International Women’s Day has become more widely recognised over the past decade. It has increasingly been used as a launching pad for campaigns of equality and solidarity. Big headline campaigns against sexual harassment have led to legislative success as new forms of assault such as up-skirting and image based abuse have been made illegal across the UK and Ireland.
For women and non-binary workers, IWD is a rare chance to be listened to. The intersectionality of modern feminism, whilst attempting to be inclusive, has been a luxury not always available to working class women. The exploitation of women’s labour is marginalised both in worker discourse and in feminist discourse. While the pandemic has led to support for healthcare workers, the female dominated nursing profession remains overwhelmingly overworked and underpaid. The first nursing strike in RNC history was last winter in the North of Ireland, before the pandemic.
Women workers as a whole are more likely to experience wage theft due to continued disregard of part time workers and those in the retail and service industries. Retail in particular is tangibly exploitative of its female dominated workforce. Whilst the recent conversation about sustainability has been a move in the right direction, companies have utilised greenwashing to cover continued unethical practices. Textile workers in Leicester who produce 70% of clothing for fast fashion brand ‘Boohoo’ are reportedly collectively owed millions of pounds in unpaid wages. Primark store closures during the pandemic caused a mass cancellation of orders which sent dangerous ripples across the working world. Countless textile workers in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, who are almost exclusively women and girls, have been left at best with a hefty wage reduction and at worst been dismissed without pay.
More locally, the Irish Debenhams strikes have been a symbolic stand for not only women but workers everywhere. Despite disappearing from media headlines in the autumn, the Debehenham’s ex-workers, again, a group of largely women, is set to hit its 333 day marker on IWD. 1,500 workers at department store Debenhams and retailer Arcadia were made redundant last year. However, due to a lack of legislative protections, they were not compensated with their previously agreed redundancy packages of four weeks pay per year of service.
The nearly year long picket has endured not only the Covid pandemic but the ebb and flow of social interest. In September 2020 the ‘Debenhams Six’ were arrested for occupying the shop space. The end of 2020 then saw the Irish government offer a €3m training fund which was rejected by a 91% majority of these workers. The demands remain clear. The workers want to be paid. “If the Government is willing to change the €3m training fund into cash then this could be finished. They keep saying they didn’t want to set a precedent. But if they could bring up €3m to pay people to do courses, why not give us the money?” says Valerie Conlon, Mandate union shop steward in Cork.
Jane Crowe, steward of Henry Street Dublin has called IWD 2021 a momentous day for the strike as a chance for the workers to be shown country wide solidarity. “The Mna laidre na hEireann have a long history of standing up and fighting for what’s right. It was the Irish Women’s Workers Union who went on strike for three months in 1945 and won the right to annual leave for all workers in Ireland. Dunnes Stores workers took action which ended zero hour contracts in 2019. And now we are fighting to ensure no other workers are treated as we have been.”
The IWW, in support of the Debenhams workers and in symbolic solidarity with our sister workers global call for the working people to show their support in whatever way they can at their local picket from 11am on IWD 8th March.
We only want the earth and pay for our sister workers!