Union Strategies to Increase Women’s Participation in Brazil: Perspectives from Industrial, Public and Service Sectors


• Mara Luiza Feltes, Woman Secretariat, CONTRACS, Brazil
• Monica Veloso, Secretary of Work, City of Osasco & National Confederation of Metalworkers, Brazil
• Monica Valente, Subregional Secretary, Public Services International, Brazil

• Jana Silverman, Solidarity Center Country Program Officer for Brazil

Mara Luiza Feltes began the workshop, a continuation of the morning’s discussion, by noting that the labor movement is an important part of Brazil’s recent economic advances—and women have been a key part of this success. Feltes focused on Brazil’s service industry, where she described an example of the gender wage gap: In retail shops, women are hired to sell cheap goods while men sell higher quality products like DVDs, and so therefore men make better wages.

She said the average age in the services and sales sectors is 31 for women and 33 for men. Women earn 80 percent of what men make in this sector, even though women have higher levels of education.

Feltes pointed to CONTRACS’s efforts at achieving decent work, which include support for ILO Convention 156, which covers workers with family responsibilities; Convention 158, which sets guidelines on the termination of workers; and Convention 189 on domestic workers. Further, the union is working on a national constitutional amendment to establish equal pay for equal work and is fighting for public child care, which she described as a “big issue” because “workers need full-time child care.” Unions won a reduced work day, which was 48 hours per week and now is 45 hours per week.

However Feltes said, despite the reduction in work hours, the speed of work has not slowed and many health-related issues result. She also discussed why domestic violence is a union issue: If women are suffering at home, they cannot work.

Women union leaders are best placed to understand women’s concerns, such as equipping a workplace bathroom with sanitary napkins and providing child care so women workers can participate in union activities. Women’s insights into these issues highlight the need for quotas.

CONTRACS requires that all union trainings include 30 percent women and that collective bargaining agreements address gender issues such as child care assistance, maternity leave and sexual harassment.

See her full presentation (Portuguese).

Monica Valente opened her discussion on PSI’s gender equality strategy in Brazil by saying said she liked the term, “struggle in the struggle” used earlier to describe women’s efforts in the labor movement struggle. She went on to note that PSI has a long tradition of fighting for gender equality in the public sector, which is comprised largely of women.
Valente said many women work in the services sector because women naturally take care of people, for example, as mothers and housekeepers, and this work is transferred from the private to the public spheres.

When women make up a majority of workers in a sector, wages go down, Valente said, in part because of discrimination against women and also because it’s difficult for employers to identify productivity in the areas where women typically work. Women workers often have a double workload—at work and at home, and suffer from the lack of child care.

She described how women are at a disadvantage in traditionally male employment sectors. The job descriptions for Brazilian postal workers, for example, are written in the Portuguese masculine form, and when women say they are covered by the same language, employers may refuse to apply it to women with the excuse that the male form doesn’t apply to women.

Another male-dominated field, offshore oil work, pays well but women rarely can work the scheduled hours—12 days in a row followed by 22 days off. Valente pointed out that this schedule also is not good for men, and that all jobs must humanized for all workers. Yet until gender discrimination is eliminated, these issues will never change.

PSI’s strategies for achieving gender equality and ensuring women have their needs met at the bargaining table and in the household include developing strategies for pay equity policies and helping unions understand the gender aspect to all policy struggles, such as job outsourcing. Unions must identify obstacles women face, such as sexual harassment on the job, and PSI plans to have a deeper debate within unions.

At the next CUT Congress, women and men will each have 50 percent of the leadership positions. There still is a long way to go, but there have been real advances. When Brazil elected a woman president in 2010, that helped advance the cause.

At the national level, the Ministry of Women created by former President Lula has made an impact. For instance, state companies are required to have gender programs and unions must have seat at the table. However, not all have followed the law. Brazil also has strengthened laws addressing violence against women. The new laws followed a public outcry over a woman who was beaten to the point she was permanently in a wheelchair.

Valente also cited a few local successes, such as the small town that improved policies for women, enabling men to take their children to the doctor during work hours.

She also pointed to studies on “time poverty,” noting that the lack of free time is a powerful form of oppression for women, and discussed union’s efforts around passage of ILO Convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities, noting that the fight for its passage should be a union issue, not a women’s issue.

Valente closed by saying women have made progress in the past decade but the advances still are insufficient because gender inequality has not been addressed.

See her full presentation. (Portuguese).

Monica Veloso
began by saying CNTM is part of many organizations fighting for women workers. Women are still not valued in the labor market, she said, citing UN studies showing that women made up 70 percent of those living below the poverty line in 2011. Poverty prevents women from making gains, but “through work we can overcome poverty and gain equity.” She noted that Brazil has made tremendous gains in reducing poverty, and the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in many years and now quality of work needs to become a focus.

She noted that Brazil has not ratified ILO Convention 156, and unions must make it a priority.
Noting that metal workers unions must integrate the issues of female metal workers into overall discussions, Veloso said the CMNT and the International Metalworkers Federation held a first-ever conference of women steelworkers three years ago. Four months of maternity leave is compulsory in the metal sector, but more leave can be bargained with the employer. CMNT is looking for space in unions to address women’s issues—for instance, women must participate in the collective bargaining process.

She pointed out that Latin American countries have a low density of women in union leadership and so it is necessary that unions have quotas. Women make up 22 percent of metal workers, 40 percent of chemical sector workers and 80 percent of textile workers, she said. Notably, the textile sector includes many precarious jobs with high turnover. Typically, unions with a majority of female union are headed up by male leaders. She noted that there are 16 women leaders in the global federation, IndustriALL, which is not satisfactory.

Women workers are certainly not the weaker sex, Veloso concluded. In fact, women are often held to a higher standard. For instance, when a women makes a mistake at work, she is perceived as incompetent, while men’s mistakes are forgotten.

See her full presentation. (Portuguese).

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