Where Is The Money For Women’s Labour Rights?
AWID interviews Lynda Yanz* from the Maquila Solidarity Network about their latest research on funding for women’s labour rights in Mexico and Central America.
By Rochelle Jones
AWID: Could you tell us briefly about the Maquila Solidarity Network?
Lynda Yanz (LY): Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) is a labour and women’s rights organization that promotes improved wages and working conditions and a better quality of life for workers in the global garment supply chain. We support groups working for this goal in Mexico, Central America, Asia and other “producing” countries. MSN also engages in corporate campaigning, networking and coalition building, and policy advocacy to pressure for improvements.
AWID: I understand you have been conducting some research on funding trends for women’s labour rights? Could you tell us about this research and what prompted it?
LY: The research was motivated by the observation that many of the workers’ and women’s rights groups, with whom we were working, were encountering major problems in securing funds – and in fact – we were detecting that the amount of funding was decreasing (especially in Mexico). Groups were struggling to survive. We spent a lot of time on a group by group basis trying to support them through the process of writing proposals, identifying potential funders, etc, but decided to take a more strategic approach – to work with AWID, Semillas (the Mexico women’s fund) and the Central American Women’s Fund – with the aim of leverage more money for the work and to increase groups’ capacities to engage with donors. Since many of the groups are small, with limited capacity to directly engage with international funders, we established a pilot project with Semillas to establish a labour rights fund. The Central American Women’s Fund has for some time been interested in a similar initiative. We decided to work together.
We decided that an important first would be to identify the key actors in labour rights work in Mexico and Central America and to identify the donors who are funding their work. We wanted to understand the priorities and challenges facing the groups and donors. We wanted find out, if the trend of cutting back on funding for work on labour rights, was real. We were also interested in whether donors are more reluctant to fund labour rights work than previously, and if so, why. In addition to interviewing and consulting with many women’s and mix labour rights organizations, we carried out interviews with 12 donors who support work in Mexico and/or Central America.
AWID: What are the critical issues facing women’s labour rights organizations and how are they currently being (under)funded?
LY: In Mexico, there is not enough money going in to women’s labour rights work. The groups are small, they receive small grants and have to scramble money from multiple sources. This means a lot of administrative work, which takes up resources from actual campaigning.
Central American groups face very different kind of challenges. They have more funding and larger organizations, but some funders there try to drive their own priorities rather than support groups own process to define priorities. Some donors attempt to influence political agenda or pressure groups to collaborate with other groups, even though they don’t necessarily feel that they share the same mission and values with those groups.
AWID: Who is funding labour rights work presently and what are donors’ challenges and priorities?
LY: The small grassroots organizations in Mexico get much less money from fewer organizations than groups in Central America, who receive more European grants and also money from the US government (tied to the free-trade agreement CAFTA).
Women’s labour rights work is challenging for the donors, because what is needed is a long-term commitment in order to bring about change. When local organizations are small, like in Mexico, it can be difficult for a donor to make international grants, support advocacy and communicate with the groups. Some funders seem not to understand labour issues and shy away from them, because of negative perceptions around trade unions and because labour rights is “highly politicized.”
AWID: How do you hope to influence these challenges?
LY: The two new labour rights funds – from Semillas and the Central American Women’s Funds represent very important initiatives. Both funds, along with AWID and MSN are committed to making sure the issue of women’s economic rights (including labour rights) gets back more squarely on the donor agenda. At the same time, we are working with a small and very committed group of funders, who are committed try working with us to leverage more money for labour rights work. And throughout the process, we’ll be working closely with labour rights groups to strengthen their capacities.
AWID: What are some of the main findings of the research so far?
LY: One key finding was that Mexico and Central America are very different in terms of what the local labour rights groups are like and what kind of funding they attract. In Central America, the groups are big, strong national organizations and they receive significantly larger amount of money from donors than the Mexican groups, primarily through European foundations, and recently, millions of dollars from the US. Mexican labour rights actors are more often small local groups with a shortage of funding.
Another interesting discovery was that donors, who have a hands-on approach and local staff tend to support grassroots groups directly, while funders with limited staff contact in the region that give out sizable grants, prefer to support large national and international groups. When these donors fund smaller grassroots organizations, they often do it through intermediaries, which helps them to avoid legal requirements and reduce administrative burden that is associated with multiple small grants. A further advantage of using intermediaries is that they often add value by capacity building and leveraging additional funds.
One big challenge that came up in the research is that it is difficult to build a case for funding women’s labour rights work: donors do not always see why it is important and how it is groundbreaking work. While donors are very happy with their partner organizations and individual pieces of their work, they are not satisfied with the big picture. Movement building is very slow, the political and corporate context is challenging and it is hard to identify “wins” in the work: it is possible to do everything right, and still a factory closes.
AWID: What will you be doing with the outcomes?
LY: We find it very important to support and strengthen the women’s labour rights in finding new money for their work. We also need to lobby funders. We could work with existing funders to reach out for new ones.
In the interviews, we heard from several donors that an overarching strategy would be needed to build a cohesive and proactive movement. As part of the strategy, positive messages should be developed to attract new funders and an evaluation framework that identifies “wins” in a different way needs to be created. Crucial to all of this will be having a group of interested funders working with us to help formulate our strategy and reach out to other funders.
AWID: What next?
LY: In Cape Town [at the AWID Forum] we’ll be extending our consultation to groups in other regions. We want to know whether groups in other regions are experiencing similar challenges related to funding. We’re still asking “Where’s the money for women’s labour rights work?” After Cape Town we’ll definitely have more pieces of the puzzle in place.
*Lynda Yanz is a founding member and coordinator of the Maquila Solidarity Network, a Canadian based labour and women's rights advocacy organization formed in 1994. For the last number of years, MSN has focused on the garment industry working to support garment workers' efforts to improve working conditions through policy advocacy, corporate campaigning and engagement, participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives to promote corporate accountability, and local labour rights capacity building. In Mexico and Central America, MSN has worked closely with women’s and labour rights groups over 20 years.
Lynda has a long history of activism in the women’s movement and on issues related to labour rights and international solidarity. She is the author and editor of numerous articles and publications on the globalized garment industry and on the strengths and weaknesses corporate engagement as a tool for improving working conditions.