Women in Manufacturing Share Empowerment Strategies

With images of the April 24 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh as a backdrop, five union and community activists discussed the struggles women face in the light manufacturing industry—and how they are being empowered—in today’s first plenary at the Solidarity Center on gender equality.  More than 100 participants from 20 countries are meeting July 30-31 in São Paulo, Brazil, to discuss strategies at “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.”

Morium Akter Sheuli, general Secretary of the Bangladesh Independent Garment Union Federation (BIGUF), opened the first of two plenaries this morning, “Women Worker Rights and Gender Equality in Light Manufacturing: What Way Forward.” In Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 workers were killed when the poorly constructed Rana Plaza building collapsed, 80 percent of workers in the ready-made garment industry are women, she said. Although garment exports account for 75 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, workers are paid a minimum of $38 a month while enduring dangerous and deadly workplaces.

Women also comprise the majority of light manufacturing workers in Honduras, where Evangelina Argüeta Chincilla is coordinator for the Apparel Sector Organizing at the General Workers Confederation. At the plenary, Argüeta described how unions created international support for their struggle after workers were prevented from joining unions in Honduras. She said: “It was mainly through our alliances with the United States and with student groups, students are the main consumers of our products,” that women garment workers achieved victories, such as reopening a closed factory, following an international campaign.

Claudia Santos Reguelin from the Brazilian Metalworkers Union of the City of Osasco,  shared how the union’s Women’s Collective provides a space for women to participate and grow as leaders and members. The collective runs seminars for workers and ensures issues central to women—who often make up 80 percent of factory workers—are on the bargaining table.

Offering a broad overview of the struggles for women, who make up the majority of workers in the light manufacturing industry, Lynda Yanz, executive director of the Canada-based Maquila Solidarity Network, pointed to their lack of significant gains. Although unions and grassroots organizations have prioritized key issues like precarious work, “there has been very little discussion about the ‘enabling’ issues—that is, what is behind women not taking leadership roles,” like lack of child care.

“What would it mean if we put women’s needs on the agenda that would enable women to be leaders?”  Yanz asked. Conference participants here in Brazil are working to develop strategies to do just that.

Empowering Women: Organizing in Garment Factories, Maquilas

Women working in garment factories and similar jobs in the light manufacturing industry face many challenges—low pay, uncertain hours, unsafe working conditions and even age discrimination. For instance, in Honduran maquilas, the upper age limit for employment recently was lowered from 35 to 28, throwing many women out of their jobs.

Employers in light manufacturing also discriminate against women who seek to improve their working conditions. Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla began work at 15 in a Honduran maquila before being fired nine years later, likely for her work in a union. Since then, she has sought to educate workers, who are primarily women, about their rights on the job and has helped them form unions so that collectively, they have the strength to bargain for improved working conditions.

Argüeta will discuss strategies for overcoming the challenges to worker empowerment in the light manufacturing industry at the Solidarity Center conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.” More than 100 union and community activists from 20 countries are taking part in the July 30–31 conference in São Paulo, Brazil.

Millions of women around the world struggle to earn a living in light manufacturing, an industry characterized by labor-intensive operations. Women comprise up to 90 percent of all workers in export processing zones (EPZs), where many light manufacturing plants are located and labor protections are weakest. Workers are vulnerable to random dismissal or long hours with no overtime and manufacturing plants, often unsure of how long their contract with an overseas company will last, are unlikely to hire permanent workers.

Argüeta, now the coordinator of organizing maquila workers in the northern Choloma region for the General Workers Confederation (CGT), sees leadership training as an important key to achieving gender equality and getting women’s issues on the table. She holds leadership workshops with assistance from women’s rights organizations and the Solidarity Center—in one factory alone, 43 women have participated in an entire education and leadership course.

Leadership training not only can enable women to take on more responsibility as union members and leaders, but also help them see when employers are deliberately trying to deceive them and keep them vulnerable—for instance, by requiring workers to sign a blank form before they can begin their employment. Later, even if the worker has a contract, the employer can convert the blank form into a resignation letter in order to get rid of the employee without any legal hassles.

The ultimate goal, says Argüeta, is for women to exercise “power proportional to the numbers we represent in the world, in the labor movement.”

Other labor leaders at the conference who will share their best practices in empowering workers in light manufacturing include Morium Sheuli, general secretary of the Bangladesh Industrial Garment Workers Federation (BIGUF); Münica Veloso, president of the Brazilian metalworkers union, Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhaldores Metalúrgicos (CNTM) and Lynda Yanz, executive director of the Maquila Solidarity Network.

Stop back here for more as the conference takes place for updates

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