An Interview with Patricia Coñoman, newly elected Councilwoman of the municipality of El Bosque

Patricia Coñoman, member of the International Working Committee of HomeNet International and one of the coordinators of CONATRADO Chile, talked to HNI about her trajectory in the struggle for the rights of home-based workers, as well as the factors that determined her recent election as Councilwoman in the municipality of El Bosque.

Who is Patricia Coñoman?

My name is Patricia Coñoman, I was born in Temuco, Chile, but I came to Santiago at a very young age with my mother. She raised my brother and I alone, I come from a matriarchal family. My mother taught us that we are Mapuche, my brother was “man of the land” and I was “a princess”, she told me that everything I would receive in life was going to be because I was a princess, I was about 7 years old when she told me that and I believe that story to this day. This is why I am so daring, so transgressive, because my mother taught me to be like that.
Patricia Coñoman’s trajectory

Patricia Coñoman was a textile worker for many years. She was part of the National Textile Confederation in Chile between 1975 and 2015 where she served as the first female president.

She was a leader of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadoras between 1988 and 2017 where she was in charge of the Women’s department. She was also responsible for the Sports, Recreation and Culture department and the Indigenous Peasant department.

She is currently one of the coordinators of CONATRADO Chile and member of the International Working Committee of HNI.

Can you give us a brief history of home-based workers in Chile?

Home-based work has always existed, but it has been largely ignored. In Chile, home-based work was regulated and was part of the Labor Code. However, when the Pinochet dictatorship arrived and the free market economic model began to be implemented, home-based work was removed from the Labor Code.

I discovered home-based work when I started doing collective bargaining for workers as a labor advisor at the National Textile Confederation (CONTEXTIL). I realized that textile employers had a lot of fabric cuts and little tailoring done in their own workshops, so I asked myself, where do they take those fabric cuts? The answer was that they took them to the workers’ homes.

At the end of the 1980s, textile companies in Chile began to go bankrupt due to the strong competition from Asian companies. We realized that the compensation received by the workers for their years of service in the companies was sewing machines. This is how the businessmen realized that it was not necessary to hire workers in their factories or workshops. Of course, for them this represented a great fortune, because they only brought the fabric to the workers’ homes and did not have to pay for electricity, water or social security.

Tell us an anecdote about your time in the trade union world.

In 1988 I became a leader of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT). At that time, women who were part of the executive committee had the right to speak, but not to vote. That is when we began to notice the serious discrimination in the union movement and we decided to unite all women. So finally, in 1990, we presented an all-women’s list to fight against the machismo of our own comrades. Obviously you can imagine what that meant for the political parties. They said we were crazy, but that forced each party to put women on the lists and from that reality we managed to make the women’s vice-presidency of the CUT, something that was not considered before, and from then on and to this day, women are an important part of the executive committee of the union.

Why did you run for Councilwoman for the commune of El Bosque?

I ran for Councilwoman for two reasons: one because I am a union leader of home-based workers and the other is because I represent native people, two marginalized sectors in Chile. 

When the people of my commune asked me what I could offer them as Councilwoman, I answered that I could not give them anything, the only thing I could offer them is to help them to organize themselves and to have class consciousness, to be able to demonstrate that we are a working class and that we have the right to be present where they make politics. I can’t offer them anything, in fact my campaign was very modest, but as my mother said, I have the conviction to speak and the people supported me.

What were the key factors that led you to be elected as Councilwoman?

I believe that one of the main factors that led me to win is that this country is tired of arrogance. People want to be told the truth, with strength, humility and without fear. I think that has allowed people to vote for someone like me.

Normally people in politics who are wealthy do not talk about the real issues in their cities. I live in the El Bosque commune, I know what happens there, so I can talk about the bad sidewalks, the power cuts, the lack of hospitals, that is to say, we have a common language, a common voice. I see people cry and I am not ashamed to cry with them, because I feel that when one loses sensitivity, one cannot govern.

What does your new position as Councilwoman mean for home-based workers in Chile?

This new mandate means a lot for home-based workers, it means that we will be able to receive more help and we will also learn along the way. This will be a new learning experience to be shared, because if we can do it in Chile it can be done in other countries as well.

In addition, it is important to mention that the same day that the municipal elections were held, the constituent elections took place to make a new Constitution in Chile. This means that a new Labor Code will be drafted. Thanks to our campaign some constituents won and we explained to them the need for home-based workers to be formally recognized. We will follow up with them and demand that we are recognized in the new Constitution, so I think my work as Councilwoman will be very important.

What message would you give to home-based worker leaders around the world?

I would tell them that anything is possible. We have to be daring, and believe that we are capable of leadership. As long as we are not at fault, people will believe us and will elect us. I would call on all comrades to educate themselves to be able to reach these leadership positions, because if you win, you do not win alone, you win with your organization and with the people you want to defend.