Why Women in Brazil Are Turning to the Solidarity Economy

With a broader understanding of the solidarity economy in Brazil in mind, testimonials from participating entrepreneurs themselves show the real advantages of this kind of work, from circumventing market exclusion to creating new kinds of spaces where women are reimagining the divide between domestic and productive spheres.

There are upwards of 300 solidarity economic enterprises, or empreendimentos econômicos solidários (EESs), participating in the 14 fairs that make up Circuito Rio EcoSol, Rio's solidarity economy circuit. Many of the participants are from favelas, and many EESs have joined together in networks.

The Mulheres Guerreiras da Babilônia (Warrior Women of Babilônia), for example, form an association of 10 women who make bags and accessories with imagery from their community, including imagery representing strong Afro-Brazilian women. They have joined together with other EESs to form a network of solidarity economy entrepreneurs from Pavão-Pavãozinho, Mangueira, Babilônia, and Santa Teresa.

Mara Adell Sustentável, an association in Complexo do Alemão, is also in the business of bags and accessories, but with a sustainable focus. Their eight-person association reuses PVC banners, water bottles, and "anything they can get their hands on" to repurpose as creative accessories. Mara Adell, an important leader for the association, formed a network of solidarity economy enterprises in Complexo do Alemão, with 13 EESs, including Mara Adell Sustentável, participating at present.

Devas has been operational in Complexo da Maré for 18 years making sustainable clothing. Today, there are 12 women participating, though there were 26 at the association's peak. Devas founder and facilitator, Clarice Cavalcanti, has played an important leadership role in the push for Rio de Janeiro to have more supportive solidarity economy public policy, winning some important victories. Today, she coordinates four of the 14 fairs that make up the Circuit.

Why solidarity economy?

So, why do these people, in this case largely women from Rio's favelas, make their living in the solidarity economy?

Survival and ideology are the two primary important and interlinked components. In some cases the same person is motivated by both of these components: those who know from the deepest firsthand experience that "capitalism is not for everyone and it never was," in Clarice's words, sometimes end up being the most deeply convinced that another world — and another work — are not only possible, but necessary.

On the other hand, Mara Adell from Complexo do Alemão distinguishes between "vendors" and "militants," and there certainly does exist a divide in the solidarity economy between those who merely see the commercial opportunities as a survival strategy and those who have a more ideological commitment to the cause. Mara explains that the Complexo do Alemão solidarity economy network she established is down to the 13 most committed EESs because many of those who initially sought to participate were only interested in selling goods. Mara explains that "those goods often came from China; we know they are made with slave labor, and that is not what the solidarity economy is about."

Solidarity economy and quality of life

Clarice sees the most important victory of the solidarity economy in Brazil as the "social organization of work." Essentially, solidarity economy efforts aim to address both labor market gaps and broader societal deficiencies. This happens through two main mechanisms:

  1. EESs can meet a need for income generation where labor market exclusion — via both educational disparities and spatial discrimination — is strong.
  2. EESs can provide supportive workspaces that meet a need for social interaction that addresses trauma related to poverty and violence.

Addressing market exclusion

As of the first trimester of 2016, Brazilian unemployment jumped to 10.2 percent. There aren’t enough good jobs in the country, and furthermore, with only 40 percent of favela residents obtaining a high school education or higher, many do not have the schooling necessary to get the quality jobs that do exist.

Beyond skills and opportunity mismatches, many favela residents face employment discrimination because of their address. This is sometimes called "spatial discrimination." Clarice from Devas points out that many applications are thrown out when an applicant lists a Complexo da Maré address, to the point that Maré residents often list nearby neighborhood Bonsuccesso on applications instead.

Researcher Janice Perlman comprehensively summarized favela employment dynamics in a 2005 study that revisited initial survey data from 1969. Favela residents surveyed viewed a "good job with a good salary" (or "decent work with decent pay" in the informal sector) as the "single most important factor for a successful life" — over good health, education, housing, land tenure, governance, and personal security.

Perlman then highlights the primary barriers to sought-after livelihoods. These barriers include:

  • Higher educational standards for job entry because of structural advances in education;
  • Loss of manufacturing industry in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan area;
  • Reduction in construction jobs after the 1960s/1970s boom;
  • Reduction in domestic service jobs, which were the single biggest source of female livelihood in 1968, due to tighter middle class budgets, automation, and availability of quick-fix food;
  • Pervasive stigma against favela residents.

Perlman's study shows that favela residents are well aware of spatial discrimination: on perceptions of barriers to livelihood, 84 percent of respondents listed favela residency as a biggest barrier, compared to 80 percent skin color, 74 percent appearance, 60 percent origin, and 54 percent gender. Perlman goes on to illustrate that when comparing incomes between favela residents and other Rio residents, there are drastically lower rates of return to educational investment for those living in favelas (controlling for other demographic traits).

What is clear is that favela residents are often shut out from livelihood opportunities. This is an important discussion, especially given the fact that residents view a good job as a key to mobility.

Where jobs are accessible, however, there can still be a difference between earnings in the traditional economy and the solidarity economy. For example, Clarice points out that each Devas product budget accounts for labor costs at R$23 per hour, whereas she cites typical labor costs in a seamstress workshop at R$2.50 to R$3 per hour.

Creating supportive spaces

Salary, benefits, and workplace conditions often differ between solidarity economy work and the traditional economy jobs that are most accessible to favela residents.

