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.)
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.