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.

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