The Working Woman: a "Second Class" Worker

In spite of the fact that women constitute a sizeable percent of the Nigerian workforce, putting in the same time as their male counterpart, with their labour of no less value, and in the vast majority of the cases, having the same responsibilities, women are still discriminated against as "second class" workers.

Inspite of the fact that women constitute a sizeable percent of the Nigerian workforce, putting in the same time as their male counterpart, with their labour of no less value, and in the vast majority of the cases, having the same responsibilities, women are still discriminated against as "second class" workers.

There is a continuing brutal assault on the position of women workers. Women workers have been hit more than their male counterpart by the current Capitalist crisis. To all intents and purposes, the aim of the Capitalists is to drive women from paid employment back to the home-to unpaid labour.

Low Pay

For every wage a man earns women receive considerably less for doing work of equal value. Moreover, for the most part, women's jobs consist of the kind they do at home. These jobs are invariably, low paid. This is not just a reflection of women's low status under Capitalist society; it is also a sharp expression of discriminatory tendency against women workers in the Labour market. Women are segregated into basically low paying jobs. As a result, certain kinds of jobs have acquired a 'gender' cast.

Jobs such as sewing, typing, cleaning, cooking, etc, are essentially female jobs. Certain industries, like, medium size baby food, beverage and wine production companies are predominantly staffed with women. Not only are these women low paid, conditions in these factories are terrible. Women in these factories are mostly part time workers. The nature of these part time jobs are such that women work longer hours for less pay. The need to bring in or supplement family income forces women to submit to these conditions. This is nothing but double exploitation.

In industries such as mechanical engineering, metal manufacture, communications and IT sectors women form a tiny percent and even then are mostly segregated into low paid sectors.

The fight against unequal pay for work of equal value is closely linked to the fight against low pay. Over 75 % of Nigerian workers earn abysmally low wages. Under this condition, the need to supplement this poor wages by bringing in a decent wage becomes vital for the woman. These wages play a crucial role in helping working class families meet some of their needs. In families where women are the breadwinners, earning a decent wage becomes even more vital. Male unemployment and attacks on wages further undermines the importance of this.

Inspite of the fact that in most cases both parent work most working class families live below the poverty line. The Capitalists' use threat of sack and the pressure of mass unemployment to drive down wages. As a result, men and women earn starvation wages.

The current Capitalist crisis, the falling rate of profit, etc, is being used by employers to turn towards part time or casual women workers as a source of cheap labour. In most cases, existing full time jobs are casualized with wages driven further down. Casualization also means that women workers gets neither medical services, leave, pension, protective legislation, etc.

Furthermore, these women workers, because of their casual status are denied Trade Union rights.

Even though a few higher paid professional and white-collar women do exist it is no argument against millions of working women trapped in low paid jobs.

Childcare and Maternity

Not only does women suffer humiliating discriminations at the workplace there are humiliating employment regulations. Child bearing is a normal biological functioning of a woman's body, but at the workplace it is used by factory owners as a weapon against women. For one it is used to deny women higher positions and in most cases employment.

The possibility of pregnancy and the attendant maternity leave acts as a barrier to employment for most women. A single-workingwoman who gets pregnant without a husband or without duly notifying her boss about her change of status automatically gets the boot.

However, for working parents of young children, the biggest problem most of the time is finding good and affordable child care facilities. The high cost of such available facilities mean that poor working class families could not afford them and have to make do with unregistered, untrained and inadequate child minders or househelps who are either too old or are themselves still children.

This problem is further compounded by the absence of longer maternity leave or reduced working hours for mothers of preschool children. Nor are employers willing to provide working place nurseries or crèche'.

Not only does the lack of access to childcare facilities deny women employment opportunities and chains them to the kitchen and bedroom. For those able to manage it forces to accept scandalously low paid casual jobs under terrible conditions. This absence of adequate childcare facilities and the inadequacies and high cost of existing ones is a source of constant worry for working parents.

For working parents, particularly single working parents these facilities are absolutely essential. These combined with reduced working hours they enable parents enough time not only to bring up their children but also to seek employment, return to work, or pursue greater employment opportunities.

Health and Safety at Work

Hostile working environment affect both men and women workers. But there are gender specific dangers to which women workers, because of their biological makeup, are exposed. These dangers severely affect women's physical and reproductive health. Women work in environments and conditions that threaten pregnancy. In most factories women work under conditions no different from the condition described so well by Engels in his "CONDITION OF THE WORKINGCLASS IN ENDLAND" years ago.

It is not uncommon to find women in a state of advanced pregnancy, working long hours in constant standing-stooping motion. In some unregistered factories without Unions a woman might come to work today and the next day give birth to a child. These women put themselves at risk under duress. Only the threat of sack or wage cut forces them to endure discomfort and pain, working till the last day of pregnancy and in most of the cases reporting to work the very next day. This condition (pregnancy) coupled with stress at the workplace as well as childcare can seriously undermine a woman's health.

