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BRAZIL: Women Break Down Barriers in Heavy Construction

Mario Osava

PORTO VELHO, Brazil, May 17 2011 (IPS) - They represent just seven percent of the workers building the Santo Antonio hydroelectric dam on the Madeira River, which cuts across the Amazon jungle in northwest Brazil. But the women workers total 1,200, and many of them have had to break down barriers to jobs seen as the preserve of men.

Zenaide Pereira da Silva in front of the gantry crane she operates.  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Zenaide Pereira da Silva in front of the gantry crane she operates. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Zenaide Pereira da Silva, 29, is one of them. She was the first woman to operate a gantry crane – basically a gigantic 20-metre-high crane on wheels that can lift up to 250 tonnes, to assemble the turbines and other enormous equipment in the construction of the hydropower station.

It is the fear of “making a mistake,” more than working so high up in the operator cabin, that keeps da Silva tense four months after starting the job, for which she trained in a course given by the Acreditar (Believe) programme that trains local workers, set up by Odebrecht, the construction company that leads the consortium building the dam.

The work requires great accuracy, and “you can’t hesitate,” because the parts must fit together with absolute precision or components that took years to develop and manufacture could be damaged, da Silva explains.

She still works with a co-worker, but will soon be on her own, as construction of the hydropower plant picks up speed.

“Patience and concentration” are other requirements, especially paying close attention to the instrument panel while staying alert to hand signals from co-workers on the ground who are directing the work, she told this IPS reporter who spent a day at the Santo Antonio dam construction site.

Da Silva, who hails from the northeastern state of Maranhão, the largest source of migrant workers in Brazil today, did not stay in Porto Velho – the capital of the northwestern state of Rondônia, which is seven kilometres from the Santo Antonio dam – after moving there with her family in 2002. She married and went to live in the neighbouring state of Acre.

But she and her daughter returned to Porto Velho three years ago, after she was divorced. She worked in construction and insurance sales, until she took the Acreditar course to become a gantry crane operator, along with six other women. Because of her good performance in the full-time one-month course, she was one of the first women hired.

She rises at 4:30 a.m. to catch an early bus to the apparent chaos of the dam construction site, a giant beehive of activity. Three hours later her workday starts. The worst part of her day, she says, is the three-hour round-trip on the bus.

But da Silva says it’s worth it. Thanks to over-time and other extras, she earned 1,000 dollars last month. The starting salary is 740 dollars – a far cry from Brazil’s minimum monthly wage of less than 300 dollars.

The pride she feels in contributing to the development of her country and to the “conquest of spaces” traditionally occupied by men does not keep her from acknowledging the damages caused by the dam, such as the flooding of rainforest and the displacement of riverbank-dwellers who depend on fishing for a living.

She believes better ways of compensating affected communities and mitigating the environmental impacts should be studied.

Da Silva’s presence in a typically “male” job awakens curiosity, and people have even snapped photos of her, to show a woman operating such a huge piece of machinery.

Tougher prejudice has been faced by Edcleusa Moreira Viana, who also came to Porto Velho three years ago, when construction of the dam began. She came from Pará, a state in Brazil’s eastern Amazon jungle.

She says she has run into resistance to the instructions and warnings she gives as a member of the work site’s safety team.

“Sexist guys think we want to take over and be the bosses,” and they reject “a woman leader,” says Viana, who draws on nine years of experience in different jobs and the courses she has taken, to deal with the problem.

The 34-year-old married mother of four, whose husband also works in Santo Antonio, explains that she reminds those who do not want to follow her directions that “the family comes first” – stressing the need to protect their own lives and avoid accidents in order to return home in one piece, and with their salaries in their pockets.

“Our main job is to raise awareness” among the workers, who at the start tend to ignore and violate safety rules and regulations before “they begin to develop a culture of safety,” she says, while calling for a greater number of women on the safety staff.

The assembly of large equipment is another area where barriers have been broken down in Santo Antonio. “I was the first woman in this workshop; it was hard at first, I felt like an ET (extra-terrestrial),” says Emyrtes Rocha, a mechanic’s assistant.

“They would just grab tools out of my hand and say that I wouldn’t know how to use them,” she says.

“What can a woman do here, where strong hands are needed,” said the chief engineer, until she and other women workers demonstrated their skills and won the respect of their male co-workers, says Rocha. There are now four women “working to overcome prejudices” in a team of around 20 workers, she adds.

“There are really heavy parts that do require a man’s strength, but discipline, teamwork and especially paying close attention to what you’re doing are more important,” adds Rocha, 39, who says she is happy because she has a steady job after many years of working as a street vendor.

She explains that as head of her household, she has managed to buy a car and refurbish her house, while supporting her 22-year-old daughter and paying the tuition for the accounting degree she is earning.

The presence of women at the Santo Antonio work site represents a leap from past mega-construction projects, in terms of both numbers of female workers and the skilled jobs they have been hired for, says Jorge Luiz, administrative and financial manager of Odebrecht, the firm in charge of electromechanical assembly at the hydropower plant

It was a “natural process,” but “we were surprised at the number of women applying for jobs,” he explains, admitting that the team leaders had problems at first because “it wasn’t common to have women in those jobs.”

But as usual, women are predominant in the administrative jobs in the offices, and in the cafeterias as well. But there are women working in every section and at all levels, from assistants to head engineers, says José Carlos de Sá, head of institutional relations in Santo Antonio Energía, the consortium building the dam.

The Santo Antonio dam forms part of the boom of female participation in Brazil’s construction industry. The number of women with formal sector construction jobs increased 44 percent between 2007 and 2009, when they made up 172,734 – nearly eight percent – of a total of 2,221,254 registered workers, according to Labour Ministry statistics.

But if women working in construction as self-employed or informal sector workers are counted as well, the number is more than twice that, according to estimates from other sources.

The dam, which will generate 3,150 MW of electricity, is at the peak of construction, and the project employs 17,300 workers. The first turbines are to go online before the end of the year.

The 7.7 billion dollar Santo Antonio dam across the Madeira River will be 2.5 kilometres long. And although the project will drive development of the local economy, it will also cause environmental and social imbalances in and around Porto Velho.

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