(Excerpted from the November 1996 issue of AIWA NEWS, the newsletter of the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates)
Encouraged by the success of the ergonomics peer training, San Jose members stepped up their activities on identifying hazards at work and outreaching to other electronics assemblers. The participants of the training gave their peer trainers high marks for their informative and interactve training and said they especially liked the exercises they learned to do to relieve stress from repetitive motion. The information and exercises introduced at the training were compiled in a Korean newsletter that was sent out to over 200 AIWA Korean members in Santa Clara County. The Korean news media such as Korea Times and Han-Mi Radio also covered the training which reached the broader Korean community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Beyond the peer training, the San Jose workplace literacy classes also incorporated workplace health and safety focus. As a part of their workplace literacy curriculum, the women completed a risk-mapping exercise of their workplaces. While practicing their prepositions in explaining where things are in their workplace, (for example, the wave solder machine is next to the touch-up department), the women also began to locate and label where certain hazards are. They explained to each other where the chemical smells were the worst, where the machine noise was the loudest, and where they would be working all day. This activity provided an opportunity for the women to share stories of workplace hazards and began brainstorming ideas on how to protect themselves from these hazards.
One member identified her workplace hazards in different colors to indicates the type of hazard and degree of severity. For example, physical hazards of noise and repetitive motion were distinguished from chemical hazards. She presented this workplace risk mapping at the Southwest Workplace Toxics Training Project in Albuquerque, NM.
At the membership meeting and dinner, AIWA members continued discussion on members' current working conditions. Broadly speaking, three areas of workplace hazards were named:
First, the constant and loud noise from the machines causes their ears to ring and makes it difficult to hear each other.
Second, the repetitive motions and uncomfortable work station and work positions gives them pain in their wrists, neck, and shoulders. Also, those who have to use a magnifying glass or a microscope in order to work on tiny electronic components and boards complained of eye strain and frequent tearing.
The third workplace hazard drew the most heated criticism. Chemicals and inadequate ventilation in the workplace give them headaches and makes them nauseous. Many said that the fans in their companies are not operating properly or are not turned on during all work hours. Because they have to solder small parts to printed circuit boards, they inhale chemical fumes which make them feel sick. Some women complained that they can no longer use perfumes and hair sprays because they have become so sensitive to smells and fumes.
AIWA's research shows there are safe alternatives to workplace chemicals, such as lead solder. However, the industry is not willing to use these alternatives due to higher cost.
Members agreed to have regular meetings around health and safety and invite health professionals and researchers in the future to further pursue ways to reduce workplace hazards.
Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) is a community based organization established in 1983. Through education, leadership development, and organizing, AIWA seeks to foster empowerment of low-income, limited English speaking Asian immigrant women who work as seamstresses, hotel room cleaners, electronics assemblers, nursing home workers, and janitors in the greater San Francisco, Oakland, and South Bay Area.
Highlights of AIWA's Activities
Environmental Health and Safety Project
The project outreaches to, educates, and organizes about 200 Korean immigrant women electronics assemblers in the South Bay about toxic chemicals and hazards in the industry through workplace literacy classes, workshops, and peer training. 60 women and their families participate in workshops focusing on: (1) working with hazardous chemicals and identifying safe alternatives; (2) affecting public policy in the electronics industry, and; (3) women's health.
Garment Workers Organizing Project
For more than three years, the Garment Workers Justice Campaign has been demanding corporate responsibility for working conditions in the garment industry. In March 1996, AIWA signed a historic agreement with Jessica McClintock, Inc. to uphold worker protection. We continue to demand corporate responsibility from other manufacturers by signing a similar agreement.
Workplace Literacy Classes
In Oakland and San Jose, over 530 classes are offered to 120 Chinese and Korean immigrant women every year. The classes teach not only survival English, but focus on the rights of immigrants, women, and workers, as well as on occupational safety and health issues, and on political participation through citizenship and naturalization.
Leadership Development and Training Sessions
Over 50 Chinese and Korean immigrant women are trained in communication, immigration and social history, organizing skills, advocacy, economic literacy, and network building with other women workers on issues affecting immigrant women's working conditions.
Membership Board and Project Committees
About 35 low-income immigrant women workers come together to plan and implement many of the projects of AIWA. The four Project Committees --- Outreach, Education, Events, and Fundraising --- conduct outreach; provide bilingual services; participate in developing Workplace Literacy class curriculum and teaching immigrant women; organize educational field trips, Leadership Development training, and various social events, and; assist in writing grant proposals and conducting grass roots fundraising for AIWA's projects.
AIWA's Multilingual Newsletter/Information and Referral
Over 2,500 copies of AIWA's quarterly newsletters in Chinese, Korean, and English are distributed. In addition, AIWA publishes educational brochures about health and safety and workers' rights in these languages. Also, over 2,000 immigrant women and their families receive multilingual information and referral on a variety of issues affecting immigrant women's lives through phone consultation, workplace outreach, and peer counseling.
Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA)
310 8th Street #301
Oakland, CA 94607
1010 Ruff Street
San Jose, CA 95110