Particularly in all female industries women continue to work in extremely terrible conditions. A case in point was an incident in 1992 when 2 pregnant women suffered miscarriages while working and another went into premature labour and gave birth to a still born at SKAYMPORTS NIG, a charcoal exporting industry in Lagos operating long hours and scandalous working conditions. This is not a unique situation. In most factories of this type, women face the same situation. These involve lifting of heavy bags or cartons of finished products. This, coupled with the inhalation of dangerous chemicals used in production, long hours, stress, etc. threatens pregnancy and a woman's reproductive health. Even the life and health of unborn babies are often times affected by these conditions. Women work in environments in which they don't have access to health and sanitary facilities.

While conditions in these factories are bad enough, as it is for men, for women workers they are very terrible. In instances, very few which certain protective measures are observed women are still at a disadvantage. Rather than put in place adequate health and safety measures factory owners prefer to give ten to twenty Naira heat, chemical, etc. allowance to these workers, Of course for obvious reasons. This paltry sum, however, can never take the place of a comprehensive health and safety package for workers, particularly women.

Sexual Harrassment

Sexual harassment is a reflection of the backward and abusive attitude adopted towards women in Capitalist society.

It includes all unwanted and offensive behaviours, whether physical or verbal, in which an individual uses sexuality to violate another's liberty and dignity. It can express itself through verbal intimidation, embarrassing attention, unwanted physical contact, and demands for sexual favours or physical assault.

Cross-cultural data reveals two basic certainties; sexual harassment is prevalent at the workplace and in the vast majority of the cases is directed at women. Nor is it a question of few deviant males. It is a reflection of the second class status of women at the workplace.

Not only does sexual harassment at the workplace inhibits a woman's attempt to overcome her low second class status it acts as an obstacle to genuine class unity and seriously distress and undermines a woman's health and self confidence. In most cases, forcing her to leave her job.

In addition, sexual harassment is not a question of a few unfortunate situations. A very high percent of working women (in most factories, half the female work force) complain of having experienced some form of sexual harassment. For most of these women, the situation seems hopeless and annoying.

Ngozi, a 25 years old female worker with a baby food factory has resigned herself to fate:

"If my manager or supervisor wants to go to bed with me I'll go along with it; not because I like to but because of my job and family responsibilities. If I lose this job the possibility of getting another is not there, and even if I come across one I might still have to sleep with somebody to get it."

The above view reflects the plights of women trapped in low paid dead end jobs that offers no alternative; there don't seem to be anyway out. These women are the most vulnerable, the worst affected.

A most disturbing fact, particularly in cases involving worker versus worker, is that sexual harassment does not seem to be a trade Union issue. As a result, even in those factories that have Unions, women have had to leave their jobs in much bitterness. Others, owing to rising unemployment have had to lower their standard of morality and indulge in humiliating acts of sexual gratification just to keep their jobs.

Deola, a computer science graduate tells of an incident when she went in search of a job in a company that deals with computers. The manager told her in explicit terms that the job is hers if only she would go to bed with him, because "these days you don't get job just by having a certificate". She lost the job and today is still searching, becoming increasingly frustrated with each passing day.

For women workers sexual harassment is a serious threat to their health, self-confidence and right to work. For them it is not a personal, but a Trade Union issue and must be treated as such.

Unemployment

Unemployment ever present in the Nigerian economy is moving up at a staggering pace following the intensification of the crisis ravaging Capitalism. While unemployment cuts across gender women are the worst hit, as they are the first to suffer layoffs at the on set of the crisis.

However, it is a paradoxical situation. Inspite of the layoffs of women workers on the one extreme there is a drive for recruitment of women workers on the other as a source of cheap labour, particularly in small unregistered factories making use of casual labour. Despite this, the fact remains that women constitute the bulk of the unemployed or underemployed.

In the face of rising male unemployment, amid onslaught of Capitalist crisis, a woman who losses her job knows that the possibility of getting another is remote. For working class families dependent on the woman's salary, this is a catastrophe. For the unemployed single mothers it is even more so.

The impending privatization exercise is further to worsen an already bad situation. If carried through, as seems very likely, it will further wipe out more jobs and undermine vital services.

Privatization will witness the selling off at bargain prices of various Public corporations, like NEPA, NNPC, etc.

The Capitalist acquisitors of these corporations will waste no time in cutting back jobs and services, particularly those of women. Not only, would women lose their jobs, those who remain would work under conditions that are far more terrible.

Conclusion

The struggle for equal pay, health and safety at work, childcare and maternity right, against sexual harassment and unemployment is not divorced from the struggle for the transformation of society.

Social progress could also be measured by the position of women. The low second class status of working women is a damning indictment of Capitalist society.

Workers are not responsible for the crisis of Capitalism and should not be made to bear the burden. Accepting responsibility for it would mean a reversal of the gains of the past; for working women, it would mean a return to the isolation of the home. More, it would mean hunger and starvation for millions of working class families.

Capitalism has outlived itself as a World system. Rising unemployment and attacks on living standards and working conditions testifies to this. There is no way out on a Capitalist basis.

We have to fight the system. This is not a fight for women workers alone. It is the fight of the whole workers movement. The woman question is a social question.