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Textile workers in Brazil and Argentina: work and household behaviour by gender and age

The study
The findings

Liliana Acero
Director of CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociales), Buenos Aires, Argentina


This paper presents the results of two projects undertaken by teams under the direction of the author in Brazil and Argentina respectively between 1984 and 1986 (Acero and Rotania, 1986; Acero et al., 1987). The study used a life-course approach to investigate the effects of developments in the textiles industry on the household composition of the workers, with special reference to age and gender differences. The main findings of the two studies arc compared and related to different aspects of training, policy and research on women's issues.

First it is necessary to look briefly at social and economic conditions in the countries where the projects were conducted. Data drawn from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Yearbook of Labour Statistics and the United Nations Demographic Yearbook for 1960, 1970, and 1980 show that there arc some major differences between the two countries. Brazil has more than four times the population of Argentina: in 1980, there were 123,032,068 people in Brazil compared to 27,947,446 in Argentina. Demographic growth-rates are also significantly higher in Brazil, amounting to a 31.5 per cent increase between 1960 and 1970 and a 33.4 per cent rise between 1970 and 1980. In Argentina, the rates were 16.7 and 19.6 per cent respectively. In both countries the population is predominantly urban. In 1980, there were 96.9 men for every 100 women in Argentina and 98.8 in Brazil. The economically active population (EAP) represents about one-third of the total population in each country, a proportion which remained quite stable throughout the period 1960-1980, although it rose by 4.5 per cent in Brazil in the 1970s. Significant differences arc to be found in the gender distribution of the EAP.

Instituto Universitario de Pesquisas de Rio de Janeiro (IUPERJ), Brazil, and CIPES, Argentina, provided the institutional bases for the specific country studies. Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas (CNPQ) in Brazil supported the project with research assistance and field-work funding.

Table 1. Percentage of the general population in EAP by gender

  1960 1970 1980
Total Men Women Total Men Women Total Men Women
Brazil 32.3 53.1 11.5 31.7 50.5 13.2 36.2 53.1 19.8
Argentina 37.6 58.8 16.4 38.5 57.9 19.4 37.5 55. 3 19.8

Source: ILO. Yearbook of Labour Statistics.

Table 1 shows that more than half the men in both countries participate in some form of economic activity. Women had been more involved in Argentina than in Brazil, but this difference had Ievelled out by 1980. Feijoo end Jelín (1987) show that in Argentina, women in the 35- to 44-year-old age-bracket accounted for the highest increase in rates of employment between 1970 and 1980. In contrast, the employment of middle-aged men fell more than three points in that decade. These figures suggest that women entered the labour force as new workers in order to compensate for loss of income. Barroso and Amado (1987) reached a similar conclusion in Brazil: increasing female participation in the EAP there between 1977 and 1984 is attributed to the feet that many women looked for jobs to compensate for either their husbands' loss of work or the sharp fall in the purchasing power of their incomes.

ILO figures for employment distribution by economic sector show that in Brazil there was a much higher proportion of primary-sector employment than in Argentina. It was the other way around in the tertiary sector. Employment in secondary-sector activities, for example industry and building, was greater in Argentina in 1970 and 1980. However, the gap between the countries decreased towards 1980, owing partly to the stagnation in Argentine industry and partly to reactivation, modernization, and growth in the Brazilian economy.

Most employed women in both countries worked in the tertiary sector, although there was considerable female participation in secondary activities, too. This was relatively more important in Argentina, with the gap between countries diminishing by 1980. Between 1970 and 1980, the proportion of women employed in the secondary sector in Brazil rose, while it decreased in relative terms in Argentina. The primary sector was substantially more important as a source of general and female employment in Brazil than in Argentina. Men in Brazil were mostly employed in the primary sector, although in decreasing numbers towards 1980. In Argentina, they were mainly occupied in tertiary activities and, secondly, in the industrial sector.

