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Strong Women, Strong Voices: Interview Series with Our Economic Security & Opportunity Partners

Strong Women, Strong Voices: Interview Series with Our Economic Security & Opportunity Partners

Interview with Montserrat Arévalo, Executive Director — Mujeres Transformando, El Salvador

Interpretation support provided by WomenStrong’s Hannah Barrueta Sacksteder.

Montserrat Arévalo serves as the Executive Director of Mujeres Transformando (Women Transforming), an organization dedicated to safeguarding the rights of women, with a specific focus on women employed in maquilas, which are foreign-owned factories or sweatshops commonly found in Latin American and Spanish-speaking regions. Mujeres Transformando actively contributes to dismantling patriarchal systems and power dynamics that infringe upon the wellbeing and autonomy of Salvadoran women. Their approach combines class consciousness and a gender perspective to challenge these oppressive structures.

The organization is committed to empowering women, enabling them to exercise their full and unrestricted citizenship rights. Their projects are strategically designed to…

  • Enhance the leadership of women within labor unions
  • Conduct investigations into the working conditions experienced by women in maquilas
  • Raise national and international awareness regarding the abuses faced by women maquila workers
  • Advocate for reforms to laws governing free trade zones
  • Develop and publish a Manual of Labor Rights.

This commitment to gender equality and advocacy for the rights of women underscores Mujeres Transformando’s role in advancing social justice and gender equity.

Thank you for joining us today, Montserrat, and for Mujeres Transformando’s partnership with WomenStrong.

Your organization works on some very challenging issues. July 5 marked the 21st anniversary of a chlorine spill in a factory in Santo Tomás, a municipality in San Salvador. The spill affected hundreds of workers. In 2012, in honor of those workers, Mujeres Transformando and other organizations called for a National Maquila Workers Day, to recognize the contribution that workers like those in the factory have made to the national economy and to promote a culture of respect for their rights and protections. Montserrat, has there been progress towards setting a national day?

Montserrat: Well, we were able to create a mobilization effort with the organization, with Mujeres Transformando and the workers at the factories — many of whom are victims of mass chemical intoxication. We successfully garnered substantial support for our proposal, from human rights organizations, the general population, and women representatives of the Salvadoran government.

We successfully presented this proposal to recognize the Fifth of July as the National Maquila Workers Day. On this day, we organize numerous activities to commemorate and raise awareness about labor rights in El Salvador, trying to create a culture of respect for workers’ rights. We advocate for all women, but for the rights of women working in the textile factories in our country. The reason for this is that these are the spaces where violations against workers’ rights continue to exist.

While these violations may not be as dire as they once were, we continue to witness violations of workers’ rights in the textile factories. This includes long and excessive working hours, physically and mentally demanding labor, and very low incomes. Therefore, the National Maquila Workers Day serves not only as a platform to promote a culture of respect for labor rights, but also as a way to recognize and empower the more than 500 workers who were chemically intoxicated, and who were told, “You are fine. You are experiencing a moment of collective hysteria.” Later, it was proven that the chemical intoxication was due to the industry’s lack of health and safety regulations and that a chlorine leak had intoxicated all these people.

Thank you. We certainly appreciate your efforts to bring awareness and recognition to that day, and to raise visibility for such an important issue. With incidents like what happened in Santo Tomás, do you think the issue lies more with individuals who are not held accountable for their actions, or does what happened in Santo Tomás shed light on a deeper institutional and systemic problem?

Montserrat: I think that we have a little bit of both. At a fundamental level, we exist in a nation with a historical record of not guaranteeing the rights of its people. It is a very weak state, which allows for factory owners, powerful individuals, and foreign entrepreneurs to come into our country with no intention of respecting human rights and no interest in adhering to labor regulations. They establish factories and exploit the local people for their own gain. It is no coincidence that it is in the production section of factories where we consistently encounter rights violations and low incomes. This situation is not surprising in El Salvador, as the government often turns a blind eye to these practices and allows them to persist. These companies are not going to go to the Global North, they are not going to go to places in Europe and North America, because labor costs — including salaries — are significantly higher, and workers’ rights are actually respected in those regions. Instead, they come to the Global South, where historically, governments do not guarantee our rights. When we have a government that fails to ensure or protect workers’ rights, it creates an ideal environment for individuals who lack ethical regard for labor rights to thrive. They do whatever they want. They do not see the importance of industrial hygiene, they disregard standard working hours, and they hire anyone, regardless of their qualifications or age — including young girls. That is precisely why I emphasize that at a fundamental level, it is the government that permits these situations. The government allows for an environment where worker exploitation thrives, because workers’ rights are not adequately safeguarded.

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About Montserrat Arévalo

Montserrat Arévalo is a Salvadoran feminist and human rights activist with three decades of experience. She co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of Mujeres Transformando, an organization focused on labor rights for female textile workers. Over the past two decades, she has played a key role in advocacy, policy formulation, and empowerment of textile workers, forging alliances for textile, weaving, embroidery, and domestic workers in Mesoamerica. Montserrat actively engages in national, regional, and international advocacy for women’s rights in the global south, serving on various boards and advisory groups.

She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Association for Women’s Rights and Development (AWID) and is a steering committee member of the Alliance for Feminist Movements. She also serves as an adviser to the Spotlight Initiative and the Civil Society Advisory Group of UN Women in El Salvador as well as the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States (CIM/OAS) for the project, Feminist Alliances to Strengthen the Gender Equality Agenda. She holds a master’s degree in Equality and Equity for Development from the University of Vic in Barcelona and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the National University of El Salvador.

More about Mujeres Transformando:

The organization was founded in 2003 in Santo Tomás, a municipality of San Salvador, with the objective of organizing and training the workers of the textile maquila for political advocacy and the defense of labor and human rights. Starting in 2005, an organizational and training process of self-employed women workers began, with the objective of strengthening and linking both employees and the self-employed for the defense of their human rights. Currently, there are 11 groups of maquila workers in seven municipalities of El Salvador, four groups of self-employed workers, and three groups of embroiderers who work for the maquilas.

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