear if his severed member had been re-attached.

The UAE and other Gulf countries have come in for repeated criticism from human rights groups over their treatment of millions of foreign workers, mostly Asians.

Rights groups and activists have reported various cases of employers torturing maids in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The watchdogs have also sharply criticised the sponsorship system, still in force in most Gulf states, by which workers must be sponsored by their employer and which has been likened to modern-day slavery. – AFP

During the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009, men lost far more jobs than women. But since the recovery began, the tables have turned and women have fared worse, largely because of public sector cutbacks. As governors continue to trim spending to balance budgets, more layoffs are on the way, and women-dominated fields such as teaching, nursing, and home health care are vulnerable.

In the rancorous debate over government jobs, pensions, and collective bargaining, the disproportionate effect on women has gone almost unnoticed. Women lost 72 percent of 378,000 government posts cut between July 2009 and March 2010, according to the Labor Dept. When private sector gains are included, women had a net loss of 212,000 jobs between July 2009 and last month.

Men added 757,000 jobs, mostly in the private sector, in that same period, though they continue to lag behind women in overall job gains. The male workforce is 6.8 percent below its prerecession employment level, while women remain 3.7 percent behind.

Now as the private sector ramps up, the public sector—and local government especially—continues to shed jobs. This year will be “the toughest year yet for local governments,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a Mar. 16 report. Local government has the highest concentration of female workers of the three government levels, at 62 percent. Females hold 57 percent of all government jobs, Labor Dept. data show.

Some of the biggest hits are in public education. Women made up about 76 percent of teachers in the 2007-08 school year, the latest available figures from the Education Dept. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cut school aid by $1.3 billion since taking office in January 2010. Eighty percent of the state’s districts reported teacher reductions this school year, says Frank Belluscio, a spokesman at the New Jersey School Boards Assn. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s spending plan would cut 7,000 teachers over two years, says Innovation Ohio, which lobbies for the poor and middle class. Government is “taking a wrecking ball to what have traditionally been female-dominated professions,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Dawn Willis, 39, is among those who have lost jobs because of budget cuts. She was a social studies teacher in Jackson, N.J. “I find it hard to believe we’re in a recovery,” she says. After eight years of classroom experience, she may switch careers. “I’ve always been very optimistic, but now I’m starting to swing the other way.”

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington research group that advocates limits on labor power, says the laws curbing union bargaining will allow fewer dismissals and limit tax increases, saving states money. “The current system is unsustainable,” says Furchtgott-Roth, who was chief economist at the Labor Dept. under President George W. Bush. “Women are the winners in all this.”

That’s hard to square with the data: Last month, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder stripped bargaining rights from home-based child-care workers, 94 percent of whom are female. The widely publicized law championed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, which is being challenged in court, would revoke bargaining rights for university hospital workers, home health aides, and day-care providers. Firefighters and police, overwhelmingly male, are exempt. Limiting collective bargaining could also jeopardize flexible work hours and maternity leave, says Joan Entmacher, a vice-president of the National Women’s Law Center, as well as widen the gender wage gap. In 2010, female union members earned 89 cents for every dollar male counterparts earned, according to the Labor Dept. Non-union women made 81 cents on the dollar.

The bottom line: Public sector job losses have fallen disproportionately on women, as states cut female-dominated jobs in education and health care.

MANILA, Philippines – In this little coffee shop in Cainta, everyday is a cosplay convention.

It is not unusual to see everyday people dressed in anime-inspired French maid costumes, or garbed with long tresses, cat ears, or colorful hairpieces in this hang-out place. No, they are not competing in some cosplay tilt. They are actually servers at Meidolls Café, the very first maid café in the Philippines.

“As an otaku (or an anime/J-Pop enthusiast), I’ve always been familiar with the maid café concept. In toy and comic conventions, there are maid cafés that are set up. So I thought why not put up something permanent so that otakus like me can have a tambayan,” says owner Reia Ayunan, a cosplayer since 2003, and a J-Pop fan all her life.

The maid café trend has been around in Japan for over a decade now. In these places, waitresses treat their customers as masters, much like the traditional geisha would regard their customers. Waitresses are required to engage with their customers, making sure they feel at home. But customers are not allowed to ask personal information from the staff.

“In Japan, karamihan sa mga otaku are very shy so they go to maid cafés where they feel at home and welcome,” Reia explains. “After a busy day at work or in school, the Japanese just want to lay back and be served by their own servants.”

