This is the fourth blog in as series that shares key highlights and learnings from the Ethical Trading Initiative programme ‘Gender Equity Across Supply Chains: a comparative analysis’ initiated by Women Working Worldwide and Banana Link in 2018, and joined a year later by Homeworkers Worldwide.
Our aim was for these examples of good practice to inform further work by companies, NGOs and Unions on improving the rights of women workers and producers.
The second key driver of progress towards gender equity across supply chains we identified as part of ‘Gender Equity across Supply Chains – a comparative analysis’ was ‘Representation’.
Particularly, the following elements:
- The role of unions and women’s involvement in unions,
- Grievance mechanisms which are trusted by workers and show results,
- Women’s voices being heard and responded to.
Why is representation important?
According to research carried out in 2020, Latin American women spend at least eight hours per day working at the banana farm, but in the same 24 hours, they spend five hours and 50 minutes extra on domestic work at home – making their working day last at least 13 hours and 50 minutes1.
What could women achieve if the domestic workload was shared equally between women and men? When women are shoulder the burden of domestic labour – caring for children or relatives, cleaning, cooking and shopping, – they are left time-poor, while the majority of their male colleagues are not. This puts women workers at an unfair disadvantage and has a knock-on effect in the workplace and beyond. It affects how society is run and the everyday experiences we all have.
How many more women could reach positions of leadership at banana farms, for example, if the domestic workload was shared equally between men and women? How would it affect issues like the gender pay gap, hiring biases and workplace safety if women were in the room when important decisions were being made?
How many more women could join and become leaders at their local trade union, if men contributed equally to domestic and caring responsibilities? How would this affect worker representation and collective bargaining?
The fact that women tend to shoulder the burden of domestic work with very limited support from male partners, and often find that childcare is either unavailable or unaffordable, continues to pose a barrier to them excelling in their employment. Simply because they cannot be in two places at once. This keeps women in low paid jobs – where there are fewer expectations and demands on their time – and temporary contracts, and in situations of financial precariousness. Women’s domestic labour – unpaid and largely invisible – is keeping a whole generation of women from making their mark in public life.
The lack of female representation at workplaces and trade unions feeds established social norms that place a higher value on men than women. Role models are important for women’s self-esteem, but also to ensure that women’s specific needs and viewpoints are considered when decisions are being made.
While the banana industry hires significantly more men than women (over 80% of the workforce worldwide are men), women who do find employment on banana farms often find workplaces timetables and management structures that fail to take the needs and reality of women workers’ lives into account. These workplaces have often been designed with male workers in mind. This can mean there is a lack of sanitary provision, or that women are expected to share changing rooms with men – putting them at risk of sexual harassment and abuse. It can mean that the only personal protective equipment (PPE) offered is designed for men. It usually means that there are no childcare facilities for parents of young children, nor flexibility for workers who need to collect children from school.
How can the industry ‘do better’?
The Panama Project and Implementation of the COLSIBA/Chiquita/IUF Sexual Harassment Clause Case Study was written in 2019. A decade after the 2001 international framework agreement with Chiquita, Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-industrial Unions (COLSIBA), and International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tourism, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) was signed, a new Women’s Committee was established to constructively and proactively address priority areas for women workers and their union representatives. The Women’s Committee came about in part because it had been observed that women’s participation in the framework’s Review Committee had not been strong. Importantly, two women had recently taken up key leadership roles: Iris Mungia as Coordinator at COLSIBA, and Sue Longley as General Secretary of the IUF.
With strong female leadership in both unions, meaningful work to tackle some of the most endemic issues for women workers in this industry was undertaken. The strategic objectives of the Women’s Committee included improving the conditions of women workers through incorporating gender clauses to collective bargaining agreements and to the 2011 framework agreement itself, and supporting and increasing employment opportunities for women.
A group photo of the Women’s Committee.
Two years after the Women’s Committee was established, the first major result came to fruition: in 2013, an annex to the framework agreement was signed on the crucial issue of sexual harassment, with the aim of strengthening and promoting a safe and inclusive working environment for women, free of sexual harassment and discrimination by male colleagues.
In 2015, a pilot project was established to deal with the issue of low levels of women’s inclusion in the workforce. Chiquita’s own research had shown that Panama had one of the most male dominated plantation systems within their ownership – with 92.3% of their Panamanian employees being men.
These two outcomes highlight just how important women’s representation is. With just two women in key leadership positions at IUF and COLSIBA, action was taken that would influence and improve the working conditions of countless other women and offer them an example of women’s empowerment.
Key learning from the project on the part of COLSIBA:
“It is essential to understand local and cultural context before developing and implementing any initiative. It is almost imperative for women not only to be at the decision-making table but to also have the skills and confidence to voice their needs and represent others. A clear learning from this project is that women employed on temporary contracts are instantly vulnerable to discrimination and sexual harassment and with responsibility for the home predominantly falling to women, it is essential to create stable jobs which allow for childcare responsibilities to be met. All job roles should be available to women, not only “women’s jobs.” Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance to involve and empower women employees and educate them on gender issues so that in the future they can lead and develop union and labour strategy.”
 The research cited was carried out for the adaptation of the BOHESI Gender Guidelines for the Latin American context, which is a forthcoming occupational health and safety manual to complement the existing BOHESI Gender Guidelines for Ghana. The BOHESI Gender Guidelines for Latin America is expected to be published by the end of 2021.
Photos: Banana Link