Brick by Brick, Women Builders Make Their Way in Brazil

  • by Fabiana Frayssinet * - TerraViva/IPS (rio de janeiro)
  • Monday, June 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

The women -- who represent just seven of the 90 workers -- are a new face of the labour market in Brazil, and they worked hard to reach the top of the scaffolding surrounding this eight-floor building that is going up in Rio de Janeiro.

'They told me I wouldn't hack it as a construction worker, but here I am,' says 23-year-old Daiana Aguiar, a married mother of one.

She adds that many people she knows doubt that 'I really plaster or lay bricks.'

Aguiar has no nostalgia for her old job as a cashier in a supermarket. 'I only had one day off a week. On a construction site you earn a lot more, and you have the weekend off. And now I have a car, I'm studying, and I'm building at my house too.'

She and her female co-workers can thank the Mão na Massa (roughly, Hands On) Project that has been promoting the insertion of women in the labour market since 2007.

The programme, which is also aimed at boosting the self-esteem of women workers, is an initiative of the Federação de Instituições Beneficentes (FIB), a network of close to 250 civil society organisations, with the backing of Petrobras and Eletrobras, the state-run oil and power companies.

The women received 460 hours of teaching and training: 180 hours of hands-on coursework, 120 hours of training in areas like bricklaying, painting, carpentry and plumbing, and 160 hours of classes on subjects like citizenship education, gender and health, and workplace safety.

In the last four months of the course, the women receive the equivalent of a basic basket of goods per month.

The project, which targets women heads of households, also helps them find employment in public and private companies, with a 70 percent success rate so far.

'We are trying to break with the concept that women have no place on a construction site,' says Norma Sá, coordinator of Mão na Massa, during a visit by TerraViva to the work site.

The idea first emerged when Deise Gravina, a civil engineer and the president of FIB, noticed that women made good construction workers, and that women in the favelas or shantytowns often helped their fathers or husbands to build or upgrade their homes.

A study confirmed that many women were interested in becoming construction workers but did not attempt to learn the trade because they saw it as a male profession.

Sunilda dos Santos, 36, was supporting her two children and a grandchild on her own by washing and ironing clothes. But she decided to become a carpenter 'to prove to myself that I could do it.'

The women's self-esteem gets a boost from their new formal sector jobs and from the improvement in pay. 'Now I have a credit card and even a checkbook,' Santos exclaimed.

'I bought a refrigerator with one of those contraptions on the door that cold water comes out of,' she says, as her work-mates celebrate her purchase, making comments like 'how chic!'

The men have had to get used to it, Santos says. 'They don't totally accept us, because we're invading their field. We try to understand their point of view. It's also difficult for them.'

'Some say that if a woman is already dangerous with a broom in her hand, just imagine with a hammer,' another one of the women jokes.

Sá says that 'few companies are willing to hire women, but the ones that do demand more of us.'

'In fact, there basically were no women labourers in the field of civil construction,' says Denise Rodrigues, administrative and financial director of the Cofix construction company, which hired the seven women builders. 'When trained women workers began to appear, we asked ourselves 'why not?''

The women have turned out to be excellent workers in areas where it is hard to find good professionals, such as workplace safety, Rodrigues says.

'Women are more detail-oriented and meticulous,' and they're less wasteful of materials, which keeps costs down, she adds.

'Are the men jealous of them? On the contrary, now that they're here, the guys show up looking tidier and wearing perfume, and they curse less,' she laughs.

She adds that technological development has toppled the myth that construction work is 'too heavy' for women.

Andrea Pereira, a 37-year-old mother of one, used to work in a bakery. Her new job helped her pull out of a depression that she says was the result of 'never fitting in.'

The government's special secretariat for policy on women reports that female participation in civil construction has steadily increased in this South American country over the last decade. From 2008 to 2009 alone, it grew three percent, thanks also to the boom in construction driven by the increase in family income and the greater availability of housing loans.

Another factor is higher spending on public works, which has driven the hiring of women by means of incentives and rules for construction companies.

Since 2009, the secretariat has been carrying out the 'women building autonomy in civil construction' programme, with the goal of training 2,670 workers in the first two years in the states of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, with backing from state and municipal governments.

The participants receive training in bricklaying, moulding, painting, tile-laying, plumbing and even stonecutting, in a 236-hour course that includes skills training as well as business administration and citizenship education classes.

One of the participants in the course, 35-year-old Daniela da Rocha, tells TerraViva that many women from her favela, Morro da Providencia in Rio de Janeiro, 'are raising children on their own, and really need work.'

They need to upgrade their modest homes too, she says, adding that they could also apply their newfound building skills to community construction projects and improvements.

María Rosa Lombardi with the Carlos Chagas Foundation, a renowned Brazilian educational institution, says the growing presence of women in the labour market has not yet been accompanied by equal pay or access to promotions and higher-level positions.

The sociologist told TerraViva that the labour market in Brazil is still 'very machista.' She also expressed her concern that the growing demand for jobs for women in a limited labour market would drive up unemployment, which is traditionally higher among women.

Da Rocha, who dreams of becoming an engineer, complains that she has not found work in the construction industry because 'there is still a lot of discrimination.'

Some businesses hire women for three months, to show that they are living up to government measures aimed at boosting employment among women, 'and then they fire us,' she complains. Besides offering courses, the government 'should enforce the law among private firms,' she argues.


Women in the construction industry

In 2007, there were 186,000 women in civil construction in Brazil, out of a total population of 190 million, according to the special secretariat for policy on women.

Of that total, 127,000 had formal sector jobs, 9,000 were self-employed and 16,000 were working without pay, helping family members build. Another 28,000 were building their own homes, and 6,000 were employers.

*This story was originally published by IPS TerraViva with the support of UNIFEM and the Dutch MDG3 Fund.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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