I’ve received lots of cheery “happy women’s day” messages today, replete with smiley emojis, pink bows and red roses, for which – of course – I’m grateful. I wouldn’t be so churlish as to remind my kind well-wishers that the first National Woman’s Day was actually designated by the Socialist Party of America in honour of the 1908 women garment workers’ strike in New York. But you don’t mind if I remind you, do you?
Women’s Day is now International and all the way across the globe from New York, on a green hilltop in South India, right at this moment a woman called Rajeshwari is settling down for the night on the floor of her three room house, her daughter by her side. Her husband and son are asleep on the bed beside her, and her mother-in-law in the next room.
Rajeshwari’s rest is well earned. When I met her a few weeks ago, she had just bathed after a long day plucking tea – as she does six days of every week. The more she plucks the more she earns to support her family – but then, of course, the more she has to carry up those steep High Range hills. I first heard of Rajeshwari in 2015 when she and three or four other women led an uprising of women tea workers demanding better pay and conditions – which I have written about before (ad nauseam?).
Witnessing that strike – against male management, politicians and even trade unions – made me determined to find a way to support these courageous women. After much soul-searching, blogging, tweeting, consulting with colleagues and friends in my network of human rights and labour rights experts, I decided to set up a new organisation called THIRST – The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea.
My hope is that it will bring together the many other organisations, big and small, around the world, who have been working to improve conditions on tea plantations – where the vast majority of the workforce are women. The combined forces of trade unions, international NGOs, local campaigning organisations, academic institutions could be a powerful force for good. All the more powerful for acting in unity.
On top of her job as a tea plucker, Rajeshwari is also General Secretary of Pempila Orumai – the women’s trade union established as a result of the strike. It means Unity of Women. And to me that is what International Women’s Day is all about. Its about showing solidarity with women like Rajeshwari and her four thousand colleagues who had the courage to stand up for their rights. It’s about working in unity with them and for them.
So when every woman in the world is earning enough to live on – to actually live decently on, not just survive – without having to carry back-breaking loads, when every woman is sleeping on a bed (beside her partner if she has one) and is represented by as many women trade unionists and politicians as men, and when at least half the managers in every company women work for are women – then I will cheerfully join you in sending smiley-face emojis saying Happy Women’s Day.