Women Workers Make Gains in Central America

Excerpted from CUPE’s International Solidarity Report 2013-14, Executive Director Barbara Wood writes about the amazing work of CoDev/CUPE partners MEC. (you can find a full copy of the CUPE International Solidarity Report at their website)

Shouts of joy and celebration rang out at the annual forum held by CUPE partner, MEC (the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Employed and Unemployed Women) in Managua, Nicaragua in March. One thousand women, including small delegations from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and hundreds of Nicaraguan maquila (sweatshop) workers were present to officially adopt the Labour Rights Agenda for Women Maquila Workers. The Agenda was two years in the making and involved more than 4,000 Central American maquila workers debating and discussing their priorities and strategies.

The result is a concise and remarkable document that outlines the six priority themes for the maquila workers. Those six include the right to occupational health and safety, the right to sexual and reproductive health and the right not to be subjected to physical violence, sexual harassment or bullying at work. The recommendations were read aloud at the forum, and the women enthusiastically approved the report. Government and labour leaders were invited to officially receive their copy of the Women’s Agenda and to commit to helping fulfill the recommendations. It was a day to recognize achievements, gain political support for the Agenda and celebrate the empowerment of women workers in Central America.

A delegation of Canadian union members organized by CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev) was fortunate to attend the MEC Forum. The delegation included CUPE representatives Susan Blair, CUPE BC General Vice-President; Dianne Frittenburg, CUPE 1933 President and CUPE Nova Scotia Secretary-Treasurer, and Joelle Ravary, Interim President St. Laurent Region CUPE 1500 and member of the CUPE National Women’s Committee. The event marked 20 years of working together in solidarity for CUPE and MEC.

In 1994, when a handful of Nicaraguan women workers and activists decided it was time to organize women in the maquila sector, they were ostracized, threatened and physically assaulted. They approached CoDev who recognized the urgent need to support these women to work in the free trade zones where labour violations were rife. CUPE BC agreed to work with CoDev and formed a partnership with MEC that continues today. CUPE National has been part of this partnership with CUPE BC since 1999.

The Canadian delegation also travelled to Honduras to meet with CUPE partner, the Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH) whose main focus is on occupational health and safety rights for maquila workers.

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