Alerts

Update--Firings and Threats at the Nicotex Factory

March, 06 2009 Share

Update, March 14, 2009:  Auditors speak with Nicotex workers

Corporate auditors visited the Nicotex factory on Thursday and Friday, March 5 and 6, 2009.  Workers described a tall woman auditor who interviewed them alone in an office at the Nicotex factory.  Some workers, terrified—having been threatened by management with immediate firing if they spoke truthfully—told the auditor that everything was "Okay" at the plant.  However, other workers did tell the truth, confirming the widespread maltreatment of workers at Nicotex, the forced overtime, that they had been cheated for years of the legal vacation times due them, and explaining the schemes management used to deny the workers and their children access to the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) health care system, which is mandatory and for which the workers were paying.  

We hope that in weighing the evidence, the auditors were experienced enough to see through the climate of fear management has created in the factory and the impact this would have on many of the frightened workers.

The NLC and CEADEL anxiously await their report. 

March 6, 2009

SUMMARY:

Following the release of the NLC/CEADEL report on February 25, 2009 documenting the abusive sweatshop conditions at the Nicotex factory:

  • Workers fired in retaliation for daring to speak truthfully about factory conditions, with more firings and blacklisting threatened;
  • Nicotex management instructs workers to lie to corporate auditors (scheduled to visit the factory on March 5 or 6), denying that there are any violations;

Along with the firings and threats there have been some positive improvements:

  • Toilet paper has been placed in the bathroom;
  • Mandatory overtime has been cut back to two hours a day;
  • Workers were finally paid the second half of their Christmas bonus;
  • Management says it will start respecting the workers' legal right to paid vacation days;
  • Supervisors are collecting the workers' national ID cards so they can be inscribed in the Guatemalan Social Security Institute, as required by law.

What must be done:

  • Management must pay the fired workers their correct back wages, benefits and severance pay.  All threats of future firings must immediately cease;
  • Auditors from Briggs New York and Lane Bryant should meet in a safe location with the fired workers so they can learn the truth about the abusive factory conditions.
  • The auditors should meet with the highly respected local Guatemalan human rights organization, CEADEL, and guarantee that going forward CEADEL will play a critical role in monitoring the Nicotex factory.

###

Three North American corporate monitors, accompanied by South Koreans, did visit the Nicotex factory on Thursday, March 5 and spent the day speaking with management and inspecting the Briggs New York and Lane Bryant garments. 

DETAILS:

The Nicotex factory in Guatemala sews women's clothing for Briggs New York (Kellwood) and Lane Bryant (Charming Shoppes, Inc.)  Following the release of the joint National Labor Committee and Center for Studies and Support for Local Development (CEADEL) report on February 25, 2009, which documented serious sweatshop abuses at the Nicotex plant, management lashed out at the workers, firing eight workers—claiming they were "traitors" for daring to speak the truth about factory conditions—and threatening further dismissals.

One fired worker told us that management told her that Nicotex has "informed all the Korean companies in Guatemala about the traitors and has sent around their names and photographs by Internet asking the other Korean companies not to give them a job."

Management's plan is to frighten workers, who are also being instructed to lie to corporate auditors and deny that there are any violations at the plant.

Nine workers were fired at noon on Saturday, February 28:

- Heriberta Santos Vasquez
- Efraá­n Vá¡squez Nolasco
- Jaime Alonzo Tezen Sitan
- Alberto Jerónimo Cumum
- Amado Juárez Pérez
- Tomas Top Aguilar
- Julio Sebatijay Á\xc2\x81lvarez
- Joaquín Tuja Morales
- Pilar Bautista  

In a brief note signed by the factory's head of human resources, the workers were informed that they were being fired due to a "reduction of personnel due to lack of work."

The reality is quite different.  Starting on February 26—a day after the report was released—small groups of two to six workers each were brought to management's office by line supervisors.  Over two dozen workers were summoned in this manner.  Once in the office, they were threatened and accused of being "traitors" and "liars" who were out to damage the Nicotex factory.  The Human Resources chief, Lucrecia Jongezoon, told the workers they could be fired without receiving a single cent of the back wages, benefits and severance due them.  Management claimed that they knew who the "traitors" were as "on the internet there were pay stubs, pictures and IDs [identity cards] of the workers."  This was a lie meant to frighten the workers, as NLC and CEADEL made certain that in the report any copies of pay stubs and other documents could not be traced to any particular individual.

The eight fired workers were paid a total of $6,699.41—or an average of $837.43 each, in back wages, benefits and severance payments.  According to calculations by the Guatemalan Ministry of Labor, the fired workers were underpaid by nearly 30 percent of the total wages, benefits and severance legally due them.  The workers should have been paid a total of $9,951.37—or an average of $1,243.92 each, meaning that the workers were cheated of $3,251.92 which is legally due them.  Nicotex management must immediately pay these eight fired workers the full back wages, benefits and severance pay legally due them.

The unjustly fired workers have made the hard decision not to demand reinstatement, knowing full well that if they were to return to the factory, they would be isolated and the target of constant harassment by management for having dared to speak the truth about factory conditions.

On March 4, Nicotex owner Mr. Kim assembled the workers and instructed them to "carefully and thoroughly clean their work stations" before leaving the factory because there would be "an important visit from auditors tomorrow [Thursday, March 5] or Friday" and it was critical "to present a good image to the auditors."  Mr. Kim then went on to frighten the workers with threats of more firings if anyone dares to speak truthfully about factory conditions.  "We have information," Mr. Kim said, "of another six workers who are traitors to the company.  We have their names, and we are going to fire them after the auditors complete their visit."

He went on to tell the workers "not to tell lies to the auditors" and to "deny what the Nicotex report says"because I've paid you the bonus."


A Carrot and Stick Approach:

Mr. Kim was referring to the second part of the workers' Christmas bonus ($91.50), which the factory finally paid—a month late—on February 27, 2009.

On February 26, the day before, toilet paper was placed in the factory bathrooms.

Since the report was issued, obligatory overtime has been cut back to two hours a day—until 5:40 p.m.—and no one is being required to stay working until 9:40 p.m.

Management has announced that they will start paying for annual vacations, with the first group of workers beginning their vacations on March 2, 2009.

Supervisors have started to collect photocopies of the workers' National Identity Cards (cedulas) and management says it will now comply with the law and inscribe all its workers in the mandatory Guatemalan Institute for Social Security, which would finally guarantee the workers the health care and maternity leave they are already paying for.


What Must Be Done:

  • The eight fired workers must receive the full back wages, benefits and severance pay legally due them.
  • All threats of additional punitive firings must immediately cease.
  • The Nicotex factory must comply with Guatemalan labor law, particularly in guaranteeing that all overtime work is voluntary and paid correctly;  paid vacations respected, and all workers inscribed in the Guatemalan Social Security Institute.
  • The corporate auditors sent by Briggs New York and Lane Bryant should meet in a safe location with the fired workers so they can learn the truth about the abusive sweatshop conditions at the Nicotex plant.
  • The auditors should also meet with representatives of the highly respected local Guatemalan human rights organization, the Center for Studies and Support for Local Development (CEADEL), and, going forward, should invite CEADEL to play a key role in monitoring the Nicotex factory.

If these basic steps are implemented, the Nicotex factory will be on the road to ending sweatshop abuses and complying with Guatemalan labor law.

Return to the report