Faced with the shortcomings of a State that cannot guarantee self-determination or resource autonomy for its people, women’s organizations and unions have carried out actions that showcase the kind of economic justice they want to build. Their goal is to address the root causes of their problems and guarantee labor rights and economic justice for women in all their diversity.
Yohana Montenegro was nearly fourteen when she started working at the Cambridge maquila, where she spent the next fifteen years of her life. Then, on March 28, 2008, four hundred workers, including her, were fired from the company.
According to Montenegro, maquilas that manufacture and assemble clothes for export regularly engage in illicit activities to take advantage of Decree 29–89, Law for the Promotion and Development of Exports and Maquilas, this decree grants fiscal privileges to maquilas that have been operative for up to ten years, which explains why the owners of Cambridge fired their employees, renamed, and relocated their company.
Montenegro recounts how employees were fired with no justification and were denied severance:
Most of them received a pittance. They were given two week’s pay because [the company] wasn’t going to pay them their severance benefits, and the workers had no choice but to accept that.”
In Guatemala, adequate employment is hard to come by. There are hardly any openings in the so-called formal sector, and the ones that do exist are not readily accessible. Employers can demand that applicants have a certain level of educations or that they own specialized equipment, such as a car or a computer. For most job-seekers, regardless of work experience, such requirements are often out of reach.
According to the report “COVID-19 and the World of Labor: Starting point, Response, and Challenges in Guatemala” published in 2020 by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the country’s unemployment rate is 3.5% for women, which is slightly higher than that of men (2%). The study states that “the high incidence of informal employment is an important feature of the Guatemalan labor market”, and that close to the entire employed population—75%—has an informal job.
The report also notes the importance of women in the labor market. “Due to their extensive level of involvement in the most affected sectors (particularly the service sector). Indeed, 70.4% of women workers earn their living in the tertiary sector compared to 36.3% of men. Women have less access to social protection services (only 19.2% are covered by social security), [and they] bear a disproportionate workload within the care economy.”.
These figures demonstrate the need to ensure that women workers have access to decent employment, self-determination, and control over their economic resources, which are components of: “economic justice”. Although Guatemala has signed laws and agreements that punish discrimination against women in the workplace, women’s organizations and unions have stated that they are not enough to guarantee economic justice.
According to the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)—an international feminist organization that supports movements involved in the struggle for gender justice and women’s rights—economic justice places rights, equality, and justice at the center of the economy; it ensures a fair distribution of resources for all citizens, and it guarantees self-determination and economic autonomy for women.
Flora Partenio, a sociologist and feminist activist with the Dawn Network in Argentina whom we interviewed for this report, asserts that economic justice would also allow women to control their time and economic resources, and it would grant them the freedom to make decisions in public and private spaces.
Sonia Escobedo, a feminist economist and former head of the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM), believes that women workers face structural disadvantages that complicate their access to economic justice in Guatemala. In her opinion, the main obstacles are companies’ refusal to comply with labor laws and the fact that the State does not protect women’s labor rights.
Feminist economics seeks to reduce the gender gap and the labor and economic inequality experienced by women. It is a comprehensive perspective that recognizes that the systems we inhabit are not set up to meet everyone’s needs. Feminist economics is both a political commitment that questions classical, hegemonic economics and an invitation to rethink domestic, care, productive and reproductive work, which have traditionally fallen to women.
Given that the care work carried out by women is not valued, recognized, well paid, or redistributed equitably, it becomes necessary to raise awareness concerning this particular injustice.
“Feminist economics evinces the links between the worlds of finance, debt and high production, and everyday life, which have traditionally been perceived as separate. Treating these worlds as interrelated demonstrates that what happens in the home has a lot to do with what happens in high finance”, explains Flora Partenio.
Domestic work is a lever that could bring the system to a grinding halt. Without domestic work, everything stops: there would be no working class, no functioning factories, because no one would wash uniforms or prepare meals. Domestic work is what mitigates crises”, she adds.
“In moments of crisis, the State tends to withdraw, to disinvest, to cut expenses. They cut social policies and social programs such as food and financial assistance, etc. And then they also disinvest in public services such as education, healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure—four services that are central to the social organization of care. For example, when the State cuts infrastructure spending, women in their homes take on the workload of disability care centers”, concludes the sociologist.
