Article 88 and wages for caring work in three international meetings in Mexico and Venezuela
Nina López, Global Women’s Strike, 25 May 2008
The swearing in of Maria Leon as Venezuela’s Minister for Women’s Affairs on the 24th of April, and the resignation the day before of Gioconda Mota as President of the Mission Madres del Barrio (neighbourhood mothers), highlight the significance of Article 88 of the Bolivarian constitution and the urgency for the revolution of its implementation.
Since 2002 the Global Women’s Strike has been working with the Bolivarian process, highlighting women’s leadership and achievements, and publicizing Article 88. This Article recognizes that “work in the home creates added value and produces wealth and social welfare”, and therefore entitles housewives to social security. It has captured women’s imagination internationally. Many people consider Article 88 conclusive proof of the extraordinary advancement of women in Venezuela and an example for the whole world.
Mexico: countries and issues represented
The conference “Women in the Creation of Grassroots Power” in the Indigenous community of Laguna Guadalupe in Putla de Guerrero, Oaxaca, on 14-16 March, was attended by 400 Indigenous women, mainly Triqui and Mixteca, from the state of Oaxaca. There were also women from the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, and from Bolivia, England, Guyana, India, Ireland, Peru, Spain, US and Venezuela.
It was organized by the Comite de Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (committee for the defense of the rights of women), the Comite de Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo (committee for the defense of the rights of the people) and the Global Women’s Strike. Never before had Laguna Guadalupe witnessed the expression of such a variety of experiences and broad international commitment.
Four workshops discussed the struggles and demands of the communities represented, both Mexican and international. One by one, women raised their most urgent concerns: water, rubbish environmental pollution and recycling; the effects of global warming and biofuels on food production and prices and the resulting starvation of millions of people; discrimination against Indigenous women, especially those who don’t speak Spanish; the triple working day (in the home, in the fields and in income generating jobs such as taxi driving), bonded labour, wages for housework and domestic workers’ rights; women’s right to the land they work, low prices for agricultural produce and hand-made products; defending Indigenous communal traditions of work and organizing while rejecting those practices which are sexist; lack of resources to build schools and for other public works; men emigrating to the US in search of employment and the difficulties they face there; police, military and paramilitary violence and human rights abuses and the targeting of movement organizers (Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, the Haitian grassroots advocate disappeared on 12 August 2007 was mentioned); the effect of State violence on domestic violence; harm caused by imperialist development, arms production and intervention; cuts in services which finance imperialist wars such as the occupation of Iraq; sexism and racism as weapons to divide and rule; how women’s organizing can bring different races and communities together . . .
The cultural evening, conducted with great skill and joyful exuberance by the local communities and the school, focussed on some of these issues. In explicit poems and dances, children and adults of both sexes condemned arbitrary detentions, rapes, disappearances and murders committed in Oaxaca, Atenco and other parts of Mexico, and declared their intention to fight till victory.
For the women to understand each other, multiple translations were needed – from Triqui and Mixteca into Spanish, and Spanish into English and vice versa. But despite the different languages we spoke, our priorities were similar and a real connection was established between the Oaxaca women and those from other countries.
We talked about the need to access simultaneous translation technology to facilitate communication not only between women from different countries but among different Indigenous communities, and we decided to look for funding for this. We also decided to follow up with campaigns on concrete demands on issues such as rubbish, recycling, pollution, co-operatives to increase agricultural production and negotiate better prices, and to continue to report and condemn internationally the human rights abuses carried out by those in power in Mexico and elsewhere.*
Men demonstrated support by serving food and taking women from the different communities to and from the conference, and with major works such as piped water, which was organized a few days before the conference and remains one tangible achievement for the whole community (especially women) which hosted the event.
Differences with the president of Madres del Barrio
The attendance at the Mexican conference of the Venezuelan government represented by Gioconda Mota, then president of Madres del Barrio, and her 10-strong delegation (including regional co-ordinators and camera men) gave rise to a heated discussion in one of the workshops. Madres del Barrio gives a small “incentive” (between 60 and 80% of the minimum wage) to women in extreme poverty and trains them “for production”. The incentive is temporary (six months to a year) though it can become permanent in the case of older women or women who look after children with disabilities.
The Strike raised that, sadly, Article 88 had not been implemented yet, and there was a danger that by giving an incentive to some women but not to others, rather than recognizing the right of all to a wage on the basis of the work we already do, Madres del Barrio was creating divisions among women.
The president took offence. She announced that she was speaking for the government and, dismissing the Strike’s six-year commitment and contribution to the Bolivarian process, declared that those of us who are not Venezuelan should not comment on “what we don’t know”. She even dismissed what was said by a Venezuelan compañero from Payday (the international men’s network which is part of the Strike). She insisted that it was untrue to say that Article 88 had not been implemented, because Madres del Barrio was its implementation. She said that the Women’s Institute (INAMUJER), the Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer) and her organization did not agree with wages for housework. They believed that housewives “are not productive” and getting a wage would condemn women to staying at home instead of “training them for production”.
