Albion Monitor /News

Worsened Conditions For Latin Women

by Estrella Gutierrez

Aspects of economy in Mexico and Central America harken back to the days of slave labor
(IPS) CARACAS -- The economic growth seen in today's Latin America has not been accompanied by a reduction in poverty or unemployment. Only the informal sector, where women are predominant, has ballooned.

Critics blame that reality on the free-market policies reigning in the region.

The coordinator of the leftist Continental Women's Front, Nora Castaneda, told IPS that in the last 12 months the proportion of women in the economically active population (EAP) has risen. In the cases of Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile, for example, women now account for 50, 43.8 and 38 percent of the EAP respectively.

But a closer glance at such figures reveals that women work mainly in the informal sector, in extremely precarious conditions, or in the "maquila" factories. The maquilas, foreign-owned assembly plants for export, are part of the formal economy in Mexico and Central America but with aspects that hark back to the days of slave labor.

Working long hours with no overtime pay in often inhuman conditions
The labor model that has prospered in the Latin America of the 1990s has turned out to be an "anti-model" for workers, said Isabel Hoterlin, executive secretary of the Caracas-based Latin American Workers Central's (CLAT) Human Rights Commission.

The number of female-headed households in the region has increased, above all in the poorest sectors, said Hoterlin. Such women, forced to fend for their families on their own, enter the labor market in the worst conditions, with zero job stability and no health and social security entitlements.

Worse yet, she added, is that their children are forced to leave school to add to the family income, taking jobs on the black market under even more precarious conditions than those faced by their mothers.

Castaneda, a professor of economy at Venezuela's leading university, said women who find jobs in the formal sector do so largely in the maquila plants. In Mexico, for example, women account for half of the employees of such factories, a proportion that soars to 80 percent in Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

On her return from a tour through Central America to analyze the social and labor problems in the maquila sector, Hoterlin, a Belgian who has lived for years in Latin America, said there have even been reports in Panama of forced sterilization of female employees.

Workers in the plants, mainly textile factories, work long hours with no overtime pay in often inhuman conditions, totally lacking in union or social protection, Hoterlin said.

She cited systematic abuse in the numerous South Korean companies: women are often slapped in the face or hit on the behind in public, forced to clean the toilets and workplace, or humiliated by being ordered to sit all day in front of their co- workers without talking, thus losing a day of work. Even when sick, employees must produce at a slave-driver's rhythm.

The typical worker in the plants are single, childless 20 to 25-year-old women, who rarely remain in the sector for more than eight years.

One positive aspect Hoterlin mentioned, however, is that less and less minors are hired in the sector, due to international and national campaigns against child labor.

The latest figures from the International Labor Organization (ILO) confirm that social marginalization is on the rise, the result of an economic system that has brought modernization and macroeconomic balance at the cost of increasing social polarization.

The ILO points out that more than 80 of every 100 jobs created in the past three years have emerged in the informal economy, which ends up absorbing those expelled from the shrinking public sector.

Few aware that women in the region's expanding poor sectors face a triple work-day
The consequence is that while the rich are getting richer, controlling the lion's share of national wealth, there are growing numbers of increasingly poor people.

Castaneda said another aspect analyzed at a recent regional meeting of the Continental Women's Front was the increasing precariousness of labor conditions brought by the new "flexibility" of the labor market. In the services sector, for example, women are often dismissed after five and a half months, or whatever period is just under that stipulated by national law according to which the worker acquires rights.

And women, much more than men, are sub-contracted, leaving the employer free of social obligations.

Those who have the hardest time finding jobs are the young, particularly women, said Castaneda. The average regional unemployment figure swells from 12 to 20 percent among those seeking their first job, and is even higher if only women are considered.

According to International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) figures, the growing feminization of the EAP is accompanied by the fact that most women workers are not organized in unions, making them even more vulnerable.

Women continue to earn less than men in the same jobs, said Castaneda, and their access to high-level posts remains limited. At the level of manual labor, the wage gap averages 10 percent in the region. But the difference broadens the higher up on the salary scale employees are located.

Castaneda downplayed the increased unemployment among women in the region, pointing out that women have joined the labor force in greater numbers, and thus appear more in official unemployment figures.

At its 14th Continental Congress, held April 22-26 in the Dominican Republic, the Inter-American Regional Workers Organization (ORIT), affiliated with the ICFTU, came up with a special resolution on women, who are hit hardest by adjustment measures and policies designed to make the labor market more flexible.

ORIT, also based in Caracas, points out that women bear the brunt of the lack of social and job security, which translates into increased precariousness in the situation of the entire family. The organization has set itself the objective of promoting, through special plans, gender equality in access to education, jobs and labor organizing.

Castaneda stressed that society is largely unaware that women in the region's expanding poor sectors face a triple work-day. Not only do they have to take care of domestic duties after coming home from their jobs, but with the State's increasing withdrawal from the provision of services, women are forced to undertake community tasks, including garbage collection, keeping community areas clean, and seeking and organizing healthcare support.

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Albion Monitor May 22, 1997 (

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