Want to hear some good news about women workers?

Want to hear some good news about women workers?

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some good news about women workers for a change?  News like collective bargaining clauses being introduced that commit employers to prioritising providing employment to women… and companies exceeding the quota?

Or that women now feel free to apply for any type of job in tea factories, offices and even in the fields because sexual harassment has significantly reduced (and they know how to report sexual harassment if it does happen)?

Or that workplace medical kits now include sanitary towels; or that there are now toilets in the tea fields where they can have some privacy when on their periods? Or that women are now entitled to four more weeks of maternity leave than before and pregnant; or breastfeeding women now have a shelter where they can rest and feed their babies?

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what we heard last week on THIRST’s Discussion Forum on Making Social Dialogue Work for Women Workers.

Some of these examples came from the Malawi tea sector and some from the Latin American banana sector.

But all were a result of women having a place in their trade unions.

Oxfam’s Juliet Suliwa spoke about the work of the Malawi 2020 Tea Revitalisation Programme with Malawi’s Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (PAWU) to address multiple challenges faced by women in the tea sector.


“Women [in Malawi], automatically feel men should be in charge, feel less important than men and assume certain jobs (such as engineers or drivers) are only for men,” Juliet told us, adding that even if they complete their school education, they rarely end up in white collar jobs. Sexual harassment has also been a perennial – and socially embedded – problem in the tea estates (as in other sectors).

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, women in the banana sector had been facing very similar challenges. Iris Munguia told us of the 1995 study by COLSIBA (the Coordinating Body of Latin American Banana and Agro-industrial Unions) which identified problems for women working in packhouses, social benefits issues, lack of access to services and challenges around women’s health.

All these issues may have been addressed through strong trade union representation, but in both cases, women’s participation in trade unions was sorely wanting.



Getting gender on the agenda:

Following the COLSIBA study, a women workers’ agenda was developed, exploring how to create spaces for women in trade union activities and leadership. Iris shared that “we talked about the need for reforms of statutes to allow the creation of women’s committees and women’s secretaries. These previously didn’t exist, and in fact weren’t permitted by the union statutes.”

The next step was for women to get themselves elected to the national and regional committees of the trade unions. For example, Iris took on the role of Deputy Co-ordinator and then Co-ordinator for the Regional body COLSIBA, as well as at the national level in FESTAGRO, a federation of agro-industrial workers in bananas, melons, sugarcane and oil palm. Adela began representing women in Latin America’s largest agricultural workers’ union, SINTRAINAGRO – of which she is now General Secretary.

In Malawi, working with Oxfam, PAWU has ensured that all of 150 divisions of the nine plantations where it is present now have women’s committees. These inform women how (and why) to join the trade union. Women are now well represented on Malawi tea estates – with at least a 6:4 balance of men to women.

Having a secure place on the committee means having a better chance of being heard.


In both sectors, training played an important role changing women’s – and men’s – mindsets.

In Latin America, study circles were formed for women to discuss the importance of taking part in all levels of trade union activity.  Decades later, in an echo of this approach, grassroots committees were formed in Malawi to encourage women workers to speak up for themselves and take leadership roles.

In Latin America, women received training on a range of issues, including women’s leadership, not as a one-off event, but as a sustained process. As a result,  Adela told us, “women trade union leaders now have a clear voice in the World Banana Forum and have a place with international bodies such as the IUF and with the Chiquita brand.”

In Malawi, too, a high value was set on training. So high that initially, for fear of reprisals, it took place in secret. But agreements have now been reached with management enabling training on tea estates that includes both workers and managers themselves – with specific modules for women.  There’s also a gender symposium for women to learn from each other and promote good practices.

Trade unions in Malawi also now have programmes encouraging women to get skills training to help them compete on equal terms with men, and even to go back to school to address low literacy rate for women in Malawi.

Collective bargaining

We learned from our panellists that although collective bargaining can be a long process, it is a powerful tool for protecting women workers’ rights.

In response to the COLSIBA study findings, Adela and her colleagues drew up a menu of 28 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) clauses addressing women’s needs which could be negotiated with companies every two or three years. This included a requirement for companies to take on at least two women per plantation. As a result, many more women are now employed in the banana sector, with some companies going well beyond the quota.

According to Adela, “The tactic adopted in Columbia was to get all companies – whether they had one plantation or five – around the table so that it is a sector-wide, national agreement.  This made the negotiation tough and quite long, but what was negotiated was then applied to all workplaces. The involvement of the employers’ association, representing nearly 300 plantations, means it is a substantial agreement.”

Even the language used in CBAs can make a huge difference. For example, in the early days all CBAs referred to ‘Los trabajadores’ the masculine form of the noun, rather than the feminine form, ‘Las trabajadoras’. This led to only male workers having, for example, the right to housing.  Changing this to include both men and women workers meant that women could access the same benefits as men.

But what can bring employers to the collective bargaining table? Juliet felt that the fact that over 50,000 workers (26.7% of the workforce) were represented at the last negotiation was a strong factor.

Clearly, perseverance and good negotiation and communication skills play an important role too; it has been a long and difficult road to reach this point.

Adela shared that “As a women leader it was difficult to get to the negotiating table with employers and for women to become members of an exclusive male club of the bargaining team took a long time.”  And Iris reminded us how vital it was for women to be in leadership roles. She also underlined the importance of having male allies in the movement in order to have any influence over in the social agenda of the union.


All three panellists particularly appreciated a question from the floor on what retailers could do differently to support these efforts, and insisted that buyers have a very big role to play and can have a big influence on working conditions.

Juliet encouraged them to buy tea through auction rather than privately to ensure transparency and keep prices at a healthy level.  “My plea is for these buyers to change their ways and to ask brokers not to buy tea outside of the auction. If little tea is bought in the auction, that affects the tea workers’ wages.”

Adela agreed, adding, “What we ask is for supermarkets to respect trade union freedom and collective bargaining as the sustainable and socially just way of operating.”

They should look beyond pricing and familiarise themselves with CBAs – ensuring they include women specific clauses – and support trade union training for both women and men.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, think again.

Think of the fact that Tesco has played an important role in supporting COLSIBA to strengthen women’s position.

And think of the fact that buyers involved in the Malawi 2020 Programme have supported the collective bargaining process and paid better prices which has not only helped improve both men and women workers’ wages, but has also played a strong role in making social dialogue work for women in the Malawi tea sector.

If they can do it, so can you.

Image: Oxfam’s Lingalireni Mihowa launching a programme to promote women’s equality in tea plantations.