One major difference between Brazil and Argentina pertains to educational levels. In spite of the strong policies implemented over the past decades to reduce illiteracy rates in Brazil, they are still high. In 1960, 38.9 per cent of the population in the 15 year-old and above age-bracket was illiterate, and this proportion had only been reduced to 23.9 per cent by 1978. To these high illiteracy rates should be added the still higher ones found among children and young adolescents. By contrast, Argentina is well known in Latin America for having reduced illiteracy rates during the educational boom of the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, only 8.6 per cent of children and young adolescents were illiterate. By 1970, the figure had been reduced to 7.4 per cent. Other educational data show that in 1980 48.4 per cent of the EAP of Argentina had completed primary school or had an incomplete secondary schooling; 16.9 per cent had completed secondary schooling or had an incomplete university education; and 5.3 per cent had finished their higher education or university degree (INDEC, 1980). The same source shows that the level of education of women in the workforce was higher than that of the workforce as a whole. Unfortunately, similar data have not been found for Brazil.

Table 2. Infant mortality rates in Brazil and Argentina (percentages)

  1967 1978 1983
Brazil - 78. 8 71.0
Argentina 59.3 40.8 35.3

Source: Demographic Yearbook.

Another area of enormous difference between the two countries is in their fertility rates. Total fertility rates indicate the average number of children a woman may be expected to have before she is 50, if she bears children in accordance with the pattern specific to her age-group. In the 1970s, Brazil had a total fertility rate of 4.35. Between 1980 and 1984 the pace of the decline accelerated and the rate dropped to 3.53. Crude live-birth rates represent the number of live births per 1,000 population. In Brazil the birth-rate was at least 10 points higher than in Argentina between 1970 and 1983. Although it fell between 1975 and 1980, it rose again between 1980 and 1983. In Argentina, the rates were quite stable during the whole period.

Life expectancy at birth was significantly higher in Argentina, especially for women. In 1980, the average Brazilian woman could expect to live 65.5 years and the average man 61.3, while in Argentina life expectancy in 1975 was 72 years for a woman and 65 for a man. However, life expectancy varies according to region and income: it is much lower for poor people.

Infant mortality rates are the best indicator of the disparity between socioeconomic conditions and health status in the two countries. They are also a good indication of the many hardships borne particularly by the poorer people who were the main informants for these studies. Table 2 shows that Brazilian infant mortality rates were almost double the Argentinian levels. The main causes of infant mortality were enteritis and other diarrhoeal diseases, nutritional deficiency, and lung problems. Unfortunately the economic crisis reversed the downward trend in infant mortality rates in Brazil after 1983.

Countries define poverty in different ways, making comparison difficult. In Brazil, poverty levels are measured by the proportion of households with an income of less than two minimum wages. Using the personal income of two monthly wages as the yardstick, this came to 52.6 per cent of all households in 1980, equivalent to 55.35 per cent of the total population or 64.7 per cent of the economically active population. In Argentina, people arc considered poor when certain of their basic needs are unsatisfied. INDEC considers five indicators in assessing this: a large number of family members in relation to available space, precarious housing, low schooling levels, weak subsistence capacity, and type of sanitary conditions. In 1980 it estimated that 28 per cent of the total population lived in poverty, compared to an estimated 10 per cent in 1970 (INDEC, 1984). In spite of the diverse methodologies and measurements, it is apparent that there were more poor people in Brazil than in Argentina, as some of the specific evidence presented below will indicate.

The study

This was the environment in which the two studies were undertaken to investigate transformations in relationships within households and to analyse how these are influenced by changes in industrialization in developing countries. A particular concern was how these transformations affect the distribution and negotiation of power between the genders and different age-groups within the domestic unit. The central question was to discover and, where possible, to measure changes in the behaviour of a social sector, in this case industrial workers, who were studied within the context of their households. Changes over the past 20 years, which was considered a reasonable period for an evaluation of the effects of different development strategies, were analysed. This was done through life-histories which enabled the recording of micro-changes in the level and management of household income, the distribution of household chores, and attitudes and perceptions vis-a-vis fertility and sexuality (Acero, 1984). The studies sought to illustrate on the one hand how structural transformations affect working-class families and, on the other hand, how the ways in which families respond and reorganize affect these same structures. Of course, these studies can only demonstrate some behavioural tendencies of a limited number of industrial workers, specifically textile workers, but they are trends which might usefully be examined in the light of similar studies in these and other developing countries.

