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(en) Canada, Linchpin* - a publication of common cause - dec 2010 III. (3/3)

Date Tue, 30 Aug 2011 13:12:02 +0300

Neo-liberalism and home care ---- “If Mom didn’t take care of you when you were a child, would you be able to go to work?” by SCOTT NEIGH ---- “If your Mom didn’t take care of you [when you were a child], would you be able to go to work?” ---- Those are the words of trade union activist, graduate student, and single mother Laurel O’Gorman. They are her way of neatly capturing the idea that without the massive amounts of unpaid work done in the home, primarily by women, capitalism would grind to a halt. ---- And through the neoliberal changes of the last thirty years -- paid work that has become more precarious and more poorly paid, governments that have radically scaled back support for people in need, different groups of workers increasingly subjected to different rules -- the burdens of unpaid work have increased significantly. Yet many unions and community groups are still in the early stages of figuring out how to recognize and respond to the central importance of unpaid caring and domestic labour.

Women’s Work and Invisibility

“Women’s labour is often the
most exploited,” according to
Sharmeen Khan, an organizer
and spokesperson for the Toronto
Community Mobilization Network
that put together much of the
infrastructure that groups used for
protesting the G20 summit in June.
Pressure that gives women fewer
options other than to engage in
work that is underpaid or unpaid “is
a strategic way of maintaining profit
for a few... The unpaid labour that is
often invisible is strategic in that.”

The invisibility Khan refers to
shows up even in how many of us
talk about what we do, where the
word “work” is so often used to
refer only to what we are paid to
do. Caring for children and older
adults, preparing food, cleaning,
doing laundry, getting groceries,
and the dozens of other tasks that
make life possible get relegated to
an assumed but undefined space that
not only ignores their importance
but ensures that they are often not
seen as work at all. The invisibility
when unwaged tends to correspond
with poor pay and low status when
this kind of work is done for a wage.
According to researchers Leah
Vosko and Lisa Clark, despite
modest increases in the proportion
of such work done by men over
the preceding decades, the time
devoted to unpaid work by working
age men and women still differed
considerably in Canada in 2005.
Men performed, on average,
3.5 hours a day of unpaid work,
compared to 7.3 hours for women.
In households with a child under age
six, the averages shifted to 6.1 hours
for men and 12.6 hours for women.

This invisibility has many
expressions in public policy as
well. For instance, in the years that
O’Gorman’s time was dominated by
unpaid work in her home, her then-
partner was working at a trade. Both
are now pursuing further education --
he qualifies to access grant funding
under a government “second career”
program because his earlier work
was waged, but she is able to access
education only through taking on debt
because her earlier work was unpaid.

She said, “In my life, this is the most
visible example of how unpaid work
doesn’t matter and everything is
about waged work...because what I
was doing wasn’t ‘work.’”


Professor Pat Armstrong is a
political economist who teaches at
York University in Toronto, Ontario,
who has done research on women’s
work for more than forty years, most
recently with a focus on healthcare.
She said that the “most obvious”
way neoliberalism has increased
pressure to engage in unpaid work
in Canada is “in cutbacks of what we
call the welfare state.” This refers to
the array of social programs enacted
mostly after the Second World War
which provide services in ways that
socialize the costs and which support
people living in need. Particularly
since the mid-1990s in Canada,
the welfare state has been under
attack by business lobbies and many

She says that in the healthcare
sector, this means people are sent
home from hospital “sicker and
quicker” -- less care is provided by
nurses and doctors, and now “most
of that care is provided unpaid in
the home...mostly by women.” The
limited public dollars for homecare
services are also now more often
taken up caring for people who have
been discharged from acute care
hospitals so there are fewer resources
to care for frail and elderly people
(who are most often women) so it
is generally family (again, mostly
women) who have little choice but to
take on that work.

Armstrong adds that it is evident
from how governments have talked
about the issue that this is not an
unforseen side-effect. Rather, “it is
clearly part of the current healthcare
strategies to do as much as possible
by unpaid labour.”

Khan points out how neoliberal
changes have affected different
groups of women in different ways.
For instance, as poverty has increased
and accessibility of services related
to care provision has decreased,
more and more poor women in
Canada have simply had no good
options. “A lot of the women who
are in poverty do work hard, do
work all the time” both in low-wage
jobs and at unwaged work, but
“rather than the state intervening
to provide affordable childcare, the
state will intervene only when there
is neglect.”

