Women Workers Organizing: Examples from India, Brazil and Liberia

• Geeta Koshti, Coordinator, Legal Department, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India
• Sonia Maria Dias, Ph.D, Sector Specialist, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), Brazil
• Creuza Maria Oliveira, President, Domestic Workers Federation, Brazil
• Oretha Tarnue, Vice President, United Workers Union of Liberia

Neha Misra, Senior Specialist, Solidarity Center, Migration; Human Trafficking

Geeta Koshti first described the origin of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which formed in 1972 and now includes 1.7 million women workers throughout India. For the past 25 years, SEWA has organized women in the bidi trade, a home-based occupation in which women roll cigarettes. The bidi trade is the only one in the informal sector covered by national labor law, and bidi workers have access to social services through the Bidi Welfare Board.

Koshti then overviewed the association’s approach to campaigns, which include both short- and long-term efforts. Campaigns are run at the local, state and national levels and have sought to boost wages, streamline worker access to social services and improve national laws for home-based workers.

Sonia Maria Dias introduced herself as a sociologist who focuses on garbologists (academics who study “clean” garbage collected by people who go through others’ trash to learn more about the group). Dias indicated that there are millions of people worldwide who focus on solid waste management and are commonly known as waste pickers. The majority are women–in Brazil, for example, some 50 percent are women and in India, 80 percent are women. Waste pickers are a vital component of the informal economy and their work benefits the environment. In Brazil waste pickers now can be formally hired.

Dias’ research takes a gendered approach to waste picking. For example, she analyzes women’s access to certain recyclables and women’s access to positions of authority among waste pickers. Sonia’s assessment is that waste pickers are generally invisible, and women waste pickers are even more invisible.

Dias, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, conducted a participatory research project focused on women waste pickers—their workplaces, their lives and their place in the national economy. The project sought to provide women waste pickers with tools to work toward equality in the workplace and in their personal lives and well as increase women’s leadership roles in the associations and empower them economically. The participatory rapid assessment project was based on Paulo Freire’s approach to popular education. (Freire, a 20th century Brazilian educator, developed a “pedagogy of the oppressed” which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning to effect social change.)

The project organized workshops for women workers. Findings from the project include the following:

  • Women who reported cases of discrimination and violence no longer considered themselves victims as a result of the project
  • The women desired to learn more about the topics and issues explored in the project’s workshops
  • The women increasingly recognized waste picker cooperatives as a space of refuge that helped them confront domestic violence
  • Women looked forward to spending time at the waste picker cooperatives and being safe from violence

See her full presentation.

Creuza Maria Oliveira said the domestic workers’ union she represents includes 28 local unions that are affiliated with the Brazil labor federation, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT). Oliveira described domestic workers as isolated in homes, frequently targets of sexual abuse and suffering from low self-esteem. Domestic workers are trained to be clean, passive and honest. She described domestic workers as part of the working class. Domestic workers face double violence—at their homes and on the job. Domestic workers also face violence at work from other women.

Domestic workers, Oliveira stated, are not educated in politics, and unions involve political action. One reason why it’s important to educate women in politics is that women need to run for political office, Oliveira said. Further, it’s important domestic workers join in campaigns to improve their legal rights. Workers at formal workplaces in Brazil are covered by 36 worker rights on the law books compared with domestic workers, who have only nine legal rights.

In the past 10 years, government policies have begun to address the issue of domestic workers, she said. To support passage of ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers, Brazil government officials took domestic workers to Geneva for the ILO meeting where the Convention was debated.

Official statistics for Brazil show that 7.2 million domestic workers are employed across the nation. In reality, she said, there are more than 8 million, most of whom are women. Men do not like to say they are domestic workers. Domestic workers issues are the following:

• Labor rights
• Social rights
• Decent housing
• Daycare
• Full-time education for children (In Brazil, children are in school only a half day.)
• Traffic/time to travel to work. Because of long commutes, domestic workers get home very late at night.
• Children of domestic workers fall victim to drugs and gangs because they are in the streets with no parent at home.

Former President Lula decreed that domestic workers could legally work only if they are 18 years old or over. In this case, Oliveira said, the law is good, but not enforced. In Brazil, teens and children are still working as domestic workers.

Oretha Tarnue, a former domestic worker, now assists domestic workers form unions in Liberia. During Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1996), when men were threatened, many women, including Tarnue, became the breadwinners for their families. Once in the workforce, Tarnue immediately joined a union. Before the civil war, Tarnue stated, trade unions were not substantive entities and women’s participation in civil society was insignificant and burdened with cultural and traditional stereotypes. The civil wars severely injured people physically, emotionally and mentally. After the second civil war (1999-2003), women took the lead in unions and her union, the United Workers Union of Liberia, is now the fastest growing in the country.

A decent work bill covering domestic workers is now before the Liberian legislature. The lower house has passed it, and passage is pending in the upper house. At present, domestic workers are seen as informal economy workers.

Domestic workers are paid between $21 and $50 per month, which is barely enough to buy a bag of rice. Their human rights are frequently violated.

Tarnue listed the following among the challenges women face in Liberia:

• Cultural stereotypes/prevalent discrimination against women.
• Issues with nursing mothers on plantations.
• Balancing tasks associated with skilled work and family responsibilities.
• Inadequate support from male unionists for women running for elective offices.
• Lack of funding for education/awareness programs on gender equality

Mainstreaming women into male-dominated careers, such as rubber tree nursery work, is a big focus of her union. She said women need scholarships so they can acquire the skills needed for employment in male-dominated trades. She also encourages women to run for elected offices in the union.

See her full presentation.

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