In 1998, there was an explosion at an irregular, high-risk fireworks factory in the city of Santo Antônio de Jesus, Brazil, which led to 64 deaths and left six people severely injured. Survivors and family members were not offered due access to justice, which led them to report the violations to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). After failed negotiations, last year, the Commission presented the case “Workers of the Fireworks Factory of Santo Antônio de Jesus and their family members vs. Brazil” to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). The IACHR observed that the Brazilian government had full knowledge of the unsafe conditions of the production site and failed to inspect it and respond appropriately. If it had done so, it would also have identified the use of child labor. In addition, the Commission believed that Brazil neglected to prevent such violations since, due to poverty and lack of further opportunities, workers were led to develop this unsafe, low-salary work.
What is most interesting about the case, however, is an aspect that was not debated in the IACHR’s report: the violations were gender-related. All 64 fatal victims of the explosion were either women or children, whereas all injured survivors were women and girls – an outcome that directly resulted from Brazil’s failure to address gender inequality according to human rights standards.
Gender Inequality in Santo Antônio de Jesus
Being a woman in a disadvantaged community at Santo Antônio de Jesus is no walk in the park. Women constitute the majority of the city’s low-income workers – representing 74% of those who earn up to 1/4 of the minimum wage and 62% of those who are paid between 1/4 and 1/2 of it. They also make for 65% of the unemployed economically active persons.
These women have no alternative but to turn to the fireworks industry for work. As a manufacturer herself has put it, she would otherwise “starve to death”. Poor access to training prevents women from finding further job opportunities, while gender stereotypes compel them to see firework production as their only option. The production of traque (a small product of the Brazilian firework industry), e.g., is viewed as an “eminently female activity… due to sexist reasons imposed by the community, which considers this type of work so simple it can even be performed by women and children”.
Assigned gender roles concerning unpaid care work are also a main reason why these women turn to fireworks. In order to perform domestic activities – and due to the unavailability of public childcare facilities – female workers choose fireworks manufacturing because it allows them to either take their children to factories or bring production (and its high risks) into their homes.
Growing up alongside firework manufacturing day-to-day, children end up victims of child labor to increment their household’s income. Some start when they are as young as five years-old and, in the poor neighborhood of São Paulo, 50% of the traque manufacturers are children under fifteen. The burden is even heavier on girls, who are expected to follow the steps of their mothers due to gender stereotypes. A female worker has stated, e.g., that she has worked with fireworks ever since she can remember. She adds: “my mother, my grandmother work producing traque and my daughter under ten years old does too”.
Even with the effort of multiple family members, women do not earn much – and socioeconomic gender inequality persists, condemning generations of women to this vicious cycle. To produce a thousand traques, e.g., manufacturers are paid as little as R$1.20 (approximately USD 0.30). To earn about USD 300, they would have to manufacture a million units.
Establishing a precedent?
Given this briefly described context, it is clear that the exclusive victimization of women and children in the 1998 explosion was no coincidence – but the direct result of a wider context of systematic omission regarding the rights of low-income women of Santo Antônio de Jesus and of the children under their care. The IACtHR therefore has an unmatched opportunity to clarify state obligations regarding socioeconomic gender inequality, while these facts provide a promising case study to understand the disturbing impact that its neglect can have over the protection of overall human rights.
*Note: the arguments in this post will soon be presented to the IACtHR in a joint amicus curiae by the iDESCA Initiative for Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights and the Brazilian Institute of Human Rights.