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Shifting Paradigms and Policies

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Although this article focuses to a large extent on women, it is actually about humans, and humans as workers. All humans need challenge and security; healthy workplaces provide both. When we cannot succeed despite best efforts (impossible goals without adequate means) or when there are no challenges (routine, monotonous work), the conditions are met for “learned helplessness”. While exceptional persons may triumph over adversity and hostile environments, most humans need nurturant, enabling and empowering environments in order to develop and exercise their capabilities. The case for stimulation, not only in childhood, but lifelong, is supported by neuroscience research, which suggests that increasing stimulation and input can promote brain growth and increase brain power. These suggestive findings have implications for an enriched psychosocial environment at work, for the prevention of certain brain disorders and for the restorative benefits of rehabilitation after trauma or disease.

The dazzling intellectual feats of Stephen Hawking, or the equally dazzling performance of paralympic athletes with severe physical or mental disabilities, bear witness to the importance of personal drive, buttressed by supportive environments with favourable opportunity structures, aided by the application of appropriate modern technologies.

The workplace is made up of workers with diverse characteristics. ILO Convention No. 111 (1958) which deals with discrimination, employment and occupation states in Article 5 (2):

Any member may ... determine that other special measures ... to meet the particular requirement of persons who, for such reasons as sex, age, disablement, family responsibilities or social or cultural status, are generally recognized to require special protection or assistance shall not be deemed to be discrimination.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has stated that European legislative instruments pertaining to safety and health in the work environment require adaptations of workplace design, choice of equipment, and production methods (e.g., eliminating monotonous work and machine pacing) to meet the individual needs of workers and that reduce adverse health effects (OECD 1993). Some statutes call for prevention of policies addressing technology, the introduction of work organization and conditions, social relations and other aspects of the working environment. The reduction of absences, of turnover and of costs for treatment, rehabilitation, re-education and training are viewed as benefits to employers accruing from the introduction and maintenance of healthy work environments and conditions.

North American employers, generally in response to advancing legal requirements for workplace human rights, are developing positive policies and strategies for management of a diverse workforce. The United States has developed probably the most comprehensive legislation for disabled Americans, including legislation regarding their entitlements in education, employment and all other spheres of living. Reasonable accommodations are changes made to the work environment, job responsibilities or conditions of work that provide opportunities for workers with special needs to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation can cover the special needs of, for example: persons with disabilities; women; workers with chronic or recurrent disease, including persons with AIDS; persons with language training needs; those who need to harmonize work and family responsibilities; pregnant or breast-feeding mothers; or religious or ethnic minorities. Accommodation may include technical assistance devices; customization, including personal protective equipment and clothing; and changes to processes, location or timing for essential job functions. For equity and justice to all workers, these accommodations are best developed through joint management and worker committees and through collective agreements.

Cost-effective appropriate technologies and policies need to be developed for the benefits of reasonable accommodation to be enjoyed by workers throughout the world, not only by some in economically advanced societies. Globalization could achieve this, through existing multilateral agencies and the World Trade Organization.

Women Workers

Why are women included among the workers with special needs? When we look at the needs, risks and tasks of women we must consider the following factors:

  • gender discrimination
  • poverty or the threat thereof. (Most of the world’s poor are women and their children, especially sole-support mothers, who comprise 20 to 30% of households worldwide; and 75% of the world’s 18 million refugees are women and children.)
  • reproductive functions of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding
  • gender-based violence, now internationally accepted as a human rights violation
  • sexual harassment
  • gender-support gap, with women providing most of the caring functions. (A Canadian social survey showed that 10% of men in dual-earner families share equally in household tasks.)
  • longevity, a factor affecting their long-term social security and health needs.


All of these risks and needs can be addressed to some extent or taken into consideration at the workplace. Additionally, we must bear in mind that women constitute half of other categories of workers with special needs, a fact that places them in potential double jeopardy and makes gender a central factor in assessing their capabilities and entitlements.

Sexism is the belief that women need less, deserve less and are worth less than men. The UN International Woman’s Decade, 1975–1985, with its themes of equality, development and peace, revealed that throughout the world women are overworked and undervalued. From a reanalysis of past studies and new research the realization slowly emerged that women’s work was undervalued because women themselves were devalued, not because of inherent deficiencies.