Filing a complaint does not always guarantee a satisfactory resolution
According to the women workers’ organizations consulted for this report, there are sectors that report higher numbers of instances of abuse and violations to social security, such as maquilas, agricultural work, and domestic work. These organizations are also aware of women workers whose rights have been trampled within government structures.
Yohana Montenegro, the woman who was fired from the Cambridge maquila, knows well what happens when workers file a complaint. After her unjustified dismissal in 2008, eighty workers—seventy-six women and four men—refused to accept the company’s last payment and filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labor. “It was a nightmare. We think the process presented us with too many obstacles and hardships, which especially affected the mothers among my colleagues”, recalls Montenegro.
In Guatemala, there are four institutions that keep track of cases concerning labor law noncompliance. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MINTRAB), the governing body for all labor issues; the Public Ministry (MP), which deals with escalated labor conflicts, disputes that have not been resolved by the Inspectorate General of Labor (the civil route), or cases that involve additional crimes; the Judicial Body (OJ), which handles labor cases in court; and the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS), whose organic law, allows inspectors to investigate possible labor violations.
The Ministry of Labor failed to resolve the complaint filed by former Cambridge employees, including Yohana Montenegro. Since the administrative route was not enough to hold the Cambridge executives to account, the process was transferred to the labor courts of the Judicial Body. Five months later, in August 2008, the court ruled that Cambridge had to pay their former employees 2,028,236 quetzales (about 264,000 dollars).
That was big. We made a lot of noise; we called the press, and we sought to make our voices heard. On that journey, there were obstacles: a letter was misplaced; a businessman did not receive some papers. We even played the role of process servers, all in the pursuit of justice”.Montenegro
However, she describes the end result as “a prank or a joke, because winning in court was only a victory on paper; they never paid us”. The workers tried to compel the company to comply with the ruling, but this resulted in Cambridge engaging in intimidation tactics. Yohana Montenegro recounts that in 2009 the company had them followed for months, and she was almost kidnapped. Another person also reported being surveilled at home.
To add insult to injury, two women who belonged to the original group of eighty people that filed the complaint died before receiving any kind of justice.
Adversity can become a fertilizer
Justice for us workers does not exist. A year later, when we applied for jobs, we were refused because we had been blacklisted in Infornet. We are convinced that the list came from the Ministry of Labor because they are the only ones that know the identity of the people who filed the complaint”, says Montenegro.
Infornet is a Guatemalan company that collects information from “public records, court documents, commercial references, and credit card records” according to its website. This information is made available to companies that use it to do background checks on people applying for a loan, renting a place to live, making purchases, or even applying for a job. In 2020, a court fined Infornet for trading and disclosing personal data and it requested that the Public Ministry investigate any further criminal activity they might have engaged in.
Yohana Montenegro and her comrades consider themselves outcasts in the labor market because they have been unable to get a job since appearing on that list. Sociologist Flora Partenio believes Yohana’s story brings to light various forms of violence faced by women workers.
[Yohana’s experience] sheds light on, on the one hand, economic violence because she is unable to earn a living, and on the other, labor discrimination as a consequence of appearing on that list. At the same time, her story allows us to see her leading the fight in favor of women, women her age and who live in her city, women who face tremendously powerful [companies] but continue to act and resist.”, she reflects.
Due to the State’s shortcomings and despite the lack of justice enforcement, a subgroup of women workers who filed the complaint against Cambridge organized themselves to overcome this situation. They approached women’s organizations and received information about their rights, feminist economics, and how to build safe spaces.
Over time, our mission and vision as a group changed. We realized what we wanted was to spare others from going through what we went through. We continue empowering ourselves and learning so we can support more women. In the beginning, there were seventy-six of us; now there are seventy, and we became labor rights defenders”, explains Montenegro.
In 2010, they founded the Cambridge Committee, an organization that seeks to empower more women through a network of maquila workers that provides them with support to find employment or to overcome abuse.
n 2014, the financial support they received allowed them to monitor more closely instances of resignations, dismissals, and mistreatment within companies. Currently, they also organize demonstrations, press conferences, and educational and training workshops regarding human and labor rights and self-care.
