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Winning for all

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 26 January 2007 > Winning for all

When trade unions grapple with the tough industrial issues that affect women, everyone benefits, argues Sarah Finke

“Four of our routes are in rural areas… Our radio system is so inadequate that they do not work in certain areas for lengthy periods of time. As a female driver it is unnerving to be in the middle of nowhere with no radio contact. I feel that, because there has been no rape assault or major accident, the company doesn’t feel it is necessary to put the money into an upgraded system. I feel this is much more important to our safety than my male bosses do!”

This was the comment of one Canadian bus driver who participated in the ITF’s ongoing investigation into health and safety for women road transport workers. The ITF survey she answered was initiated after women in the sector met together last year under the umbrella of the ITF and identified health and safety as one of their overriding concerns.

The response was typical of the views expressed. Initial reviews of responses found that uppermost of women road transport workers’ concerns were stress, violence and sanitation.

“There is no cool water in my office, and no ladies room,” a worker from India pointed out – and her concerns were echoed by many. “I used to carry a canister of CS Gas with me,” stated one British truck driver. “I have 10 years experience driving 40 tonne trucks in Europe. To improve women’s safety, all factory estates should have secure parking with facilities. Re-fuelling facilities are often far from habitation; you feel very exposed to attack whilst filling up for 20 minutes at a time at such places.”

"Responses found that uppermost of women road transport workers’ concerns were stress, violence and sanitation"

“The employers need to improve working conditions, provide us with hot water for cleaning the buses, improve the toilets, and improve shower room lighting and lighting on the premises during night time,” insisted a Lithuanian bus cleaner.

Many of the respondents clearly understood their union’s role in providing support to deal with these issues. However, many of the replies asked for more capacity building on these issues. One woman related how “instead of just complaining”, she had joined the health and safety committee.

There is obvious scope for the men and women in the ITF’s road transport unions to work hard in this sector to overcome issues, many of which affect workers of both sexes – but which are often prioritised differently.

Diana Holland, who chairs the ITF women’s committee, tells a story about men and women in a bus garage divided by their different needs. The women felt the union was not listening to them or taking their issues seriously, while the men were frustrated by the women’s demands for something to be done about the unsuitable uniforms and access to toilets when they wanted to concentrate on issues they considered more important for the bargaining round. “When both groups realised that if they joined together they could achieve gains all round, it was a breakthrough” she recounts. “Communication is the key to overcoming the divide and communication must include all.”

Communication in the ITF is getting better. Ten years ago, when the ITF first started talking to groups of men about issues affecting women seafarers, there was always a level of hilarity amongst the attendees. Now, dealing with these issues is a normal part of our work – and we have women participants. But there are still barriers to be overcome.

“The challenges remain huge. The power relations between men and women must change. We are still weak in many areas as structures are not robust, and in some unions women’s issues and gender equality are not taken seriously enough,” said Kate Matlou, of the South African union SATAWU, at the ITF’s Durban Congress.


There are over 23,000 women seafarers in the ITF, mostly in the cruise and ferry sectors. The ITF Seafarers’ Section has recently created a new web area addressed at women seafarers, offering information and advice on maternity rights, discrimination and bullying and harassment in the workplace. Visit the site at

A new network is being established of trade union officers working on gender equality to facilitate sharing good practice in protecting the rights of women seafarers.

Road transport

To answer the women’s health and safety in road transport survey, which is an ongoing project, please go to:

Organising more women into unions is not a new objective for the ITF’s Women’s Committee – it’s been at the core of our work since 2002. As far as we can tell from the data available, about 20 per cent of the global transport workforce is female. The ITF has about 14 per cent women’s membership, so there is a gap to make up.

Organising incentives

There are good reasons to increase women’s union membership in transport unions. Statistically, union women are likely to enjoy better pay and better benefits – such as health benefits, pensions, paid maternity leave, parental leave and flexible working time – than their non-union sisters. And, now more than ever, with its new Organising Globally programme, the ITF is focusing on targeting key workforces in the global transport chains.

Many of the potential union members the ITF’s unions need to organise are women. Women working in transport offices, in logistics companies and in call centres need to be union members. To recruit and keep these members active in the union, ITF affiliates must make sure theirs is the kind of organisation these women want to join.

Survey initiatives, such as the one in the road transport sector, are one way that affiliates can find trends and identify gaps. But it is still a first step. Union procedures and structures can and do discourage women from being active, and from progressing in unions. ITF unions have found that by becoming closer to women members, these problems can be ironed out.

