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Victory for Doall workers in El Salvador!

February, 11 2000 Share

Grassroots international pressure and the victories of the student movement have helped win the reinstatement of 30 workers illegally fired from the Doall factory in El Salvador, where they sewed clothing for Liz Claiborne, Leslie Fay and Perry Ellis.
 
Late on Tuesday night, February 9, after being locked out for ten weeks, the SETDESA union won:

  • Immediate reinstatement of 30 workers;
  • Return to their former jobs;
  • 100% back pay;
  • Guarantees of no future reprisals or discrimination;
  • Workers would not have to return severance pay;
  • Independent monitoring of the Doall factory by the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador (GMIES).


The negotiations were observed by GMIES and reinstatement of the fired workers begins today—Friday, February 10, 2000. 

This is a watershed victory. To date, five attempts to organize a union at Doall had all been crushed through illegal mass firings. Doall management and their U.S. contractors got away with their illegal firings with 100 percent impunity. In fact, for the last year, Doall was being monitored by PricewaterhouseCoopers working under contract for Liz Claiborne, Inc. This was the Fair Labor Association (FLA) model. But nothing changed. The vicious cycle continued.

Today, in the 225 factories in El Salvador where 70,000, mostly young women, sew 581 million garments a year for export to the U.S.—much of it college-bound—there is not one single union functioning with a contract.

Internationally, there was one thing which terrified the U.S. companies and the Doall management—and that was that a grassroots campaign would start in communities in the U.S. and Canada and spread to college campuses across North America. At that point, students at the University of Pennsylvania were staging a sit-in, and at Loyola University in Chicago students were fasting. Last week this fast, coordinated by United Students Against Sweatshops, grew to include students on more than 60 colleges across the U.S. and Canada. This was the help that the workers needed.

After ten long weeks of being locked out without pay, the workers and their families were in a desperate situation. It was becoming increasingly impossible to hang on. Hope was fading. Then, the very day after the University of Pennsylvania sit-in began, the workers had their first serious negotiations with Doall. This was no coincidence. The National Labor Committee told the SETDESA union and the fired workers about the student sit-in and fast. This meant a lot to them. They went into negotiations feeling stronger, knowing that there were students across the U.S. and Canada who cared and who were truly committed to social justice. The result was a victory for the SETDESA union, the workers and the USAS students.

The Failure of the Fair Labor Association

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is a White House-backed factory monitoring initiative that has been widely criticized for the degree of corporate control and lack of transparency. Under an FLA-type model, the Doall factories in El Salvador had been monitored for the last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers, working under contract for Liz Claiborne, Inc. (co-chair of the White House Task Force).

Nothing much chanced in the factory. Worker and human rights violations persisted:

  • Mandatory pregnancy tests;
  • Forced overtime, 12-to-15 ½-hour shifts six days a week;
  • Enormous pressure to meet excessively high daily production quotas;
  • Monitored and limited access to bathrooms and no clean drinking water;
  • Excessive heat and dust;
  • Routine denial of access to Social Security health care (which the workers pay for);
  • Wages of 60 cents an hour, below subsistence, which meet less than one-third of the cost of living for the average sized family;
  • All-pervasive fear—the fear that you could be arbitrarily fired if:

      --You were even seen "grouping together" or meeting, since the company suspected you were up to no good;

      --you were seen with fired workers;

      --you didn't stay for overtime or had to take a sick day;

      --you couldn't reach the production quota;

      --they even suspected you of organizing a union.


Up to this point, if you were even suspected of organizing a union, you would be fired and blacklisted. In the maquila, the companies enjoyed complete impunity.

The women were in a trap: Eighty percent of the factory workers in El Salvador are women, and 50 percent of them are single mothers. On the below-subsistence wages, they and their children are forced to live at the edge, from hand to mouth, with no savings, no safety net. If they are fired, they are in real trouble. If they are blacklisted, they and their families are finished.

That is Why this is a Watershed Victory:

On Saturday, November 20, 38 Doall workers met in a safe location and formed a union. On Monday, November 22, they presented the necessary documentation, including a list of the elected union leaders and members, to the Ministry of Labor requesting legal recognition. Later on the same Monday afternoon, Doall began firing all those involved in forming the union. Between November 22 and December 3, Doall fired 56 people, including the elected union leaders, the founding members and even friends and family members of the union organizers.

After illegally firing the workers, Doall posted "Help Wanted" ads and began hiring replacement workers. Over the course of the ten-week lock-out without wages, many workers had to disperse, returning to their families in the country side. Others were forced to find any work they could outside the maquila to survive.

But a core group of 30 union leaders and organizers held on, walking up to six miles a day to attend union meetings, since they couldn't afford the 27 cents for the bus fare. They weren't going to give in.

Typically, Doall and the other maquila companies simply fired the workers and waited until their growing desperation drove them away. Then the case was closed and business as usual resumed.

This time however, the SETDESA union held on with the help of the CTS labor federation and the involvement of the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador, which thoroughly documented that the illegal firings were in retaliation for union organizing, and called for the immediate reinstatement of the workers and recognition of their union.

But it was the threat of serious grassroots pressure — letters, emails, phone calls, demonstrations, press conferences, etc.—along with the tremendous power of United Students Against Sweatshops which finally pushed this over the top, and led to the breakthrough of the successful negotiations.

Where the FLA model failed, the Worker Rights Consortium model succeeded

Even leaving aside that PwC, a for-profit multinational, was working under contract with Liz Claiborne, that everything was done in secrecy with no transparency, that the workers could not and did not trust PwC, and that PwC was not interested in empowering the workers so they could regain their rights—regardless of all that, the Fair Labor Association model would still fail on concrete logistics alone. You cannot have monitors parachute into the country once or twice a year for only a day or two.

The Worker Rights Consortium is a very different model, one developed by the students in conjunction with human rights, religious and labor organizations here in the U.S. and in the developing world. The victory for the SETDESA workers in El Salvador is a victory for the new vision for international solidarity that the Worker Rights Consortium embodies. The Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador was there, on the ground, for the last two and a half difficult months. The workers trust the monitors because they have been grounded in the struggles for justice and dignity for years—they are not representatives from a U.S-based for profit auditing firm. GMIES thoroughly documented the violations, and clearly called for the reinstatement of the fired workers, and demanded recognition of their SETDESA union.

What a far cry from the FLA / PwC monitoring which acted as a cover up, a whitewash, for the serious abuses prevailing at the Doall factories.

If you were a worker at Doall, who would you trust?


This is the first step.
The workers will face enormous repression from the company as they go back to work.