GAP Stoops Even Lower

November, 21 1995 Share


GAP has announced it is pulling out of El Salvador and taking "those very needed jobs" with them.

GAP's message to the maquila workers in El Salvador is simple and direct: We exploit; if you talk, you lose; if you defend your rights, we leave; there are thousands of other maquiladora workers just like you in hundreds of sweatshops across the region and—you know what—they will work for even less than the 56 cents an hour we paid you. We always win; you always suffer the consequences, and we always get away with it.

This is totally irresponsible on GAP's part. The GAP exploited the young women in El Salvador for three years. The GAP is part of the problem. They can't just cut and run.

Rather than always taking the low road, the GAP should publicly approach its contractor, Mandarin International, announcing that GAP, rather than running away from the problem, wants to continue production in El Salvador, but only under conditions which guarantee respect for fundamental human and worker rights. Further, the GAP will work with Mandarin to achieve this and will seek independent human rights organizations in El Salvador to help monitor and negotiate needed reforms. This would be the right thing to do, and it would not be that hard. But, without feeling pressure the GAP will continue to get away with whatever it can.

When the National Labor Committee met with GAP Executive Vice President, Stan Raggio back in August we made it very clear that pulling out of El Salvador was not an option. In fact, it would be the worst thing the GAP could do. Doing nothing, maintaining the status quo, would not be as harmful as pulling out. If the GAP chose to cut an run, the message left behind with the fired maquila workers in El Salvador—and across the entire region—is that if you so much as dare to defend your basic rights you will lose your jobs and be tossed out on the street to suffer the consequences. No one will help you. In an underdeveloped country like El Salvador, with 60 percent unemployment, such a message has a chilling effect.

In announcing their pullout, the GAP went out of its way to cynically twist the knife in the backs of the young women it had exploited for years, by emphasizing that "those very needed jobs" will now be leaving.

For three years, the GAP illegally exploited over 100 14, 15, 16 and 17 year-olds at the Mandarin plant, forcing them to work up to 14 hours a day, even imposing 21-hour shifts, and paying them a pitiful 18 cents for every $20 GAP shirt they made. The GAP did swell for three long years—on the backs of these young women.

This ended last summer when two young maquiladora workers spent 59 days crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada, visiting over 20 cities and exposing the real GAP in countless public meetings. The GAP responded by rolling out big bucks for its public relations, as it simultaneously fumbled its way through several phony investigations which culminated in a white wash: Mandarin was a model plant, GAP concluded.

When the GAP's cover-up was thoroughly dismantled by human rights experts, the GAP lashed out with its ultimate weapon. For three years the GAP played with the women's stomachs, playing with their desperate poverty and the survival needs of the mothers and their children. The GAP sat back and did nothing, it did not lift a finger to intervene when hundreds of Mandarin/GAP workers were beaten, fired, blacklisted and dumped in the street for daring to defend their rights. Now, the self-righteous GAP is saying they are leaving El Salvador and will return only when a "just and honorable treatment for workers" is established. The GAP is forgetting a critical point here—it was the GAP which was doing the exploiting for the last three years.

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, the GAP has now also turned on the government of El Salvador, stating they will never again do business in the country unless: "The government of El Salvador must demonstrate an ability to effectively investigate and resolve labor disputes fairly, justly and promptly." The government of El Salvador is now reeling. One partner is turning on the other. The façade is cracking. The government of El Salvador might have to do more than just provide lip-service to the issue of human and worker rights. This is the single positive thing the GAP has done—it delivered a wake-up call to the Salvadoran authorities.

Once again, the GAP is silent on its own role, but its act of pulling out speaks loud and clear that the GAP admits to violating the rights of children and women workers.

The truth is the GAP could do a lot to help these injured workers. If the GAP would stop doing the wrong thing every step of the way, it could help resolve the situation with justice, not more "P.R."

The GAP made $38 million in profits last month. They have gone out and hired one of the largest public relations firms in the world, Fleishman-Hillard (with 745 employees and annual revenues of $74 million), to refurbish GAP's tarnished image. The GAP can spend $500,000 on one Sunday advertising in the New York Times magazine section. That's impressive stuff. Fleishman-Hillard has a budget 416 times larger that the National Labor Committee's. Think of how the GAP workers in El Salvador must feel. In one day, the GAP spends more in advertising in the New York Times than the combined daily wages of over 110,000 maquila workers.

But no amount of P.R. will change the reality. The Mandarin women are still blacklisted and out in the street, and the GAP is largely responsible.

We must hold the GAP accountable. We must turn up the pressure.

The GAP must return to El Salvador with the National Labor Committee and other independent human rights organizations, and in front of us, inform Mandarin representatives that GAP will return to El Salvador and resume production at least at the previous level, if Mandarin International:

  1. Reinstates the fired workers
  2. Demilitarizes the plant and ends the repression
  3. Adheres to the Salvadoran Labor Code and recognizes the legal union
  4. Agrees with the GAP to work with independent human rights organizations to help monitor compliance at the Mandarin plant, doing so in a provocative way to help resolve problems and negotiate solutions.

If the GAP has nothing to hide, they will do the right thing. If not, they can run, but they cannot hide. If we have to, we will follow the GAP to China and Indonesia.