March is Women’s month, and more specifically, today is International Women’s Day. Like Black History Month, these events inherently allot insufficient time to celebrate and appreciate the contributions of Blacks and Women in the world. But these events don’t portend to be end-alls to discussions of racial and gender equality. Rather, they are important reasons for the season. They are annual barometers on the issues. And they are reminders that major inequalities still fester around the world.
International Women’s Day "is the global day connecting all women around the world and inspiring them to achieve their full potential. IWD celebrates the collective power of women past, present and future," according to its official website.
We over at RaceWire are on board. Major problems of maternal health, HIV/AIDS and gender inequality continue to push women over cliffs of despair. Recent news reminds us why we should continue observing women’s day year-to-year, day-to-day, and moment-to-moment: Japan’s Prime Minister recent denials of horrendous atrocities against women in Japan’s Sex-Slave trade during WW II when as many as 200,000 women from around Asia were tortured as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Also, a narrative by Molly McGrath about closing factors in the Dominican Republic shows how women bear the brunt of societies’ malfunctions. International Women’s Day reminds me of the time I met Jenny, at her home in Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic. Jenny, a single working mother, had lost her job at the BJ&B factory. In 2003, BJ&B was a leading supplier of logo caps to U.S. universities and athletic teams. Jenny was one of 1,600 workers, almost all women, until she was fired for standing up for her right to form a union. Jenny and I first spoke when she had been out of work for a year. She and her family were deep in poverty. I watched as her four kids played next to an open sewer, outside her home — a shack made out of corrugated tin and wood. I was in college then, an activist with United Students Against Sweatshops. I had traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet with the workers who were attempting to form a union. My trip was coordinated by the Solidarity Center, an organization that helps workers worldwide. The free trade zone where Jenny worked was developed with incentives to attract international investment and create employment for local workers. Like women all over the world employed in free trade zones, Jenny worked for long hours and low pay. When Jenny and her co-workers began to organize a union to improve their conditions, she put a picture of herself with her children on a flyer that said, "I am Jenny, of Plant #1, and these are my children. For their future, I support the union, and you should, too. Affiliate!" That day, I promised Jenny that I would help her get her job back. With other students and unions, I pressed the corporations and universities that bought BJ&B caps to support the workers’ demand for a union and higher wages. As a result, Jenny and her co-workers won their jobs back and built a strong union. Today, I work for the Solidarity Center. My colleagues and I continued to support Jenny and her co-workers as they built their union and improved their working and living conditions. The Solidarity Center trained the workers in basic union skills, such as collective bargaining, and helped the union build relationships with U.S. unions and consumer organizations. But the victories that Jenny and her co-workers won are being overturned. Yupoong Corp., the Korean-based multinational company that owns BJ&B, has announced the plant’s sudden closure. Company owners cite increased competition from Asia. But that excuse rings hollow: Jenny was paid only 65 cents an hour. The real reason the plant closed may be the expiration in 2005 of the Multi-Fiber Agreement. The agreement, also known as Agreement on Textile and Clothing, governed the world trade in textiles and garments from 1974 through 2004, imposing quotas on the amount of textiles developing countries could export to developed countries. This system of international textile and garment trade quotas provided incentives for multinational corporations to invest in developing countries. The expiration of the agreement gives companies like Yupoong an excuse to close garment plants such as BJ&B as casualties of globalization. Such plant closures are not limited to the Dominican Republic. Without the trade quotas, the garment industry has changed dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly women, from Mexico to Kenya to Indonesia, are now unemployed like Jenny. As leaders in corporate social responsibility, the brands that manufacture caps at BJ&B are wrong to accept its closure. Abandoning women like Jenny, who is now pregnant and unemployed, is a contradiction to the principles they pledged to uphold. BJ&B was the last major employer in Villa Altagracia, after the closure of a sugar mill and a paper factory. Women especially have few other job prospects. Some may be forced into degrading work like prostitution. Jenny said she thinks the closure has been planned for a long time, to get rid of the union. After witnessing what I did as a student, I agree. And just as American workers would not accept such treatment, we should not accept it for those who are under even more economic hardship. Let’s take this International Women’s Day to honor women like Jenny. Tell companies they owe more to these women, and to communities like Villa Altagracia. Molly McGrath is a Program Officer at the Solidarity Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.