Three highly disparate groups of women converged in a New York City high school auditorium on with one goal in mind: reduce the hours women work in low-paid or unpaid labor.
Immigrant women, women of color and students were united under the concept that their work and their time spent working was undervalued at the Second National “Ain’t I a Woman?” conference sponsored by the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, and Workers Awaaz (Bengali for workers voice).
Their goal is a 40-hour work week for all—factory workers as well women caring for their families’ needs and students who spend hours studying, researching, writing papers and teaching classes.
“It is not just that we want an eight hour day,” said JoAnn Lum, director of the anti-sweatshop group, “we want control of our time and recognition of our work.”
Crossing divides of race, trade, and education – divides that have proved hurdles for rights movements in the past — this coalition is new and the strategy is new.
“I haven’t ever noticed this kind of organizing before,” said Paromita Vohra, a documentary filmmaker from India, “especially in America.”
The eight panelists–Chinese, Latina, South Asian–spoke through their first language accents and joined African-Americans to bring a common message: All women work and working women are undervalued.
Oi Kwan Lai, a former sewing machine operator in a Manhattan garment factory where brand name garments are created, said employees were segregated based on ethnicity and that they worked 90 hour work weeks. She added that restrooms were padlocked. Although the factory is unionized, she claims she was fired after complaining about the conditions.
Last summer, she led a protest in front of the midtown factory. “I came out to protest, and I got blacklisted,” she said in Chinese which was translated. She sued and her case went to arbitration.
“I won compensation, but the union is holding my money. When I complained they sent me to the Department of Labor and they in turn sent me to the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association. This has taken two years,” she said.
She said women should support the garment workers by not buying clothing from retailers who are known to subcontract to such factories.
A representative of a welfare mother’s rights organization also emphasized her belief that the work poor mothers perform to raise their children is also undervalued.
“We are working on a care-giver credit campaign,” said Karen Thomas-Baskerville, a former welfare recipient who now organizes other mothers receiving aid. The current welfare law does not recognize that “women’s work is work, that is why we can’t get credit for it,” she said.
Karah Newton, student at State University of New York, Buffalo, led a discussion of university reliance on low-cost student labor through work-study and teaching assistant programs. She added that in her opinion many students believe their concerns have no relation with the issues faced by workers in garment factories.
“But we actually share similar experiences,” Newton said. “We are under the same system that does not value our lives. We have to live to work instead of working to live.”
“In society’s eyes, since I am an undergrad at an Ivy League school, I am an immigrant success story,” added Hoa Dwong, a student of University of Pennsylvania. “When I graduate I can work my fingers to the bone and make a lot of money or, I can work my fingers to the bone and make hardly any money. Are these valid choices?”