#WomenSpeak: Unions make us strong

1. Tell us something about yourself?

My name is Nancy Estepa. I have been a worker in Colombia’s cement industry for approximately 15 years. I have been a union leader for two years now.

My union, the National Syndicate of Workers of Industry Materials for Construction (SUTIMAC), which is affiliated with INTERGREMIAL, was founded 50 years ago. I am the first woman in SUTIMAC's history to hold a Board of Directors’ position. I am currently the Secretary for Women. The work has not been easy, but we persevere.

I am mother and head of my house. I have two beautiful daughters, whom I am proud of. My daughters are my inspiration to continue working for women. I want my children to live in a world of work free of violence and harassment, and with fair conditions and job guarantees.

I am passionate about music, dancing, traveling and spending time with my family.

2. What are the biggest challenges you face at your work as a worker?

My biggest challenge has been how to show that women can perform well in any job in our industry, that we have the same ability as our male colleagues to perform any task, even in an industry where there is the illusion that it is only fit for men.  

Due to the deeply macho and patriarchal culture of our industries, another big challenge for women is being able to access calm and safe working environments, free from harassment and violence. Given the cement industry in my country is predominantly male-dominated, gender-based harassment and violence tend to have higher statistical rates. Women do not always report abuses out of fear of losing their jobs, causing "problems" between colleagues, ignorance on the types of workplace violence that exist or because, in one way or another, we have naturalised violence in society.

3. How can you and your union solve these issues?

It is very important for women to participate in all  of the union's decision-making processes. In this way, unions will be possible to address better women issues. The supposed disinterest of women in the trade union leadership is largely due to the patriarchal and macho culture in many unions, which makes women feel unwelcome.

So far, all cases of harassment and violence that have been presented to the Secretariat for Women have received some type of solution. We made swift and anonymous follow-ups. However, we know that in majority of the cases, women workers prefer not to file a complaint.

Regarding women participation, the trade union movement must first try to recognise the double working hours and the imposition of social roles that women must bear. The doubling of women’s working hours has a real effect on the time that women can dedicate to unionism. Fulfilling a union leader role is very difficult for us if we do not have the opportunity to be mothers and unionists at the same time, without being forced to choose.

4. What does equal and better future mean for you?

A better world for me would be one where there is equality in all tasks and responsibilities and no social gender roles minimising women.

A better world would be one where the care economy is a shared task and there is equal working conditions for men and women. A better world means a safe society, where we can go out without fear of being raped, harrassed and killed.

The recognition of the differences between men and women, both physical and socioeconomic, should serve to eliminate the wage gap and inequality, not as an excuse to perpetuate the differences. We need equal employment opportunities, social guarantees and economic remuneration.

5. What role do you think women should play in the COVID-19 recovery?

The economic, social and labour recovery of our countries after COVID-19 requires an increase in the participation and leadership of women workers in trade union organisations. By empowering women workers, we build a better, stronger and gender-responsive trade union movement.

Unfortunately, women are the most affected by this pandemic, since poverty is already heavily concentrated in the women sector, which is further exacerbated by the global crisis. As such,  the number of women living in abject poverty and suffering  from violence, femicides and unemployment have increased.

Still, women are characterised as hard-working, dedicated, responsible and organised. We must extend these traits within our unions and in expressing solidarity to others. Unions makes us strong.

*#WomenSpeak is a monthly article on gender issues and concerns authored by BWI’s different affiliate women workers. It seeks to provide women workers more spaces and platforms to express their thoughts and concerns on a variety of issues that are important to them as workers and most especially, as women.