Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs

Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs


Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs


• Evangelina Argûeta Chinchilla, Coordinator, General Workers Confederation (CGT), and FESITRATEMASH, Honduras
• Julia Quiñonez Amparan, Coordinator, Comitè Fronterizo de Obreros/as (Border Committee of Workers), Mexico
• Gisela Dütting, Coordinator of the Living Wage Campaign at the Clean Clothes Campaign, Netherlands

Lorraine Clewer, Solidarity Center Country Program Director, Mexico

Lorraine Clewer discussed the question of why NGOs and unions would want to work together on issues affecting working women to advance a common agenda on women’s rights.

Julia Quiñonez began by describing the work of Comité Fronterizo de Obreros/as (Border Committee of Workers), a grassroots organization that supports union democracy and worker rights in six cities along the Mexico-U.S. border. With support from the Comité, maquiladora workers have won significant victories, even though organizing maquila workers and engaging in other union activities in border areas has been difficult since the 1980s because organizing activities and independent unions have been prohibited from operating in the area.

Union leaders then developed new strategies to overcome these obstacles, including empowering women to speak out against violations of women’s rights and worker rights. Women enthusiastically embraced empowerment on production lines and in factories, and joined forces in new groups. The groups were registered as NGOs, not unions. Despite the limitations of NGOs, they successfully organized several unions and conducted representation elections.  Unfortunately, these fledgling unions did not last because the companies did not allow them to survive.

The Comité is working in a strategic alliance with the mostly male Miners’ Union, Los Mineros, which is permitted to work with factories along the border. The alliance has strengthened over the past year, with mutual organizing assistance and training workshops with workers in factories. There are more than 500 factories with 100,000 workers in the maquiladora region, and in 2012, unions centered their organizing efforts here among several thousand workers. The Comité has worked with the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW), as well as the Solidarity Center Office in Mexico, which has provided support for worker rights activities for more than 12 years.

Although border factories are highly profitable, mineworkers generally live in poverty, Quiñonez said, showing slides that depicted life along the Mexico side of the border. Numerous multinationals have factories in the area, including General Electric and Alcoa. At Alcoa, which produces components for Ford, workers earn about $50 a week for a 40-hour week.

A Finnish-owned company, PKC, bought an Alcoa factory which now makes components for several major car companies. In March 2012, the Comité arranged for reporters from Finland to visit the area and produce stories and documentaries about the conditions at the Finnish-owned PKC plant. A Finnish television program, “45 Minutes,” devoted an entire episode to the poor working conditions at the PKC plant, where many workers stepped forward to talk about their working conditions, despite the risk of employer retaliation. The campaign took a big step forward when a major pension fund threatened to withdraw all of its investments in the plant if working conditions did not improve.

PKC recently signed an agreement with the Comité, which is now seeking to the right to represent workers at the factory. Comité organizers are reaching out to workers through small labor education workshops and home visits especially aimed at women workers to try and empower them.

Evangelina Argûeta is working to build strategic alliances with two human and labor rights organizations in Honduras that develop women’s leadership skills at the workplace through training in labor rights and labor law. Partnering with these two organizations has been useful, she said, because developing women trade union leaders is not a priority for some unions.

In another example of strategic partnerships, Argûeta described the unity of unions and NGOs during the country’s 2002 economic crisis when many jobs were lost as factories closed. Their ability to mutually confront the crisis led to greater cooperation between unions and NGOs, she said.

However, there are obstacles to building alliances with NGOs and grassroots organizations, and the Central General de Trabajadores de Honduras (CGT) has worked to overcome them. For instance, many unions believe that NGOs are competitors and conduct campaigns against unions—and unfortunately, some do, she said. However, the CGT believes in working together with NGOs when there is a common interest and when an NGO’s work complements that of a union. For instance, many unions do not conduct programs on gender or gender equality as effectively as some NGOs do. Also, NGOs do effective research on issues such as salary levels, research that unions often do not have the capacity to perform.

Argûeta also discussed the CGT’s alliance with the Center for Women’s Rights in which they hold joint training programs in the Honduran manufacturing sector on human, labor, and women’s rights issues. The center also conducts trainings on sexual harassment and domestic violence, because it does a better job in this type of training than the unions do, Argûeta said. The CGT’s cooperative relationship with the center and with another NGO has strengthened union membership and assisted unions in collective bargaining and in safety and health work, which in turn has improved job safety and overall working conditions.