The textile industry was selected as it was well established, though at different stages of development, in both Argentina and Brazil. A sample of 260 employed workers was studied in each country. Both samples were stratified by the same three variables: degree of textile modernization (according to whether the interviewee worked in the traditional or modern subsection), gender, and age. The unit of analysis was the household (or family group), wherever its domicile, where the head and/or spouse (in Argentina) and/or one or more members of the family (in Brazil) was a blue-collar worker or production supervisor. Information on personal history, present employment, birth-control and family-planning practices, nuptiality, household income, domestic chores, and administration, as well as perceptions of work, was gathered from 530 interviewees. Data on income levels, occupation, gender, age, and certain kinds of household decisions were also collected about all members of the interviewees' households. In this way the survey obtained substantive information on the household composition and behaviour of 1,073 members of working-class families in Brazil and 1,015 in Argentina.

Table 3a. Distribution of number of interviews by degree of modernization, gender, and age, Petrópolis, Brazil

Age-cohort a Modern Traditional
Men Women Total Men Women Total
Young 38 43 81 9 28 37
Old 41 46 87 27 28 55
Total 79 89 168 36 56 92

a. In the modern sector, workers who were 30 years old or less were classified as young workers. In the traditional sector, men 25 years old or less and women who were 30 or less were considered young workers The rest form the old cohort.

Differences in the characteristics of the populations studied, the availability of secondary data, and access to primary information meant there were some differences in sampling procedure and the collection and analysis of data in the two countries. Given the scarcity of recent secondary statistical data at the municipal level in Brazil, national industrial census data were used to establish the variable degree of modernization. Sixty-five per cent of the textile firms were classified as modern by this means.

The parameters of age and gender had to be established by developing data for a "reference textile population." A preliminary study of the distribution of employment by gender, age, size of firm, and type of textile subsector was undertaken through visits to 50 local firms. These constituted 58.1 per cent of the registered textile businesses in a recent local survey and they employed a total of 1,742 production workers. A non-random sample of 260, about 8 per cent of the workers employed at the time, stratified by age and gender, was then drawn up from that information (table 3a).

In Argentina, the limited data available meant that a two-stage stabilized sampling procedure had to be adopted. First, it was necessary to make a survey and sample the existing textile factories on the basis of information provided by the State Secretary of Industry and the Textile Workers' Union. A profile of the industry in the district was established according to employment scale, degree of modernization, and size of plant. The modern and traditional sectors were each considered a separate subuniverse of analysis and half the sample was assigned to each. The second stage, the household random sample, was based on local trade union information or company records. There were few lists of workers' addresses, so the process of selecting the households to be interviewed differed from that used in Brazil. Snowball techniques were used for 70 per cent of the cases. The sample represents 10 per cent of the total textile workforce. Table 3b shows the distribution of the interviewees by degree of modernization, gender, and age. Age categories (young and old) were assigned in each subuniverse (traditional and modern), according to the size of firm and gender.

Table 3b. Distribution of number of interviews by degree of modernization, gender, and age, San Martin, Argentina

Age-cohort a Modern Traditional
Men Women Total Men Women Total
Young 32 32 64 32 33 65
Old 33 33 66 33 32 65
Total 65 65 130 65 65 130

a. For Argentina, the classification was different. In the modern sector, men 38 years old or less and women 34 or less were classified as young workers. In the traditional sector, men 39 or less and women 36 or less form the young group. The rest of the workers are in the old cohort.

Nor were the methods used to study the samples identical. In Brazil, half the workers (130) were studied by means of a quantitative and qualitative questionnaire which was designed to gather longitudinal and synchronic information necessary to compile their lice-histories. The other half of the sample was surveyed by means of a questionnaire which was similar in content but designed for quantitative use and life-matrix analysis. A modified version of the latter was applied to all the 260 people studied in Argentina. Finally, in each country, extensive qualitative life-histories of five female and at least two male workers were compiled through recorded and unrecorded interviews.

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