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"The commercial exploitation of public services accentuates the exclusion and marginalisation of women"

10 March 2016
Verónica Montúfar/Photo: Leo Hyde
This is the conclusion reached by Verónica Montúfar, PSI World Gender and Equity Coordinator. "Where there are no health services, women act as nurses. Where there are no schools, women provide an education for their children. In the absence of public services, women provide them."

Igor Ojeda

Due to a construction that is more historical than natural, women are the providers of essential services to their families, explains the Ecuadorian, Verónica Montúfar, World Gender and Equity Coordinator for Public Services International (PSI). “Where there is no drinking water, women go and fetch water from distant sources. Where there are no health services, women look after the sick. Where there are no schools, women provide an education for their children. In other words, in the absence of state provision of public services, women provide them”.

Precarious work and the commercial exploitation of public services, whether in the form of public-private partnerships or trade treaties, affects women more than men, “as the time and energy spent on the tasks consequent on the social role they play for their families and communities means they are less able to pursue their own self-fulfilment and autonomy”.

In this interview, conducted via email, Montúfar speaks of how women are more affected by the intensification of work and the organisation of hierarchies in production caused by the extreme inequality in the distribution of the fruits of the third scientific-technical revolution and explains the specific nature of the gender issue in public services and the difficulties faced by women workers in this sector.

“There is a tendency for society to undervalue care work and the reproduction of life. It is as if women carried this tendency to undervalue their work from their private lives into the public domain.”

What are the main challenges facing women at the workplace?

Both men and women workers are subject to general pressures. The development of productive forces in the third scientific-technical revolution for the first time gives humanity the opportunity to be the subject of its own history, overcome scarcity and build universal equity and equality. However, this potential is expropriated by the monopolistic accumulation conducted by transnational companies, which act like states without a territory, in alliance with national states and multilateral agencies, and convert the tragedy of inequality and the exclusion of individuals, communities, countries and continents, which are disposables for the reproduction of capital, with new forms of poverty and violence.

This exorbitant capacity to produce accompanied by the paradox of the private appropriation of the wealth produced and the maximisation of inequality in distribution, has caused profound changes in the organisation of production that promote the intensification of work and the creation of hierarchies in labour relations. The consequence is the expulsion of large numbers of workers from the formal, protected economy into more precarious modalities and the informal sector. The consequence of the change from manufacture to “mindfacture” is the full incorporation of workers into the work process, with all their capacities – psychic, intellectual and emotional.

However, historic gender disadvantages mean that this affects women more than men. Women began to participate in production as cheap labour, occupying sectors determined by the sexual division of labour while continuing the work associated with social reproduction in the home. This doubled their working day and this has not been changed either by modern legislation or by the increase in productivity. Women are still the sector of the labour force that is most affected.

Of course, the situation has changed in some countries. Some women have managed to break through the barriers of gender labour segregation by entering occupations traditionally dominated by men and taking on management posts. They have also managed to redistribute reproductive work within the family, but these are still a minority and, acting alone, they  cannot change the unequal gender and class relations in the world that form the structural basis of the system of domination.

What specific gender issues are there in the public services and what are the difficulties that women workers face in this sector?

Following the pattern established by the sexual division of work, public services are configured in such a way that some sectors of the workforce are mainly occupied by men and others mainly by women. Men tend to be employed in the productive sectors of the state, while women are employed in tasks associated with care and the reproduction of life. This is true of all countries in the world as is the tendency for society to undervalue the work associated with care and the reproduction of life. It is as if women carried this tendency to undervalue their work from their private lives into the public domain. The sexual division of labour in the public services is also reflected in the vertical segregation of roles – the sectors in which women are in the majority of the workforce are at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, which also means that the pay gap is doubled.

Meanwhile, reform of the state and the modernization and technification of public services have generated changes in the organisation of work in the public sector. Management has very quickly implemented business models of production that have intensified work in the name of efficiency and created hierarchies in labour relations.

In addition, the lack of funding for public services creates tensions with service users, provoking violence, externally and internally. Working in the health and care services stretches your physical capacity and subjectivity. This phenomenon has been called the feminization of work, which means that work now requires the complete involvement of the human being for both men and women, who are required to invest all the psychic and emotional capacities necessary for the care of life and human reproduction; characteristics that are recognised to be fundamentally feminine. In this way, the public services increasingly require “biowork”, that represents a new exploitation process.

The PSI believes that essential public services should be independent of public-private partnerships, mixed funding and trade treaties, because such initiatives have a harmful effect on women’s social rights. Why are women’s social rights more affected in these circumstances?

