Sharan Burrow: “A transformative agenda for women requires a new gender-inclusive social contract”

The general secretary of the ITUC participated in the Asian Development Bank’s Gender Forum on 24 November. She talked on the role of just transition as a force for gender transformative change.

Working people are facing a convergence of crises that are reinforcing the pre-COVID-19 stark levels of inequality, including the stagnation of progress regarding women’s participation, income and security at work, along with the impacts of the climate emergency.

“COVID-19 showed how dependent we are on the fundamental work that keeps us in survival mode (…) Indeed the majority of people who went to work every day to enable us to actually remain safe were in fact women; mostly low paid, often in unsafe or insecure work,” said Burrow.

This convergence of crises requires to rethink of the way the economy is structured. The world needs to rebuild on the basis of inclusion and security, putting people and the planet back at the heart of all concerns. In that process, women’s inclusion can only be successful if it is based on ensuring equality of income, gender and rights.

Therefore, unions propose a transformative agenda, which is centred on a new gender-inclusive social contract to build a recovery based on decent climate-friendly jobs with just transitions, rights, social protection, equality and inclusion.

The creation of climate-friendly jobs can come from every sector. Unions are calling for just jobs to recover from the 255 million full-time jobs that have been lost in the wake of the pandemic: the world needs to create at least 575 million new jobs to reach full employment by 2030, in line with SDG 8. And at least 1 billion informal jobs should be formalised too through adequate minimum living wages, respect of fundamental rights and universal social protection.

However, to build a stark resilience floor against future shocks, unions are of the opinion that the strongest focus should be on the care sector. The sector can provide good jobs, and this would contribute to leaving the burden of care off women, enabling them to participate in the broader economy. Research shows that if women were genuinely equal in our economies, the world would be 13 trillion wealthier, besides the indirect benefits brought about by the social and economic security in which these women and their families would find themselves in.

Achieving this will require a radical change in our approach to unpaid care work: unpaid care work must be recognised and reduced. At the same time, care workers must be rewarded and represented in a formalised labour market. These initiatives, along with social protection are fundamental to resilience.

At the same time, eliminating the violence made against women in workplaces and communities is fundamental to enable women’s equal participation. Governments must ratify and ensure the effective implementation of ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work at the heart of their plans for women’s inclusion.

International financial institutions like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) can play a key role to advance gender equality. The ongoing review of the Bank’s 2009 Safeguards Policy Statement is an opportunity to make sure that the updated statement will include binding safeguards that explicitly enforce women’s empowerment at all levels, from facilitating inclusive labour markets with just transitions to ensuring women’s access to leadership positions to support social dialogue processes on development with women, their unions and communities at the discussion table, among others. This revision process is a true chance for the ADB to enhance its commitment to the 2030 Agenda and ensure that the new safeguards will be explicitly and fully aligned with the SDGs.

“Stop using conditionalities that tell to reduce the role of the state and increase privatisations. Support the ILO standards and put people, the environment and care at the centre,” answered Burrow to a direct question about what the ADB and other international financial institutions should think differently, and in reference to the recent call of unions to the ADB to create a binding safeguard that translates the ILO’s international labour standards to address the cases of violations and unacceptable working conditions in ADB-funded projects.