Why are Cambodian women under-represented in trade unions? – Gender and society

Why are Cambodian women under-represented in trade unions?  - Gender and society
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Kristy Ward

2013 Hundreds of thousands of workers in the clothing sector took to the streets to protest against the minimum wage in one of the most enduring authoritarian regimes in the world, Cambodia. The protest over the minimum wage was not an isolated incident. Before 2013, the number of labor strikes increased sharply. The women-led strikes also continued even after the military violated the workers. The majority of protesters were women, who also made up 85 percent of the workforce in the clothing sector. Until 2022 in the construction sector, more and more women make up 40 percent of the workforce. However, few trade unions, members of organizations representing workers in the workplace, are run by or under the leadership of women.

Culture and the disproportionate burden of caregiving are said to shape women’s opportunities in political spaces, including trade unions. However, many women challenge cultural norms as evidenced by their desire to ignore cultural expectations of fair and decent women during labor protests. In my recent article Gender and society, I argue that in order to understand why women are systematically excluded from trade unions, it is necessary to look beyond marginalization in institutional silos – at work, in unions and in the family. I argue that there are narratives and practices of gender subordination in every institution closely interlinked. The consequences of this exclusion in these institutions are also inconsistent and unexpected, to the detriment of any benefit. Women seeking to influence trade union structures are marginalized, and the deeply political issues that affect them are paraphrased as issues of pay, contracts, or personal and family matters.

The leaders of the men’s federation and the factory trade unions said that women needed coaching to acquire new skills and knowledge in order to hold positions of responsibility within the union. The women, they said, did not take part in the leadership of the union because they were uneducated and inexperienced. Women had to learn from other leaders (who were men) in order to gain the knowledge needed to perform these roles. The same is true of paid positions in the federation, where men held public and decision-making positions and women in administration, mid-level finance, employee involvement, and cleaners.

In both the construction and clothing sectors, women were paid less than men for the same work. As Thida, a builder, told me, “They believe you have to be strong in construction to work, and because women aren’t that strong, they get paid less. Why do we get different pay for the same job? It’s unfair. ”Women also described how employers and managers used violence to control their behavior. Trade unions then justified removing women from union leadership roles for harassment at work. factory-level clothing union leaders described how the factory management and government-supporting union members repeatedly harassed members of women’s unions, making them inappropriate, in their eyes, for union duties.

The last point at the intersection of work and gender is precarious employment. Workers explained that factory management used fixed-term contracts of two to six months to lay off workers who had joined unions or had not worked hard enough to meet production targets. However, many women said they preferred such arrangements because it provided them with additional and much-needed income. However, according to male union leaders, women lacked the education and knowledge to understand the consequences of fixed-term employment. They explained that because of this, women were unfit to become union officials.

The requirements of diligence have also shaped the perceptions of union leaders about where women belong in the union hierarchy. Representatives of trade unions in both sectors unanimously realized that when women held paid and elected positions in trade unions, it was difficult for them to perform domestic duties. In addition, these responsibilities have repeatedly been identified by senior union leaders as an obstacle to women’s union activity, especially as union activities were often conducted after work and on weekends when children were out of school. Tales about women’s safety and mobility – trips to the province to consult with workers – were also used to show that women were unfit to work in the union.

Women have begun to make progress in Cambodia’s clothing and construction unions over the past decade. Over the past five years, more women have held management positions, especially at company level, and issues such as maternity leave are now a common problem for unions. Several unions have amended their statutes to allocate quotas to women in leadership positions or set up women’s committees. At least on paper, Cambodia’s trade union federations have focused on gender, often supported by donors from the international labor movement. It can be expected that if women benefit from trade unions, it must also benefit the workplace or the family. Similarly constrained norms operating within the family would impede political progress in unions. On the contrary, my research shows the opposite. Women for profit in one mode are punished in a tied mode. For example, women’s participation in trade unions in defending labor rights can strengthen their confidence and perseverance in the trade union, but they are punished for the same behavior from workplaces and family members.

These dynamics of the gender regime have a significant impact. The unfavorable inclusion of women in trade unions means that trade unionists, employers and the government often ignore the most important issues for them as workers, such as violence in the workplace and gender-based harassment. Moreover, any gains in political spaces that increase women’s bargaining power are undermined by other regimes, such as family, narratives, and practices, to strengthen the hierarchical gender order.

Kristy Ward is a doctoral student at the University of Sydney’s Southeast Asia Center. Her study focuses on labor movements in Southeast Asia, emphasizing their gender and political aspects.

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