Chile: Women Trade Unionists Find their Own Voices

  SANTIAGO, (IPS) – "When you have a social role, you become aware that you have a right to freedom of thought, that you can question the way things are," 44-year-old Chilean trade unionist Sonia Sagredo, who represents seasonal agricultural workers, told IPS.

Sagredo has been a rural worker for the past 20 years. Her hands have harvested lemons, raspberries, pears, grapes, avocados and blueberries. But she has also worked as a domestic and selling crafts and ‘cachureos’ (second-hand goods) in local markets.

Today she heads the union of seasonal agricultural workers of Villa Alemana and Quilpue, suburbs of the port city of Valparaíso, and is one of the leaders of the National Ranquil Peasant Confederation.

"You don’t decide to become a leader. Others decide for you," says Sagredo, a divorced mother with five kids ranging from five years of age to 23. The only thing she takes credit for is the idea of forming unions to fight against the precarious working conditions prevailing in agriculture.

Why was she elected? "I think it’s because I’m a good worker; I’m fast. Seasonal workers respect anyone who’s good at their work. Also, I was always taking a stand with contractors to defend other workers, and the contractor had it out for me," she says.

"My fellow workers see me as somebody important because I’m a leader, I communicate with a lot of people. But I feel I’m just like everybody else, I’ve never felt any different," said another trade unionist, Rosa Bahamonde, secretary general of the Confederation of Salmon and Mussel Workers (CONATRASAL), which has 5,000 members.

At 26, Bahamonde is already a seasoned leader. She graduated from a technical high school with a degree in marine resources and immediately began working for a salmon company in the town of Ancud in the southern region of Los Lagos.

But shortly after starting work there, the company filed for bankruptcy, and the workers suddenly found themselves facing the possibility of losing their jobs, she told IPS.

"I started on a Monday and by Friday I had gathered the 25 people we needed to form a union; I then contacted the Ancud labour inspector, and on Sunday we established our trade union and appointed three leaders," Bahamonde says. She continued working there after the Norway-based transnational corporation Mainstream purchased the company.

Being a unionist "is a great experience. But I was president of my company’s union for four years and I took on the problems of 600 workers. Sometimes the burden is too much for someone as young as me," she says.

But all in all, she has had a very positive experience. "It’s helped me grow as a person, it taught me to interact with different kinds of people, and to not be afraid to speak in public. These are all very valuable experiences for me," she adds.

Sagredo’s and Bahamonde’s stories, along with those of seven other women union leaders have been collected in the book "Dirigentas. El arduo caminar de las mujeres trabajadoras en la lucha de sus derechos" (Women Leaders. The Hard Road of Women Workers in the Struggle for their Rights), published by the Chilean Labour Observatory of the non-governmental National Alternative Development Studies Centre.

The book, presented to the public on Nov. 12, focuses on agriculture and salmon breeding, two of the most productive sectors in a country with less than 13 percent of its workers unionised — 14.6 percent of men and 9.6 percent of women.

According to Sagredo, seasonal agricultural workers are characterised by their cheerfulness, love of fun and sense of humour. It’s the only way they can get through their harsh workday and the sense of guilt for not spending enough time with their children, she says

They leave their houses at around 6:00 AM and return after 7:00 PM. At best they earn the minimum wage (around 247 dollars a month) and when they are working in the fields they often have no access to sanitary facilities, water or proper eating spaces, Sagredo says. "All that builds up inside of them and turns into rage, which they later take out on their family," she adds.

In this dismal scenario, her efforts to organise workers changed her life. Although now she has even less time than before, her children now have a happy mom, she says. But she admits that at first it was very hard: as she learned to be a union leader, she had to sue her employers for antiunion practices, and her marriage broke up.

She finds it hard to think of all she has achieved. What she does is form unions, she says. But she can recall how in a vineyard she was able to obtain portable canteens and chemical toilets for the workers.

What she complains most about are antiunion practices: She has been fired from four companies despite the union rights that protect her. "In the last company, I was only there for a day. I came second in production and I didn’t even make any demands. But they asked me what my name was and the next day they wouldn’t let me on the bus" that takes workers to the fields, Sagredo says.

In Copiapó, in the northern Atacama region, 175 workers have been blacklisted and are barred from companies because of their union activity, she reports.

To enforce their union rights, workers have to report their employers and bring lengthy and complicated court actions against them, which often operates as a determent. Sagredo’s own court battle has been going on for two and a half years.

That is what the labour law reform, which began to be implemented gradually in March this year, aims to change.

Bahamonde has not been a victim of antiunion practices herself, but she fears for the future. "I think that when I leave this company, I’m going to be afraid of being persecuted and included on the famous blacklists. I may not get any work anywhere else, because they’ll know I’m a union leader and they’ll see me as a troublemaker or a revolutionary," she said.

But Sagredo refuses to back down in the face of difficulties. "When you know what your social role is, you become aware that you have a right to freedom of thought, that you can question the way things are. When you’re a homemaker, you don’t question a lot of things, you just think it’s your lot, it’s what God wanted for you," Sagredo says.

"The worst thing I’ve had to face in the salmon industry is seeing how people work day in and day out, eight hours straight, on their feet, with their heads hanging low, not talking to anyone, with limited time to even go to the bathroom. If you take more than 10 minutes, they go looking for you; there’s strict control over everything," Bahamonde says.

Only after she became a trade unionist did Sagredo learn "that sulphur is toxic, that it is bad for us when they spray it while we are in the fields," she says.

In her company, Bahamonde has achieved a number of gains, such as wage increases and other benefits, and the organisation of a Christmas party for the workers’s children.

Now they are expanding their demands. Chile is the world’s second largest farmed salmon and trout producer, after Norway. But after two decades of exponential growth, production has been seriously affected by the infectious salmon anaemia virus.

According to Bahamonde, some 6,000 workers have already been laid off, and the number could rise to 10,000 by February or March 2009. CONATRASAL is pressuring "the government to take responsibility or somehow mitigate the increase in unemployment with funding," she says.

Are women leaders different from men leaders? "I don’t know if it has to do with personality or gender, but I think that we worry more about what happens to each individual worker and then we take it to a collective level," Sagredo says.

"I think women are more tolerant," Bahamonde puts in.

The two activists have different dreams for the future. Sagredo just wants to "organise, organise and organise" workers in unions, while Bahamonde wants to work for her community, maybe even becoming a councilperson.

"You see so many things that could be done and aren’t done. Education, for example, is very neglected; there are many young people who are capable and could continue their studies, but neither the municipal nor the national government provide special scholarships for kids in poor neighbourhoods," she says.