Gisela Dütting of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) said her organization has worked closely with trade unions and NGOs around the world since 1989. Unions differ from country to country, as do NGOs. Some are more hierarchal, she said, and some have greater interest in organizing and in strengthening women’s rights.

The CCC works a lot in Asia with garment workers, unions and NGOs and has tried to add value on gender issues as well. The CCC seeks to expand outreach beyond union leadership to be more inclusive, a strategy that works better in some situations than in others. The CCC is also focusing on activities with migrants and migrant women workers.

Dütting discussed a 2010 study on alliances between trade union and NGOs that sought to determine the factors that lead to effective alliance. The study arrived at four conclusions:

1. Personal trust is important for success. Alliance building is a multi-year process that involves maintaining regular personal contact. Personal rapport is essential for advancing strategic alliances and there must be trust between high level leaders.

2. Local and national dynamics impact partnerships. Alliances work best in situations which are threatening to both groups, because organizations are seeking alliance partners to broaden the scope of their efforts.

3. It is important to forge common ways of talking about positions on issues of mutual interest.

4. There should be an incentive for each organization to collaborate with each other.

The CCC developed two important principles for its work in alliances:

1. The art of framing an issue is important. For instance, when working as part of an alliance, it is helpful to be able to show that it is not only a women’s issue but is also a broader workers’ issue of importance to many people. This opens space to reach out to other groups, such as young people. It is important to project a common approach which will help persuade a larger audience.

2. It is important to consider people’s multiple identities and affinities in organizing. For example, individuals identify not only as women or men, but also as workers or church-goers, and are open on many levels to different ways of approaching a common issue. Engaging these various identities overcomes tensions and differences in organizational imperatives and strengthens cooperation.

Dütting then turned to discussing how strategic alliances are essential to campaigns involving the global value chain, specifically that of the garment industry. She noted it is impossible to effectively work nationally or locally without addressing the entire supply chain. Clothes are no longer produced only in Asia with the biggest buyers in Europe and the United States—consumers and brands are spread across the globe and it’s important to link up and get all of these folks working together because the combined forces of producers, consumers and concerned citizens make the most impact in effecting change. For instance, campaigns in Europe around retail outlets reach out to customers, with unions engaging in a variety of activities in different countries.

Dütting also cited the example of Cambodia, a major apparel producer, where there have been mass faintings of women garment workers—some believe the women are too poor to afford enough food. The Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian NGO, linked up with groups in different countries to organize mass faint-ins at major stores in Europe. The CCC website has photos of the mass faint-ins.

General Discussion
Question:  What are the deeper and convergent interests between NGOs and unions? What are the difficulties involved?

Quiñonez:  It is a big challenge for unions to work cooperatively with NGOs and to find common interests in working together, but we have had some success in doing this. One big difference is in how the work is conducted by each type of organization. Unions tend to engage in direct actions such as picket lines, demonstrations, and similar types of activities. The CFO NGO has a more horizontal way of operating while unions tend to be more vertical. The different capacity and interests of these groups can complement each other, although it has been challenging to work together and develop a methodology that benefits both types of organizations. Conducting activities to empower women and workers through awareness training, conducting workshops, and one-on-one discussion have helped encourage greater cooperation. While there are sometimes tensions and disagreements, they have continued efforts to make it work because these mutual efforts have had results and there have been a number of success stories that have helped workers.

Last October, government and company-controlled unions beat the independent union in a very close representation election. Because past union elections have been marred by irregularities, an oversight group observing this election ordered that a new election be held. This demonstrated the need for NGOs and unions to keep working together despite their differences and tensions within their alliance so that workers can get fair representation.

Argûeta: In Honduras, unions have common interests with NGOs and there are a number of women in leadership positions. While there are tensions between unions and NGOs, the two groups have worked together to confront injustices that workers face. Some unions in labor federations have criticized her union for reaching out to NGOs.

Some men in unions have been critical and made derogatory remarks such as women involved in these education programs are learning to be lesbians. There has also been bullying by leaders and members in some unions who are opposed to working with women’s rights and feminist groups.  The women activists try to demonstrate that women have the capacity to be union leaders. Some employers have asked why unions are working with NGOs, while some union leaders fear that the NGOs are trying to replace some union leaders. The women explain to them that the NGOs are doing work that the unions have not been doing and should be doing; and that they need to work together to promote gender equality along with unionization.

