Fired Workers Win Reinstatement at Chentex Factory, Nicaragua

January, 29 1998 Share

Chentex, a maquila factory located in the Las Mercedes free zone in Managua is part of a large Taiwanese conglomerate which dominates the Free Trade Zone (FTZ).  Chentex, which is currently producing Arizona Jeans/J.C. Penney and Bugle Boy was the focus of a National Labor Committee/Hard Copy investigation in November 1997.  Hard Copy is planning to air an update on conditions in the FTZ.  In the past, Chentex also produced clothing for Wal-Mart and Kmart.

Bold Strike Leads to Victory

On Friday, January 23, a list of signatures was submitted to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Labor informing the Ministry that the workers at the Chentex factory had formed a union and officially requesting legal recognition.  The next day, on Saturday, January 24, over 90 workers whose names appeared on the list were fired.   Chentex management claimed it was suddenly downsizing.  It was clear to everyone that the workers were being fired for attempting to exercise their legal right to form a union, which is also guaranteed in the U.S. companies' corporate codes of conduct.  It was also clear that the Ministry of Labor provided Chentex with the names of the union members who were then fired.

At 7:30 a.m. on Monday, January 26, the workers at Chentex went out on strike. Two dozen of the fired unionists entered the plant going from production line to production line explaining to the workers that standing up now was part of the struggle to regain all of their rights.  First 100 women walked out, then 200, followed by 400.  By 10:30 a.m., the factory was effectively shut down, with 1,800 of a total of 1,950 workers on strike.

The situation was tense.  Armed security guards employed by the FTZ were threatening the workers.  By 10:30 a.m., the press had arrived, but the armed guards locked the gates of the FTZ prohibiting entry.  The workers marched to the gate, moved the guards aside, let the media in and brought them to the Chentex factory where the workers denounced widespread human rights abuses, documented earlier by the National Labor Committee/Hard Copy.  Nicaraguan TV channels 4, 8 and 10 were in the factory, along with radio and print media.

The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) arrived, led by Dr. Vilma Nuñez, to help mediate the crisis.

The women workers at Chentex told the media how their Taiwanese supervisors followed them into the bathroom, how they were fined two days pay if their supervisors claimed they had made a single error while working on a bolt of 100 pieces.  The workers described the forced overtime, being cheated on overtime pay, prohibited from going to the Social Security medical clinic, being humiliated and cursed at by their supervisors, and that their production quota was set inhumanly high.

By 12:30 p.m. that same afternoon, an agreement had been signed by the union, Chentex management and the Ministry of Labor--and all the fired workers were immediately reinstated!  The strike was suspended.

The agreement, signed by Gladys Manzanarez, president of the new union at Chentex and Pedro Ortega, General Secretary of the Federation of Garment, Textile, Leather and Shoe workers, also called for establishing procedures to deal with future grievances.

As the strike was going on in Chentex, union workers in the pressing department at the Fortex factory also walked off their jobs, demanding an increase in the very low piece rate quota they were being paid for each garment they ironed--and they won!

The Chentex reinstatement was a huge victory, setting a powerful precedent for human and worker rights protections in the FTZ.

The next major test will come sometime during the week of February 9, when the Ministry of Labor is due to hand over the legal recognition of the union which, though frequently and illegally ignored, is meant to protect union organizers against firings and other forms of retaliation by management.

Chentex management is threatening to shut the plant down and leave the country rather than accept a union of the workers.  This could be just a bluff, but we must be prepared to block any pull-out..

J.C. Penney has an interesting opportunity to do the right thing, but will they?  In November, J.C. Penney immediately attacked the National Labor Committee/Hard Copy investigation, claiming that their contractor, Chentex, ran a clean, model high-tech factory that met all of J.C. Penney's high ethical standards as contained in their corporate code of conduct.  It will be very important to watch J.C. Penney's reaction closely now--as well as that of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Labor--to see whether or not J.C. Penney does indeed follow through on their commitment to respect their workers' legal rights, including the right to organize.

We will keep you posted.