When EESs are informal, there are challenges to their ability to provide benefits to member-workers. This underscores the importance of creating accessible legal forms for EESs. In the cases of Devas, Mulheres Guerreiras da Babilônia, and Mara Adell Sustentável, all are registered as associations and thus have the ability to pay benefits. Clarice underscores that Devas member-workers receive social security benefits and that a recent member-worker who had become pregnant was able to take maternity leave that she wouldn’t have been able to negotiate in other forms of employment previously available to her.

There are also informal benefits to working in an EES, particularly for female heads of household and mothers in general. Rio de Janeiro is a city that has relegated many service workers to the hills and the suburban periphery, making childcare a challenge for mothers who work far from home due to long commutes. EES member-workers often come from the communities where their workplace is located, or in some cases produce from home, coming together just for meetings, organization, and commercialization, all of which allow increased flexibility for caregiving.

At a food services solidarity economy cooperative in Rio Grande do Sul, during fieldwork conducted with my colleague, psychologist Marilene Liége Daros, and the cooperative members, female member-workers spoke extensively about these dynamics:

"Here, you can leave running if your sick daughter has a problem in the house, for example. Because it's all by foot, you know? That was the objective."

"If you're five minutes late in regular work, you’re on the street the next day."

"Yesterday, we all couldn't come due to (scheduling) conflicts, so we decided to come Friday instead."

We conducted an exercise asking these member-workers to compare traditional work and solidarity economy work through free association:

Reimagining the relationship between private and work life

Employment that blurs the line between domestic caregiving and workforce labor may seem like a step backwards for women’s rights, relegating women to the private sphere without offering opportunities for professional advancement. Furthermore, the EESs in this article are all in industries that might be considered typically feminine: crafts, food, tailoring.

However, as Brazilian sociologist Helena Bonumá argues, solidarity economy arrangements can bring "the private to the productive sphere," reimagining both of these spheres and "highlighting the reproductive sphere as fundamental for the production of life." In the example of the food services cooperative, member-workers’ freedom to respond to family needs has a bearing on work arrangements, and their constant conversational reflection on family life is indicative of this.

Indeed, many feminist scholars point to the rigidity of the division between public "work" spheres and private spheres of unpaid care work as a key part of the maintenance of structures that are oppressive to women. Prominent feminist political scientist Nancy Fraser has said, "There can be no 'emancipation of women' so long as this structure… [of] gendered, hierarchical division between 'production' and 'reproduction'… remains intact."

Many women in Brazil's low-income communities are either engaged in both production and reproduction as female heads of household, or are engaged in care work in two contexts — for their own family, as well as under the employ of a wealthier family. In that second circumstance, Fraser notes that it is important to be cognizant of the ways in which "lean in" feminism means "lean on" feminism: In the current structure, women in the professional-managerial class can only benefit from more time spent on their careers if they rely on others for care work and housework. This might be a supportive partner, but is often a low-wage, precarious, female worker.

A story of community and political organizing

One success story that is well known in Brazilian solidarity economy circles and which highlights how EESs can offer an alternative to "lean in" feminism is that of Univens, a tailoring cooperative in Porto Alegre. When Univens member-workers struggled without anyone to take care of their children, they started a community daycare center. The cooperative offers courses, which members feel are especially important as crack takes a stronger hold in the neighborhood. They are interested in expanding these classes from tailoring to theater, painting, and other cultural programs. The courses started with 18 people but now have a large waiting list. Univens also has a solidarity fund in order to help out with crises in the community and is thinking of starting a community bank.

Leader Nelsa Nespolo attributes the cooperative's success to three important factors: first, relationships — everyone in the cooperative lives in the neighborhood and will continue to see each other in the community no matter what happens in the cooperative; second, experience with organizing — Nelsa had previously been involved in youth and factory workers' organizing, which leads to an understanding of democratic practices; and finally, transparency — there is good financial control in the cooperative and due to transparency there has never been an issue with the application of internal resources. Possibly as a cross-cutting factor, Nelsa points out that Univens does not want to grow beyond 30 people, because their internal democracy works well at this scale.

The story of Univens is one of community and political organizing. Twenty years ago in this neighborhood, the residents did not have any infrastructure in terms of paved streets or garbage collection. At that time, the city of Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting policy had a huge impact — the neighborhood came together to ask for needs to be met one street at a time. In the face of high unemployment in the 1990s, women from the neighborhood began to come together to make money through seamstress work. Initially working in their homes, they eventually started the cooperative. There were no supports for cooperatives at that time, so they went article by article creating their own statute, modeled after a housing cooperative. Today, they have social security, vacation leave (10 days in July and 20 days in February), sick leave, and surplus at the end of the year.

Given the realities of double shifts and of unpaid labor in the home, EESs like Univens, which reimagine the relationship between home and work, may be liberating even if they do not mesh with certain Western notions of what women's advancement looks like. Indeed, EESs can be a means for solidarity economy entrepreneurs to construct a more participatory citizenship, which will be the topic of the final article in the series.

This is the second of a three-part series on solidarity economy in Brazil. Read part one on Shareable here.

Author Anna Cash conducted research on the solidarity economy as a platform for increasing social inclusion in 2015 in the greater Porto Alegre area, as part of a Fulbright Fellowship in partnership with the EcoSol Research Group at Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos), and with the guidance of Professor Luiz Inácio Gaiger. She is currently a student in the Masters in City Planning program at University of California Berkeley.

Article and images re-posted from RioOnWatch.

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