Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO-WOMEN: The Lure of Non-Traditional Jobs

Khadine Weekes

PORT OF SPAIN, Feb 29 1996 (IPS) - When Angela Lewis’ brother persuaded her to leave the catering business three years ago, truth to tell, she did not mind.

She had given no thought to such an idea before, but the lure of a higher income as an auto mechanic at her brother’s shop in East Trinidad was enough for her to put away her recipe books and take up a wrench.

After three years Lewis’ earning power and her status in the working world have improved. Because it is her brother’s place her salary is comparable to that of her male colleagues. She also gets to run the business in her brother’s absence.

“I started working as an apprentice with my brother and realised that I was quite capable. I really enjoy the work, dirty overalls and all,” the 28 year old mechanic said.

But she is not stopping there, having been convinced that she can make it in the so-called “man’s world” she is doing a welding course at a local technical institute.

“Welding craft will enable me to work at any welding site and perhaps in the oil industry,” she says.

The oil industry here is one of the highest paying employers.

Like Lewis, more women are seeking employment in non- traditional jobs in the petroleum, electricity, water and construction industries. The figures of female entry into male dominated spheres of employment are not dramatic, rather they show marginal increases over the years.

In 1989 for example, one percent of the female labour force was employed in the petroleum sector. In 1994 that figure had inched up to 1.6 percent. In the construction industry 2.6 percent of women in the labour force were employed in that sector. In 1994 that figure was 3.4 percent.

The gradual increase in females moving to male dominated jobs is a matter of pure economics, say experts.

“With the many female-headed households in Trinidad and Tobago, and shrinking opportunities for both men and women, searching for employment in male-dominated jobs was inevitable,” says Monica McClean, project officer with the Division of Women’s Affairs.

Female unemployment is high in Trinidad. According to official statistics male participation in the labour market in the 24 to 44 age group is twice that of female participation. Overall unemployment has topped 20 percent every year since 1987.

Faced with these obstacles more than 400 women have applied so far this year for the Division of Women’s Affairs’ training programme in basic plumbing, electrical installation, technical drawing and carpentry. The 10-week skills training course has room for only 80 trainees.

“These women all wanted jobs, many of them had been store clerks, receptionists and office assistants. We even had a few applicants with university degrees. Most of them did not understand the daily hardships of a construction site — they didn’t really care. They were willing to learn these new skills just to be working,” says McClean.

Many are like Nazma Khanhai, a 40 year old construction worker, who has been digging trenches and laying service pipes on a construction site since last year.

“I was at home doing nothing and it was a job,” Khanhai, a widow with three children said.

The women face many obstacles in these non traditional areas.

“Women are also willing to work harder than the men for smaller wages on a construction site, simply to prove themselves in the hope of getting something better in the future,” says McClean.

Khanhai says she knows she is underpaid. She earns 10 U.S. dollars per day as against the 13.33 dollars daily wage of her male colleagues.

Many employees in some male dominated jobs are also reluctant to hire women. In the construction industry for example, managers complain that it increases their costs by affecting productivity.

“One of their complaints is that they have to install special toilet facilities for instance,” says McClean.

Despite the complaints women are becoming more noticeable on construction sites and not just in their traditional roles as cooks, says contractor Emile Elias.

It is important, says Constance Thomas, of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for women to be trained in non- traditional skills for which they can get jobs readily. The ILO is a co- sponsor of the construction skills training project.

Thomas says, the ILO will move to encourage employers in the construction industry here to hire more women.

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