In contrast, a response to this
burden by some affluent households
is to hire other women to perform
domestic and caring labour, often
poor and working-class women of
colour brought to Canada as part
of the Live-in Caregiver Program.
This program subjects these
women to much more oppressive
rules for work than Canadian
citizens have to face, including
having to live with their employer,
limited access to social services,
restrictions on basic employment
rights and on pursuing other work,
and the threat of deportation if they
demand better treatment. This is
part of the “labour apartheid” that
is the “essence of neoliberalism,”
according to Khan. She added,
“The lack of childcare support in
this country has normalized this
experience of hardship.”

In Struggle

Many public sector unions, like
the Canadian Union of Public
Employees (CUPE), have some
awareness of the issue and respond
by both political and workplace
efforts to strengthen the welfare
state. The idea is that high quality,
accessible, not-for-profit services
would give communities more
options for meeting caring needs.
As well, fighting to transform the
low pay and precarious, casual
character of caring work when it
is waged would help to increase its
overall status, including when it is

CUPE also enacts measures to
reduce barriers to participation by
its own members who might face
burdens from unpaid caring and
domestic labour, such as funding
childcare during union events.
O’Gorman, who is the president
of the newly formed CUPE Local
5011, which represents graduate
teaching assistants at Laurentian
University in Sudbury, Ontario,
said, “Overall, I’ve found that
CUPE has really worked on that,”
and cited numerous examples
of how it has facilitated her
participation. Still, she also cited
other instances where barriers
remain, and both in the position of
her local as it goes into bargaining
and her experience so far of
processes within the union beyond
the local level, the gendered
impacts of unpaid domestic labour
have not been a major focus of

Armstrong, who has worked
extensively with unions and
community groups over the years,
confirms that unions have some
awareness of the issue and could
be an important force in addressing
it, “but I don’t think it’s at the top
of their agenda, partly because
they are so squeezed” by the many
neoliberal attacks on the labour

Progressive and radical “do-it-
yourself” alternatives that seek to
avoid reliance on the welfare state
through local community-based
initiatives have at times advanced
some interesting co-operative
models. However, these sorts of
experiments are rare in Canada,
and they often do not address the
gendered burden of unpaid labour
or the ways in which many poor
and working-class women already
do incredible levels of waged and
unwaged work.

Even in the most visible
mobilization against neoliberalism
in recent years in Canada -- the
protests against the recent G20
summit in Toronto -- this issue
was largely absent. Though gender
justice was one of the key themes
of the organizing, and Khan said
that issues of women’s work were
definitely present in the initial
discussions she was part of, it
mostly did not show up in what
both mainstream and activist
publics saw in June.
She cited a number of reasons
for this. One was the general
mainstream media disinterest
in the issues motivating dissent
against the G20, and their nearly
exclusive focus on protest tactics.
In addition, she related it to
“the weakness of the women’s
movement right now.”
However, she also said that
after the Harper government
advanced an agenda for maternal
health in developing countries
that excluded funding for
abortion services (and, initially,
contraception as well), many
of the larger organizations
involved in protesting the G20,
including labour and women’s
groups, focused their gender
justice-related energies almost
exclusively around a version of
reproductive choice wrapped in
“a very simplistic analysis” and
then “kind of wanted to shut out
any other narrative, like around
unpaid reproductive labour.”

Khan said choice “is important
for sure, but there was a
complete lack of analysis about
what the G20, the IMF, the WTO
do to women’s lives.” Through
their role in reorganizing work
and in imposing a host of
other changes, she sees these
neoliberal institutions in their
entirety and not just individual
policies as incredibly harmful to
women around the world. She
would have liked to have seen
“more connections to different
women’s movements in different
parts of the world to make our
analysis more concrete about how
the G20 affects different groups of

However movement
organizations in Canada take up
questions of unpaid caring and
domestic labour, organizer John
Clarke of the Ontario Coalition
Against Poverty (which he admits
has also not directly addressed the
question) thinks it is crucial that
they do so.

“When a society starts to impose
on women and demand they
perform for free labour that social
service networks have performed,
there will be a period of adjustment in
which people will do what they need
to do to get by,” he said. However,
“there are only so many hours you can
cut out of your sleep, only so much
effort you can put in before it becomes
unendurable.” For this reason, he
thinks it is imperative that these issues
“find political expression in the near

For more of Scott’s writing, please
see his blog at scottneigh.blogspot.


REVIEW Bananeras: Women transforming the banana unions of Latin America by Dana Frank

Review by Karine Wehlm and Peter Marin

This is a powerful book about the his-
tory of women banana workers fighting
for gender equality inside their unions,
set within a broader struggle against the
exploitation of banana workers by the
multinational corporations that domi-
nate the industry in Latin America.

Dana Frank begins with a brief history
of the banana industry and the creation
of banana workers unions. The author
describes the domination of the region’s
politics and economy by the major mul-
tinational corporations (Chiquita, Del
Monte and Dole) and the struggles of
peasants, workers and socialist move-
ments against them.

