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The gendered nature of a natural disaster: Mexico City earthquake hits women hardest

By Paulina Ascencio & Florencia González Guerra

Feminist Brigade in 186 Bolivar building Credit: Daniel Ojeda

Feminist Brigade in 186 Bolivar building
Credit: Daniel Ojeda

On Tuesday Sept. 19 a level 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico City at 1:15 in the afternoon. As rescue efforts were coming to an end, the official numbers revealed an important gender disparity on the number of deaths in Mexico’s Capital. Two-hundred and twenty-eight people were killed by the earthquake. With a death toll of 220, women outnumbered men 136 to 84 — representing an upwards of 60 per cent of the fatalities.

These numbers reveal reveal that the effects of natural disasters follow gender lines. Many of the earthquake victims were domestic workers, homemakers, and precarious women workers.

Most of the 38 collapsed buildings were residential buildings. Who is home at 1:15 p.m. on a weekday? Domestic workers or women cooking lunch. According to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics (INEGI), 77 per cent of domestic work is done by women and 95 per cent of domestic help are women.

One of the collapsed buildings, a four-storey complex located on 186 Simón Bolívar Street, was a place of employment where women primarily worked. Each floor was dedicated to the manufacture and sale of different products such as women’s garments, imitation jewelry and auto parts. All of these businesses followed an export-oriented economic model, which involved a feminization of the labour force.

Fifteen people died when this building collapsed; 12 were women, 3 were men and the 34 survivors were mostly women.

A large number of the female employees in the building were not registered as formal workers with the Mexican Institute of Social Insurance, which is the equivalent of working without a Social Insurance Number in Canada. Still, the few that were registered as formal workers were registered with daily wages oscillating between 85 to 314 Mexican pesos, the equivalent of six to 21 Canadian dollars.

The deaths of precarious working women in Mexico City’s factories during earthquakes is not a new occurrence. Thousands of women were killed following the devastating 1985 earthquake — which also occurred on Sept. 19 —  when 800 textile factories collapsed. Most of these factories were clandestine, serving as unregulated and precarious workplaces. From this tragic event the first women’s labour union in Mexico was formed, the “Unión de costureras en Lucha” (the union of fighting seamstresses, roughly.)

Jie Ting Huang, a 23 year-old Taiwanese woman and worker at “ABC Toys” survived the 2017 Bolìvar building collapse. She explained to the Spanish-language newspaper Animal Político that she was not able to go back to Taiwan after the catastrophic events because her employer held her passport and identity documents. The Animal Politico also reported that she expressed deep sadness at the death of her colleagues and friends, but also outrage and disappointment that her employer would allow employees to work in such a poorly constructed building. She worked every day from 9a.m. to 8p.m. without health insurance or days off.

In the hours immediately following the quake, a Facebook page called the Feminist Brigade was created to share crucial information regarding the rescue efforts underway concerning a collapsed factory building in the La Obrera district. As Vice reported, the Brigade formed to help with the rescue efforts, and specifically, to advocate for the high numbers of voiceless, undocumented women from Asia and Central America that worked there.

The Brigadistas were on-site until the last person was pulled out of the rubble. Then they focused on putting pressure through social media on the Government, to reclaim victims’ information, and the names of the business owners and those responsible for the poorly maintained buildings.

On Sept. 24 the Feminist Brigade held a memorial on the site of the factory collapse where they chanted together “A single worker is worth more than all of your machinery, the life of a woman is worth more than all the buildings in the world.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2017).

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