There are also problems with the way unions are structured. Obtaining legal registration is difficult and time-consuming. On the other hand, some NGOs don’t recognize the right for workers to belong to unions. In response, efforts have been made to work with unions and NGOs to define how workers should be represented and to promote mutual respect and understanding.

They are trying to resolve their differences and to work together. The issue of violence against women has also provided common ground to bring together NGOs and unions. Whenever there is a demonstration on the issue of violence against women, unions should participate along with NGOs on this important issue.

Question: Are these organizations changing because of their relationships and common activities?

Quiñonez: The fundamental mission has not changed, but methods have. It’s an ongoing process with increased contact between NGOs and unions which should continue to progress in future years.

Argûeta: There have been behavior changes rather than a change in mission because the leadership of her union now recognizes the value of working with NGOs. One concern is that NGOs depend on obtaining financial support for projects and if a group loses funding for these activities, it could cause major problems.

Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs

Workshop – Brazil’s Integrated Education and Solidarity Economy: Opening Pathways to Income and Citizenship


Brazil’s Integrated Education and Solidarity Economy: Opening Pathways to Income and Citizenship

• Ruth Needleman, Professor Emerita, Labor Studies Program, Indiana University, USA
• Eunice Maria Dias Wolf, Secretary of Social Development, City of Canoas, Brazil
• Mardeli de Quadros Rosa, General Coordinator, Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, Brazil
• Maria Regina dos Santos Braga, President, Cooperativa Vida Saudável, Brazil

David Welsh, Solidarity Center Country Program Director, Cambodia
Alex Feltham, Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer, Asia

Mardeli de Quadros Rosa (left) and Ruth Needleman described Brazilian unions’ successful popular education campaign. Photo: Tula Connell 

Ruth Needleman opened the workshop, which focused on a labor-run popular education project in Brazil, by stating that “the role of the union is to go beyond membership, to go into the community.” At the center of that goal is understanding the importance of education.

Needleman then overviewed the program, in which the Central Unitario de Trabajadores (CUT) engaged in a far-reaching outreach project based on the concept of “integrated education,” which combines traditional disciplines with experience-based learning. CUT centered its program in Quilombo, a primarily Afro-Brazilian state far from urban centers, initially training 3,000 local residents to lead the community-based program. The project, which ran from 2003 to 2006, was unique in targeting all nonunion members, and was especially successful in empowering women, many of whom were illiterate and suffered from domestic abuse.

Needleman gave an example of how the program empowered women by describing the experience of Anna, who had worked from age 12 at a shoe factory. She couldn’t help her son with homework and he didn’t respect her because of her lack of knowledge. So she jumped at the opportunity to get an elementary school education through the unions’ integrated learning process. She went to school five nights a week for three months after working 10 hours day. Education changed everything, she said. “Now, I am somebody. Before, I was nobody and treated as a nobody.”

After the initial year, the union trained 2,000 new teachers a year. Classroom activity involved computer training, investigation and analysis. Students learned traditional subjects through practical examples. For instance, they learned math by examining the price of bread as it goes up and down, or absorbed science through identifying pollution in their communities.

The process creates a community of support, and members of this community then go on to meet with government officials and other decision-makers, to push them to implement the changes identified by the community.

The project also involved training workers to market their products. In Quilombo, the union trainers found that the Afro-Brazilians planted a unique genus of rice. They tested it and found it is much more nutritious than Asian rice. In previous centuries, black slaves tucked rice grains in their hair so they would have some to plant in case they were uprooted, thus keeping that specific genus viable. When they learned how to market their rice, they went from “being people with no self worth” to people selling goods, Needleman said.

The National Metalworkers Union (SNM) took the concept of integrated education even further and re-structured elementary school education, creating an intensive, four-night a week program. Many of the participants were low-wage workers, like domestic workers.

The trade unions involved in the popular education project “made an enormous commitment to people outside the union,” Needleman said. “This is very important, because most workers, including women, are outside unions.”

Needleman believes CUT ended the project because it returned to a focus on membership, “and so became isolated from society.” Further, the Lula government’s “solidarity economy has been a tremendously important means for transforming the economy.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf spoke briefly, describing the SNM, where she has worked for 28 years, and overseen the creation and mission of Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, showing images of the women involved in the association. She also noted the SNM offers a training program for women in such areas as collective bargaining and leadership training because the union wanted to ensure all local unions in the metalworkers’ federation had women on board.

