Achim Wachendorfer
"Victims are mainly Women". The Development of the Textile and Garment Industry in Brazil

The role of the textile and garment industry in the industrialisation process in Brazil was of great historical importance. However, the textile industry, was during its development, subject to substantial fluctuations in which dynamic phases alternated with phases of stagnation. The last dynamic cycle of the textile and garment industry dates from the beginning of the 70's: its growth based on a strong expansion of the domestic market and growth in exports. During this period significant investment occurred, linked with the modernisation of machinery and the complete utilisation of installed capacity. On the whole, however, the textile and garment industry lost in significance, even though short-term recovery tendencies could be observed from time to time. Nevertheless, total investment was far from sufficient to guarantee international competitiveness for the whole of this branch of industry. In the end, only a few large firms were able to modernise in terms of technology and working organisation. The result was that a strong heterogeneity of corporate structures crystallised in the textile and garment industry. Even a temporary recovery of the branch, which began in 1984 as a result of which major firms concentrated more strongly on exports, failed to change this fundamental situation.

Page Top

The textile and garment industry today

In the textile industry today 450,000 jobs exist in about 6,000 firms, whereby only 14 per cent can be regarded as medium or larger companies, most firms being small or very small in size. At least 10 per cent of the textile industry is controlled by foreign capital. The significant trend towards concentration in this branch is shown clearly by the fact that large firms only employ 10 per cent of the workforce but account for 84 per cent of turnover in this branch of industry. The key region is the south-east where 73 per cent of the firms are concentrated, half of which are located in the industrial centre of Sao Paulo.

The garment industry (including shoe production and textile accessories) comprises 35,000 companies in which 650,000 workers are employed. As a result, the garment industry is, after the building industry, the second largest sector in Brazil. At least 95 per cent of the firms are small or very small firms, whereby the majority of firms are concentrated in Sao Paulo.

Brazil's share of the world market for textiles lies at about one per cent and in the confection industry at 0.3 per cent with a rising tendency. Problematic, is still the fact that large parts of the traditional industries (food, textiles, civil engineering) and trade have hardly been touched by this dynamic,and still remain controlled by the traditional and hardly representative trade union structure.

Page Top

Marginal role of trade unions in the textile and garment industry

The 273 trade unions in the textile and garment industry, an industrial sector with little trade union organisation, are hardly integrated in CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores) or in the less relevant competitive federation "Forca Sindical" or CGT. 54 trade unions are affiliated to CUT, a further 12 will shortly complete their membership. By far the largest part of the organisations in the textile and garment industry are still in the hands of the "Pelegos" (the popular name for corporate trade union officials) relics of a trade union tradition, who could maintain their position due to the compulsory state tax which is annually deducted, on a compulsory basis, from all workers and amounts to one day's pay.

Several factors are responsible for this: the formation of strong trade union representation is made difficult by the structure of the textile and garment industry with its small and very small sized firms and a largely unqualified workforce. These firms employ mainly women who are, anyway, discriminated against in Brazilian society. The "Pelegos " have, for their part, no interest in expanding trade union organisation. This is combined with the limited interest of the large, well organised, autonomous trade unions to become actively involved in the textile and garment industry.

Page Top

Women and trade union structures in the textile and garment industry

Although women form the majority in the textile and garment industry, trade union structures are almost exclusively dominated by men who, in general, hardly concern themselves with the problems of their female members. The seamstresses' trade union of Sao Paulo and Osasco, which is affiliated to the closely business linked "Forca Sindical", was led for 49 years by men until,in 1989,a woman managed to take over this position despite strong opposition. The problem of marginalisation in trade union structures also repeats itself, however, in trade unions affiliated to CUT. In the textile and garment trade union in Osasco, 80 per cent of whose members are women, there are 4 women and 23 men on the executive committee. The CUT trade unions in the textile, garment, leather and shoe industries, about two-thirds of whose members are women, got together in 1989 to form in CUT, the " Departamento Vestuário" (department for the garment industry): but, even here, of the 11 members on the executive committee of the "Departamento" only two are women and they are responsible for the fields of training and women.

Page Top

Victims are, above all, women

The predominance of small firms, low qualification of the workforce and limited trade union presence, contribute to the fact that exploitation and discrimination particularly in terms of women continues to exist in the textile and garment industry.

Female representatives of the CUT textiles and garment trade union in Osasco,a small industrial town near Sao Paulo, provided information on catastrophic working conditions under which mainly women, who account for 80 per cent of the labour force and who nearly all work in the lower wage brackets, are affected. Massive lay-offs in the textile industry,resulting from the serious recession and the re-structuring processes of the Brazilian economy, mainly affected women in the textile and garment industry. In numerous firms women receive lower pay than men for the same work. Wage agreements are not kept to in many firms. Women workers were particularly bitter about degrading treatment and practices with which they are confronted every day. In many firms going to the toilet is subject to rigorous control. On leaving the works, women workers are often subjected to shameful bodily searches. On recruitment women must go through a urine test. Sexual molestation by superiors is the order of the day. A female member of the executive board of the trade union protested against bodily searches and was dismissed on the spot on the grounds of incitement and improper behaviour vis-à-vis her superiors. Such reports are not isolated incidents but rather everyday practice in many firms. A problem repeatedly raised by women workers was pregnancy at the workplace: no consideration is shown to pregnant women during the work process and pregnant women are forced during their work at the machines "to shift their stomach to the side". An application for a transfer to another place of work during pregnancy is, as a rule, refused.