During the 1960s there were many studies of why women worked and which women worked, as though work was an aberration for women. Indeed, women were routinely fired when they married or when they became pregnant. In the late 1960s European countries with strong labour demands preferred the recruitment of foreign workers to the mobilization of their own female workforce. While work conferred dignity on male family breadwinners, the paid work of married women was considered demeaning; but the unpaid community work of married women was considered ennobling, especially as it enhanced the social status of their husbands.

Beginning in the 1970s and established by the mid-1980s was women’s permanent presence in the workplace over the work-life cycle. Having children no longer impacts negatively on women’s participation rates; indeed the necessity to provide for children acts as a natural impetus for pursuit of work. According to the ILO, women now constitute 41% of the world’s documented workforce (ILO 1993a). In Nordic countries their participation rate is almost equal to men’s, although in Sweden, part-time work for women, while declining, is still high. In OECD industrialized countries, as the general female life expectancy is now 79, the importance of secure work as a source of income security over the adult lifespan is underscored.

The OECD acknowledges that the marked increase in female participation in employment has not produced any major convergence in the overall distribution of female and male employment. The sex-segregated workforce persists vertically and horizontally. Compared with men, women work in different sectors and occupations, work for smaller industries or organizations, have different tasks within occupations, are more often in irregular and unregulated work, have less opportunity for work control, and face the psychological demands of people-oriented or machine-paced work.

Much literature still blames women for choosing less competitive jobs that complement family responsibilities. However, a generation of studies has shown that workers not only choose, but are chosen into, occupations. The higher the rewards and status, the more restrictive the selection process and, in the absence of equity-oriented public policy and structures, the more likely that selectors choose candidates with characteristics matching their own regarding gender, race, socio-economic status or physical attributes. Stereotyped prejudices extend to a whole range of capabilities, including the ability to think abstractly.

Not only are women concentrated in few occupations with low pay and status and with restricted physical and occupational mobility, the OECD notes also that women’s occupations are often classified in broad categories comprising very different tasks, while a more precise job categorization has been developed for men’s occupations with implications for job evaluation, pay, mobility, and for the identification of safety and health risks in the work environment.

The health sector is probably the greatest example of persistent gender discrimination, where capabilities and performance are secondary to gender. Women everywhere are the major stakeholders in the health care system, as providers, guardians, brokers and, because of their reproductive needs and their longevity, users of the health care. But they do not run the system. In the former Soviet Union, where women predominated as physicians, that profession had relatively low status. In Canada, where 80% of health care workers are women, they earn 58 cents of every dollar earned by men in the same sector, less than the two-thirds of male pay earned by women in other sectors. Pay equity measures in both federal and provincial jurisdictions are attempting to close this gender gap. In many countries females and males performing comparable work are given different job titles and, in the absence of legislation and enforcement of pay equity or equal pay for work of equal value, inequities persist, with female health care workers, particularly nurses, bearing major responsibilities without commensurate authority, status and pay. It is of interest that only recently did the ILO include health in the category of heavy work.

Despite the presence of a “glass ceiling”, which confined women to middle management and the lower professional echelons, the growth of employment opportunities in the public sectors of both industrialized and developing countries was very beneficial to women, especially those with high educational attainment. The stagnation and downsizing of this sector has had serious adverse effects on women’s initial opening prospects. These positions offered greater social security, more opportunities for mobility, quality working conditions and fairer employment practices. Cutbacks have also resulted in heavier workloads, lack of security, and deterioration of working conditions, particularly in the health sector, but also in blue-collar and machine-paced pink-collar work.

“Poisoning” the Workplace

Backlash is defined by Faludi (1991) as a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line. Backlash takes many forms, one of the most insidious being the derision of “political correctness” to discredit social acceptance of employment equity for disadvantaged groups. Used by persons in authority, intellectual elites or media personalities, it has an intimidating, brainwashing effect.

To understand backlash we must understand the nature of the perceived threat. Although the aspirations and efforts of the women’s movement for gender equality are nowhere realized, those who lead the backlash realize that what has been happening for the past two decades is not just incremental change, but the beginning of a cultural transformation affecting all spheres of society. The inroads to power-sharing are still minor and fragile when women occupy barely 10% of all legislative seats throughout the world. But backlash is aimed at arresting, reversing and de-legitimizing any progress achieved through employment equity or affirmative or positive action as measures to control discrimination. Combined with weak enforcement and shrinking job opportunities, backlash can have a toxic effect on the workplace, fostering confusion about wrongs and rights.

Moghadam (1994) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) writes of cultural backlash, employed by fundamentalist groups, playing on emotions of fear and shame to restrict women’s visibility and their control over their lives and confine them to the private domestic sphere.

