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Leading Human Rights Groups Blast GAP Cover-Up in El Salvador

October, 01 1995 Share

 

October 1995

 

Catholic Archdiocese in El Salvador Investigates GAP Contractor

The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador has issued three reports based on its investigations at the Mandarin International maquiladora plant in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone. Mandarin International produces clothing under contract for the GAP.

This Catholic human rights office (Tutela Legal) found the management of Mandarin International responsible for:

  • Violation of the right of Mandarin employees to publicly meet and demonstrate
  • Violation of the women workers' right to humane and decent working conditions, including having to suffer physical punishment and beatings
  • Violation of the workers' fundamental rights to freedom of association and union organization

The Truth About Mandarin International and the GAP

Throughout the terror of the civil war which tore El Salvador apart in the 1980's, throughout the massacres and death squad killings—which left 70,000 people dead—Tutela Legal, the Archdiocese's human rights office, was always present to accompany the people of El Salvador in their struggle to defend their most basic human rights. Tutela Legal never wavered, never shut its doors. For its investigations of violations and its work to promote human rights, Tutela Legal is recognized around the world.

The Archdiocese's human rights office conducted three investigations at the Mandarin International maquiladora plant in the San Marcos Free Trade Zone, which produces clothing under contract for the GAP, J.C. Penney and Eddie Bauer among others. The National Labor Committee compiled and translated into English Tutela Legal's reports.

Based on its investigations, among the violations Tutela Legal noted at the Mandarin plant were:

  • For over a year, the women employees at Mandarin International had "been struggling against the maltreatment" practiced by the plant managers.
  • If the women were accused of poor work, their supervisors "hit them on the head with their fists."
  • Pregnant workers suffered "verbal and physical maltreatment."
  • The workers were forced to work overtime, often well into the night, for which they were not even paid correctly.
  • One common form of punishment, applied to pregnant women as well, was to put them out in the blazing sun to sweep the area around the factory all day.
  • Another punishment was a four-day suspension without pay.
  • Workers needed permission to use the bathroom (they were given a ticket, and company security guards were posted at the bathroom door), restricting access to such a degree that many workers developed "kidney problems."
  • Mandarin International "does not pay medical absences" and arbitrarily restricts the workers' access to public social security health care (for which the workers pay through wage deductions).
  • The women employees declared "that they work in a climate of hostility and under a military regime," and that "Colonel Amaya Garcia, who works as the Chief of Personnel of Mandarin International"considers the company as a military institution""
  • That in February 1995, when the women "form[ed] a union to watch over the interests of the workers," the company locked them out.
  • There was the "massive, arbitrary and illegal" firing of hundreds of SETMI union members and supporters in an open attempt to destroy the union.
  • Mandarin International, under Colonel Amaya's orders, used more than 50 members of the company's private security force—whom the women called paid "thugs"--to "attack the women workers, using clubs, knives and arms"hitting many workers, including punching pregnant women workers, making use of clubs as well as their fists and kicking. They also threatened a number of workers with knives""
  • That "Colonel Amaya and Mr. David Wang [the President of Mandarin International] hit the workers in the head with the handles of their pistols and pulled their hair."
  • Mandarin repeatedly violated each agreement it negotiated and signed with the union (agreements signed "in the presence of delegates of the Ministry of Labor, Ministry of the Economy, and Deputies of the Legislative Assembly""), including "an agreement by which in a written document it was established that they were going to reinstate the fired workers, including the union leaders""
  • As part of "the anti-union campaign promoted by the management," Mandarin formed a company union (the fired unionists were replaced by newly hired workers who "obtained their jobs conditioned on being obligated to support the management"")
  • That in the case of the worker rights violations at Mandarin International, the Salvadoran Ministry of Labor maintained a "passive attitude," was "inoperative," and failed to "comply with their constitutional commitment to see to the faithful compliance with the legal regulations of labor""

An Interview with Maria Julia Hernandez, Director of Tutela Legal

In September and October, the National Labor Committee had the opportunity to meet several times with Maria Julia Hernandez, an attorney and the director of the Archdiocese Human Rights office, Tutela Legal. Ms. Hernandez explained to us that at this moment, "There is tremendous fear among the workers at the Mandarin factory. The Chief of Personnel at the plant is a former army colonel. If you are aware of the history of El Salvador, you will understand that the workers are afraid, they don't want to speak for fear of losing their jobs. They know, if you don't obey, you will be kicked out."

Ms. Hernandez told us that the wages paid in the maquiladora are "too low." "The wages are just enough to allow the women to barely survive, to stay alive. There is 60 percent unemployment in our country. The companies use this." "They are playing with people's stomachs." "The maquiladora companies tell the women that if we fire you, there are one hundred others to take your place."