Contradicting Article 88
The capitalist governments of the US, Britain and others use this same argument to deny the contribution of mothers to the economy and to cut our benefits, forcing us to go out to work, without any concern for our wishes or the welfare of our children.
Most feminists in government positions in these countries share and promote this demeaning view of mothers. They say that only women who work outside of the home are productive; and that housewives are unskilled and unproductive (dismissing at the same time the hard unwaged work women who go out to a job have to do when they get home). In this way, those women who qualify for managerial posts, through their university studies and connections, feel qualified and justified to plan and decide for women over our heads, bypassing our demands and aspirations. Survey after survey has shown that most women would like to be able to look after their children while they are young.
The women the Strike in Barcelona compared Article 88 to the new Dependence Law which had just come into force in Spain. It provides financial support to the carers of severely disabled and elderly people, and for the first time a monthly payment for those who care for family members. This last measure has been hailed as groundbreaking. But again, the payment of €561 is below the minimum wage, and feminists in government have not fought for a wage that reflects the true value of this work. Instead, they insist that it should only be paid to “women who can’t be productive” – over fifty or “unskilled”.
The excuse for denying women decent wages for caring work is, again, that this work is not productive. Productive for whom? Why are mothers who create life not productive while soldiers who destroy it are? If we are trying to create a caring economy, an economy at the service of human beings, why are we holding on to capitalist definitions which glorify war and the market above human life? Caring is the basic work of the production and reproduction of the entire human race. Isn’t that enough to entitle those who do this work to be lifted out of the slavery of wagelessness to the dignity that the economic recognition of a living wage can afford us?
Not accidentally, it is generally women with a good salary who can afford to employ other women to look after their children and do their housework, who want to deny most of us the employment rights we have earned by the sweat of our brow in the home and community.
For more than 35 years, the Strike has been demanding payment for caring work. To us it is the spearhead in the struggle to create a society and an economy at the service of human beings, which values the workers who do this caring work and therefore values those we care for. Women are the majority in all the missions and the most committed to the Bolivarian revolution, as President Chávez has said many times. For us the work of revolution is a continuation of our caring work, of our work of survival and justice for our loved ones. Valuing socially and economically the work of producing and reproducing the human race and its workforce, establishes the true value of women’s contribution and, therefore, our entitlement to all services (health, education, training, etc.) and to decide the direction of our society and our economy.
As President Chávez – who also always stresses how hard women work in the home and society’s debt to them – has said, women and girls are 70% of those who live in poverty worldwide. Of course we want every opportunity to study and train for whatever job we choose. That doesn’t mean that the work we do in the home is not productive and that we don’t deserve payment for it. To claim work in the home is unproductive contradicts Article 88 and makes that work invisible, condemning the majority of women to continue to work a double and triple day in conditions that undermine and impoverish us. We grassroots women deserve recognition for our work: every decent job deserves a decent wage. If caring is society’s basic and most vital work, why is it the only work that doesn’t deserve a wage?
We found it difficult that the Bolivarian revolution was officially represented by a government executive with whom we had to disagree, and who arrogantly rejected any comments or discussion, as if governments always know what’s best for women. This reminded us of the famous “trade union debate” in which Lenin insisted that workers needed independent trade unions to protect themselves from their own State. Women workers in the home are no different. Like every other sector of the working class, we must always represent our own interests independently even of our own government, no matter how revolutionary it is. That is the only way to ensure that the government remains revolutionary.
We don’t know if the grassroots women on the Madres del Barrio delegation shared their president’s view – they did not say. None of them expressed her views in any of the workshops, and all the workshops agreed that caring work should be recognized economically.
The resignation of Gioconda Mota following accusations of “obstacles preventing the resources from reaching mothers in extreme poverty” does not surprise us. The Strike in Venezuela had raised, and said it again to Ms Mota at the Mexico conference, that: 1) many mothers are not getting the payment they are entitled to; 2) grassroots women have met in the communities to do the painstaking work of preparing and presenting lists of who should be prioritized for the payment; 3) but the payments are not being given out according to these lists, and in some cases the lists have been “lost”.
Tarmas: women refuse to be divided
Before this resignation and back in Venezuela on the 26th March, we met with the Artisans Association of Tarmas, in the state of Vargas. Women were very concerned that Madres del Barrio was dividing them. Both women who are receiving a payment and those who are not agreed that Madres del Barrio was creating resentments among women because the payment was not universal as it should be according to Article 88. One woman also said that a number of women are leaving the education missions to join Madres del Barrio because the other missions pay even less money.
As President Chávez said when Maria León was sworn in as Minister for Women, referring to Madres del Barrio not doing its job properly, “We cannot deviate.” The lack of implementation of Article 88 is a deviation which has been generating discontent among grassroots women and allowing women with more social and economic power to make decisions over the heads of the grassroots.