The author describes the conditions
faced by women entering the banana
plantations in large numbers in the
1960s. These women were confronted
with sexual harassment at work, granted
no maternity leave, fired when pregnant
and often faced domestic violence at
home - all in a homophobic and machis-
mo culture in which they were forced
to work a double workday (childcare,
household chores and their 8-14 hours
paid workday).

The heart of the book describes how
these women organized to gain power
within their unions despite opposition
from their male co-workers. The author
focuses mainly on Honduras - where
women really only started to organize
by 1986 - but she also talks about the
struggles of women in other Latin
American countries, such as Guatemala,
Costa Rica, Ecuador, Columbia, Nicara-
gua and Panama.

The first organizing efforts in Hon-
duras began within SITRATERCO, a
union in the north of the countryside.
Restructuring of the union in the 1970s
led to the creation of a section in
which women workers found them-
selves in the majority. Jumping on
this opportunity, these women or-
ganized - and after 2 years of strug-
gle, they were able to win their fel-
low male co-workers to the need to
form a women’s committee. Using
this committee as a launching pad,
by 1994 they had expanded their
model nationally, through COSI-
BAH - the country-wide union
federation - and regionally, within
COLSIBA (the Coalition of Latin
America Banana Union, found-
ed in 1993 and today represent-
ing 40 unions in 8 countries) by
launching a women’s secretariat in
1996. To give an example of how
far their struggle has come, at the
2004 COLSIBA conference they
sat together to compare their union
contracts from a woman’s perspec-
tive, in an effort to standardize their
contracts across the region.

The achievements of these wom-
en are impressive and inspiring - es-
pecially considering they had such
scant resources, little free time and
were organizing in countries where
the state and bosses crack down
hard on worker organizing. So how
did they accomplish this?

From day one the women focused
on self-education and collective
empowerment. For example, the
incredible women of SITRATER-
CO began by sending two women
from the women’s committee to
workshops (eg. women and work,
women and society, sex and gen-
der, and leadership workshops).
These women would in turn edu-
cate the rest of the women’s com-
mittee on the subject. Each of the
women on the committee then
further committed to educating 25
other women on the banana plan-
tation. This went on for two years,
with workshops held every three
months on their only day-off. In
this way they were able to em-
power the women in their union
and thereby transform themselves.

These women were also suc-
cessful because they not only fo-
cused on their work issues, but
also tried to change things in their
communities and in their lives
outside of the workplace. For ex-
ample, they worked to get training
for other trades, since most ba-
nana women stop working in the
plantations by their forties. They
also provided education to wom-
en on how to raise their children
in a gender-neutral manner.

There is much to be learned
from the experiences of these
women; women activists every-
where will gain a great deal of
insight from the descriptions of
the workshops and conferences
and from reading how the par-
ticipants overcame some of the
challenges of machismo, both
within their unions and their
own homes. As Iris Munguìa,
one of the women banana work-
ers, puts it: “We hope that when
you read this book it helps you
reflect, and it turns into an in-
centive for exchange and com-
munication, and for the search
for alternative alliances to im-
prove women’s lives – not just
women in the banana sector, but
all women”.

But the lessons here go be-
yond women organizing. Ac-
tivists in Ontario struggling to
grow and keep local groups
alive, or union locals who strug-
gle to build member participa-
tion have much to learn about
the need for and advantages of
making long-term internal edu-
cation a key focus of their work.

The labour movement also has
much to learn from the transna-
tional organizing of the women
within COLSIBA. These wom-
en point the way forward toward
building a grassroots, worker-
to-worker internationalism as an
alternative to the international-
ism of union elites that has little
to do with their rank-and-file membership.

One of the other key lessons of this book is that
class struggle is ineffective without an under-
standing of the role gender plays within the work-
ing class itself - and likewise, that the struggle for
gender equality necessitates an understanding of
class. The “mujeres bananeras” really show this
through their struggle. These women made their
unions stronger by fighting for gender equality,
and through their struggles with their male co-
workers for dignity and workers’ power on the
banana plantations of Latin America.