Systematic implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in All Its Forms (CEDAW), which has been ratified by nearly all Member States of the United Nations, would both demonstrate and promote political will to end gender discrimination, particularly in employment, health and education, along with discrimination against other “non-charter” groups.

Harassment, which can seriously interfere with the exercise of one’s capabilities, has only recently become an occupational health and human rights issue. Ethnic slurs, graffiti, name calling of persons with disabilities or of visible minorities have often been trivialized as “part of the job”. Employment insecurity, fear of reprisal, denial and lack of acknowledgement by one’s social milieu or the authorities, and lack of awareness of its systemic nature, together with lack of recourse, have contributed to complicity and tolerance.

Sexual harassment, while experienced at all occupational levels, is most pervasive at the lower levels where women are concentrated and most vulnerable. (A very small percentage of males are victims.) It became an employment and public policy issue only when large numbers of professional and executive women during the 1970s were confronted by this unwelcome interference and as women were entering trades, making them feel like intruders in their new workplaces. The effects on the health of the worker are widespread, leading in extreme cases to suicide attempts. It also contributes to family breakdown. Unions, not at the forefront of combating sexual harassment, now regard it as a grievable employment and human rights issue and have developed policies and mechanisms of redress. Services to promote healing and coping of survivors are still underdeveloped.

In a 1989 case, the Supreme Court of Canada defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which detrimentally affects the work environment ... ”. The Supreme Court determined that the Canadian Human Rights legislation confers a statutory duty on employers to provide a safe and healthy working environment, free of sexual harassment, and that employers could be held liable for the actions of their employees, especially supervisors (Human Resources Development Canada 1994).

Violence is a workplace risk. Evidence of this comes from a US Justice Department survey which revealed that one-sixth of violent crimes, affecting nearly 1 million victims annually, occur at work: 16% of assaults, 8% of rapes and 7% of robberies, with a loss of 1.8 million workdays. Fewer than half are reported to the police.

Assault or abuse constitutes a major threat to the mental and physical health of girls and women of all ages and cultures, but mostly of the young and the old. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) has found that in the Americas, violent deaths (i.e., accidents, suicides and homicides) represent more than 25% of all deaths in girls aged 10 to 14 and 30% in the 15- to 19-year age group (PAHO 1993).

Gender-based violence includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse and financial misappropriation, as well as sexual harassment, pornography, sexual assault and incest. In a global context we could add sex selection, abortion of female foetuses, wilful malnutrition, ritual gender mutilation, dowry deaths, and sale of daughters for prostitution or marriage. It is acknowledged that violence against women disrupts their lives, limits their options and intentionally blocks their aspirations. Both intent and consequences signify it as criminal behaviour. However, the violence from known assailants against women at home, at work or on the street, has generally been considered a private matter. The 1989 massacre of 27 Montreal women students at a Polytechnic, precisely because they were women engineering students at a Polytechnic, is brutal evidence of gender-based violence aimed at thwarting occupational aspirations.

The prevention and control of violence are workplace issues which can be addressed through employee assistance programmes and health and safety committees, working in partnership with law enforcement agencies and other agencies of society including grass-roots women’s organizations throughout the world, which placed the matter on public agendas and have been attempting, bare-knuckled, to achieve zero tolerance and to aid the survivors.

Changing World of Work

From 1970 to 1990, the economically predominant G-7 countries (excepting Japan and Germany) experienced de-industrialization, with a decline in manufacturing employment and the emergence of a post-industrial service economy. This period also coincided with the rise of the welfare state. At the end of the period, services in general (including manufacture-related services) accounted for two-thirds to three-quarters of employment. Excepting Japan and Italy, social services accounted for one-quarter to one-third of employment. These two trends created unprecedented demands for female employees who had benefited from improved educational opportunities. A zeitgeist of growing demands for human rights and equal opportunities also favoured the beginning integration of other “non-preferred” workers (e.g., persons with disabilities, minorities) (Castells and Oayama 1994).

Today, the world of work is undergoing a radical transformation characterized by globalization, take-overs and mergers, joint ventures, relocation, deregulation, privatization, computerization, proliferating technologies, structural adjustments, downsizing, outsourcing and the change from command to market economies. These changes and comprehensive re-engineering have altered the scale, the nature, the location, and the means and processes of production and communications, as well as the organization of and social relations in places of work. By the early 1990s, the technological revolution of information processing and communications, biotechnology and automated materials-processing was widespread, modifying, extending or reducing human effort and producing “efficient” jobless growth. In 1990, there were at least 35,000 transnational corporations with 150,000 foreign affiliates. About 7 million of the 22 million persons they employ, work in developing countries. Transnational corporations now account for 60% of world trade (much of it internal to its subsidiaries.)

