El Salvador: working for women's rights in factories

Women working in El Salvador's tax-free factories are facing massive job losses, working for low pay and subjected to routine intimidation and harassment, said Jeannette Urquilla of the Organization for Salvadorean Women for Peace.

Jeannette Urquilla of the Organization for Salvadorean Women for Peace

Women working in El Salvador's tax-free factories are facing massive job losses, working for low pay and subjected to routine intimidation and harassment, said Jeannette Urquilla of the Organization for Salvadorean Women for Peace.

The factories are known as 'maquilas, which import materials and equipment duty-free for assembly or manufacturing for re-export. In order to entice these kinds of companies, many Central American governments give their owners tax exemptions and turn a blind eye to the working conditions.

ORMUSA (the organization's Spanish acronym) fights for the rights of women working in El Salvador's “maquilas”, or sweatshops, where women earn less than men at the cardboard or textile factories, or as private security officers.

Oppressive Working Conditions

Working conditions are oppressive with women experiencing intimidation from their own union bosses and constant "vigilance" from their supervisors, who refuse to allow the women bathroom breaks and constantly order them to work harder and faster.

According to the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labour and women's rights organization that supports workers in their fight for better conditions, maquilas have played a major role in raising female employment in Central America.

Nearly 82 per cent of maquila jobs in El Salvador are held by women. In Guatemala, that number is 75 per cent, while in Nicaragua and Honduras, women hold 70 per cent of maquila jobs. Many of the women are between 18 and 24, according to the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CEDEM), based in Santiago, Chile.

Jobs and Re-training

With the downturn in the global economy, many women are being pushed out of their jobs by bosses who justify their firing by blaming absenteeism related to child-rearing, Urquilla said. It's the same throughout Central America, proving the economic crisis wears a woman's face. In Guatemala, for example, 20,000 jobs had been cut from the maquila sector as a result of a fall in exports.

Even factories that remain open are replacing mothers above the age of 30 with single, childless women or men who don't share in the responsibility for raising their families.

ORMUSA offers psychological and legal support to women who choose to complain to the Ministry of Labour, since they are often not heard, Jeannette said. Instead, they're subjected to mockery or ridicule and required to fill out forms so numerous and onerous most complainants simply give up.

In addition, ORMUSA offers vocational training for women, in electrician and carpentry trades, as well as traditional crafts; works on risk reduction in times of crisis and helps with small business development.

Fighting Violence Against Women

During her visit, Jeannette also spoke of the "profound hate" that pervades El Salvadorean society and the country's troubling trend of femicide, a situation that is often overshadowed by similar reports from neighbouring Guatemala and nearby Mexico. Urquilla said 43 to 46 Salvadorean women are dying each month, killed by random violence, often by someone they know.

Police response to these brutal and senseless deaths is virtually non-existent. Urquilla offered the example of one woman whose killer is well-known, yet remains in the community unarraigned and unpunished. She spoke of another woman who was repeatedly raped, then mutilated, by her husband. Despite making a complaint to police, her husband was released by a judge without punishment. Urquilla said police tend to blame the violence on gang activity, while others blame the women themselves, saying they were dressed provocatively.

ORMUSA is doing advocacy work to change laws and influence legal authorities, while rigorously documenting cases of sexual or physical violence. Urquilla said the number of reported sexual assaults has increased, proving women, girls and boys are feeling supported and emboldened by ORMUSA's campaign to encourage people to denounce their tormentors.

Urquilla is confident that with Oxfam Canada's continued support, the group will continue to make strides on women's rights. Already they are seeing progress with increased reporting on violence and have managed to influence laws making it mandatory for "maquila" owners to pay social insurance.