Conditions in the maquiladoras are "very bad," Ms. Hernandez adds. Worker rights are violated every day. The workers are trapped. They want to form unions to work for better conditions, which is a right guaranteed in the Salvadoran Constitution and Labor Code, but when they attempt this they are fired.

We asked Ms. Hernandez: Who benefits from the maquiladoras? She responded:

"In El Salvador, the maquiladoras carry out a great exploitation of our people. People need to survive, so they go to take the jobs, but in the end it doesn't help in the development of the country, since there is no technology involved, no education. The maquiladora system is concentrating riches in a few hands and increasing poverty and misery among our people."

Maria Julia Hernandez believes that the Salvadoran people need to look for a new model of development, one that is also founded on the struggle to guarantee respect for human rights.

We showed Ms. Hernandez a letter from the GAP stating that after carrying out an "intensive" investigation at the Mandarin plant beginning seven months ago, the GAP had "determine with confidence that the Mandarin factory treats its workers well and meets our standards of fairness and decency." The GAP "has not uncovered any significant evidence supporting the allegations or indicating that there has been any serious violation" of worker rights.

After reviewing the GAP letter, Ms. Hernandez referred to their investigation as a "big lie."

Salvadoran Government Human Rights Office also Documents Extensive Violation of Women's Rights at the Mandarin Plant which Produces for the GAP

Under the United Nations-sponsored peace accords to end the war in El Salvador, an autonomous government agency was created to protect and monitor respect for human rights. The Human Rights Ombuds Office was established, according to its director, Dr. Victoria Marina Velasques de Aviles, "to act as the conscience of the government." The goal of the ombuds office is to help mediate resolutions to crises based on objective and impartial investigations. By all accounts, under Dr. Aviles' leadership, the Human Rights Ombuds Office has won a high degree of credibility among the Salvadoran people.

During our investigation of working conditions at Mandarin in September and October of this year, the National Labor Committee had several meetings with Dr. Aviles and her staff.

Dr. Aviles described the problems in the maquila, where 60,000 women are employed, as "grave." She told us, "violations range from physical abuse, illegal firings, sexual harassment and being denied access to medical care."

The Human Rights Ombuds Office knows a lot about conditions at the Mandarin maquiladora plant, which produces clothing under contract for the GAPJ.C. PenneyEddie Bauer and others. The Human Rights office assigned seven investigators to monitor conditions at Mandarin International over the course of several months.

During our interviews, the following picture emerged. The Human Rights office documented:

  • That "there were a lot of underage workers." In fact, "it's a requisite for working in the maquilas to be a young woman." These young women "are afraid to talk about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs."
  • Some workers were being paid less than the legally established minimum wage.
  • If the daily production goal established by the company was not met, the women were forced to stay and work without pay until their quota was reached.
  • Overtime work was obligatory, and the hours were often quite extensive.
  • The wages paid at Mandarin were not sufficient to cover even the minimum basket of necessities for survival. These were "starvation wages," and for this reason, the women suffered from poor nutrition.
  • The Mandarin plant was hot and poorly ventilated. These conditions, along with the poor nutrition, caused many women to faint while working.
  • There was no drinking water. "The company didn't want the workers to get up to drink, so they had to bring their own water with them to work."
  • The workers needed permission to use the bathroom. They had to get a ticket, they were timed and bathroom visits were strictly limited.
  • Many women had to work standing up the entire day.
  • Legal holidays were not paid.
  • The company "restricted visits to the Social Security health clinic even for the pregnant women." "It didn't matter, even if you had medical permission for an appointment at the health clinic, the company refused to allow the time off from work. If a worker went anyway, the company deducted her wages."
  • Though the Mandarin company deducted money from the employees' wages to cover the government health care program, the company failed to inscribe many workers into the Social Security system. Evidently Mandarin just kept the money.
  • The break periods for rest were very short and inadequate, nor were there any facilities where the workers could eat their lunch. So the workers were forced to sit on the ground under the trailer trucks to avoid the sun.
  • The women complained about being physically hit and frequently punished by being put out under the hot sun to sweep for days at a time.
  • The workers testified that armed thugs were contracted by the Mandarin company to harass, intimidate and beat the women.
  • When the women formed a union to protect themselves, the company locked them out and "refused to accept a union, even though the union was legally recognized by the Salvadoran government."
  • Mandarin fired over 300 union members in June 1995. "The entire union ended up outside and fired."
  • Mandarin management broke every agreement it negotiated and signed with the workers to end the violations in the plant.

Informed about the GAP investigation, which could find no human rights violations at its Mandarin plant, Dr. Aviles grimaced in disbelief.