She ended with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “Only work can ensure concrete independence.”

See her full presentation.

Mardeli de Quadros Rosa noted that before becoming general coordinator of Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, she was the former treasurer (2003-2006) of the BMBC—Biscuits, Pasta and Homemade Biscuits, a micro enterprise.

She overviewed Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar, founded in 1997, which was created with the support of the Metalworkers. Its mission is to promote social inclusion of women to fight all forms of oppression and violence. The organization holds courses on citizenship, women’s rights, women’s health and has added a new course, one focused on domestic violence. It’s the only organization in the state (Rio Grande do Sol) that looks after victims of domestic violence.

Maria Regina dos Santos Braga is a former student of the union education program, and now president of a cooperative that employs women seamstresses. “When I started doing this work, housework was all I knew,” she said. “I am very proud to have taken the long walk these women have taken. So imagine the multiplier effect—we hope to grow and grow.”

The Cooperativa Vida Saudável, a cooperative of seamstresses, recycles donated clothes and the workers customize, renovate and fix them, then sell them at subway stops. For instance, the seamstresses transform towels and turn them into handkerchiefs. Many families benefit from this income the seamstresses earn.

Santos Braga works in the Healthy Life Cooperative, which has four sections, including one where women produce cakes and bread for sale and another where they make jelly and cookies. They also cater parties and weddings. The Associação de Mulheres do Multiplicar was key for the formation of this cooperative. The association offers courses for women, and when they first start, “they have very low self-esteem,” she said, and sometimes are victims of domestic violence. “We have to rescue women.”

Eunice Maria Dias Wolf closed the workshop by paying tribute to an association member, Patricia Esber, who was murdered at age 32 by her husband, the victim of domestic violence.

“Cooperative sharing is intrinsic to our tradition. People engaged in popular education must have this vision,” she said. “We believe it’s in our capacity for teamwork, against individualism.”

See the presentation of Quadros Rosa, Santos Braga and Wolf. (Portuguese)

Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs

Workshop – Organizing Women in the Agricultural Sector

Organizing Women in the Agricultural Sector


• Elaine Jones, Director of Global Trade Program, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), United Kingdom
• Touriya Lahrech, Executive Office/Coordinator of Women Department, Confederation Democratique du Travail (CDT), Morocco
• Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar, Secretary of Women’s, Child and Adolescent Affairs, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Camposal, Peru
• Iris Munguía, Coordinator, Latin American Banana and Agro-Industrial Unions
• Geeta Koshti, Coordinator for the Legal department of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India

Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center Deputy Country Program Director, Morocco

Hind Cherrouk opened the workshop by defining its objective as engaging in a dynamic, participatory discussion on the most pressing issues facing workers in the agricultural sector and discussing strategies to organize in the sector as a way to effect social change through collective action. The workshop continued the conversation started in the first day of the conference during the plenary, “Women Worker Rights in Agriculture: the Reality, Challenges and Opportunities,” which laid out extensive female employment in agriculture and their extensive exploitation.

Elaine Jones reminded participants that “workers are not a homogenous group” and discussed the categories of informal workers (related to employment status and the degree of economic risk they experience) and how the precarious nature of their work status affects their relative bargaining power and ability to form unions. She shared results of case studies that demonstrate how participation in collective forms of enterprise linked to fair trade markets can engender economic empowerment and increase leadership among women producers through increased incomes and enhanced status. Influencing social change must accompany economic empowerment for success, she said.

Jones reviewed the key factors for organizing success, including leadership capacity-building; good organizational management and governance; time commitment of group members; formalization of groups (to promote access to banking and credit); skills training; and fair trade networks. She posed the difficult question of how women in small-holder production systems might be organized into cooperatives (another category of informal worker), when they are generally heavily reliant on family workers, who frequently are not compensated.

These cooperatives are most effective when they have gender equal membership criteria and avoid stipulating land ownership and production minimums. She also emphasized the need to educate smallholders and other employers about worker rights. In fact, some programs that certify products in supply chains make labor rights part of the certification process, recognizing that “providing good working conditions for hired workers brings benefits to smallholders as well as their workers.” WIEGO reaches out to many localities, bringing representatives to central clusters for trainings.

WIEGO is a consortium research partner with the Solidarity Center in the USAID-funded Global Labor Program. (Download WIEGO/Solidarity Center reports  on a variety of worker issues.)

See her full presentation.

