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Women workers' perceptions and voices

The samples provided not only evidence of the objective behaviour of textile workers but also material on how they perceived their own distinct identities as workers. They highlighted the norms and expectations of each gender. It was, indeed, not easy to unravel the norms which resulted from various social practices from the norms which gave rise to them.

An amazing number of men in both countries believe that women should 'under no circumstances' work outside the home; this is especially marked in Argentina. The more the men contribute to household income, the less they are inclined to accept women's work in the labour market. It is more striking still that a small portion of the female textile workers themselves think likewise. When there are small children in the family, outside work for women is not valued highly by either gender, except among Brazilian women. 'Children need us', 'We have to be with them as mothers', and 'The factory life doesn't allow for motherhood and work' were frequently voiced statements. These opinions are based in part on the lack of childcare facilities, but also reflect social conceptions about gender. When women voiced a different opinion, they also spoke of the tensions that working placed upon their lives, in terms of time allocation and relationships with their partners, sometimes even leading to violent confrontations about childcare. Men in both countries still feel more strongly about this than women. The agreement between the genders in this respect is greater in Argentina than in Brazil.

Women's work was considered acceptable when 'it is necessary to maintain the household.' A third of the men surveyed, but also many of the women, agreed with this view. Men felt threatened by women's contribution to income, even though survival in these households depended on the economic independence of all family members.

Yet, while the majority of women saw their wages as crucial for family subsistence, two thirds of the men regarded them as complementary, even in the many cases in which women were contributing more than two thirds of the household budget. The men were less realistic than the women. For example, few Brazilian men considered women's wages as essential for family subsistence, regarding themselves as the main household income providers, though this was not objectively the case. Argentine men were somewhat more realistic, as 31.3 per cent think of women's wages as essential for their household budget. Many women - half in Brazil and a quarter in Argentina - saw female wages mainly in terms of 'helping out', or 'supplementing' the wages of their husbands. Argentine women were generally more realistic than Brazilian about the role of their own wages in family subsistence, but they were less likely to question their autonomy in relation to their husbands:

Without my salary it would be impossible to buy clothes and send our children to school. The problem is that my husband wants still more children, at least two more. I do not know how I am going to do everything, the cleaning, the shopping, etc., especially because he does not want me to work during pregnancy. I sometimes use pills without telling him, but if I happen to be pregnant, I will leave the job and then we shall see . . .

In both countries, only those women who pooled income more equitably with their husbands had a more positive perception of what wage-earning could give to women.

The woman's salary often became a subject for conflict within the family group, especially if men earned less or were unemployed. This is how this conflict was expressed by one of the women interviewed in Argentina:

My marriage started to break down when I began working outside. I mean recently. I started being more independent and he saw that . . . My salary was higher than his. I could earn more than he; for example, I began dressing the girls, buying clothes for myself . . . and still there was enough for transport. His salary was not enough even for himself, because he was getting less than me. I think that made him mad . . . because I had more chances than he did. So things started going wrong....

Such opinions were expressed by women workers in a context of progressive perceived impoverishment, and unemployment, particularly among Argentine male workers. Unemployed men do not find it easy to accept their wives as major bread-winners.

Such rigidities in the perception of gender roles within the household, in turn, affected women's behaviour in the world of work, and contributed to their fear of organizing around their work place demands. However, when these conflicts were discussed in groups, potential for change emerged. For instance, as a result of the research, some women in both countries formed their own awareness-raising groups. These retained semi-autonomy from the local trade unions, but still presented the union with women's specific demands, such as the establishment of childcare facilities and better health treatment for members. In collective bargaining negotiations,4 they also persuaded male leaders to take into account the differential effects of new technologies on women workers.

Overall, it was mainly the younger generation that achieved a sense of autonomy through the extended possibilities of paid work. They appeared to be less affected by the conflicting demands of workplaces and households. This gave them greater flexibility in seeking jobs and in training. However, this was only partly the result of changes in the social acceptance of greater gender equality. Another important reason was the role played by older women in their households and neighbourhoods in releasing them from some of the tasks of housework and childcare. However, the trend towards nuclearization of the 'typical' working family, and the decrease in the overall numbers of extended families among these textile workers, could eventually diminish the relative advantage enjoyed by the younger generation, and even increase the conflicts between different generations of women, as well as between genders.

These findings for textiles in Brazil and Argentina can be related to similar ones for other industries or sectors in Latin America. Together, they contribute to a newly emerging picture of the use of female labour in 'traditional' and 'modern' industries and services in the region, where microelectronic technologies have become diffused. They indicate scenarios for women's employment in the future. Without extensive changes in training and education, women will remain locked into low-paid jobs. The employment possibilities of Latin American women (cf. Acero, 1994a) are also affected by the manner in which their household activities overlap with their employment. Both aspects need to be analysed when academics, planners and policy-makers look at women's work and training, if gender-awareness is to permeate future paths of development.


1 In both Brazil and Argentina there was a substantial change in the female labour force during the 1970s and 1980s, when new technologies began to be gradually incorporated. In Brazil, the sustained growth of the economically active population could be partly explained by the increased participation of women in the labour market. The female activity rate rose from 33.6 per cent in 1979 to 38.7 per cent in 1989, while men's rates were unchanged. In the early 1980s, the growth in the participation of female labour in industry was 10.7 per cent a year (Humphrey, 1987). Not only young, unskilled females joined the market at the time, but also educated women from intermediate age-brackets (Saboia, 1991a and 1991b). A large proportion of them would have joined the tertiary sector (DAWN, 1985). However, only 55 per cent of wage-earning women were officially registered (Abreu, 1992), indicating a possible increase in the number of self-employed female workers. In Argentina, most female employment was traditionally concentrated in the tertiary sector. Between 1960 and 1980, 95 per cent of the growth in the female economically active population was due to the feminization of the tertiary sector (Cortex, 1988). While the participation of the total population in the labour market decreased between 1970 and 1980, the participation of women remained stable at 27 per cent, and male participation decreased from 81 per cent to 75 per cent (INDEC, Population Census, various numbers). There was also an increase in these years in the proportion of female workers of the intermediate age-cohort, between 35 and 44 years old (6 per cent), relative to younger cohorts (2 per cent for the 25-34 year olds) and a rise in the participation of 'spouses' as opposed to household heads (INDEC, Household Surveys, various numbers). Most unemployed males were skilled blue-collar workers. Self-employment was not a significant choice for female labour during those years, but it was for male labour. For both countries, the data cited is the last information published that is compatible for comparative purposes.

2 SENAI is the National Service of Industrial Training, and CONET is the National Council. The latter has, since 1993, been integrated into a new structure functioning within the Ministry of Labour.

3 Much of the data in this section is derived from fieldwork in 1986. The survey sample consisted of 520 textile workers from the two countries, and the 2,088 members of their households.

4 Women's sections in trade unions were set up to deal with specific demands in many countries in the region in past decades: in Argentina in the 1950s, and in Brazil in the late 1970s. However those issues did not systematically permeate the discussion of trade unions in wage negotiations, or they were not taken up seriously enough by the male leaders, especially in the textiles branch. For discussions of this issue see, especially, Alvarez, 1991, and other items in Jacquette, 1991.


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