Small Business Awards 2008: Arthur Jackson Diversity in Business Award

Women's Action to Gain Economic Security

Before it was cool or mainstream for businesses to go green, the nonprofit WAGES (Women's Action to Gain Economic Security) was successfully promoting eco-friendly house cleaning cooperatives to empower low-income workers.

That they've been doing it successfully since 1997 testifies to the idea that promoting workers' rights and creating an environmentally sustainable business is possible.

Based in Oakland, the small WAGES staff helps low-income women form worker-owned cleaning cooperatives by offering leadership training, education, and management until the cooperatives can become self-sustaining. So far three of the cooperatives operate in the Bay Area, and a fourth is slated to open in San Francisco by the end of the year.

WAGES members reap the benefits.

All three of the Bay Area cooperatives cover health insurance for all their workers and deliver a competitive wage between 50 to 100 percent higher than what the workers originally made. Since WAGES workers co-own their business, their household incomes have increased significantly.

To get there, WAGES uses a highly empowering model in which workers are encouraged to fundraise before they sign on to start their co-op in order to offset some of the small business loans. They also have to attend leadership and business training classes with WAGES staff for several months.

Only then can these women, mostly Latina, fully reap the financial and health benefits of their business. Under WAGES' eco-friendly policy, the co-ops use only nontoxic alternatives to standard chemical solutions such as baking soda, vinegar, and dishwashing soap diluted with water.

In a low-wage job where workers suffer indignities and often get little respect, the women who founded the three Bay Area co-ops to date came to environmentalism from a different route than the more privileged among us. For these women, who often cleaned four to five homes a day, the constant exposure to commercial cleaners led to rashes, headaches, asthma, and memory loss, among other side effects. The majority of those symptoms have mostly abated under WAGES eco-friendly business model, said Hilary Abell, WAGES executive director. Abell hopes WAGES can saturate the Bay Area market, giving needed jobs to scores of new workers.

Spanish-speaking volunteers and donations are always welcome.


2647 International Blvd., no.205, Oakl.

(510) 532-5465

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