Hesperian Health Guides

Working for Change

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 26: Work > Working for Change

Unions like the South African Domestic Workers’ Union are a very good way to organize and protect workers’ rights. But it is often difficult to start a local union because there are no larger unions for support or because the company does not allow them. In this case there are other ways women can work together to help themselves.

When women start to work together for better conditions, they sometimes fear that they may lose their jobs or that they will be treated badly if their employers find out. In these cases it is important that women trust those they are organizing with. If it is not possible to talk at work, it may be best to meet in secret in private homes or in the community.

To begin organizing your workplace:

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  • Talk with the women you work with to identify common problems and possible ways to solve them.
  • Meet together regularly as a group to build trust and help support one another. Be sure to include women who are new at work and make them feel welcome. Remember, there is strength in numbers.

Once you are organized as a group or a workers’ association, you may feel strong enough to join a union or start your own. The company may be less likely to challenge you if you are already organized.

In South Africa, domestic workers have a Domestic Workers’ Union to help them demand laws to protect themselves. They began by knocking on doors, and by educating people through pamphlets and radio announcements. Now they are a national union. They work with domestic workers’ unions in other countries to help workers get fair working hours, fair pay, social security benefits, and other basic protections.

What Your Organization Can Do

When your group has identified common problems and possible solutions, decide which problems can be changed and what you need to do to make change happen. Even if the company is not willing to change anything, you can do a lot for yourselves.

two women talking as they work
My back hurts more since I started this job.
Try just carrying 3 bundles at a time. When I do that my back doesn't hurt so much.

Teach each other about safety. Women who have been doing the job for a long time will have learned the safest way to do things. Ask them to share ideas about how to make the job easier and safer.

Help new women. New women may be afraid to join your group, especially if the employers do not support you. But it is still important to share your knowledge about safety, because the safer every women is, the safer you are.

More Information
helping relationships

Support each other. Many women experience conflict at home when they start working, because their role in the family changes. Share advice on solving family problems, and on balancing housework and child care with paid work. Some women even help take care of each other’s children. They may organize a child care center, where one woman is paid to care for young children so that others can work. Or the women may take turns minding the children.

You might also try meeting together with men to discuss women’s workload. For example:

WWHND10 Ch26 Page 411-2.png

In workshops at the Center for Health Education, Training, and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA) in India, men and women are asked to list their daily tasks. Many are surprised to learn that a woman’s work day starts before a man’s does and ends long after his, and that she rarely gets a chance to rest. This helped men to see how work is distributed unfairly between men and women. Then they were able to talk about dividing work fairly, based on the needs of the family and not only by gender roles.

If you can, negotiate with your employer for better working conditions, such as:

  • higher wages.
  • maternity leave (time off when a woman has a baby, with the right to return to the same job).
  • bathroom breaks.
  • child care at work.
  • a private place to remove breast milk by hand (for mothers with babies).

This page was updated:17 Apr 2019