The commercial exploitation of public services accentuates the paradox between abundance and scarcity. Even more so now that capitalist accumulation has broadened its scope to include public services and assets. If this phenomenon continues at the pace it has done in recent years, large numbers of human beings are going to be excluded from the welfare system. The fundamental responsibility of women for home care (a construction that is more historical than natural) means that women are the providers of essential services to their families. Where there is no drinking water, women go and fetch water from distant sources. Where there are no health services, women look after the sick. Where there are no schools, women provide an education for their children. In other words, in the absence of state provision of public services, women provide them. This accentuates the pattern of exclusion and marginalisation, as the time and energy spent on the tasks consequent on the social role they play for their families and communities means they are less able to pursue their own self-fulfilment and autonomy. Therefore, among poor people, women are the poorest in the world.

We can assess gender issues in the public services in another way by looking at how they allow human beings to accomplish their political, economic, social and cultural goals. I am referring to how these services are designed, constructed, built. For example, public services that do not permit the exercise of sexual and reproductive health of women and that are designed in accordance with authoritarian, conservative and exclusive ideologies, which restrict rather than support human beings. As usual, women suffer the most from this state of affairs.

On the subject of sexual and reproductive health, we need to design public services with a gender focus that safeguard the physical integrity and emotional security of women, girls and young people. Similarly, public services for children and older people are indispensable to reduce the burden of work associated with the social reproduction of the family, which is mostly in the hands of women. We need public transport services and illuminated public places that allow people to move around and feel safe and ensure physical security and freedom of movement for women. Universal quality public services with a gender focus are indispensable for women and the poorest sectors of society to achieve economic and political autonomy.

What is the role of the trade unions in this context?

The role of the trade unions is to promote change, even though regressive policies towards workers' rights in the public sector have weakened the power of the unions and affected their collective bargaining capacity. Now is the time to recover our strength, irrespective of legal limitations. Now is the time to recover forums for co-management at the workplace and for the organisation and planning of public services, from the central government level to the local government level. Co-management means co-government, which allows organised workers at the workplace to influence public policies at all levels, including at the macro global political level.

Another way of strengthening the unions is to form alliances with other social sectors in defence of public services and to propose alternatives to privatization. It is crucial that the social movements works with the women’s’ movement to resist and to work for change. The PSI, as a global union, has a high profile and a lot of influence in this process.

The task of getting rid of patriarchy from human relations and structures requires profound change. The unions are moulded by these social and historic conditions. Changing them will involve a contribution from both men and women…. Because in this task….. we are….. we move forward.

UNCSW60 will take place 14-24 March. What is the PSI expecting from this meeting? What will it contribute to the discussion? UNCSW60’s priority will be “the empowerment of women and their link with sustainable development”. What is the PSI’s policy on this issue?

In its work with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the PSI forms part of a strong trade union coalition composed of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Education International (EI) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). We aim to increase recognition of the legitimacy of trade unions as defenders of women’s rights, at the workplace and in society in general, as well as increasing our influence, along with the women’s movement and NGOs who share the same principles, on the decisions of government actors about gender equality and equity policies at the global level.

A joint statement sets out our position and our attitude, which emphasises that one of the main reasons why women join trade unions is to take charge of their own economic empowerment by getting organised and bargaining collectively for decent work. Trade unions represent 70 million women worldwide. The unions therefore have an important role in ensuring compliance with the Sustainable Development Objectives from now until 2030.

We also say that essential public services, such as water and sanitation, health and education, should be excluded from public-private partnership, combined trade and financial treaties and other initiatives that are detrimental to the social rights of women. Tax justice and progressive taxation models may provide a solid alternative base for public policies that promote gender equality.

This year, the session will be attended by around 180 delegates from a wide range of unions throughout the world, especially North America. The PSI will send a delegation of 20 representatives drawn from its affiliates in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Juneia Batista, president of the PSI’s World Women’s Committee (WOC) will attend as an accredited member of the Brazilian government delegation, which provides us with an opportunity, as a trade union movement, to attend official meetings, raise our profile and increase our influence.

On 3 March, the Honduran indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres, was assassinated at her home. As well as opposing the coup in 2009, which overthrew Manuel Zelaya, she was a strong opponent of free trade treaties and the activities of transnational companies. What are your thoughts on the assassination? Can you also analyse it in the context of violence against women?

Yes, The PSI believes it is clear that Berta Cáceres was a victim of transnational corporate greed to take control of public assets and the alarming increase in the figures for femicide, which is trying to silence women in public and private life.

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