With Filipinos being naturally hospitable to guests, the idea of a maid café fits perfectly well in the local setting.

Everyday is a new experience

Meidolls Café has so far done well with the help of the growing Filipino cosplay community.

“All of the waitresses are cosplayers, but it is not necessarily a requirement. The foremost requirement is they should have a background in food or customer service. It is a plus if you are a cosplayer that is known in the cosplay community. Our target market is cosplayers, so ‘yung staff can entice their cosplayer friends to come here,” Reia explains.

The food is simple fare, a mix of Italian and Japanese. Some of the staple favorites include curry carbonara, fishkatsu, lasagna, fried sushi rolls, cupcakes and the Meidoll Ramen.

“I try to keep them as inexpensive as possible because cosplayers are mostly students. The food has to be affordable to them,” Reia says.

Occasionally, the waitresses entertain customers by singing and dancing to Japanese songs. They also gamely pose for photos.

Ivy, a Tourism graduate, used to work as a ticketing agent for an airline company prior to working as a server at the Meidolls.

“It was my mom who told me about Meidolls Café because she knows I’m a big anime fan. I was already out of work for one year so she suggested that I should try applying at Meidolls Café. I’m enjoying it here now. Nakakakwentuhan mo ‘yung regular costumers. I also studied intro to Japanese in school so nagagamit ko ‘yung Japanese ko kasi minsan may Japanese customers kami,” relates Ivy, whose favorite character is Misa of Death Note.

On the other hand, Tenshin, an incoming HRM sophomore student works at the café to save up money for school. “Masaya dito. Kakaiba siya sa mga ibang fastfood chain. It’s always a new experience everyday. It doesn’t feel like work because I enjoy cosplaying. At the same time, natutulungan ko pa ang parents ko,” shares Tenshin.

Dream come true
Ever since getting into cosplay, it has always been Reia’s dream to put up a café. And to raise enough capital, she worked as a librarian for two-and-a-half years at the American International School in Riyahd, Saudi Arabia.

“That was difficult for me. But every time na nahihirapan ako, I just visualize this dream so that when I got back here, I would have enough money to put up the café. I did research, I went to Batangas and to different places to learn how a coffeeshop business works. There were a lot of difficulties along the way. But we were still able to manage to open last January. Kaya umiyak ako noong opening day kasi natupad ‘yung dream ko,” she relates.

Reia believes that passion and uniqueness are the keys to have a successful business.

“I could have just put up a takoyaki cart business but then I wanted something that has never been done or seen here. And I feel so passionate about the maid café concept so I pursued it. You don’t open a business just for the sake of opening one. It has to be something unique. Or kung hindi man siya bago, you give it your own twist and make it more interesting.”

Resorts Casino is trying to capture a Prohibition theme...

Donald Kravitz

Resorts Casino is trying to capture a Prohibition theme…

...and a group of cocktail waitresses claim they lost their job because they didn't look good in skimpy costumes.

…and a group of cocktail waitresses claim they lost their job because they didn’t look good in skimpy costumes.

Seven middle-aged Atlantic City cocktail waitresses claim they were fired because their boss didn’t care for their looks – or the date on their birth certificates.

A discrimination lawsuit, filed Thursday in state Superior Court, charges Resorts and new owner Dennis Gomes canned the employees because they failed to fit the boss’s “body ideal or appearance ideal.”

The women were dismissed after they were forced to squeeze into skimpy flapper costumes, complete with fishnet stockings and high heels, according to the suit.

The waitresses claim the only available outfits were sizes 2 and 4. They were then judged by a modeling agency hired by the casino and dismissed if they weren’t found “feminine enough,” lawyer Kevin Costello told The Press of Atlantic City.

Their replacements were uniformly younger, attractive women, the suit charged.

“As far as I’m concerned, a man or woman can do that job at any age as long as they have a good personality, a good memory and good balance,” Costello told the newspaper.

Although 15 women were fired, only seven joined in the legal action.

“I can’t think of anything I’ve dealt with that was more disgusting and dehumanizing than what they’ve done to these women,” local union president Robert McDevitt told The Press.

Resorts, in a prepared statement, defended its decision to fire the middle-aged ladies. The casino plans a Memorial Day weekend debut of its Roaring ’20s theme.

“All cocktail servers were given individual consideration, and the selection process was conducted in a fair and objective manner,” said Resorts spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham.

“We empathize with the cocktail servers who lost their jobs and gave them hiring preference in other open positions at Resorts. Some took advantage of this offer and some did not.”