their level of awareness and their most pressing problems
2) they can provide background support by providing legal or technical information and training
3) they can help workers plan a strategy for organising.
NGOs can help groups of workers form their own trade union, or other organisation, to negotiate with management. Unions can develop contacts with unions in other regions and internationally. Through these contacts information can be gained to help workers improve their working conditions, for example: health and safety information, or information about the multinational employer.
Where there are no trade unions, or where the union does not reflect the interests of women workers, NGOs can help support the women with specific problems and in developing strategies for organising as workers, by helping with training and awareness-raising, where appropriate.
Similarly, NGOs have been helpful in getting information about work processes, or about the company. This is especially helpful in big companies that have operations in other countries. Women’s NGOs have insights about the needs of women that trade unions, for example, do not necessarily have. They can be both a support and a campaigner on behalf of women at work and in the community. Women’s lives outside of work are often re-
stricted and NGOs can help organise women for training or social activities. This can be especially helpful where many new workers are very young and inexperienced women.
NGOs can also represent the interests of women workers by lobbying government, for example: for better training and education facilities, for improved health and safety legislation, for better enforcement of existing legislation. For example, new technology in the garments industry means that work is carried out at a faster rate and the processes generate more dust and fibre-filled air, causing respiratory problems now and in the future. There are measures the factory-owner can take to prevent the worst of these problems but many do not do so voluntarily. Workers need to know their rights and what measures have been taken in better-managed factories.
Women’s NGOs usually have a broad perspective and see women as whole beings, not just workers in a factory or office. They can make the links between women in different parts of the production and between women’s paid and unpaid work. SEWA have successfully done this in organising the self-employed in India. NGOs working with women in the formal sector can use some of the same techniques.
NGOs can also carry out research that highlights the problems women workers encounter at work. The INTECH project is an example of action-oriented research that involves workers,
trade unions and employers. Such projects are a means of drawing together the various interests groups and raising the level of understanding of the impact of new technology and technological change on working women.
Trade unions are often part of a wider movement but this sometimes brings formal constraints. NGOs also have access to wider and international networks but these are not so constrained. Such contacts bring new information and insights and can be useful in taking the case of the workers’ to gain wider support.
Women workers need trade unions
NGOs have shown themselves to be dynamic actors in defence of the rights of women workers. Where there is no union, or where the union will not or cannot defend its women members, NGOs mediate on behalf of workers with the employer and with state.
All workers need to be represented but this is not always possible. The INTECH research found that in many areas, trade unions are forbidden or actively discouraged by the government. In some areas, trade unions exist merely to implement government policy. Women’s social roles, and the social restrictions placed on women’s movements, inhibit the active participation of women. So, where there are trade unions, they are often dominated by men and do not reflect the concerns of women.
Some trade unions have a Women’s Section, which gives support to women members where women are not well-represented
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Asian Women Workers Newsletter Vol. 16 No. 4 October 1997