“Collective bargaining and gender equality: a testament to women trade unionists”, by Jane Pillinger and Nora Wintour

Jane Pillinger and Nora Wintour have worked together for over 20 years since the PSI and EI first launched the ‘Pay Equity Now!’ campaign. Here they discuss their recent book.

“We wanted to showcase some of the amazing work carried out by women trade unionists throughout the world to use collective bargaining as a tool to promote equality at the work place.  Our book on ‘collective bargaining and gender equality’ was published by Agenda Publishers in November 2018. We wanted this study to act as a testament to how women are winning through, challenging gender-based discrimination and achieving substantive workplace changes but also to inspire the next generation of women trade unionists to keep in there!

The book looks at the role of collective bargaining in achieving gender equality in the workplace with particular reference to equal pay for work of equal value, maternity and parental leave rights, work-life balance and non-discrimination in access to employment and how collective bargaining is addressing gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and domestic violence. While the focus is mainly on European countries, initiatives related to union organizing and negotiating for women workers in developing country contexts and through global supply chains are integrated in the text, reflecting increased attention to this work over the past two decades.

Gender pay gap: One of the sections of the book looks at union initiatives to close the gender pay gap through collective bargaining. Centralised and sectoral bargaining represents the most effective way to reduce pay inequalities. Unions are bargaining on reconciliation of work/life balance, training and career development pay increases for low-paid workers, transparency in pay systems and job classifications, pay audits, job evaluation free of gender bias, and gender neutral criteria for performance related pay.

In the public sector in Europe, closing the gender pay gap remains one of the most important equality issues in collective bargaining. An example in the UK is the Joint Higher Education Trade Union Pay Equality Claim 2015/16 by UCU, UNISON, Unite, EIS and GMB, that included commitments to address the under-valuing of women’s work and company-level audits. Outside OECD countries, initiatives to address the gender pay gap are not widespread. In Latin America, the majority of collective agreements include general non-discrimination clauses related to equal work for equal pay but not work of equal value, often reflecting existing deficiencies in labour codes or equality legislation. There have been a number of union driven innovative schemes to introduce gender neutral job evaluation systems in the public sector, for example in Peru and in Chile. In Africa, in the public sector, initiatives to review the job classification systems have largely been led by the government with a view to creating uniform systems and to halt outward migration of skilled staff but have had more mixed results.  Good practice examples on disaggregated data prior to bargaining, as exist in Sweden and Norway, would be extremely useful in other national contexts.

Maternity protection and parental leave: collective bargaining has also been an essential tool at national and enterprise level to affirm existing legislative provisions and strengthen compliance and to improve upon minimum legal requirements, such as the duration and benefits available, ensuring that maternity leave is treated as continuous employment, providing paid leave for medical check-ups, reducing working hours during pregnancy and on return to work, and provision of breast-feeding breaks. Bargaining has sought to ensure that while on leave, women do not lose out in terms of career development, retain service entitlements and participate in relevant training opportunities. In the education sector, almost 60 per cent of unions responding to the EI equality survey (2015) considered there had been improvements in maternity protection provisions and parental leave for teachers and education personnel.  However, in too many cases, particularly in the private sector, union representatives report that they dedicate considerable time to ensuring that basic maternity entitlements are respected.

Gender-based violence at the work place: Many new initiatives have been championed by women in trade unions and as a result of sustained advocacy have now been incorporated into the mainstream of union-employer negotiations. An ETUC study of ten European countries found over 80 examples of collective agreements addressing gender-based violence, including third-party violence and harassment and the impact of domestic violence on the workplace.

This book also reviews how unions are working on a number of emerging bargaining issues, such as precarious work and predictable working hours. Women and young workers are disproportionately affected by zero hour contracts and other forms of precarious work. While progress on this issue is slow there have been some successful outcomes.  For example in New Zealand, a 2015 collective agreement between UNITE and the fast-food chains eliminated zero hours’ contracts.

Finally, the book also examines the linkages between women’s organising initiatives in the formal economy, through supply chains and in the informal economy and how international advocacy on issues of common concern, including low pay, precarious work, and gender-based violence have forged new collaborations with member-based organisations and NGOs and strengthened women workers’ voice and visibility.

Despite the many challenges, it is important to recall that trade unions are the largest collective organization of women across the world.  Collective bargaining remains critically important in the globalized economy, precisely because of new employment patterns and the increasing incidence of precarious work.  We hope this book can act as a reference tool and activists’ guide to what and how to progress a gender and diversity agenda into trade union collective bargaining priorities."


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Jane Pillinger

Jane Pillinger is a senior research fellow in the Department of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University and a Senior Visiting Fellow in Gender Studies at the LSE, UK. She is a former specialist advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment. She regularly advises the International Labour Organization, European Commission, and the European Institute of Gender Equality, among others, on gender equality issues.

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Nora Wintour

Nora Wintour is an independent researcher, writer, and policy advisor on child labour, women in the informal economy, workers' rights, and gender equality. She was a trade union education officer with the agricultural and building and wood workers Global Union Federations and served as the Equality and Rights Officer and then as Deputy General Secretary for Public Services International from 2002 to 2009.

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