Equal opportunities dominate bargaining in footwear industry

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Bargaining over equal opportunities has been a central element in the 1998 round of negotiations in the Portuguese footwear industry. Even though equal rights and, above all, equal pay are guaranteed by law and collective bargaining, inequality continues because of structural and cultural factors. Positive actions taken by workers and trade unions have centred around structuring careers and overcoming cultural barriers.

In January 1998, negotiations in the footwear industry resumed between the Union of Workers in the Footwear, Luggage and Related Goods Industry of the District of Aveiro and Coimbra (Sindicato dos Operários da Indústria do Calçado, Malas e Afins dos Distritos de Aveiro e Coimbra, which is affiliated to the Federation of Workers in Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry Unions or Federação dos Sindicatos das Indústrias Têxteis, Vestuário e Calçado, FESETE, an affiliate of CGTP) and the Portuguese Association of Industrialists in the Footwear, Accessories, Leather and Related Goods Industry (Associação Portuguesa dos Industriais de Calçado e Acessórios). The following demands have been submitted by the union: wage increases of 5% (compared with the 2.75% awarded in the civil service); increased meal allowances; automatic promotion in some job grades; and the elimination of gender discrimination in recruitment.

Footwear workers in Aveiro held a strike and carried out protest marches and a solidarity demonstration in December 1997. The protests were aimed in particular at supporting a pregnant worker who had been dismissed, according to the union, in disregard for her independence, individuality and ultimate right to self-determination (she was a soon-to-be lone parent).

Economic and social background

The footwear industry has undergone huge development in Portugal over the last 15 years. Footwear is particularly important in Portugal as an export commodity, since the country is Europe's second largest manufacturer. The industry is primarily located in Aveiro, Coimbra and Braga. Aveiro, where the industry is particularly strong (41% of Portuguese firms are based there), is also a district of rural and deep-rooted traditions: 40% of the community is made up of farming families and 30% of all industrial workers also glean income from farming (see "A situação da mulher trabalhadora no calçado e no distrito de Aveiro", Grupo de Acção Social, Publicoop, CRL (1994)).

Working conditions

The footwear sector comprises roughly 60,000 workers working in small, medium- and large-sized enterprises. According to the latest statistics (Quadros de Pessoal, MQE, 1995), the labour picture is stable: a high percentage of the workers are on permanent contracts and work full time (86%). However, the sector operates on a low-pay basis. Average monthly earnings were PTE 73,227 (in October 1997), a figure which represents 62.4% of the national average. Working hours are long and, according to the unions, it is one of the sectors in which the 40-hour working week, implemented in December 1997 (PT9712154F), is still not observed by certain businesses. Average weekly working time in 1995 was 42 hours with a normal working period of between 42.6 and 44 hours, set down in agreements. The rate of coverage by collective agreements is high (96.7%) and working conditions are uniform. It is rare to find individualised or differentiated wages - 1:1.07 is the ratio between collectively-agreed basic pay and average monthly earnings, whilst in company-level agreements it rises to 1:1.40.

Status of women in the labour market

Women make up 60% of the workforce in the Portuguese footwear sector. The national average across all sectors is 42.8%. According to the union, in the Aveiro region, the figure rises to 70%. According to the Grupo de Acção Social study mentioned above, the female population has a low level of education, 41% of the women are between 20 and 30 years of age and 81% are married. Vocational training is not a major concern.

Permanent employment and the safeguarding of working conditions are guaranteed under the collective agreement. It is, however, a sector in which horizontal and vertical sex discrimination exists. Discrimination is based primarily on how qualifications and job grades are structured. As far as recruitment is concerned, access to jobs shows gender aggregation based on the idea that certain "female professions" exist. Women are concentrated at the lower end of the scale. With regard to equal opportunities policies, there are no visible plans for special or specific training, fostering of job rotation or enrichment. The industry's attitude is based on the assumption that there are innate female characteristics which lend themselves to certain professions or activities which, in turn, are then viewed as intrinsically "female" (for example, "seamstress" of shoe uppers). These tasks and activities are not well regarded professionally, as far as job grading is concerned.

Contractually, there are two groups, A and B, which were established by collective agreement within the sector. Group B includes the "female professions." According to a union study of 30,740 workers carried out in 1994, 88% of the 20,878 women were in Group B; by contrast, 60% of the 9,862 men were in Group A.

Even though union membership amongst women in the footwear industry is high - a rate of 40% on a national scale - women have not been present at the bargaining table. According to the study mentioned above, the union is viewed more as a means for organised protest and protection, even though some disappointment is patent due to ongoing discrimination, reflected primarily in wages.


The strike and demonstrations referred to above, which explicitly address discrimination, is particularly noteworthy since the gender theme rarely appears on the sector's negotiating agenda in Portugal. Thus, the gender factor has definitely been highlighted as a bargaining issue.

The whole topic has been of secondary importance since it is the law that has regulated this area in Portugal (TN9704201S). Collective bargaining has been responsible only for a slight improvement in the minimum conditions for maternity provision established by law. Within the unions, women's issues have been broached mainly through dialogue and broader programmes such as having a women's section within the activities of the central confederations. Sometimes equal opportunities policies and collective bargaining exist as parallel issues.

Overall, collective bargaining takes a neutral stance, but in reality, discrimination does exist. Masked by the principle of equal pay and the enforcement of agreements, discrimination is to be found in the machinery and criteria used in evaluating jobs.

The demand is for equal opportunities, preferably of a quantifiable nature and oriented towards establishing career structures, for low-placed job grades. Given the structure of the Portuguese collective bargaining system, which is highly centralised, plus the wide-scale coverage involved and the homogeneous nature of pay, negotiations therefore stand to have a great deal of impact.

Even though the footwear sector has a high percentage of women, women do not have a great deal of visibility as subjects and actors on the scene with specific demands. Women's presence has been more in evidence in sectors such as textiles, embroidery, commerce and banking. (Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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