Discussions in this session evolved around the internal (yet externally imposed and enforced), self-devaluing feelings of inferiority and isolation that could impede women’s empowerment. In Morocco, Touriya Lahrech, explained, “Women are raised in an environment of shame,” and this sense of inferiority is codified in family law, including inheritance law which stipulates less inheritance for women with female children than with male children, and results in decreased access to credit for women. She said that workers “come to unions because they suffer from discrimination in the workplace, lower wages, and lower perception from society, and they come to us to advocate on their behalf.”  She also noted that women are sometimes subjected to additional discrimination within the union, where leadership is overwhelmingly male.

Recognizing the importance of showing these marginalized workers that they are on par with men, Lahrech described a CDT meeting in which male participants expected the women to serve them tea. Union leaders tell the women, “Don’t you offer them the tea, you are here for union work, the men can serve themselves! And why don’t they serve you?” This is a simple way to demonstrate to members and leaders that traditional societal roles do not restrict women in this space, and it is a way that CDT seeks to enhance self-confidence of its women members. Their voices are necessary to include in union work, particularly in drafting union demands so that they reflect women’s concerns.

Other CDT education methods include role playing, comedy and parody, and avoiding academic jargon. The best method is engendering conversation and listening, Lahrech said, because it instills participants with the value they deserve. The Iraqi participants commented that they were impressed by the self-confidence and public speaking skills of the union speakers at the conference, and this fear barrier is also something they work to face in Iraq.

Rosa Julia Perez Aguilar discussed the strategies her union uses to promote women’s participation. For example, to overcome workers’ fears of joining union activities, the union reaches out to explain its work on issues most relevant to women, such as health services. The approach has worked slowly but surely, and has achieved higher levels of women’s union activity and leadership positions. Rosa told the story of a union sister who began working at age 11 as a farmworker assistant, helped to establish a union at a new workplace at age 15 and also helped establish the union at Campesol.  Rosa was asked to run for General Secretary of her union, and has decided to do so, with the objective of involving more women in the union.

Iris Munguía spoke about organizing specific to women in the banana industry. A critical first step in the process involved developing and implementing a sectoral needs assessment in which the union studied working conditions, women’s role in the union, and how women interacted in society. The diagnostic identified the information that led to the platform of demands the union now uses across the region, and formed the template for the clauses addressing women’s concerns that the union includes in collective bargaining agreements with local businesses and multinational corporations.

She spoke positively about the value of banana sector workers meeting with their counterparts from around the world at conferences where workers transcended language barriers to identify their commonalities, and about the usefulness of discussing issues with employers’ representatives. “The space for dialogue is important, despite the work that needs to be done and the advances that still haven’t happened.”

Geeta Koshti discussed the challenges of organizing women in the informal economy in India. A chief issue for these workers is the lack of laws regulating their rights, especially access to health insurance. SEWA has been organizing women in the informal sector for 30 years, and has achieved important successes at the state level.

Read her presentation.

Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs

Plenary Bringing Back the Heart: Gender Action Learning Process with Four Trade Unions in South Africa

Nina Benjamin described a unique process for achieving gender equality her team facilitated in South African unions. Credit: Matt Hersey

Nina Benjamin described a unique process for achieving gender equality her team facilitated in South African unions. Credit: Matt Hersey

Bringing Back the Heart: Gender Action Learning Process with Four Trade Unions in South Africa

Nina Benjamin, Gender Research Program Coordinator, Labour Research Service/Gender at Work, South Africa

Imani Countess, Solidarity Center Africa Region Director

Nina Benjamin provided highlights from a Solidarity Center-commissioned report compiled by the organization, Gender at Work, and the Labour Research Service in South Africa.

The report, “Bringing Back the Heart: Gender Action Learning Process with Four Trade Unions in South Africa,” detailed the Gender at Work process with unions that are grappling with the complexities of gender inequality. The project utilized an analytical framework for achieving gender equality in organizations, with “a lot of our work…at the consciousness-raising level,” said Benjamin.

Before describing the four case studies, Benjamin made three points about South Africa:

  • Official unemployment is 25.6 percent, with the unofficial jobless rate estimated at between 36 to 40 percent.
  • There are extremely high levels of sexual violence in all spheres of life resulting in high levels of trauma.
  • Neither employers nor the government have moved toward concrete commitments to achieving gender equality.

She briefly described the four unions that took part in the program.

