By Laurence Pantin
Tuesday, August 6, 2002
Women's rights activists are urging Mexico's President Fox to support reform of labor laws to bar sex bias in the workplace. Also, in Pennsylvania, a judge lifted a court order and permitted a woman to have an abortion opposed by her companion.
MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)--Attorney Julia Perez has represented many women who were sexually harassed at work, but one in particular stands out.
Her client, a local government employee, was called into the office of one of her bosses when he heard that she had bought a new dress the day before.
The man asked her to try the dress on for him, and as she was putting it on top of her clothes, he asked her whether she had already been paid.
When the woman said that she hadn't, he asked her to remove her clothes to try on the dress. If she did so, he said, he'd make sure she'd be paid that day.
When Perez's client refused, he tried to kiss her, removed her clothes and asked her to kiss his penis.
The employee managed to leave the room and immediately told another office manager what had happened. The manager told her that she was responsible for her boss's behavior.
Women who have suffered from such abuses would like to speak up about the discrimination they've been subjected to and put an end to it, Perez says.
"The problem is that the law, as it is now, doesn't enable you to put an end" to this type of behavior, she says. "On the contrary, it almost guarantees you you'll end up losing your case." She added that that the woman didn't file a complaint to the police because she believed she did not have enough evidence to prove her case.
For that reason, feminists and union activists here are proposing reforms to the Mexican federal labor law that would take into account the hurdles working women face every day.
They are advocating that the Mexican labor law assert the right of women to work in all sectors, as well as their right to equal pay for equal work. Their proposal also would give more protection to working mothers by requiring that employers maintain their job security and seniority after a pregnancy.
The "proposal of labor reform with a gender perspective" comes as business and union representatives negotiate with President Vicente Fox over updates to the country's labor law, originally passed in 1931 and last reformed in 1974.
All sectors in Mexico agree that a reform to this law, which has been intended for almost 10 years, is urgent, even though they strongly disagree on how it should be modified.
Proponents of the gender-sensitive reform say women should take part in the debate since the 13.2 million working women in Mexico--about 35 percent of the country's workers--are more and more often victims of multiple forms of discrimination.
The proposal if it became law would also prohibit companies from requiring women to take pregnancy tests when they apply for a position or to fire women because they're expecting a child. Furthermore, it would include a precise definition of sexual harassment, declare it illegal and hold employers responsible for failing to eliminate harassment.
When Mexico's federal labor law was approved in 1931, few women worked and the Mexican Constitution didn't give women the right to vote, much less the right to participate in the political debate over their own rights.
"We thought it was important to participate and present a reform proposal that takes into account working women's long-standing demands," said Ines Gonzalez, head of the Federacion Nacional de Sindicatos Bancarios (National Federation of Bank Workers' Unions), who helped craft the proposal.
"We thought that if we remained on the side and didn't give our opinion, they were likely to invite us at the federal labor law's funeral," she said, referring to the government and business sector.
The groups pushing for reform are now trying to find political support, said Ortiz. They have presented their proposal to the Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (National Women's Institute), a federal institution that promotes gender equity and women's rights, as well as to the Union Nacional de Trabajadores (National Union of Workers), a federation of independent unions. These associations are also seeking the support of main political parties and are hoping to present their proposal to the commissions on equity and gender of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Reformers were spurred to action last year, when the current government's labor secretary, Carlos Abascal, delivered a speech on International Women's Day in which he described women's "specific vocation as mothers and spouses."
"Some women experience the temptation to liberate themselves from what constitutes their specific vocation as mothers and spouses, since one of the tendencies of the modern world is to highlight rights, forgetting that to every right corresponds a duty," Abascal said at the time. "A real promotion of women requires from our society a re-evaluation and recognition of maternal and family-related tasks, because these have a greater value than all other tasks and public professions."
Discrimination against working women in Mexico starts before women are hired, said Rosario Ortiz, coordinator of the Network of Union Women, since women seeking a job often have to take a pregnancy test and are not hired if the results come back positive. Once hired, many women are fired if they tell their employer that they are expecting a child, added said Cecilia Talamante, coordinator of the Grupo de Educacion Popular con Mujeres, A.C. (Popular Education Group for Women), which helped create the proposal.
"In the case of maquiladoras--and this has been documented--they even keep track of their workers' menstruations," she said, referring to foreign-owned assembly plants. Employers usually use another pretext to fire pregnant women, who usually cannot prove they've been fired for their pregnancy, Talamante added.
Mexico's Department of Labor, has no statistics to support Talamante's allegations.
The segregated labor market is another hidden form of discrimination, Ortiz said. Women tend to work in traditionally female activities that pay less. Government studies show that while working women have a higher education than working men on average, they earn only 75 percent of what men earn. Even when they are hired in sectors where men and women are equally represented, said Gonzalez, women stay at the lowest positions and find it much more difficult to get promoted.
Finally, sexual harassment in the workplace remains an issue many women have to cope with and can hardly denounce, said Talamante. Sexual harassment in the workplace affects three of every four working women, and of these, 40 percent leave their job because of the harassment, according to the information provided by the groups behind the reform proposal.
In addition, gender discrimination also exists in unions, where women's participation is minimal, according to Gonzalez.
"As women," she said, "we have to take on a double fight: the fight against the boss, the company, to obtain better working conditions, and the fight against our own co-workers, who sometimes take us into account, but usually ignore us."
Laurence Pantin is Women's Enews' correspondent in Mexico City.
Grupo de Educacion Popular con Mujeres, A.C.
Federacion Nacional de Sindicatos Bancarios
Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres
Also see Women's Enews, August 3, 2002:
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