Stronger relationships

The ITF’s aviation affiliate in Burkina Faso, SUMAC, has established women’s networks in the companies where it organises. This helped the union to better understand women’s workplace issues. One of the changes noticed was a stronger direct relationship with its membership.

“Now, whenever a woman encounters a problem at work and cannot find a solution, she tries to get in touch with us directly so that we can see together how to solve it,” explains Joceyline Zoungrana from SUMAC. “Even the union’s general secretary is called upon to help to solve the problem.”

"Women are very often the first to lose jobs, and the areas they work in, such as bus conducting, cleaning and catering, are often abolished or outsourced as part of restructuring processes"

Another example is the French FGTECFDT, a union that decided to monitor its women membership closely. The union found over one-third of aviation sector women, were interested in standing for union workplace positions. The union’s Liliane Debêche explains: “It was a useful exercise that allowed us to get a realistic view of our membership and to look at building new structures accordingly”.

Many ITF unions have changed their structures: Nishi Kapahi of the ITF’s regional office in Delhi says, “Both India’s port sector and its railway sector unions now have effective national women’s committees – this was achieved because the measures were both backed by women trade unionists and supported by the unions’ leaderships.”

Restructuring and gender

Unions that want to respond to potential women members must also address the gender aspects of restructuring. Women tend to be affected differently by restructuring, and sometimes this is difficult for unions to deal with. In a recent study by the ITF on railway privatisation, many unions had little or no information about the way that women had been affected. Yet we know that women are very often the first to lose jobs, and that the areas they work in, such as bus conducting, cleaning and catering, are often abolished or outsourced as part of restructuring processes.

Women also lose out because working hours change: “Women transport workers are losing more opportunities than ever – because before we did have women in goods transport, for example. They were truck and trailer drivers. Now there are only two or three of them who are women – and that’s because the concept of the standard working day has disappeared. There’s a kind of competition to see who will work more for less pay. This situation means women lose opportunities, because generally they have less time than men,” says Rosa María Hernández, of the ATM in Mexico.

"About 20 per cent of the global transport workforce is female. The ITF has about 14 per cent women’s membership, so there is a gap to make up"

We also know that women are getting more jobs – in areas where their rights are not protected. “All the new business sectors employ a lot of women so the very idea of ensuring equal pay and proper rights and benefits for women gets very complicated. Globalisation has meant that women have entered the job market in large numbers – but their employment conditions are completely unregulated in the areas where this expansion has taken place,” explains Rocío Blanco, a railway worker from CC.OO. Spain.

Basic rights

In becoming strong, organising unions, with improved communications structures, honed to respond to a diverse workforce, and youth and gender policies that deal with changes in employment in the industry, ITF affiliates will be fit for the future.

At the same time, they need to remember the basics. At the women’s conference during the ITF’s Durban Congress, delegates heard how women in the rail industry are hiding their pregnancies for fear of losing income, and how young women cabin crew face brutal choices when deciding to have a family. These acute problems continue to occur. Women transport workers’ basic rights are violated on a regular basis.

So now, in 2007, ITF unions are facing a renewed challenge. International Women’s Day this year will highlight the need to win workplace issues for women transport workers. Its slogan – “Rights for women mean rights for all” –will remind unions that when they make a transport workplace safer, negotiate a family-friendly benefit or deal with discrimination, they make work better for everyone, men and women alike.

March 8th is important because it celebrates action taken by women and commemorates an important labour struggle. On that day in 1857, New York women workers of the textile and clothing industry demonstrated in protest against their low wages and poor working conditions. One hundred and fifty years later, as transport trade unions, we need to reclaim that day for labour issues – for women; and for men too. As Alicia Castro of AAA in Argentina put it recently: “All the problems that affect working women are trade union problems.”

Jocelyne Zoungrana, Rosa María Hernández and Rocío Blanco participated in the production of “Making Unions Stronger, Building Unions Through Gender Work”, a stepby- step ITF resource pack and film. The pack aims to help unions deal with gender challenges, including those which arise from globalisation, and is available by order from the ITF. Email to request your copy

Section home:
Issue 26 January 2007

Other pages for Issue 26 January 2007:
Comment: gender barriers | Representing the unrecongnised | Breaking point | Future secured for German railways | Taking the strain | Big push for rights | Border dialogues | Waiting and hoping | Tricks of my trade | Reflections on women in trade unions | Working life

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