• The South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) represents retail workers who, because they are low paid and on contract or short-term work assignments, face ongoing threats of retrenchments.
• Sikhula Sonke is a farm workers union that was founded by, and represents primarily women agricultural workers.
• Building, Construction and Allied Workers Union (BCAWU), representing an almost entirely male building and construction workforce, was interested in finding innovative ways of recruiting women into the union.
• Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (HOSPERSA), is battling the public’s perception that nurses are the problem in the health care system and the process of rebuilding with the union involved extending its focus beyond the normal union concerns of wages.

Gender at Work facilitators begin the process, which averages 18 months for each organization, by working with individuals to engage in sustained collective effort, Benjamin said. By engaging with the “whole being,” the process situated learning that goes beyond rational or intellectual capacities and works with the body, heart and mind. Each team involved in the “change process” saw the need to experiment with alternative models of power and alternative structures to the silence and status quo, she said.

Benjamin detailed the structure of the Gender at Work Action Learning Process (GALP) and overviewed some of the outcomes for each union. These include:

• SACCAWU – The union is working with shopping mall committees that bring together workers, especially women, from different companies in spaces where they can speak more freely about their day-to-day lived experiences.

• Sikhule Sonke – The union is in the process of strengthening the committee that helped to create new layers of women leaders who are directly in touch with the day-to-day challenges of farm workers.

• BCAWU – Through its education committee, the union began bringing women workers together in “safe spaces” where the focus shifted from “educating them” to facilitating the sharing of experiences and strategies.

• HOSPERSA – The union is building on the “Lekgotla” dialogue process to open similar dialogue spaces, for example, during constitutional meetings and provincial congresses.

She concluded by saying that “ensuring systemic change requires ongoing and sustained reflection and action. It remains a methodological and cultural challenge for unions to sustain the creation of learning and reflection spaces as part of on-going union organizational culture when the GALP ends.”

Workshop Strategic Alliances for Working Women’s Rights: Unions and NGOs

Plenary Women Worker Rights and Gender Equality in Light Manufacturing: What Way Forward?

Panelists discussed their efforts in helping women in light manufacturing get a voice on the job. Credit: Tula Connell

Panelists discussed their efforts in helping women in light manufacturing get a voice on the job. Credit: Tula Connell

Women Worker Rights and Gender Equality in Light Manufacturing: What Way Forward?


• Morium Sheuli, General Secretary, Bangladesh Independent  Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF)
• Evangelina Argûeta Chinchilla, Coordinator, General Workers Confederation (CGT), and FESITRATEMASH, Honduras
• Claudia Santos Reguelin, Brazilian Metalworkers Union of the City of Osasco, Brazil
• Lynda Yanz, Executive Director, Maquila Solidarity Network, Canada

In the first plenary of the second day of the Women’s Empowerment conference, Tim Ryan opened by setting the stage for discussion with images from the April Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh. More than 1,200 garment workers were killed in the disaster. “One of the things we’re going to be doing today is hear about women in the light manufacturing sector and the tools they use to empower themselves,” he said: “Apologists for garment manufacturers say for some women to be able to earn $38 a month is empowering.” But to be really empowered, Ryan said, “women need good jobs and have to be able to empower themselves.”

See the photos from the Rana Plaza building collapse.

Morium Sheuli began by saying she started work in a garment factory when she was 9 years old and organized her first union at age 14. She recently was elected general secretary of BIGUF, the country’s largest independent garment worker federation, which represents 1.1 million workers. Women make up 80 percent of the 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh and 70 percent of all women employed in the nation’s manufacturing sector. Formed in 1996, BIGUF believes in women’s leadership in the garment sector and initiated the idea that women should hold the primary leadership positions. In the last five years, BIGUF assisted workers in filing 1,265 formal cases around missing wages and other workplace issues.

Read her full presentation.

Evangelina Argûeta Chinchilla also started working in the apparel sector at a young age: 15. She noted the textile industry is one of the largest in Honduras, with 115,000 workers, 57 percent of whom are women.

Thirteen unions represent textile workers in Honduras, and there are three central bodies. One of them, the General Workers Federation (CGT), includes three unions with women presidents and cooperatives headed by women. “We think we have overcome enormous barriers,” Argûeta said.

Since the 2009 presidential coup, worker rights are more vulnerable and there has been an erosion of rights. Laws now allow temporary work and work by the hour—all of which undercuts workers’ ability to support their families. Despite Honduran laws allowing unions, in reality unions often “are forbidden from doing our work.”