As part of the Cambridge Committee, Yohana Montenegro has achieved all of this while singlehandedly raising her son and paying for her mom’s medical treatment for chronic kidney disease.
This is one example of the life these courageous women lead while continuing to care [for their families]. While fighting, she set up an organization and recruited other women, and she continued to take care of others—her mother and her son. And she does this without the state providing her any kind of aid or protection”.Flora Partenio
Organized women effect change
The Cambridge Committee is one of several organizations that defend labor rights and support women workers.
While the Committee is a space mainly for maquila workers, there are others groups, such as the Association of Domestic, Home, and Maquila Workers (ATRADOHM), The Union of Domestic Workers and Freelancers (SITRADOMSA), and others that focus more on political advocacy, such as the Women’s Sector Political Alliance (APSM).
Because the State is incapable of guaranteeing women their self-determination and resource autonomy, this type of women’s organizations and unions have carried out actions that showcase the kind of economic justice they want to build. Their goal is to address the root causes of their problems to put a stop to employment discrimination and completely rethink the system in order to better everyone’s living conditions, which is in line with feminist economics.
ATRADOHM, SITRADOMSA, and the Cambridge Committee provide accompaniment, legal advice, and workshops for women and young workers at the start of their professional lives. The idea is to “make them understand that they are individuals with rights who deserve fair treatment, salaries, severance pay, [and] minimum working conditions because they contribute to this country’s development, economy, and production,” explains Floridalma Contreras, who serves as Secretary of Education and Training at SITRADOMSA.
Aside from offering trainings, the APSM also has themancipatory Economic Alternatives Initiative, a space for feminist economics where women gather "to talk, feel, and debate about reproduction, production, consumption, and the use of nature”.
According to Marta Godínez, a member of the APSM, their work seeks to:
Raise awareness [and] educate [women] so they know their rights and so they realize that care work, whether paid or unpaid, represents a contribution to the economy and should be recognized”.
This initiative—along with fairs, meetings, and workshops—has made it possible to promote sustainable agriculture. The organization reports that they have managed to get several women to grow food crops for self-consumption. This type of organizations and initiatives by organized working women not only train others but also do research, hold press conferences, and participate in meetings and round tables to highlight women’s living conditions and effect meaningful change via the legal system and public policies and programs.
The APSM and more than one hundred organizations make up the Platform for the Economic Development Law (LeyDEM). In order to facilitate the passage of the bill, whose purpose is to create better living conditions through traditional avenues, they introduced Initiative 5452, a tool to facilitate the conditions for the development and economic empowerment of women.
The Platform for the Women’s Economic Development Law (LeyDem Platform) is an alliance made up of more than one hundred women’s organizations nationwide. It was formed to push for the approval of Initiative 5452, the Women’s Economic Development Law, which is currently in the Congress of the Republic.
Dalila Vásquez, a member of the Mother Earth Women’s Association and of the LeyDem Platform, explains that this initiative aims to combat the economic violence faced by Guatemalan women.
We believe that investing in women would be one way for the state to acknowledge the work we do. The Initiative establishes three financial programs: Emprende Mujer, which channels seed capital from non-reimbursable public funds; Credimujer, which seeks to make credit more accessible for a subset of the population that has historically been denied for not meeting [a discriminatory set of] requirements; and a subsidy for women or women's organizations that have a solid enterprise but still require a technological or production boost so they can meet their needs. Aside from providing economic support, we also have other programs that help us to contribute in a comprehensive manner”, explains Dalila Vásquez.
Through the creation of a Fund for the Economic Development of Women and the introduction of economic, financial, technical, and technological programs, the goal is to promote and implement economic initiatives, productive practices, and economic empowerment actions that benefit women.
The organizations view this as an opportunity to engage the political and decision-making classes to effect concrete changes in the economic reality of women workers. If the law is approved, Guatemalan women could receive financing, technical support, and some type of state recognition for the economic contribution they make.
If projects aimed at education and production, such as the ones carried out by women’s organizations, continue, and initiatives that push for gender equality, such as LeyDem, become law, people like Yohanna Montenegro and the women who make up and participate in groups such as the Cambridge Committee will have more tools to achieve financial stability.
This article was written by Agencia Ocote from Guatemala for FCAM.