A case study: women in cane straw at São Paulo estate
The increase of the participation of women in the work force was observed from research carried out in 1977 and 1986 in Ribeirão Preto, the most important sugar cane area of the state of São Paulo.
Over this 10-year-period, the changes were meaningful: an increase in the number of workers in the family, a decrease in the number of residents in the household, a growing participation of women in the work force, a drop in fertility rate, a rise in the relative number of female heads of households, a fall in the standards of nutrition, etc.
The transfer of the female work from rural to urban, as a wage-earning worker, modifies the nature of the job performed by her. From the condition of an "assistant" to the family work, she enters the highly capitalised production process that characterises the sugar cane plantation. The woman begins to be engaged as a salaried employee, with immediate consequences to the family organisation.
As a rural worker, as a family worker in the small property, or as an assistant to her husband as the main wage-earner and family head, women used to take their children to the field, even new-born babies. In the sugar cane plantation, this is no longer possible. Contractors and supervisors do not permit this practice. In the truck or bus that transports them to work there is no room for children under 10-12 who are not involved in the activity.
Women were then obliged to adopt other strategies, and therefore leave the children with other mothers, mothers-in-law and daughters. Private and paid day nurseries, in charge of one woman who took care of several small children, became a widespread institution.
In almost all towns covered by the survey day nurseries for children from 2 years old were found. They provide services from 7 AM to 5 PM, which represented a great inconvenience for the mothers since they should be working during this period. The alternative was to find someone to take and pick up the children, since the mothers could not be there. The same thing happened with the children's playground as children could only go there during one period of the day morning or afternoon.
In some places where there was a great number of salaried women, the city administration established working hours for day nurseries and playgrounds that would meet the needs of these workers. In Serra Azul and Serrana, for example, the trucks and buses would stop at the day nurseries or the playground where the mothers had left their children.
In many cases, though, due to insufficient vacancies at the public institutions or due to the high fees of the private ones about US$ 40/month -, which they could not afford, the mothers would leave their small children alone at home. Accidental deaths caused by fire were not uncommon. The average number of children per family decreased: this fact was confirmed by the field survey (1977 - 5.5 children; 1986 - 2.6 children) and by the study carried out by Wong at São Paulo state.
A growth in the tendency of women taking over as family heads was observed. In 1977, women were the head of 11.6% families. If one considered all households constituted by mother and children, even if the mothers were jobless, the percentage rose to 18.6%. In 1986 there was a substantial change and the figures rose to: 23.7% and 31.6%, respectively. Women not only took care of the house and children, but were also responsible for providing economically for each member of the family unit.
Labourers were transported to work in closed trucks, with just a small entrance and two small windows for lighting and ventilation. The trucks normally had precarious lighting and wooden seats distributed as in a collective bus. Women would take the front seats, whilst men would sit in the rear. As prescribed by law, a ladder was provided to get into the vehicle, and the farming tools were stored under the truck so as to avoid accidents.
When transportation was by bus an option which has since become a legal (but not always complied with) requirement , the gender distribution also prevailed. Workers felt more respected, despite the often precarious state of maintenance of the vehicles. In fact, whether owned by labour contractors or by urban transportation companies, the vehicles were usually in a pitiful state, resulting in frequent accidents due to lack of brakes and lights, not to mention the inability of the drivers.