Because of the struggle to organize factories in the last 10 years, Honduran unions reached across the border for allies. Argûeta cited the success of this strategy in the case of Russell/Fruit of the Loom, Inc., the largest private employer in Honduras. When it closed a factory, an international campaign by students forced Russell/Fruit of the Loom to rehire 1,300 workers. As part of the agreement, all seven Russell/Fruit of the Loom supplies were required to respect labor rights. As a result, other companies signed agreements—but some would rather leave the country, she said. Argûeta pointed out that brands have a moral obligation to be responsible for what’s happening in suppliers’ factories. Brands look at productivity but not social costs. It’s the same in Bangladesh, Nicaragua, China…

International support also extends to training, and the unions are allied with a Honduran women’s NGO that trains women labor leaders to be legal assistants.

Throughout the struggles to organize workers, Argûeta and her cohorts have fought gender discrimination. “In any union structure, there is sexism, of course” she said. “But we can still carry on our work.” Women are at the bargaining table and labor/management councils include equal numbers of men and women workers.

As Argûeta concluded: “In Honduras, we started off demanding our rights and demanding brands are responsible for working conditions through their suppliers.”

Tim Ryan noted that two important issues emerged from the presentations: the role of brands and the macro political impact on wages and working conditions.

Claudia Santos Reguelin overviewed the women’s collective of metalworkers union, formed in 2007, which she described as having strengthened the 50-year-old Brazilian Metalworkers Union of the City of Osasco. Many factories in Brazil are made up of more than 80 percent women workers, she said, and the collective’s goal is to strengthen representation of women in unions and serve as a tool for organizing women workers. Members of the collective, who work at different factories, meet monthly, and the collective provides a space for women to network and have time for themselves.

Reguelin showed photos of women metalworkers taking part in the collective’s training programs, which cover such issues as health and safety; communications; organizing; a solidarity economy, in which low-income and middle class workers benefit as well as the wealthy; women in media; cultural activities; and election participation. The collective also sponsors a trip to the May Day exhibition, holds special activities for Women’s Month each March and plans leisure activities.

One of collective’s campaigns centers on “shared responsibility”—work time and free time for both women and men.

She closed with an image of a sign saying, “Strong woman for me, for us, for everyone.”

Linda Yanz opened with an overview of the Maquila Solidarity Network, which she described as formed 20 years ago to work on corporate campaigns to pressure brands such as GAP and NIKE to take responsibility for the workers who made their products. Twenty years ago, brands wouldn’t take responsibility, she said. The organization works with the Worker Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign to answer the question, “How can we get the brands to take seriously the systemic problems in the garment industry?”

Before the Rana Plaza disaster, the coalition was answering that question by pursuing framework agreements such as the one in Honduras with Russell/Fruit of the Loom. In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, nearly 90 corporations have signed onto the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, a five-year binding agreement which covers 1,800 factories in Bangladesh. The accord mandates that both brands and the companies they source from fix building and fire hazards and ensures unions are a key part of this process. Before the accident, Yanz said, “we had two brands signing on.”

“These kinds of agreements are a new game plan for corporate responsibility work,” she said. Shifting from “voluntary cooperation” by brands to binding agreements is essential. “Since the crisis, we have moved toward getting agreements signed, so that brands sign commitments around particular issues and particular cases.”

The next step, Yanz said, is to “figure out how to deal proactively to get brands to deal with freedom of association, precarious work, closures, crises and poverty wages.” She noted that real wages have declined recently and “the only place that garment wages have increased is in China, but it will take 40 years to get China’s wages up to a living wage at the rate the wages are growing.”

Yanz then turned to women’s empowerment. She said that although “many of us work with women, women leaders, women’s organizations, somehow we’re not moving forward the dial on women’s leadership.” It’s easy to talk about women making up 80 percent of workforce in sectors but it’s “a whole other thing to put women front and center in these unions.”

Priorities like precarious work are key, “but we spend very little time discussing the enabling issues—what is behind women not taking leadership roles?” she asked, adding that lack of child care is one factor. Another question that needs to be discussed: “What would it mean if we put women’s needs on the agenda” to enable women to be leaders?

In the global labor movement, Yanz concluded, “we’ve got to make sure that global leadership is not out of step with the work on the ground”—leaders should be part of the process.

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