A World Health Organization Issues Paper prepared for the Global Commission on Women’s Health (1994) states:

The struggle for access to markets brings with it increased threats to the health of millions of producers. In a highly competitive climate with an emphasis on the production of cheap, tradeable goods, companies seek to produce at the lowest costs by cutting wages, increasing working hours and sacrificing costly safety standards. In many cases companies may relocate their production units to developing countries where the controls in these areas may be less strict. Women often fill the ranks of these low-paid workers. The most extreme health consequences can be seen in tragedies where scores of workers lose their lives in factory fires due to inadequate safety standards and poor working conditions.

Moreover, an estimated 70 million persons, mostly from developing countries, are migrant workers cut off from family support. The value of cash remittances from migrant workers in 1989 was US$66 billion—much more than international development assistance of $46 billion, and exceeded only by oil in international trade value. In China’s booming coastal provinces, the province of Guangdong alone has an estimated 10 million migrants. Throughout Asia, women are over-represented among workers in unregulated and un-unionized workplaces. In India (which has reputedly received over $40 billion of loans for development from international financing institutions) 94% of the female labour force is in the unorganized sector.

Behind the miracle of exponential economic growth in Southeast Asia is the labour in the export sector of young female, capable and docile workers who earn from US$1.50 to US$2.50 a day, about one-third the basic wage. In one country, college-educated key-punch operators earn US$150 per month. In Asia as in Latin America, the pull to urban centres has created major slums and shanty towns, with millions of unschooled children living and working in precarious conditions. Over 90 developing countries are now attempting to stem the pace of this urban drift. Thailand, in an attempt to stem or reverse the process, has established a rural development initiative to retain or return young persons to their communities, some for work in cooperative factories where their work benefits them and their communities.

The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has noted that modernization strategies have often destroyed women’s economic bases as traders, craftswomen or farmers, without altering the socio-cultural context (e.g., access to credit) which prevents them from pursuing other economic opportunities (UNFPA 1993). In Latin America and the Caribbean, the economic crisis and structural adjustments policies of the 1980s engendered major cuts in the social services and health sector which both served and employed women, cut subsidies on basic food items and introduced user charges for many services formerly provided by governments as part of the development and fulfilment of basic human needs. By the end of the 1980s, 31% of all non-agricultural employment was in the precarious informal sector.

In Africa, the 1980s have been characterized as the lost decade. Per capita income dropped by an annual average of 2.4% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 50% of the urban population and 80% of the rural population live in poverty. The informal sector acts as a sponge, absorbing the “excess” urban labour force. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where women produce up to 80% of the food for local consumption, only 8% own the land they work (ILO 1991).

Economic restructuring, privatization and democratization have severely affected the employment of female workers in Eastern Europe. Previously burdened by heavy work, with fewer rewards than men, household responsibilities not shared by spouses and curtailment of political freedom, they nevertheless had secure employment with state-supported benefits of social security, maternity leave and child-care provisions. Currently entrenched gender discrimination, combined with market arguments against social expenditure, have rendered women expendable and less desirable workers. As the female-predominant health and social domains of work are reduced, capable professional workers become redundant.

Unemployment is a severely disorganizing experience in the life of workers, threatening not only their livelihood, but also their social relations, their self-esteem and their mental health. Recent studies have shown that not only mental but also physical health can be compromised as unemployment may have immuno-suppressive effects, increasing the risk of disease.

We are entering the twenty-first century with a crisis of values, of weighing self-interest against the public interest. Are we building a world based on unfettered, winner-takes-all competition, whose sole criterion is the “bottom line”, a world where ethnic cleansing triumphs? Or are we building a world of interdependence, where growth is pursued together with distributive justice and respect for human dignity? At United Nations global conferences in the 1990s, the world has made a number of landmark commitments to environmental protection and renewal, to ethical and equitable population policies, to the protection and developmental nurturing of all children, to an allocation of 20% of international development funds and 20% of budgets of developing countries to social development, to an expansion and enforcement of human rights, to gender equality, and to the removal of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Such Conventions have established the moral compass. The question that looms before us is whether we have the political will to meet these goals.



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