Elizabeth Ticona has been working in construction for over seven years. She has fought for workers’ rights in La Paz, Bolivia for more than ten years. But a few months ago, she decided to leave the movements she had been a part of for so long, and start her own: the Union of Women Construction Workers.
“We started the union after seeing all of the chauvinism and sexism in this industry in Bolivia,” says Ticona, a 37-year-old mason. “Women face discrimination, abuse, and sexual harassment.” She adds that male coworkers routinely tell them to "go back to the kitchen” and that "only men are fit for this work.” Bolivia's first union of female construction workers, aims to put a stop to that.
More and more women are construction workers, as a recent construction boom in Bolivia concentrated in the major cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz has opened up positions in a country with limited work opportunities. The industry has grown steadily since 2004, and construction spending rose 32% between 2012 and 2014 alone. CNN and other news sources report that approximately 33% of all construction workers in Bolivia are now women, while Ticona estimates 20%. An 2011 official census reports just 4%.
The jobs available to women in construction are rarely good ones. “We only have opportunities to work as assistants or laborers,” says Ticona. “Never as supervisors or contractors.” Only three percent of female construction workers are supervisors or managers, confirms [La Paz-based] NGO Red Hábitat, while 97% work as assistants or laborers. At every level, women are paid less than men. “Men might get 150 [Bolivianos] a day, and we get about 100,” says Ticona.
All the same, this salary, the equivalent of less than $15 USD a day, is still higher than what many Bolivian women make in more traditionally female jobs. On May 1st, the minimum wage in Bolivia rose 15% to about $239 USD per month, which works out to only $11.85 USD a day. As over 78% of women working in non-agricultural jobs hold informal jobs, many make less than this. Seamstress positions in La Paz, for example, advertise a salary of about $10 USD a day.
“This is a sector that pays a bit better,” says Ticona. “I was motivated by necessity. I’m a single mother of four daughters. The majority of the women in construction are single mothers.” Another incentive for those who are struggling financially is that construction workers get paid weekly, instead of having to wait until the end of the month.
In the past month, the union has grown in membership from 35 to over 100 women. In addition to offering health insurance to members and combatting harassment and pay inequalities, the union also intends to open up the space to gain higher managerial positions. Fellow union officer Navy Chacón says they’ve already started to see some changes: her group recently won a contract for a painting project, and hired men to do it. “We’ve reached a position where we can contract the work out to men,” she says. “This time it was us who signed the contract. And we get to be the ones to pay them."
For the time being, the Union of Women Construction Workers (originally known as the Bolivian Women Builders Association, or ASOMUC) doesn’t have an email address, let alone a website. The Bolivian departmental government is still reviewing the union's application for legal recognition. But the founders are ambitious: Chacón invites any women’s groups around the world that may want to collaborate to call them at +591 70532350, and notes that they are already working with other women’s unions in Bolivia. "We want to fight for the rights of all women, as there’s so much femicide, violence, abuse, rape and harassment,” says Chacón. “We’re demanding the rights of not just women in construction but of all women in Latin America."
Written by Sophie Feintuch.
All photos taken in Alto Lima, El Alto, Bolivia by Jordi Ruiz Cirera for COLORS.