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From the workplace to the streets: women are leading the fight for a fairer world

Red Pepper celebrates International Women’s Day by highlighting the work of CAIWU – a union representing women at the sharp end of exploitation and oppression. Ana Aguirre reports

3 to 4 minute read

Six women stand together holding signs that say 'We are NOT the dirt we clean'.

Another year, another International Women’s Day. A global marker of ongoing gender inequality, the UN have set this year’s theme as #Investinwomen — a call to end the pay gap and see more women in positions of power that has been endorsed by, perhaps most surprisingly, the World Bank & International Monetary Fund. These institutions are notoriously complicit in holding formerly colonised countries in the stranglehold of debt, poverty and control.

Sadly, this is what we’ve all come to expect from a mainstream, neoliberal, ‘girl boss’ feminism. But radical women the world over have reclaimed 8 March to demand collective freedom against all forms of oppression: patriarchy, imperialism, and exploitation.

Super-exploitation in the cleaning industry

Members of CAIWU, The Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union, will once again join their call. The union represents workers at the sharp end of oppression and exploitation: our 1,900 members are predominantly migrant workers largely from Latin American backgrounds, and almost entirely employed under various outsourcing arrangements within London’s cleaning industry – composed disproportionately of women.

Hired by a third party to undercut costs, subject to frequent changes of employer as contracts expire and are renegotiated and cut off entirely from the culture of their current employer’s workplace, these workers find themselves unseen and unconsidered, often condemned to a permanent state of limbo in which they are noticed and supported by no one.

Underneath the shiny, ‘feminist’ exterior of London’s corporations is an underbelly of hyper-exploitative outsourcing practices, harassment and discrimination. Of just a handful of recent campaigns at CAIWU: cleaners at Royal Bank of Canada are fighting against low wages, health and safety issues and redundancies. At ‘luxury’ co-working hub Mindspace, a cleaner faces immediate dismissal for refusing to have her hours halved by the outsourced management company Key Enviro Solutions.

In January 2024 alone, CAIWU won settlements totalling £47,000 for harassment, discrimination, unfair dismissal and victimisation in corporations across the capital. While ‘the world’s premier online luxury fashion destination’ NET-A-PORTER’s CEO Alison Loehnis takes home at least six figures a year, the outsourced company Mitie that clean her offices attempted to bin workers’ 30-minute paid break to save a mere £11,965.20.

To add insult to injury, NET-A-PORTER are the lead sponsor for the Victoria & Albert museum’s current ‘DIVA’ exhibition, which, according to Glamour magazine ‘sets out to reclaim the true identity of the diva, which is that of feminist, activist, game changer and creative freedom fighter.’ So, while low-paid, migrant women struggle to make ends meet, NET-A-PORTER parade their commitment to social justice for all to see.

A banner is on the floor, it is covered in colourful hand prints containing illegible text.

Celebrating the global victories of CAIWU

On this day, we remember the powerful voices and strength of the women of CAIWU and in workplaces across the world. It’s been eight years since our members came together for a collective banner-making session at MayDay rooms. They wrote down their hopes and dreams for a better world of work – from ending discrimination to an end to sexual harassment and homophobia in the workplace, ensuring a fair living wage, and support with childcare.

The struggles of CAIWU members exemplify the intersections of gender, race, and labour exploitation, as we have seen in the unfolding of our recent campaigns and increasing representation in cases related to sexual harassment. Today, these struggles persist. But with recent victories at NET-A-PORTER and the Royal Bank of Canada, organised migrant workers are fighting back, demonstrating the impact of unity and determination in the ongoing fight for justice.

So, on International Women’s Day 2024, CAIWU will be joining forces with feminist campaigns across the country to make visible the hidden forms of exploitation that prop up the glossy, neoliberal feminism of corporations across London – and the rest of the world.

This won’t just be a campaign for justice in the workplace. From London to Palestine, Abya Yala to Kurdistan, our fight for liberation and solidarity crosses borders and campaigns. The intersecting struggle of CAIWU members – as women, as workers, and as migrants – shows that our struggles to build a better, fairer, more free world are intrinsically linked. None of us are free until all of us are free. See you on the streets!

Ana Aguirre leads Communications and Campaigns at CAIWU

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