• Thursday, October 23, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    With a Little Help From Friends

    Guillermina Castellanos (far right) and other members of the Women’s Collective Protest for the rights of domestics. Hannah Pallmeyer - courtesy of La Raza Centro Legal

    Guillermina Castellanos (far right) and other members of the Women’s Collective Protest for the rights of domestics. Hannah Pallmeyer - courtesy of La Raza Centro Legal

    TerraViva correspondents

    RIO DE JANEIRO: “There are no ceilings in our dreams; we want to transform young women, tell them there is a way for them to be happy,” says Elza Santiago. Santiago, 49, and Marinalva Alves, 44, live in Morro da Coroa, one of the favelas that line the steep hills of Rio de Janeiro.

    But for poor black women like Santiago and Alves, the hills to climb are even steeper, because of racial prejudice deep-rooted in Brazil, “even though they pretend it doesn’t exist,” Santiago tells TerraViva at their workshop in the favela, where they sew and do embroidery work.

    “Who hires an unskilled black woman over 40? That’s why we decided to join forces to support ourselves.”

    That was through the Bordadeiras da Coroa (Embroiderers of Coroa) cooperative. But in 2006 the ELAS Social Investment Fund gave the cooperative 2,500 dollars to buy two sewing machines, fabrics and other materials. The cooperative’s products took off, and were even included in the Fashion Rio show.

    Since then, demand for their garments, handbags, tablecloths, towels, quilts, t-shirts and other products has not stopped growing. The average monthly income of each member has soared from 50 dollars to 700 dollars.

    (Suggesting drop letter) In San Francisco, La Raza Centro Legal’s Women’s Collective teaches members, mostly undocumented immigrant women who work in private households, how to negotiate for decent wages and for safe, dignified working conditions.

    The centre has a Day Labour Programme where employers can hire experienced workers with just one day advance notice. Wages are acceptable but not enough.

    “Because I care for their children, both my employers are able to work full-time, but I struggle to buy groceries for my family and pay rent each month,” says Reina Flamenco, a member of the collective.

    “But,” Castellanos warns, “outside the organisation, many domestic workers are more likely to be exploited.” According to the centre, two-thirds of domestics in California earn low wages, or wages below the poverty line.

    There are roughly 2.5 million domestic employees in the United States, nearly all of whom are immigrant women. They have little protection, the exception being the state of New York where on Aug. 31 Governor David Paterson signed into law the first extensive domestic workers’ rights measure in the nation, guaranteeing a minimum wage, overtime pay, sick days, one day off a week, and three paid days off a year.

    Domestics around the world may soon have an instrument to protect them from such abuses if the ILO approves an international convention in 2011 for protection of the rights of domestic workers.

    (Suggesting drop letter) Chen Reaksmey wants to be a role model. She moved to Cambodian capital Phnom Penh when she was just 15, hoping to support her poor family back home. She found work in a karaoke parlour, part of this Southeast Asian nation’s high-risk entertainment industry, which often includes sex work.

    By 22, she was regularly smoking highly addictive ice, or crystal methamphetamine. “A friend said, ‘Take some of this. It can make you work all night’,” Chen recalls. “It gave me energy. And it helped me forget all the painful things.”

    Her life began to change when she met workers with Korsang, a local non-governmental organisation that works on harm reduction and HIV-prevention for people with drug addictions.

    As she gradually decreased her drug use, she started volunteering as a peer educator. “At first I thought it was kind of crazy and not worth my time,” Chen tells TerraViva. “But then I saw all these women using drugs. I thought, what if I could change their lives?”

    Chen did not fully change her own life until she finally stopped smoking ice entirely three years ago, when she was pregnant with her second child.

    Now Chen is the head of Korsang’s women’s programme. It’s the only programme geared toward female drug users in a country that has few treatment and rehabilitation options.

    “I used to smoke. I used to work at night just like them. Now, I have a family and a good job,” says Chen. “I want to raise their self-esteem. I want to be a role model.”

    *Reporting by Fabiana Frayssinet in Rio de Janeiro, Aprille Muscara in New York, and Irwin Loy in Phnom Penh.

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