This short, easy-to-read book is for everyone
who wants to learn more about the history of
women organizing (which is often neglected)
and who wishes to be empowered by these cou-
rageous women’s victories in their struggle for
gender equality. You can also find more informa-
tion about current women banana worker’s issues
and their organizing efforts online at


Brian Donnelly’s Obedience & Savagery
Show & Tell Gallery (Nov. 5 to Nov. 28, 2010)
Review by Brendan Bruce

While the exhibit’s press
release claims that Donnelly
“pits realism against abstraction
and black space,” his work could
also be read as an alarming
commitment to materialism.
Contrary to the tenants of
realism, the artist is not simply
painting his subjects as they
would appear in everyday
life. Instead, the photogenic
qualities of the subjects of these
paintings represent socially
constructed aesthetics, rather
than a true representation of
the human form. The poses
of the subjects are specifically
represented in animalistic, rather
than human activity: an alligator
sunbathing, a hound carrying its
master’s catch, or a puma in the
hunt. These activities construct
visual narratives of human
subjects—a human female
outstretched relaxing, a worker
doing her bosses bidding, or a
woman in pursuit of her desires—
involving human bodies that
are painted with their muscles
contorting and flexing in inhuman
activities. In Catch and Release,
pictured to the right, elements
of this socially constructed
materialism can be clearly seen.
The grizzly’s face is portrayed
in a collectively constructed
representation of romantic
splendor (the archetypical roar
of a 19th century naturalism)
and the human body is socially
assembled by elements of
contemporary masculinity (the
normative male figure; toned,
youthful, and absent of any body
hair on his appendages and torso).
The subject’s object of need — in
this case, the fish—is presented
in relation to the animality of
the grizzly bear, rather than the
humanness the body: the work that
the man is celebrating is that which
is inhuman; the fish in the grasp
the figure’s left hand is bleeding
red—not white—blood without
the separation of the animality of
the object and the humanness of
the subject.

In relation to this materialism, the
political value of Donnelly’s work
comes from the ways his paintings
demand that we rethink space vis-
à-vis the subject, specifically our
subjectivity. The textured empty
space has a void-like appearance,
in which the audience attempts
to situate the subject of the
paintings; but Donnelly, more
often than not, leaves the human
figures exposed to this void (with
partially erased appendages
that discombobulate the idea of
the closed body of the ego and
open up the body by blurring the
boundary between body and its
surrounding void). The human
bodies become backgrounds on
which to projecttheir inhuman or
animal representations, just as the
void acts as the stage upon which
the subject is set. The dripping
white ‘blood’ reveals another
appearance of the usage of space in
the paintings: there remain spaces
within or between the aspects of
the subject—thereby implying that
the inhuman, animalistic aspects of
the subjectare not directly bound
to the human aspect. Instead, there
is a wound that hemorrhages; not
another element of subjectivity,
but the distance between these two
aspects of the subject itself. The
detailed layering of Donnelly’s
painting (the human figure set
upon the void, the white ‘blood’
oozing across the human form, and
the animal delicately layered
over top of the white space
inside the subject itself)
provides not a hierarchy
of these spaces, but rather
givesan ordering—or a
logic—to the interactions
of the various aspects of the
subject and the spaces that
define these aspects.

Often the radicalism (or
revolutionary expression)
of art is narrowly defined
by one of two factors:1)
that art’s content should
be pedagogical—that art’s
radical value is to critique
what society is like, or
more importantly, to show what
societyshould be like—or 2) that the
form of art is itself radical activity—
that the disjunctures of the artistic
style provide the needed radical
statement. In the former, Donnelly’s
exhibit could be read politically
through the difference between the
concepts of ‘work’ encapsulated in
the obedience of Accomplice vs. the
savagery in Burden. In the latter, it
could be read in regards to the form
of the painting, or what I have called
‘an alarming commitment to [socially
constructed] materialism.’ Rather
than looking for political expression
in either one of these concepts, or
in their formal conjunction, the
politics of the exhibit are perhaps
best understood as the politics of the
bodies produced by the audiences’
engagement with the visually
constructed space—in between
their own bodies and the bodies in
Donnelly’s paintings. While I was
at the opening, individual audience
members were pulling out their
camera phones to get snapshots
of the paintings, sometimes with
themselves in the foreground of
the shot. This act in itself provides
a third dimension of space to this
reading . . . one in which the image
of the audience’s ego is separated
from the painting by the space of the
gallery. The dangerous connection
between the audience and the animal
aspect of the painting’s subject is
ordered by the spaces created by
viewing the works; in the snapshot
the audience member is at a distance
from the subject of the painting equal
to the distance between the subject’s
human and animal aspects. The open
bodies in the paintings arereplicated
by the audience’s body in the
snapshot (whether their legs merge
with the textured void or drift out
of electronic image captured by the
phone). In this way, the subjectivity
of the audience member is tied into
the precarious logic of the painting:
it is only the spaces within ourselves
that separate us from the inhumanness
of our subjectivity, and these spaces
are not discrete and distinct but open
and intermingled by the layering of
aspect within visually constructed
space. It is these encounters with
Donnelly’s works that produce a
political relationship that the audience
must deal with—or rationalize away;
namely, the socially constructed logic
of space that separates us from the
inhuman subjectivity found within all
of our bodies.
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