A nation-wide sensation occurred in 1989 over a case in the garment factory De Millus, the fifth largest in Brazil, in which mainly underwear is produced. The majority of the almost 3,000 strong workforce were women aged between 14 and 17 years. They were forced on leaving the firm, allegedly to prevent thefts, to undergo a degrading bodily search. This led to spontaneous strikes, as a result of which 230 women workers were dismissed. Eighteen women won a, for Brazilian terms, sensational judicial decision: the firm was obliged to pay a steep fine. The court started out from the premise that human rights must not be violated in order to maximise profit.

In 1978, De Millus was already the subject of conjecture when during the military dictatorship it allowed police to beat up striking women workers. Even after the end of the military dictatorship, the firm refused to allow trade union organised women workers.

Subject to the greatest exploitation are the approximately 100,000 homeworkers. They do not benefit from social insurance schemes, holiday provisions or pension schemes. Their independence is a pure formality as they are,de facto, dependent upon a company which supplies them with the goods and buys the finished products. As they do not, however, have any legally binding working relationship with the firm, they cannot be organised within a trade union.

Page Top

Women protest

The increased awareness of women, organised in trade unions in the textile and garment branch of industry, manifested itself at the first national meeting in October 1990 at which 80 female trade union delegates from CUT trade unions discussed their situation. Women from the CUT trade union increasingly brought into question the issue of male domination.

The assembled women analysed their situation in the following way:

"Women in this branch have, until now, only had limited involvement in the trade union movement, although they form the majority in our factories. Progress which has been achieved in some trade unions still far from answers the most pressing problems of women."

Some trade unions have already achieved progress in wage negotiations such as, for example:

- transfer during pregnancy

- two hours daily for breast-feeding

- protection against dismissal after returning from the 120 day maternity leave

- kindergarten allowance.

It can be observed that these achievements are directly linked with motherhood and do not solve the general problems of women workers,such as:

- too low wages

- lack of training and further training

- sexual molestation at the workplace.

Fear, subordination by the employer, husband and children as well as a double working day are the main grounds which hinder a greater involvement of the woman in the trade union fight. These circumstances can, in reality, apply to all areas of our class and the problems are almost the same, e.g., working conditions which are detrimental to health and wage discrimination.

Specifically applicable to seamstresses and stitchers is the harm to health caused by sitting for eight hours.

Exploitation of the woman by the woman: e.g., women in managerial positions are just as authoritarian and "macho" as their bosses.

Subsequently, the text deals critically with the trade union participation of women workers. In this connection, reference is made to the burden of the family and social discrimination, also by colleagues in the same firm, as being responsible for the limited trade union involvement of women. However, in the event of a strike, women are extremely active but less ready to make compromises.

In addition, trade unions were orientated as a traditionally male domain with traditionally male expectations and male patterns of behaviour. Traditionally male positions would, solely as a result of this, block any stronger trade union organisation of women as they would be regarded as competition on the labour market and this would run counter to their "natural " role as a mother and housewife. Despite the difficult circumstances, women are optimistic and militant:

"But some things change - for the better. The strength and the organisation of women. The women's movement. Feminism. A shout which the whole world must hear: We rebel. We have a voice, a body, readiness. And we belong to ourselves.

Feminism of women workers has brought the situation of women workers into the limelight. It has brought up the question of wage discrimination and the double working day; it has started the organisation of women workers, investigated their environment, their requests and frustrations."

Demands which the first national meeting of women of the CUT trade unions in the textile and garment industry made to their trade unions are, for example:

- establishment of womens' committees in all CUT trade unions

- information seminars for the executive boards of CUT member trade unions in order to make them aware of discrimination against women

- organisation of health activities for women.

In the fight for womens' rights in firms, the following priority demands were, amongst others, approved:

- pre-school facilities to be paid for by the firm

- the same pay for the same work

- external, further training financed by the firm

- no controls about going to the toilet

- medical check-ups

- 30 days paternity leave

- two free hours daily for breast-feeding babies

- prohibition of pregnancy tests by the firm.

Vis-à-vis trade unions, the following are demanded:

- collectively agreed settlements with regard to nursery schools, same pay for the same work, use of toilets etc.

- framework provisions which enable women to participate in trade union meetings

- inclusion of womens' topics in trade union publications

- the carrying out of a representative survey on the situation of women workers.

The implementation of these demands, in an environment rather hostile to women, will not be easy. Nevertheless, something has been set in motion within the trade unions, particularly in the field of CUT. At its national congress,in July 1992, the question of a women's quota was at the centre of an almost three hourly discussion, whereby the introduction of a 30 per cent quota for women in leadership positions of the CUT was vehemently defended by the president of the federation. The national congress decided that next year the question of a quota should be voted upon, whereby in a test ballot the absolute majority voted in favour of such a quota. If this decision, as well as the recommendation to individual trade unions to involve women in leadership positions in proportion to their membership is put into practice next year, then this would be an important step towards the real integration of women in the trade union movement of the textile and garment industry.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek

Previous Page TOC Next Page