Ujamaa – the relevance of Tanzania’s socialism for Venezuela
There had been a similar discussion at the conference in Caracas (“Women, Patriarchy and Development”, 6-7 March, International Miranda Centre – CIM). Selma James, co-ordinator of the Strike, and Rosemary Nyerere, daughter of the famous socialist Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, were invited speakers.
Selma spoke about ujamaa, the socialist villages created in the 60s on which Nyerere based his policy of socialist rural development: people must be the only purpose of development; the people and every individual must decide how collectively to develop, no one can decide for them.
Nyerere considered that rural women worked harder than anyone else in Tanzania and that men (and some of the women in the cities) should follow their example.
“. . .in the villages the women work very hard. At times they work for 12 or 14 hours a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays. Women who live in the villages work harder than anybody else in Tanzania. But the men who live in villages (and some of the women in towns) are on leave for half of their life.”
“The energies of the millions of men in the villages and thousands of women in the towns which are at present wasted in gossip, dancing and drinking, are a great treasure which could contribute more towards the development of our country than anything we could get from rich nations.”
Selma explained that the 17 ujamaa villages, which were part of the Ruvuma Development Association, achieved in a few years what has not been achieved anywhere else in the world: pay equity between women and men based on valuing women’s caring work as equal to all other work in the society. She said:
“In an ujamaa village women would be collective owners of the land they worked and of its product, participating in all decisions on crops, methods, distribution, etc. Women’s workload would become a collective consideration as would men’s; each would do an equitable share, raising productivity and accelerating the elimination of poverty. The very nature of ujamaa opened the way for women to break from their traditional subservient position and collectively recreate social relationships.”
But ujamaa was destroyed by Nyerere’s own party which didn’t want people, especially peasants, to be in charge of their own destiny. The party voted (21 to 3) against Nyerere and against all those who had so successfully built the ujamaa villages he had inspired and supported in the Ruvuma region. The party destroyed the self-governing Ruvuma Development Association and all over the country imposed a compulsory form of ujamaa managed by the party. Despite some achievements, compulsory ujamaa had to be abandoned some years later – people felt exploited by measures imposed from the top whose benefits were not obvious to those being ordered to do the work, and by the corruption of party members who misused their power to get favours for themselves.
Rosemary Nyerere spoke about how people still remember what ujamaa stood for and about their hope that they can recreate it now.
Ujamaa and article 88
At the Caracas conference, parallels were made between ujamaa and Article 88, especially in relation to the work women do and the equity the ujamaa villages achieved.
But during the discussion some women said that it was not a good idea to give money to grassroots women because their consciousness was too low and they would “spend their money on plastic surgery”. The Strike protested at the sexist and racist attitude of professional women who consider themselves smarter because they are richer. One of the conference organizers also indignantly commented that a similar argument was used in apartheid South Africa “to deny Black people money because supposedly they wouldn’t know what to do with it except to get drunk.”
The Strike raised that those who question grassroots women’s right to a wage for caring work because “it would condemn them to stay at home” or “they don’t know how to spend money responsibly,” never question men’s right to a wage for their work. No one says that it condemns men to the factory or that they don’t use their wages sensibly so employers should keep it from them. Yet everyone knows that women tend to be more responsible than men, to prioritize feeding our children and educating them.
It seems that budget considerations have been delaying implementation of Article 88. Nora Castañeda, president of Banmujer, and a speaker at the conference, reported that a proposal by members of the National Assembly to finance implementation by taxing perfumes and other beauty products had rightly caused a storm among women. In an oil-rich country like Venezuela money is not the issue; political will is. There are clearly people who are unhappy that women’s social and economic contribution should be recognized, and who would rather keep us working for free.
Rosemary Nyerere, a former Member of Parliament in Tanzania, was surprised to hear that some women opposed wages for caring work: “I would have liked to look after my own children,” she said, “but I didn’t have the opportunity.”
Implementation of Article 88: when and how?
When she was sworn in, Maria León said that “Article 88 will continue to light humanity for its recognition of women’s work.” We hope these are not mere words, and that the revolution is not taken off course by an implementation far below the demands and aspirations of grassroots women.
*Note: Two days after the conference, the international Strike delegation for 24 hours joined a sit-in on the pavement outside Putla’s city hall. The rural communities presenting their demands for the construction of various public works, faced the intransigence and threats of the local government. We contacted some international media, which interviewed the communities’ representatives, as well as two British Members of Parliament. They called and faxed, raised with the Mexican authorities concern over the presence of paramilitaries and the risk of human rights abuses against the people involved, especially the women and children who were part of the sit-in. After a two-day lock-in, dialogue was resumed and an agreement was signed between the parties. Though the money agreed was not nearly as much as the communities wanted, it was more than the total refusal they initially faced.
Co-ordinator of Global Women's Strike
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