How can Social Dialogue work better for women tea workers?

512px-Workers_on_Finlay_Tea_Plantation_-_Outside_Srimangal_-_Sylhet_Division_-_Bangladesh_(12903533184).jpg (512×364)
Women workers on a Bangladesh tea estate. Photo: Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

On June 16th, THIRST hosted a virtual roundtable meeting on the theme of building tea back better after the coronavirus pandemic. We looked at three themes, Social Dialogue Working for Women, Sustainable Business Models and Sustainable Purchasing Practices. The experience of the speakers in each of these areas provided thought-provoking examples of how things can be done differently. They may not be perfect but – for the almost 100 people around the world who joined the roundtable – they provided inspiration and information about how some of the tea industry’s endemic problems could be tackled.

This series of blogs are reflections on each of those themes, beginning with Social Dialogue Working for Women.

Social dialogue is defined by the ILO as including “all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.” For most ethical trade, sustainability and industrial relations practitioners, it is the holy grail – the best way of ensuring that the key ‘social partners’ are getting what they need to ensure that businesses are viable, society is stable and thriving and the rights of workers are respected.

But if those representatives are predominantly men, social dialogue cannot really do its job. Especially in industries like tea where the majority of the lowest paid workers are women. The common threads that ran through the stories we heard from Malawi, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Honduras and Colombia were that:

  • Unless men are part of the journey, there will be no meaningful change
  • Unless interventions are systemic and sustained, there will be no lasting change
  • Unless women have the skills and power to lead, there will be no impactful change

Unless men are part of the journey, there will be no meaningful change

According to Sri Lankan gender specialist Vellusamy Weerasingham, in Sri Lanka, tea trade union roles pass from father to son – patriarchy in its most literal sense. And Bananalink’s Alistair Smith – sharing a perspective from the banana sector – described how trade unions in Ghana, Colombia and Honduras are also heavily male dominated. But even where a union has 50/50 male and female leadership, as with Malawi’s Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (PAWU) , Oxfam Malawi’s Country Director, Lingalireni Mihowa explained that this alone had not stopped sexual harassment and abuse of power over women workers.

Lingalireni (working with the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme) reminded us that “gender issue changes take a long time due to socio-cultural norms.” And Weerasingham gave part of the explanation for this; “The ongoing challenge is the fear men have that they will lose power if women increase power”.

It’s clear, therefore, that any work that seeks to enhance the empowerment of women tea workers cannot exclude men. Weerasingham described how work to develop effective participatory management on Sri Lankan tea estates needed to begin with “liaising with men to show how important women are, as the main workers for the plantation and with their knowledge of planting and production and worker issues.”

And this was echoed by Alistair; “A key theme is the need to educate male workers on gender issues and empowering women.” As a result, he said, in last 20 years, there has been “an increase in women’s empowerment in social dialogue in multi-stakeholder discussions”.

Unless interventions are systemic and sustained, there will be no lasting change

Such long-term change doesn’t happen through short-term interventions. To influence cultural norms that have been embedded for centuries, and global systems with entrenched power imbalances, requires sustained, systemic interventions. As Maggie Opondo of the University of Nairobi reminded us, using the Ethical Trading Initiative’s Supervisor Training programme as an example, training “cannot be a one off, waiting for a project and funding and then goes dead. It needs to be built in to the business models and practices of those in the value chain.”

An example of such systemic change was given by Lingalireni; it was the launch of the Malawi tea sector’s gender policy, that deals with how tea estates have institutionalised issues of gender – with male dominated management and trade unions and women concentrated in the jobs with least power and lowest pay.

In Sri Lanka, Weerasingham explained, CARE International’s efforts to introduce participatory management have led to workers sitting down with managers for the first time to address social, productivity and labour issues.  This was initially male dominated, but it has helped both to solve problems of conflict and violence, and to pave the way towards greater involvement of women in participatory management. He emphasised the importance of building trust with trainees over several years; “If you stay outside as an outside trainer they will not listen as much, so we recruited people to facilitate discussion between workers and management.”

Alistair also gave an example of a leading Colombian banana company signing a framework agreement with the trade union that has helped towards doubling the number of women in its work force – with all the training and integration that involved. He added that the largest two Honduran trade unions are now both women-led and that work to feminise the trade union movement across Latin America is now institutionalised in many of the unions affiliated to the regional workers’ coordinating body, COLSIBA:, as a result, the multi-stakeholder World Banana Forum now has a gender equity conference before its main global conferences to address women’s issues.

What would it take to see an equivalent global development in the tea sector?

Unless women have the skills and freedom to lead, there will be no impactful change

Alistair told us trade union training on self-esteem, empowerment, negotiation and collective bargaining has resulted in women standing for staff delegate roles in internal elections and taking up leadership roles… and that many men said they felt women were better representatives than men had been. He also saw a “multiplier effect” in which training leads to greater empowerment of and participation by women in the workforce in Ghana.

In Malawi, in addition to providing women’s labour rights training for PAWU, Oxfam also seeks ways to strengthen women’s committees, which give their members greater visibility. Lingalireni shared anecdotal evidence of a resulting reduction in gender based violence and women being able to claim their rights in respect of payment, working environment and reporting abuses.

Trade unions too sometimes see women’s committees as a route to more effective social dialogue, as evidenced by the IUF (the farm and food workers’ gobal union federation) supporting women’s water committees in Assam’s tea plantations to negotiate with management.

Finally, Weerasingham described how, after Sri Lanka’s Red Flag Union introduced the role of gender secretary,  women’s representation, participation and leadership in the union improved. Now women are involved in discussions with the government on issues such as occupational health and safety and wage increases, which has in turn led to a 25% quota for women in local government.

Our presenters all agreed there is still a long way to go before we can say that the barriers to women’s leadership in tea (or agriculture more generally) have been fully removed. But important lessons can be learned from their experience, and by continuing along these promising lines, perhaps women tea workers will first gain the opportunity to be fully represented as workers – and can ultimately take their place as fully functioning citizens of their countries – with their rights being fully respected.

NB We’ll be running a discusson forum on Building Trade Unions’ Gender Capacity in the next few weeks. This was one of the topics voted on by the roundtable participants. Sign up here to be notified of dates and details. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.