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Sea Change

Trade Unions

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Trade Unions / WOMEN

Sea change
Whether informal labour or 'flexible' workforces in the free-trade
zones of the South, the footsoldiers in the global economy are female.
Megan Rowling examines how unions are responding.

When I met Gladys Manzanares in October last year she was facing criminal charges. Her ‘crime’? Holding a one-hour strike. She and a group of other union officers had attempted to deal with a nine-month-old pay claim that had been consistently ignored. They worked at Chentex, a Taiwanese-owned garment factory in the Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Managua, Nicaragua. They’d lost their jobs and could even end up behind bars.

Still, Gladys was optimistic. With the help of an international campaign highlighting abuses at the factory – which produces clothes for major US retailers – she felt that the union could reach a settlement. The following May the Nicaraguan courts ordered Chentex to rehire the sacked officers. But the company would only agree to let four of them return to work – and Gladys wasn’t one of them.

Two months later all four had quit. The company were firing anybody seen talking to them, inside or outside the factory. They were spied on and repeatedly hauled into managers’ offices. They were called ‘terrorists’.

Maura Parsons, one of the four, described the conversation she had had with another Chentex worker as they hid behind a stack of garments: ‘She told me that, although deep in her heart she wished that we could rebuild the union, she believed that the workers in the factory were not going to support us. They were too afraid of losing their jobs. When the workers began to tell us that it would be better if we left, because too many people were losing their jobs, we didn’t feel like we should stay.’

These women’s story is not uncommon in the free-trade or export-processing zones (EPZs) that have sprung up around the world, integral components in the machinery of economic globalization. Protected by impenetrable walls and armed guards, they offer a tax-free haven to foreign subcontracting firms that produce goods for many of our high-street retailers.

Here, labour is dirt-cheap and when demand is high, workers put in 18- to 24-hour shifts. On average, about 80 per cent of these workers are women. They put up with the appalling conditions because they desperately need the money to pay for food, shelter, medicine and their children’s education.

In some countries, such as Bangladesh, EPZ workers are not allowed to form unions at all. And where unions are legal, victimization and a climate of fear puts paid to most organizing efforts. If a union does manage to become established the contractor will often close the factory down and relocate, sometimes to another country.

But unionists are adapting to survive. Linda Yantz of the Maquila Solidarity Network in Canada says that while seven or eight years ago unions showed little interest in the maquiladoras (EPZ factories), today trade unions are realizing that their traditional, male-oriented approach must be adjusted to reflect changing labour trends. On International Women’s Day next year (March 8) the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) will launch a three-year campaign aimed at doubling its female membership, which now stands at 40 per cent of the total, up from 6 per cent 50 years ago. Strategies are being developed on the basis of a global survey of unionized and non-unionized women workers conducted by the Confederation’s Women’s Committee earlier this year.

‘Women told us that they had not been approached by unions, that they didn’t know how unions could help them, that they were male-dominated,’ says Siham Friso of the ICFTU. ‘Our strategy will be to improve our image; to be more sympathetic and to move closer to women.’

And it’s not only women workers in the EPZs who are being targeted by unions. The ICFTU’s campaign will make a particular effort to reach out to women in the ‘informal sector’. They include workers making goods such as clothes and toys in their homes or small workshops, as well as street vendors. Globalization and the Asian financial crisis of 1997 have exacerbated the trend towards such work, with structural-adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund leading to the privatization of state enterprises and corporate restructuring.

Women workers have borne the brunt of the ensuing job losses, which has pushed them into taking less secure employment. Nearly three-quarters of manufacturing in Southeast Asia is now carried out by informal-sector workers. Trade unions have no choice but to change: ‘If they do not, they will face a time when there are more workers in the informal than in the formal sector, and they will lose their membership base,’ says Amrita Sietaram of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Pushing that change are the many independent unions and organizations emerging to support women workers. The Korean Women’s Trade Union (KWTU) came into being in August 1999 to allow women to become lifetime members of a union, and 80 per cent of its members are ‘irregular’ workers. It won an important victory when it secured the re-employment of 15 contract and part-time workers who had been unfairly dismissed by the Eastern Red Cross Blood Bank and is supporting Korea’s 20,000 female golf caddies fighting to gain employment rights.

A major obstacle to organizing women workers in the informal sector is their inaccessibility. Often shut away in their homes, with minimal contact with the outside world, many have no idea about labour rights or how to secure them.

In response, women’s organizations in Central America are reversing the traditional union approach, taking the view that education must come before organization.

‘We need to give women the knowledge and the strength to fight for labour laws,’ explains Sandra Ramos, director of the Nicaraguan Movement for Employed and Unemployed Women ‘Maria Elena Cuadra’ (MEC). MEC runs workshops on gender and labour laws, as well as credit programmes. This year it has started to train women about forming unions, collective bargaining and strikes. And it also plays an active role in shaping legislation, recently consulting more than 2,500 workers about proposals to reform the government’s labour code.

Slowly, unions have started to acknowledge the success of women’s organizations in raising awareness. But some feel threatened. MEC, for example, has had a thorny relationship with the main textile workers’ union in Nicaragua. ‘As a worker, I think it’s good that a trade union exists. But they need to adapt and use new methods,’ explains MEC member and EPZ worker Delia Soza. ‘They can’t always achieve what they want by using aggressive tactics. It’s very rare that anything good comes out of strikes. Our struggle uses non-violent methods, but it’s very focused.’

Marina Prieto, of the UK-based Central America Women’s Network, points out that women’s organizations have succeeded in responding to the needs of women workers where trade unions have failed. Some unions are beginning to recognize that fact and to co-operate, even borrowing strategies from the women’s organizations. ICFTU member unions are operating literacy projects for ‘informal’ workers; in Burkina Faso a centre was set up for women in the informal sector and their children. In Malaysia, unions established a hostel for women making electronic goods in the EPZs. Around Asia the ‘women know your rights’ campaign includes a video dealing with sexual harassment issues. Hardly the kind of stuff unions have been known for in the past.

There is, however, much work still to be done. While successful independent women’s unions exist in the informal sector, union repression remains a major obstacle in the EPZs. Linda Yantz says that with a wide variety of movements built around pressure points, there should be more space for organizing within the zones. ‘But we can’t say the qualitative signs are there until we see a number of unions inside factories that don’t close down.’

Still, as another organizer put it: ‘The unions act like the yeast in bread dough. No matter how often they get flattened down, they just keep on rising again.’

Megan Rowling is a freelance journalist.
[email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 341 magazine cover This article is from the December 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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