#WomenSpeak: Women unionists must organise more women
*An interview with Bishnu Maya Shrestha of the All Nepal Construction Workers’ Union (ANCWU).
Can you tell us briefly how you became a trade unionist?
I am a single mother with two children. I am legally separated from my husband to whom I was married to at an early age. I was able to get a highschool education and would have wanted to study more, if not for my family’s economic difficulities. To take care of my children, in 2009, I started working at the construction sector. I started as a mason. After undergoing trainings, I became a painter. Working as a construction worker exposed me to numerous problems faced by women at workplaces. Some of these include gender-based discrimination, low wages (even lower than men) and being cheated by contractors. In 2011, I was introduced to the All Nepal Construction Workers’ Union (ANCWU) and soon became a member. Due to my dedicated trade union work, I was made president of its local unit, later, its district secretary and now, I am a member of the union’s central committee.
What are the biggest challenges you face at your work as a woman worker?
The biggest challenge I face as a woman worker is gender-based discrimination which results in low and unequal salaries, long working hours which take time away from our families, psychological harassment, lack of access to work opportunities, no overtime pay, delays in payment by petty contractors and deficient worksite facilities. Another challenge for women workers is the limited opportunities available for us to upgrade our skills and improve our employability and economic standing.
How can you as a woman worker and trade unionist solve these issues?
Women workers are facing different problems due to the patriarchal mindset of our society. Discrimination, exploitation, exclusion from work opportunities and low salaries are common issues women confront at workplaces. To solve these problems, women trade unionists have to organise more women workers, discuss their issues with employers and contribute to put more pressure on the government to effectively address these issues within the context of the labour law.
We also need to spread awareness among women workers about our labour rights and legal entitlements, and develop new skills through different trainings to become eligible for better work opportunities and wages.
What does equal and better future mean for you?
As a women leader and worker, I always advocate for the equality of women at all union committees and leadership structures. I believe that if women workers are treated equally, recognised and actively participating in the decision-making, we can make gender parity a reality both at the organisational and societal levels.
What role do you think women should play in the COVID-19 recovery?
Women workers, particularly those who have low-skilled and contractual jobs, were the first ones to lose their work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, those who’ve managed to stay employed suffer from their employers’ lack of provision for personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 safeguards. Many women workers are also victims of domestic violence and burdened by additional care work responsibilities.
As women leaders and unionists, we need to actively take up women workers’ grievances, lend a listening ear to their hardships and joys, and raise awareness on COVID-19 precautions and safety measures.
Women trade unionists must also strongly push for free and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for all workers. In 2017, Nepal passed the Contributions-based Social Security Act. We need to intensify our lobby efforts to fully cover the construction sector.
*#WomenSpeak is a monthly article on gender issues and concerns authored by BWI’s different affiliate women workers. It seeks to provide women workers more spaces and platforms to express their thoughts and concerns on a variety of issues that are important to them as workers and most especially, as women.